Op-Ed writer

The reassuring plink of spring

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2015.

I live within earshot of a Little League field, and the sound of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball – plink! – brings me back to the days when I was the one swinging the bat, in Providence. Here are the highlights:

I’m at my Little League manager’s front door, having missed the practice when he gave out uniforms. To my disappointment, the white flannel jersey he hands me unfolds to reveal a red number 13 – far from my lucky number. That’s what I get for missing practice.

I put the uniform on at home and stand in front of my mother’s full-length mirror. The short sleeves reach my elbows, the ample waistband of the pants is scrunched under my belt, and the crotch falls to an inch above my knees. I could be running away to pedal a unicycle for Ringling Brothers. Superstition and supersizing notwithstanding, I am thrilled. I have my first official, head-to-toe sports uniform. Play ball!

Later that season, I’m standing in the on-deck circle at Nelson Street playground and notice my girlfriend watching from behind my team’s bench. She has brown eyes, short brown hair, and a self-assurance that sets her apart from the other girls in fifth grade. I shoot her a knowing look, which she acknowledges with a smile.

Earlier that day, we had walked home together down Jastram Street and ended up in her garage. The air smelled of gasoline and newly mown grass until she pulled me close. Her breath was bubblegum sweet, her lips soft. It was my first kiss, and almost certainly not hers. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

With her looking on, I step up to the plate. The pitch sails in and, for once, the ball looks as big as a honeydew melon. I drive it between center and right, and slide into second with a double. It’s my first extra-base hit … My girlfriend’s cheering … All on the heels of our moment in her garage. Standing at second and surveying the scene, I’m positive life will never be better.

Two years later, my CYO team gathers in right field at Davis Park to go over signals before a game. “Pay attention!” our manager barks. He motions us closer and lowers his voice: “When I say ‘Father Murray is here,’ I want you to bunt.”

Father Murray is a kindly, diminutive priest from our parish. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and speaks softly from the pulpit. Kids love him because he keeps his sermons short and his theology simple.

Walking back to our dugout, my friend Johnny is incredulous: “Father Murray is here?” he says, eyebrows arched. “What kind of sign is that?”

Sometime in the early innings, our team has a man on first with no outs. “Father Murray is here!” our manager shouts. Kevin, our batter, looks at him as if he’s speaking Swahili. The pitch comes in and Kevin swings away. Strike one!

Our manager repeats the signal: “Father – Murray – is – here!” But Kevin is too busy adjusting his batting helmet. A mom behind our bench says, “Father Murray is here?” Another adds, “Where is he? I need to talk to him about my niece’s baptism.” The pitcher winds up and throws. Again, Kevin swings away. Strike two!

Our manager stands apart from us, just inside the dugout’s chain-link fence, as rigid as a foul pole. Parents, the umpire, and players on the other team are all searching for Father Murray.

“Oh, right!” Kevin says at the plate, sheepishly. “Father Murray!” But his revelation comes too late. With two strikes, he has to hit away. He whiffs on the next pitch and slinks back to the bench, avoiding our manager’s gaze.

“Where the hell is Father Murray?” a dad asks no one in particular.

“Told you that signal was lame,” Johnny says to me.

These memories and so many others come back in a rush whenever I hear the plink, as I do on most evenings this time of year. The batter connects and so do I – to a world that is forever springtime new and bubblegum fragrant.

Play ball!

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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