letting go

On fences, children, and letting go

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2015.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Deb, and I had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard in East Greenwich, a line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to me:

“Good fences make good neighbors.

But our fence was less about neighbors than about children. We had two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a new baby was on the way. With our house smack-dab in the middle of town, half a block from busy Main Street, we needed to make sure our kids didn’t wander off.

Good fences make good barricades.

Our lot sits on a hill, and the backyard slopes precipitously. That didn’t seem to concern the burly, good-natured guys who did the installation. They navigated the tricky terrain masterfully and, after two days, the cedar fence gathered our boys in a fragrant embrace.

Over the ensuing years, within the fence’s confines, our children ran through sprinklers and built snow forts; chased our dog and tried to dig to China; tossed Wiffle balls and played manhunt.

At the same time, northeasters slammed the fence’s flat boards and squirrels gnawed on the arbor above the gate. When frost heaves left four or five sections askew, I had to call the installers back to re-set the posts.

As our kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door in their daily comings and goings. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, drama rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. Somehow, seemingly overnight, the fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

Good thing.

The first break came when Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island in 2011. I watched from my kitchen window as one of the fence’s back sections listed awkwardly, a wooden sail in the storm.

I rushed down with clothesline rope to tether the flailing section back to its post. Irene scoffed at me with a whoosh of wind and rain. Afraid the next gust would hurtle the rack of wood onto a neighbor’s car, I laid the section flat on the ground, hefted six cobblestones onto it, and prayed.

The cobblestones (or my prayers) did the job. But after the storm, the fence wobbled badly on either side of the missing section. The entire back run needed to be replaced, the fence guys told me; most of the posts and crosspieces were rotted. When I heard the price — and thought of pending college tuition payments — I asked the guys to simply take the battered back run away.

Miraculously, the fence’s side runs held on — until Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two sections on the northern edge of the yard fell, and those that remained upright were now more vulnerable than ever. Storms no longer needed a name to pose a threat. The mere mention of heavy winds had me peering outside with trepidation.

One blustery Saturday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and, again, noticed a gap in the fence — this time, a section was breaking ranks on the southern property line. I grabbed my drill and headed out to the yard. I pulled the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s would reunite them.

But when I leaned into my churning drill, it pushed right through the mushy wood. The brace and the screw fell to the ground, and the fence resumed its tilting.

As I searched for the screw in the leaves below, I thought of my children. My older son was in Los Angeles, chasing pop music dreams. His brother was on a train to New York, trying to kick-start his own path in the recording industry. And my daughter was asleep upstairs, perhaps dreaming of a college campus far away from the backyard of her childhood. In less than a year, she would leave, too.

A different line from Frost’s poem spoke to me now:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I abandoned my mending and went back inside.

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.

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