parents

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.

End of the road for Mom’s car

Breeze

I walked to the 1999 Plymouth Breeze, which was parked in the lot across from my house in East Greenwich. The silver car – champagne, according to my mother – had a fresh dent in one of its rear doors and miles of memories in its odometer. I turned the key. The rapid click-click-click reported a dead battery.

“Gonna need a jump start, Mom,” I said. It was a recent practice of mine: talking to my departed mother when I was in her car. A year and a half had passed since she died, and the car, with my mom’s Frank Sinatra CDs still in the console, was a comforting presence.

Sitting there in the beached Breeze, I recalled the day my mother had lost her driver’s license – an inevitability she anticipated with dread. She was thoroughly independent and had lived alone, happily, for decades. Having to relinquish her license was the latest, and most painful, blow thrown at her by macular degeneration.

She didn’t concede without a fight, which was no surprise to anyone who knew her.

“I’m taking the vision test,” she declared as I drove her to the Division of Motor Vehicles in Wakefield. The morning brightness glinted off her sunglasses. It was a little less than a week before her 76th birthday, when her license was set to expire. Barring a miracle, these would be her last days as a legal driver.

“My odds are 1 in 26, right?” she said, referring to her chances at correctly guessing any given letter in the vision test. “Beats the lottery.”

My mother had a feisty sense of humor, which helped her contend with the setbacks of aging. Her love of mischief was even more pronounced and gave her an irrepressible youthfulness.

When her number was called at the DMV, she strode to the counter with an assurance that belied her near blindness. She was resplendent, as always, a paisley scarf setting off her sleek, camel hair car coat with swirling reds and browns.

After a couple of formalities, the moment of truth arrived.

“Please read the letters on the third line down,” the clerk said.

“N … C … W …” my mother said, peering into the viewfinder. I choked back a laugh – those were her initials.

“Try the line above, please.”

“U … S … A? …”

“How about the first letter in the top line?” the clerk asked.

My mother looked up.

“Honey,” she said, “my eyes are so bad, I can barely see you.”

On the way home, we laughed about the exchange with the clerk, but the ride was bittersweet.

Stripped of her license, my mother bequeathed me the Breeze and moved on, without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. I always marveled at how well she navigated milestone events – a divorce, the sale of houses, the closings of two retail stores on Federal Hill. “You have to move on,” she said.

The car was a godsend for my family. Our three teenage kids drove it almost every day for the next five years. Like my mother, the Breeze was unfailingly dependable.

But that was all changed now.

I got out of the marooned vehicle and sized up its scars: creases in the fenders, a missing hubcap, red rust creeping up the edges of the doors. My mother – so attentive to her appearance, so proud of her sense of style – would have been aghast.

I decided, quixotically, to try starting the car one more time. But climbing back in, I clipped my head on the doorframe. The whack felt familiar – like the “scoopalones” my mother used to give my brothers and me when we were doing something foolish as kids. A brisk slap to the back of my head was usually accompanied by a pointed rhetorical question, often this one: “What are you, numb?”

“I hear you, Mom,” I said with a laugh, rubbing my head.

Forget the jumper cables. It was time to let go of my mother’s beloved Breeze.

It was time, in her words, to move on.

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.

When Dreams Reunite Us

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My dad used to visit on Sunday mornings. His arrival brought wit and cigarette smoke. When Deb played Sondheim on the piano, my dad was in heaven. Time for more coffee.

Years later, my mom visited on Sunday mornings, after church. We’d critique the sermon, talk about family, and recall our favorite scenes from Mad Men.

I see those days through the lens of memory – my dad died twenty years ago, my mom this past May. But my parents still come to visit. Randomly and unannounced, they appear in my dreams.

In one dream, I’m working with my mom at her store on Federal Hill. In another, my dad is watching me play basketball. These dreams comfort me. Waking up is bittersweet.

Not long after my dad died, I dreamt he sent me a card with a long handwritten note. That led to a poem called Dreamcard, which has the following ending:

     And then the card is a wall in my bedroom,

     a mural letter from my father to me;

     longed-for messages delivered through sleep,

     only to elude me as I awaken.

In 2002, on the first anniversary of George Harrison’s death, The Concert for George took place in London. The show, featuring Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and other rock royals, built up to Harrison’s most popular songs. But neither Something nor My Sweet Lord was reserved for the finale. Instead, as rose petals fluttered from the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall, Joe Brown closed the concert with a tune written almost forty years before the first shriek of Beatlemania: I’ll See You In My Dreams.

Perfect and sentimental and true.

Scenes From An Emptying Nest

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In my mind, the scene plays out like a bittersweet Bill Forsyth movie. My sons Peter and Evan are set to depart for Los Angeles to chase pop music dreams. The car is packed and idling in the driveway. Soft breezes wash through the trees outside our house. Birds chirp.

