love

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

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The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

Christmas lessons from a wise man

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 16, 2018. Above, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” [AP, File/1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.]

I knew teaching Sunday school the week before Christmas was going to be a challenge.  With Santa’s arrival looming, it was unlikely the second graders in my class at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich would stay still. So I threw out the lesson book and cued up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the video player. I didn’t think my diversion from the syllabus was sacrilege; after all, at the heart of the animated classic is a recitation of the Nativity story.

But that memorable scene almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Based on the acclaimed “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offered charming social commentary and a hip jazz soundtrack when it first aired in 1965. The made-for-TV special opens with the forever-beleaguered title character out of sorts again, this time due to the commercialism that pervades the Yuletide season. Even directing a neighborhood Christmas play can’t shake Charlie Brown from his doldrums.

Finally, exasperated during a rehearsal, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” At which point, his friend Linus walks to center stage and, alone in a spotlight, recites the story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of Luke: “… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord …”

The show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, and director, Bill Melendez, both advised against including the New Testament reading. Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.” But the “Peanuts” creator, a practicing Christian, was adamant. “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” he said. The scene was retained, and it is impossible to imagine the story without it.

It wouldn’t be the last time Schulz’s work courted controversy. Three years later, amid exploding racial tensions in cities across the United States, the cartoonist added Franklin, an African-American character, to the “Peanuts” gang. It was the first time a minority character appeared in a mainstream comic strip. When editors complained about certain strips featuring Franklin, Larry Rutman, the president of the company that syndicated “Peanuts,” requested changes. Years later, Schulz recounted his response: “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” The strips ran, unmodified.

Beyond Linus’s biblical reading, there were other concerns with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Mendelson worried that the pacing was too slow and bemoaned the absence of a laugh track, which Schulz had vetoed. Melendez was embarrassed by the simple animation. Network executives said the music and voices were wrong and, in true Charlie Brown fashion, anticipated absolute failure.

But Schulz and the American public proved them wrong. More than 15 million households tuned in, which was nearly half of all people watching TV that Sunday evening. The special elicited glowing reviews, including Lawrence Laurent’s quip in The Washington Post that “Good old Charlie Brown, a natural born loser … finally turned up a winner.”

Years later, the response from my second-grade church school class was equally triumphant. In subsequent Advent seasons, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an annual event for all of the Sunday school classes at St. Luke’s, as well as for some adult “kids.” Everyone would be still when, in the final scene, Linus relinquishes his ever-present blue security blanket to wrap the trunk of Charlie Brown’s sparse, needle-shedding Christmas tree. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” he says. “Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, Linus’s words in that final scene speak to a yearning that is fundamental to us all.

As the credits for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” rolled, the kids at St. Luke’s always clapped. I’d like to think that Charles Schulz, once a Sunday school teacher himself, would have been pleased.

 

Still connected and still beautiful

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As published in The Providence Journal, November 19, 2017.

It would be a bicoastal celebration – Massachusetts and California – with the first part just up the road in Boston. Deb and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel to begin our anniversary getaway, and there was an immediate hiccup. The twentysomething desk clerk informed us that our room had twin beds.

“That’s what happens with Groupon,” she added apologetically, her eyes fixed on her screen.

“We’ve been married for 30 years,” I said. “Doesn’t that at least merit a double?” I made a joke about Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but only Deb laughed.

After tapping her keyboard with rapid-fire efficiency, the clerk told us she’d be happy to switch our room. She was also giving us free Wi-Fi.

That’s what three decades of marriage get you – free Internet access.

Deb and I were 24 when she peeked into my cubicle at the ad agency where we both worked. I was smitten by her easy laugh and the freckle on her lower lip. We shared a love of Talking Heads songs and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which we chose for a reading at our wedding ceremony three years later:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …”

Our early days were carefree and fun, with Deb’s outgoing personality balancing my introversion. When we went on weekend jaunts to Cape Cod, I wrote out the driving directions beforehand, while Deb struck up conversations with strangers along the way. Soon we had new friends.

