memoir

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.

 

 

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

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Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

Thank You 5,000 Times Over

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On April 2, my blog reached 5,000 views. I’ve published 59 posts since November 2011. The first one discussed billboard copy; my most recent post recounts how I lost a wheelchair one weekend. To date, the three most popular posts are Why We Love Oxymorons, In Praise Of The Oxford Comma, and On Fences And Letting Go.

Readers have come from all over the world. The largest contingents hail from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. Lone readers have clicked in from Belize, Estonia, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe.

What started as a forum about writing, grammar, and words has evolved into something more personal. On a good day, I hope the blog comes close to William Zinsser’s description of memoir: “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

The only thing better than writing the pieces is having you read them. Thanks.

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