As Deb gives the boys her good-bye hug on the porch, she speaks with the wisdom and love of every mother who has ever lived. I hand the boys an envelope. It contains my epic poem on the eternal bond between fathers and sons, surpassing Homer and Joyce in its insight. And now a car pulls up. It’s Juliana, making a surprise early return from her Martha’s Vineyard getaway because she can’t let her brothers get away without a sister’s kiss.

Cue the music for the final scene: Mark Knopfler serenades the boys as they drive down Peirce Street and into their future. Dolly back, fade to black.

Of course, it doesn’t happen this way – just ask National Grid. On departure day morning at 7:00 sharp, they show up right outside our house with a mountain of dirt and a whirling Bobcat. A backhoe doubles as the boys’ alarm clock, pounding Peirce Street and shaking the house. No birds are chirping now.

Inside, the mundane and the practical trump my cinematic visions. Do you have clean towels? Where’s your shaving kit? Anyone seen the phone chargers? Did you get to the bank? For the hundredth time, I tell Peter and Evan to make sure they take 287 West for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Eyes roll. And then the rain comes – torrents – forcing the National Grid guys to stop their banging and huddle under a tent. We continue to load the car in the downpour – the boys are on a schedule.

Finally, at the moment of departure, disaster strikes – a family fender bender in the driveway threatens the trip before it even begins. We survey the damage in disbelief. How do you open the hood? Where’s the manual? This morning, we are more Griswold than Greek poetry.

But somewhere the gods are watching over us. The driveway mishap is more ding than disaster. With the car’s front grill popped back into place, the boys depart at last.

And just like that, a milestone Thursday turns ordinary. I go to work. Deb arranges to pick up Julie at the Fast Ferry. The Red Sox beat the Mariners. National Grid patches the road and moves the orange cones to the next block.

When Julie leaves for college in August, the flight will be complete. Deb and I will be empty nesters, though that’s a misnomer. Memories will fill the house. Remember the time the Christmas tree fell over? The first night with Moxie as a puppy? Basketball games in the basement between the Celtics and the Monkey Team? Midnight breakfasts? Talks about what you want to be when you grow up?

In my mind, these scenes play over and over – a family movie never taken, still in development, based on a true story, already a classic.

For Peter and Evan, somewhere between Columbus and St. Louis.

What My Parents Didn’t Know Didn’t Hurt Them

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But what about my brother and me?

With summer nearing, there was work to be done at the gray beach house – grass to mow, hedges to trim, walls to paint. My parents gave my older brother Rob and me our chores one bright Saturday morning – clipping the edges of the lawn and sweeping the porch. But tedium soon gave way to goofing around – Rob was eight years old and I was five – and we were relieved of our duties.

“Go play – just don’t get into any trouble!”

The gray house was bounded out back by a stone wall. Woods stood beyond. “C’mon!” my brother said. The two of us climbed over the wall and Rob beelined for the first flat rock. When he flipped it over, two snakes squiggled away. Rob grabbed one right behind its head and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he said.

Bullfrogs croaked from a nearby swamp. Rob tiptoed toward the muck, motioning me to stay put. He squatted at the water’s edge, frog-like and frozen. Then, with a start and a splash, he snared his prey, mid-leap. The capture was temporary. Rob loved anything with four legs or wings or fins or fur or, in this case, webbed feet. He returned the frog to the edge of the swamp.

We found some old boards and plywood half-buried in leaves and dirt – perfect for building a tree fort, my brother said. I ran to the shed to get a hammer and some nails. When I returned, we hoisted the boards and plywood twelve or so feet up a tree and laid them across two forking limbs. Rob started hammering, and soon we needed more nails. I climbed down the tree to run back to the shed, but I didn’t get very far. Just as Rob’s shout registered in my brain – “WATCH OUT!” – the plummeting hammer conked me on the head – “OW!OW!OW!” – and I was belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRY DON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an emerging egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up. The plywood had given way and Rob was backwards-somersaulting to the ground.

WHOOMMPPP! Rob lay on his back in a clump. Now it was me in his ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRYDON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

It was a close call – Rob had missed a big jagged rock by a few inches. When he got his breath back, we decided to leave the woods, before we could inflict further harm on ourselves.

My mom saw us trudging back to the gray house. “What have you guys been up to?”

“Nothing,” Rob said.

It wasn’t exactly a lie; more like an omission of details… OK, call it passive lying, the kind practiced by generations of kids before us, and certain to be practiced by generations to come. If Mom and Dad ever knew…

I felt the bump hidden beneath my hair. Rob rubbed his ribs. As our mom turned away, we shared a conspiratorial smile.

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