Three children came in quick succession. Ours was a boisterous and happy house, with preschool artwork on the refrigerator, toys on the floor, and a sweet dog at the foot of someone’s bed each night.

When people asked how we managed the almost-constant commotion, Deb and I paraphrased a David Byrne lyric: “We’re making it up as we go along.”

But as years passed, we weren’t always in tune – about finances, about career paths, and, more distressingly, about what we wanted from one another. With increasing frequency, we got tripped up by the “impediments” we had so glibly dismissed on our wedding day. Our relationship had less spark and more friction, and our 20th anniversary passed with little fanfare.

When Deb suggested we “see someone,” as in a marriage counselor, all I heard was “failure.” When she said we needed help to figure things out, I countered that we’d work harder. Or I said nothing at all. It would be a year before I agreed to go with her to our first appointment.

The twice-a-month sessions surprised me, as did an early observation by our counselor: “You made progress just by coming here,” she said. “You both still care.”

Deb and I began to see how, for all our compatibility, we came from very different places. My grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants; Deb’s roots went back to the American Revolution. My mother and father divorced before I was 10; Deb’s family had vacationed together in Florida and out West. My actions were usually premeditated; my wife lived in the moment. The list went on. Our marriage would either reconcile the gaps or accentuate the distance.

Couples therapy didn’t erase our differences, but it did lead us to new conversations and a renewed faith in one another. Eventually, we had the confidence to go it alone again.

Three months after Deb and I wed, Bruce Springsteen released “Tunnel of Love,” a 12-song meditation on relationships and marriage. On the title track, the Boss sings “it’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” It’s my favorite Springsteen album; Deb’s, too.

On the Californian segment of our anniversary trip, we were drawn not to a tunnel, but to a bridge – the Bixby Creek Bridge, which traverses 714 feet over a steep canyon in Big Sur, audacious as a nuptial vow. Later, martinis in hand, Deb and I marveled at the iconic concrete span – still connected and still beautiful despite (or perhaps because of) its nicks and wear.

We could have been toasting ourselves.

Crossword offers clues about my amazing in-laws

 

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2015.

Fourteen inches of snow had fallen in northwest Connecticut overnight, which meant the drive back to Rhode Island might be dicey for my wife, Deb, and me. But my mother-in-law had more immediate concerns: was the Sunday newspaper outside?

“Sometimes they don’t deliver if the road’s not plowed,” she said.

Deb and I were sitting with Ellie in her living room, cozy in familiar chairs. Framed family photos stood on a bookcase, including one of Deb and me with our sons and daughter on a long-ago vacation, when I was still taller than the boys.

“Bill?” Ellie called out. “Will you see if the paper came?”

My father-in-law didn’t hear her. He was at his computer, plumbing for ancestors with the genealogy software Deb and I had given him. Last I heard, he had traced the family lineage to 14th-century royalty. Deb’s older brother said it was only a matter of time before Jesus turned up as a relative.

“I’ll get the paper,” I said. I knew my mother-in-law wanted to do the crossword puzzle.

“More coffee, Mom?” Deb asked.

“Thank you, honey.”

I pulled on my boots and trudged out to the mailbox on Pine Acres Drive. The Hartford Courant was there. With the paper under my arm, I walked back to the yellow ranch house where Deb’s folks have lived for nearly six decades.

In the living room, I found the crossword page and grabbed a pencil. Ellie sat across from me, fresh cup of coffee in hand. I gave her the first clue: “Banks or Kovacs – five letters.”

“Ernie,” she said.

“List-ending abbreviation – four letters.”

“Et al.”

“Skirt edge – ‘hem’ fits.”

“Sounds right.”

When answers were elusive, I did what I always do – jumped to the next clue. Ellie would have preferred to work longer on the tough ones, testing letters and words with deliberation, but she indulged my impatience.

