World War II

Living with life’s ups and downs

Birch_4

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Answers on Dad’s side are fleeting

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 21, 2018.

The note from my uncle, the last one on my father’s side of the family, baffled me: “I have no information to share about my brothers’ military service or mine. I’m sorry.”

I had written to him on behalf of my younger brother, James, who served in the U. S. Coast Guard after graduating from high school. We knew that three of our uncles had fought in World War II, that one had gone to Korea, and that our father had been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Beyond that, details were scant.

“Nothing but respect for what Dad’s family gave this country,” James had texted me last Memorial Day from Florida, where he moved after completing his Coast Guard duty. “I would love to know more.” That prompted my letter.

My younger brother’s relationship with our Walsh-side relatives, including our father, ended soon after our parents divorced. While my older brother, Rob, and I were able to forge connections, however rocky, with Dad as adults, James became estranged from him. All that remained across their chasm of separation and silence was a common thread of military service.

The next time I spoke with James, I told him about our uncle’s response to my request.

“How can he have nothing to share?” I asked with an annoyance I thought my brother would echo. But he was understanding.

“Without even knowing what his reasons are, I accept them,” James said.

For more than three decades after my uncle left Rhode Island, he and I exchanged letters and cards, including a Mass card that arrived several days after my father died. I tucked these correspondences away in the top drawer of my dresser; I knew they represented my last line of communication with Dad’s family. However, after sending James a photograph of the latest note, I tossed it in the trash.

Six months later, a letter arrived from a close friend of my uncle’s whom I knew of but had never met. I feared the worst, but Jeremy simply wanted to let me know that my uncle had moved to a rehab facility where “he has enjoyed himself with new friends and with the right people taking care of him.”

My brother Rob and I made the three-hour trek to see our uncle on a Saturday afternoon. Jeremy had mentioned in his letter that there were memory issues, so I brought along my parents’ wedding album. After gathering in the facility’s library, we opened the album to a black-and-white photo of my handsome father and his four older brothers, all beaming in tuxedos at the Pawtucket Country Club in 1956.

My uncle, gray and bearded now, but with the same sparkling eyes, pointed to the faces.

“There’s Donald,” he said. “And Dick and Vin. And that’s Jimmy and me.”

He looked up brightly. “We grew up on Grand View Street,” he said. “The North Burial Ground was down the hill, across North Main Street. My father used to point at that graveyard and say to us, ‘If you act up, we’ll put you on the sled and you’ll end up there.’”

My uncle let loose a familiar, hearty laugh I knew from long ago. Rob and I laughed, too, just as we would every time we heard the story that afternoon. The memory issues were real. “Five boys under one roof,” my uncle said, shaking his head and smiling.

The ride home was bittersweet. Rob and I were grateful for our uncle’s good spirits despite the cloud of his dementia. But then I remembered my annoyance at his note and felt a pang of shame. He had even apologized.

The next day, I called my brother James. I finally had some answers for him, though not the ones he had been seeking.

 

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