growing up

Birthday snapshots through the ages

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 17, 2019. Above, the author celebrates his 7th birthday at home in Providence in 1967.

I turn 59 this month.

As birthdays go, it’s not a noteworthy number.

I mean, it can’t hold a candle to, say, 40. For that birthday, my wife, Deb, threw a surprise party for me at our house. I opened the front door to the shouts and good wishes of more than fifty family members and friends. What a bash!

My 18th birthday was memorable, too. It fell five days after The Blizzard of ’78 had buried Rhode Island under more than two feet of snow. I spent my birthday night in a music store on Federal Hill where my older brother, Rob, worked. His boss was worried about post-storm looting, so he deployed the two of us to stand guard. It was dark and eerily quiet amid the unplugged Fender Stratocasters and Peavey amps as we fought to stay awake, but nothing happened.

Well, nothing but this: In celebration of my new “legal” status – 18 was the drinking age at the time – Rob placed a brown paper bag on one of the store counters. “Happy birthday,” he said as I slid the bottle out. It was a fifth of something called Rock and Rye – “Rock” as in rock-candy, I would learn. The sweetened concoction was the color of maple syrup. I took a swig from the bottle’s wide mouth and grimaced. Looters may not have caused any damage that night, but my birthday cocktail did.

My seventh birthday stands out, thanks to a photo my mother took. In it, I’m about to blow out the candles on my cake while sporting a construction-paper crown, likely made for me at school.

That black-and-white snapshot reminds me of another unforgettable birthday moment, this one belonging to my son Evan. When I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at pre-school because it was his big day, he was unconvinced.

“It’s like any other day,” he said in his raspy voice, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

(Clearly, I was a more superficial child than my son, for there I am in Mom’s photo album, forever happy in my “stupid hat.”)

When my brothers and I were growing up, our mother’s age defied the passage of time, at least by her calculations. Each March, she’d tell us with playful certainty that she was turning 22. As we moved through adolescence, Mom finally made a concession to Father Time and upped her age to 33. And there it would stay, at least as far as she was concerned.

My brother Rob had other ideas. With a big party planned at our house to celebrate Mom’s 45th, he exercised his budding graphic design skills and spray-painted a birthday greeting on a white bed-sheet. The day of the party, while Mom was at work, I helped Rob and his Rhode Island School of Design roommate hang the sheet from the gutter above the front porch of our house, which stood on busy River Avenue in Providence.

“HAPPY 50TH, NORMA!” the birthday billboard proclaimed to the constant stream of passersby, most of them unaware of its inaccuracy.

One of my mother’s friends said she would have never forgiven her kids for doing such a thing. Lucky for us, Mom was a good sport, even if she did say the prank was “awful.” (Looking back, had we been better sons, the banner would have read “HAPPY 22ND!”)

A final memory for this account: As my 12th birthday approached, I received a card from my orthodontist. At the time, braces were not as prevalent as they are today, and I was self-conscious about my “tinsel teeth.”

Depicted on the front of Dr. Prescott’s card was a herd of buck-toothed cartoon animals, all of them beaming with braces. The caption read “Lots of people have them …”

Yeah, right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

My face broke into a silver smile.

 

 

Navigating stormy days with Dad

fathers_day_003_2017As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 18, 2017.

Paul Simon is known for the chart-topping singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” as well as numerous other hits. But deeper cuts from his catalog can be equally rewarding.

“Rewrite,” from the 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What,” is one such tune. In it, Simon sings about a father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm.” The dad in the song says he’s going to change the ending of his story, substituting a car chase and a race across the rooftops, “when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.”

After repeated listens, the insight of Simon’s lyrics resonated with me: Nearly all of us would like to rewrite at least a part of our past.

I was 9 years old when my parents separated and my father moved out of our house in Providence. The break-up unleashed a riot of emotions inside me, most of which I did everything I could to quell.

There was an upholstered rocking chair in our living room where I often sat and, in my mind, rewrote the story of my parents’ separation. The biggest change was transforming it into a reconciliation, but there were many others. Things were always better in the rewrite.