I wasn’t surprised. Since we first met 30 years ago, my in-laws have shown an unwavering kindness toward me. Over lunch that day, as Deb’s new “friend,” I expected the Grand Inquisition. Instead, I found open arms. Soon, birthday cards arrived with “We love you!” sign-offs and smiley faces. And when I was a young and sometimes bewildered father, my mother-in-law’s words were reassuring: “You’re doing great.”

Bill walked into the living room and announced, “Debbie, you’re descended from Attila the Hun.”

“That explains a lot,” my wife said, chuckling.

“What about royalty?” Ellie asked.

“Apparently, we’re a mixed bag,” Bill said, “but you’ll always be the Lady of Pine Acres Drive to me.” With boyish playfulness, he made a flamboyant bow to his wife of 59 years and she laughed like a teen with her steady.

“I’m putting the Attila news on Facebook,” Deb said. “It’s going to blow up.”

Ellie and I returned to the crossword: “Throat-clearing sounds,” I said. “Five letters.”

“Ahems.”

“You’re good,” I said. My mother-in-law smiled, eyes sparkling.

When we had the puzzle three-quarters done, my phone buzzed. It was my son Evan, who lives in Los Angeles.

“I just woke up to Mom’s Attila post on Facebook,” he said. “I need verification.”

“You need Grandpa,” I said.

I looked across the room. Bill was helping Ellie get up from her chair. In a graceful duet, he grasped her forearm and leaned back as she rose slowly to her feet.

“Walking or riding?” he said to her quietly. It took a second for me to understand what he was asking: cane or wheelchair?

“Walking,” she said.

I told Evan that Grandpa would call him back and pressed a button to end the call. Bill handed Ellie her cane. She steadied herself and then started slowly, deliberately for the kitchen, her vigilant partner at her side. Six years ago, after the stroke, no one knew if she’d ever walk again.

“Be right back, John,” Ellie said. “We’ll finish that puzzle.”

“I need you for the tough ones,” I said.

She laughed, edging forward.

I wanted to call Evan back right then and tell him it didn’t matter about Attila the Hun or King Olaf of Norway or any other purported ancestor identified by a software algorithm.

He does descend from amazing people. They just happen to be his grandparents.

Why We Love Our Aunts

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We love our aunts because aunts are cool. Aunts laugh easily. Aunts are always ready with a hug. Aunts can level with us. Aunts knew us before we knew ourselves. Aunts understand.

We love our aunts because our aunts are not our moms. Not that we don’t love our moms. But the mother-child relationship is a complex stew, one that nourishes and, at times, boils over. Aunts are chicken soup.

We love our aunts because they allow us to see our mom or dad as a sister or brother. They reveal that person from long ago, foreign yet familiar. They make our parents more human, more like us.

The word aunt derives from the Latin amita, a diminutive of amma, which is baby talk for mom. The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of mom in our aunts. Just the right amount, I think.

I grew up in the embrace of an extended Italian family and was blessed with three loving aunts: Grace and Rita and Marie. They were ever-present in my childhood: at my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill; at the beach house on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett; around the piano on holidays, singing show tunes and Christmas carols; at our front door whenever my mom needed them.

As a boy, I never liked sleeping over at friends’ houses. But staying with one of my aunts was different; it felt like home.

*     *     *

The song Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In by The Fifth Dimension topped the charts for six weeks during the spring of 1969 and helped spark an interest in astrology among my mom and her sisters. My Aunt Marie and I both have February birthdays, and she was quick to point out that we were fellow Aquarians. “We understand each other,” she told me. “We’re beautiful people.” I don’t know that either of us believed much in astrology. But I believed in Auntie Marie. And for good reason.

Key milestones in my life – college graduation, the day I got married, the death of my father, when my children were born – are marked by notes from Auntie Marie. Her words are always filled with sensitivity and support – or, as the song goes, “harmony and understanding, sympathy and love abounding.” 

We love our aunts because, as Joyce wrote in Ulysses, “love loves to love love.”

For Auntie Marie, with love and gratitude.

Word Games: The Language Of Sport

I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

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