separation

Navigating stormy days with Dad

fathers_day_003_2017As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 18, 2017.

Paul Simon is known for the chart-topping singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” as well as numerous other hits. But deeper cuts from his catalog can be equally rewarding.

“Rewrite,” from the 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What,” is one such tune. In it, Simon sings about a father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm.” The dad in the song says he’s going to change the ending of his story, substituting a car chase and a race across the rooftops, “when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.”

After repeated listens, the insight of Simon’s lyrics resonated with me: Nearly all of us would like to rewrite at least a part of our past.

I was 9 years old when my parents separated and my father moved out of our house in Providence. The break-up unleashed a riot of emotions inside me, most of which I did everything I could to quell.

There was an upholstered rocking chair in our living room where I often sat and, in my mind, rewrote the story of my parents’ separation. The biggest change was transforming it into a reconciliation, but there were many others. Things were always better in the rewrite.

However, the reality was that my father now came to see my two brothers and me on Saturdays while Mom was at work.

On the first of these new Saturdays, he took us to Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Mendon, Massachusetts. It felt like a holiday. Mom had bought us new clothes to wear, and my dad took photos.

It would be years before I appreciated the efforts my parents each made to gracefully navigate those early post-breakup days – and how heart-wrenching it must have been for them.

When my father arrived at our house the following Saturday, I greeted him with anticipation.

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he replied, a little curtly, and I immediately wished I could take back my words. I can only imagine the feelings I had unwittingly stirred up.

On a Saturday several years later, under threatening skies, my father and I did go somewhere – down to Narragansett to cut the grass at our beach house. Once a place where our family enjoyed summer vacations, the yellow cottage was now rented out. On weekends, Dad took care of any work that needed to be done there.

Light rain began to fall just as he and I finished mowing the lawn; we drove in his maroon Chevelle to Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father had a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That was good.

It was pouring when we left the restaurant and started making our way north. On Route 95, a gust of wind slammed our car, and I grabbed the passenger-side door handle as we lurched out of our lane. My father turned off the radio. The windshield wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they were no match for the storm. A proliferation of blurred brake lights ahead indicated what must have been a serious accident.

“I’m going to pull off,” Dad said. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he guided us down the next exit ramp.

We were in Warwick. Rain pounded the car as we crept along, but at least we weren’t on the highway anymore. I saw a sign for Providence.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “We’ll make it back OK.” He offered me a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and I let go of the door handle to unwrap one.

It was still raining when Dad dropped me off at our red house on River Avenue. As he drove away, I headed for the rocking chair in the living room. But unlike in days past and days soon to come, no rewrite was required on this afternoon.

My dad had gotten me home. He was happy and so was I.

 

Living With The Ghosts Next Door

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on August 17, 2014.

The house next door was empty and for sale, but two ghosts still lived there: my father and my good friend, Dick. Each had once owned the historic colonial, which stands near the corner of Peirce and Dedford Streets in East Greenwich.

My father bought the house in the early 1970s after he and my mother separated. One Saturday, he picked me up in Providence to go stay with him overnight. I was 12 years old.

My dad could be distant, and not just because he no longer lived with us. As we drove south on Route 95 that day, Elton John played on the radio. My father sang along and drifted away — “Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone … ” But then he came back to me. Did I like the song? Who was I listening to these days? I loved talking with my dad about music or books or sports.

I also loved the notes he wrote to me. In letters and birthday wishes, my father’s remoteness vanished. His words were affectionate and knowing. And his penmanship was perfect.

His house on Peirce Street didn’t feel like home — it was dark and smelled old — but I was glad to be there. My dad and I went over to the basketball court at Academy Field to shoot some hoops. And when we returned to the house, he put George Carlin’s “Class Clown” on the record player.

I choked back my laughter when “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” came on. Those were words I couldn’t say anywhere. But my dad balanced a keen wit with a deep appreciation of the well-timed profanity. As he made sandwiches for us in the kitchen, he howled at Carlin’s famous bit — and, liberated by his laughter, so did I.

