parenting

No end in sight to my fatherly watch

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 17, 2018. Photo: Juliana Walsh

My wife’s request this Mother’s Day caught me by surprise.

“Let’s pull up the carpet in the hallway,” Deb said as I set a cup of coffee on her night table.

Our plan had been to drive to the beach to take a walk and grab some lunch. But with the air outside thick and damp with fog, Deb now thought a day of grunt work would be the perfect gift.

I understood why.

Ours is an old house, with projects beckoning around every corner, and removing the carpet in our entrance hallway had been at the top of Deb’s list. Despite our best efforts with a worn-out Dyson vacuum and a spot cleaner called the Little Green Machine, the tan, medium-pile rug bore marks left by years of family life, which included three kids, two dogs, and all the spills and tracked-in dirt that came with them. It was time for the carpet to go.

With mini-crowbars and pliers in hand, we went to work shedding the hallway of its nubby skin. The oak flooring beneath the rug gleamed. Extracting a staple from the wood with the zeal of a first-year dental student, I recalled that we had refinished the floors and stairs before moving in.

“And then we covered them up,” Deb said, with a laugh.

It was true. The sight one day of our 2-year-old teetering in socks at the top of the winding staircase, with its polished steps, made us panic. A rug would provide traction underfoot and, if he did tumble down, cushion his fall. At least that was our logic.

A week later, the carpet installer arrived, and the new rug provided us with peace of mind, however illusory.

On Mother’s Day morning, I dragged the first rolled-up carpet scrap to the edge of the sidewalk in front of our house as a foghorn sounded in the distance. My neighbor, retrieving groceries from his car, asked me what our plans for the day were.

“You’re looking at it,” I said, pointing at the shaggy tube.

“The gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

Inside, as Deb and I continued to peel away carpet, I remembered that we had put up a cedar fence in our backyard around the same time as when the rug had gone in. With our house less than a block from busy Main Street in East Greenwich, we wanted to make sure our kids, all under age 5, didn’t wander off. The once-proud fence stood for almost a decade and a half before it began succumbing to wood rot and hurricane winds.

By that time, our children were in their teens, and I finally admitted to myself that there was only so much we could do to shield them from the bumps and bruises that life inevitably serves up – the high school romance that ends abruptly; the last-second shot that clangs off the rim; the passing of a beloved grandmother. I might be able to soften those hurts, but I couldn’t make them go away. They were part of growing up.

By late afternoon, with the carpet removal complete, it occurred to me that none of our children had ever fallen down the stairs. Was the rug our salvation? Or were we simply lucky?

It didn’t matter. The slippery stairs were just one of thousands of concerns that came with parenting. And there’s no end in sight. While our kids have navigated their way into adulthood, our worries, unlike the rug, remain.

That night, the foghorn continued its serenade. As a boy at my family’s beach cottage in Narragansett, the deep, steady tones of the Point Judith Lighthouse horn were as soothing as a lullaby. But now, as I approach 30 years of fatherhood, the tenor notes of Warwick Light’s smaller horn strike me with their vigilance – cautionary, protective, distant, and yet so invisibly present.

 

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

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.

My debut on NPR: “The Fence”

Click here to listen!

NPR

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.

A soundtrack to early fatherhood

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2015.

Mrs. Chase was hard of hearing, a fact for which I was grateful to God on this particular evening.

At midnight, I slid “London Calling” by the Clash into the CD player and cranked up the volume. About two dozen people were jammed into my less-than-palatial third-floor apartment off Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, including my fiancée, Deb. My grandfather owned the property, and I was fortunate to live there for a very reasonable monthly rent.

The party was thick with smoke – cigarette and other kinds – and a parade of beer cans and liquor bottles marched across the kitchen counter. I opened a window. It was the middle of winter, but everyone was sweating. The shock of cold air coming into the room felt life-giving.

Some people shouted over Joe Strummer’s ranting vocals. Others abandoned conversation altogether and started pogo dancing in the living room, causing the floor to heave.

Mrs. Chase – in her 80s, barely five feet tall, and no pushover – lived alone in the apartment below. We were familiar in a way that is inevitable in a triple-decker. She knew I went to the drug store every day for a pack of Merits and would sometimes enlist me to buy her snacks or a quart of milk.

On the day after the party, I started down the back stairway with a profound headache and a trash bag full of clinking empties. Mrs. Chase’s door creaked open. Bad hearing notwithstanding, she must have registered the blowout raging above her the night before.

“I am so sorry,” I said, stopping on her landing. Mrs. Chase looked at me funny through her filigreed, cat-eye glasses. She was holding a dollar bill.

“The noise last night,” I said, rolling my eyes and pointing upstairs.

“The hi-fi was a little loud,” she said, matter-of-factly, handing over the dollar. “Would you mind getting me a bag of Funyuns at the Rite Aid?”

And that was that. I wanted to hug her.

Such was life for Deb and me in our carefree mid-20s. Back when I couldn’t play Talking Heads or the Replacements loud enough. Back when people had speakers the size of small refrigerators.

Then we got married, bought a house, and had our first child – the time-to-grow-up trifecta. Late-night parties gave way to early-morning feedings. Empty bottles of soy formula were now more likely to gather on the kitchen counter than Rolling Rocks. I quit smoking.

Sleep, or lack thereof, consumed our thoughts. In a moment of early parenting foresight, Deb and I splurged for a battery-powered baby swing over a cheaper, wind-up model. It was worth every cent. We’d nestle baby Pete into its quilted seat, flip the switch, and watch him succumb to the swing’s never-ending sway. It was a sure-fire remedy for crying, whining, crabbiness – or whenever Deb and I just needed a break. My wife christened the swing the Neglect-o-matic.

Our repertoire of sleep-inducing tactics omitted the most obvious one: keeping the house quiet – specifically, the “hi-fi.” We hardly lowered the volume, thanks to sage advice from Deb’s older brother, a lifelong musician and father of three. “Don’t turn it down and you’ll never have to,” Steve said. “Pete will grow up thinking all that noise is normal.”

He was right. We played music in the house and on the road, pretty much all the time, and it rarely disturbed our son’s dreams.

I did, however, modify my playlist – less head-banging stuff, more acoustic guitar. Sweet songs about early fatherhood resonated as never before: “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; “Daddy’s Baby” by James Taylor; “St. Judy’s Comet” by Paul Simon; “Pony Boy” by Bruce Springsteen.

As I shared Cheerios, one by one, with baby Pete in our kitchen, these pop gems connected me to wisdom of the ages: being a young dad is wondrous and tiring, humbling and transformative.

And that came through, loud and clear, at any volume.

My Father’s Day playlist on YouTube, including the four songs referenced in this piece.

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