kindergarten

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.

The last first day of school

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2016.

My daughter sat in our driveway behind the wheel of a charcoal gray SUV, eager to set off for her senior year at Syracuse. She had borrowed the Highlander from her girlfriend because neither of our family’s two cars was big enough to transport all her stuff.

“Roles reversed, Pops,” Juliana said playfully as I joined her in the front seat. It was true. For three years, I had always been the pilot on our excursions to and from upstate New York. This would be the first time my wife, Deb — nestled in the back seat amid duffel bags and pillows — and I would make the five-hour trek with our 21-year-old at the helm.

Julie is the youngest of our three children. For two decades, at the end of each summer, we have been stepping up to the academic starting line. With Julie’s graduation in May 2017, the marathon, in all likelihood, will be over.

Deb will never forget our son Peter’s first day of elementary school. In late August 1996, the two of them stood on our front porch looking up Peirce Street for the bus that would take Pete to kindergarten at Frenchtown School. They waited … and waited … and waited. The offices of the East Greenwich School Department are directly across the street from our house, and on that momentous morning, the superintendent eventually came out of the building.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he called out. “Can you drive him?”

Deb looked at Pete for signs of distress, but he just turned to her and smiled. “It’s OK, Mommy,” he said. “I like driving with you.” His disposition remains as even-keeled to this day.

Our son Evan’s temperament was more individualistic; conformity was never his thing. He rebelled against the training wheels on his bike and the bumpers at the bowling alley. And when I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at preschool because it was his birthday, he was unconvinced.

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

As the start of kindergarten neared for Evan, Deb and I worried about his willingness to even get on the bus. Transitions could be agonizing for him. On more than one occasion during preschool drop-offs, he had clung to Deb’s leg, prompting her to nickname him “The Human Barnacle.”

And yet, when the bus pulled up the first time, he jumped on with his friends Aidan and Wil, and never looked back. It was unforgettable because it was so uneventful.

Juliana couldn’t wait to go to kindergarten. At an orientation for families the week before classes began, she stood right up when the Frenchtown principal invited the children to take a practice ride on their school bus.

“Parents, feel free to join your child if you’d like,” the principal added.

Julie held up her hand to Deb, a 5-year-old traffic cop.

“Don’t move — I can do it myself,” she said, displaying a self-confidence that would only deepen in the years ahead.

Now, as Julie navigated the Highlander through Albany, Robert DeLong surfaced on her Spotify playlist, singing about how “a few years make a difference.”

“Appropriate,” she said, turning up the volume with a smile.

In Syracuse, we hauled Julie’s stuff up three flights to her sorority room and then said our good-byes, mother and daughter sounding their familiar refrain:

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

In the driver’s seat again, I pulled onto the New York State Thruway with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have only one more tuition check to write, but reluctant just yet to put another family milestone in the rearview mirror.

Crossing the Hudson, Deb and I reminisced about no-show school buses, “stupid” birthday hats, and a little girl who once told us “I can do it myself” — a succession of family videos never taken, growing more vivid with each passing mile.

The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie

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As published in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2014.

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.

 

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