However, the reality was that my father now came to see my two brothers and me on Saturdays while Mom was at work.

On the first of these new Saturdays, he took us to Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Mendon, Massachusetts. It felt like a holiday. Mom had bought us new clothes to wear, and my dad took photos.

It would be years before I appreciated the efforts my parents each made to gracefully navigate those early post-breakup days – and how heart-wrenching it must have been for them.

When my father arrived at our house the following Saturday, I greeted him with anticipation.

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he replied, a little curtly, and I immediately wished I could take back my words. I can only imagine the feelings I had unwittingly stirred up.

On a Saturday several years later, under threatening skies, my father and I did go somewhere – down to Narragansett to cut the grass at our beach house. Once a place where our family enjoyed summer vacations, the yellow cottage was now rented out. On weekends, Dad took care of any work that needed to be done there.

Light rain began to fall just as he and I finished mowing the lawn; we drove in his maroon Chevelle to Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father had a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That was good.

It was pouring when we left the restaurant and started making our way north. On Route 95, a gust of wind slammed our car, and I grabbed the passenger-side door handle as we lurched out of our lane. My father turned off the radio. The windshield wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they were no match for the storm. A proliferation of blurred brake lights ahead indicated what must have been a serious accident.

“I’m going to pull off,” Dad said. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he guided us down the next exit ramp.

We were in Warwick. Rain pounded the car as we crept along, but at least we weren’t on the highway anymore. I saw a sign for Providence.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “We’ll make it back OK.” He offered me a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and I let go of the door handle to unwrap one.

It was still raining when Dad dropped me off at our red house on River Avenue. As he drove away, I headed for the rocking chair in the living room. But unlike in days past and days soon to come, no rewrite was required on this afternoon.

My dad had gotten me home. He was happy and so was I.

 

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

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As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

What My Parents Didn’t Know Didn’t Hurt Them

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But what about my brother and me?

With summer nearing, there was work to be done at the gray beach house – grass to mow, hedges to trim, walls to paint. My parents gave my older brother Rob and me our chores one bright Saturday morning – clipping the edges of the lawn and sweeping the porch. But tedium soon gave way to goofing around – Rob was eight years old and I was five – and we were relieved of our duties.

“Go play – just don’t get into any trouble!”

The gray house was bounded out back by a stone wall. Woods stood beyond. “C’mon!” my brother said. The two of us climbed over the wall and Rob beelined for the first flat rock. When he flipped it over, two snakes squiggled away. Rob grabbed one right behind its head and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he said.

Bullfrogs croaked from a nearby swamp. Rob tiptoed toward the muck, motioning me to stay put. He squatted at the water’s edge, frog-like and frozen. Then, with a start and a splash, he snared his prey, mid-leap. The capture was temporary. Rob loved anything with four legs or wings or fins or fur or, in this case, webbed feet. He returned the frog to the edge of the swamp.

We found some old boards and plywood half-buried in leaves and dirt – perfect for building a tree fort, my brother said. I ran to the shed to get a hammer and some nails. When I returned, we hoisted the boards and plywood twelve or so feet up a tree and laid them across two forking limbs. Rob started hammering, and soon we needed more nails. I climbed down the tree to run back to the shed, but I didn’t get very far. Just as Rob’s shout registered in my brain – “WATCH OUT!” – the plummeting hammer conked me on the head – “OW!OW!OW!” – and I was belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRY DON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an emerging egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up. The plywood had given way and Rob was backwards-somersaulting to the ground.

WHOOMMPPP! Rob lay on his back in a clump. Now it was me in his ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRYDON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

It was a close call – Rob had missed a big jagged rock by a few inches. When he got his breath back, we decided to leave the woods, before we could inflict further harm on ourselves.

My mom saw us trudging back to the gray house. “What have you guys been up to?”

“Nothing,” Rob said.

It wasn’t exactly a lie; more like an omission of details… OK, call it passive lying, the kind practiced by generations of kids before us, and certain to be practiced by generations to come. If Mom and Dad ever knew…

I felt the bump hidden beneath my hair. Rob rubbed his ribs. As our mom turned away, we shared a conspiratorial smile.

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