My father didn’t live in the Peirce Street house for long. It was just one of his many dwellings after he and my mother split, an odyssey that took him to Warwick, Providence and, finally, Centredale. But I never forgot that East Greenwich neighborhood. In 1994, when my wife and I decided to search for a bigger house for our growing family, we found one on Peirce Street — right next to my dad’s old place.

My father had died the previous year. I wondered who owned the colonial now. And then I met Dick. He had been living there for almost two decades.

Dick had a strong voice and quick smile. Like my dad, he lived alone, smoked cigarettes, loved sports, and could elevate cursing to performance poetry. When Dick launched into a diatribe about overpaid pro athletes or brazen politicians — “Can you believe these [bleeping] guys!” — I heard my father. For me, still feeling the loss, Dick was a [bleeping] godsend.

Everyone knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign, and chiding the town’s work crews.

But our family also knew him as the kind neighbor who placed the newspaper at our doorstep before we woke up; the belated Santa who arrived on Christmas morning with presents for our kids; the die-hard Patriots fan who took our young sons, along with his grandson, to a preseason practice at Bryant College. (“The boys watched Bledsoe,” Dick told us later. “I watched the cheerleaders.”)

As my younger son grew up, he was filled with questions. One night before bed, he asked me if I missed my dad. I told him yes, but that I felt my father was alive every time I spoke about him.

“Maybe that’s what heaven is,” I added.

With a 5-year-old’s matter-of-factness, my son set me straight: “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

So much for sweet dreams.

One day, Dick knocked on our door. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “C’mon,” he said, “I’m stripping wallpaper and need to show you something.” I followed him next door, and we made our way to a downstairs bedroom.

Wet, torn wallpaper littered the floor. “Look what I found,” Dick said, pointing at one of the newly revealed walls. On gray horsehair plaster, I saw the familiar, soothing curves of my father’s handwriting. Years ago, when he owned the house, he had tagged the wall with his signature — Donald E. Walsh.

Later, I told my son the signature was a little piece of heaven, brought to me by an angel. He may not have believed me that time either.

But if there is such a place as heaven, and I am lucky enough to go there, I won’t be surprised if my dad and Dick are on the same bench, sharing a smoke and a laugh, and waiting for me.

 

 

 

An Ending I Didn’t Have To Change

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I’m a writer, so I spend most of my time rewriting. In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that “very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” How true.

Paul Simon writes great pop tunes. On his last album, there’s a song called Rewrite. The title caught my eye, and the melody pulled me in to the lyric. That’s where I discovered the song’s wisdom. Sometimes, we’d like to rewrite our past, just as we rewrite sentences.

One night after listening to a Celtics game, my father told my older brother and me that he and my mother were separating; the following morning, he would be leaving. I was nine years old. The news filled me with dread. I loved to spend time with my dad, listening to games and talking about music or school. What would happen to us now?

There was a rocking chair in our living room. When no one else was in the house, I rocked in the chair and rewrote my parents’ separation. Things were better in the rewrite.

The Vietnam vet in Paul Simon’s song takes refuge in the same escape. In the final verse, the vet plans to eliminate the pages about the father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm…”

         Gonna substitute a car chase

         And a race across the rooftops

         When the father saves the children

         And he holds them in his arms

*          *          *

Two months after moving out, my father is driving me home. It’s a Saturday – that’s when we see each other now. Gray clouds scud across the sky. We stop at Giro’s in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father has a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That’s good.

It’s pouring rain when we leave. On Route 95, gusts of wind slam our car, pushing us out of our lane. My father turns off the radio. The wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they are no match for the deluge. Blurred brake lights report an accident up ahead. Cars pull over, flashers flickering. “I’m going to get off the highway,” my father says. We splash down the next exit ramp.

We’re in Warwick. I’m not familiar with the area, but my dad is; he lives there now. Rain still pounds our car as we creep along, but my dad is in control. I see a sign for Route 1. My father lights a cigarette. “Don’t worry, Big John,” he says. He puts the radio back on and asks me about school.

It’s still raining when we get to my house in Providence. I run up the driveway and dash through the back door. As my father pulls away, I head for the rocking chair. I’m relieved, and not simply because I’m out of the storm. My dad got us home. He is happy, and so am I.

No rewrites today.

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