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Bus Fumes… and Leaven

One bright morning in the fall 1996, a brief verbal exchange happened between my two sons that, when considered in light of something else that would happen a few short weeks later, I’m quite certain I’ll never forget.

I was driving my children – the two boys and their sister, Rachel – to school along a two-lane stretch of highway. We were in the right lane directly behind a large bus. Eventually, I grew impatient with the slow pace and seized an opportunity to pass. This prompted my older boy, Stephen, aged ten at the time, to say: “Nice move, Dad. Those bus fumes were getting to me.”

Matthew, four years his junior, then rather innocently replied: “I like bus fumes.”

To which Stephen, a precocious boy, answered: “Perhaps you’d change your mind if I told you that bus fumes contain deadly carbon monoxide gas.”

Matt paused, no doubt bewildered by both his brother’s words and tone, and simply replied: “Oh.”

I stifled a laugh. The difference in their perspectives was remarkable… and would soon console me during an unexpected hardship.

The next month, I made my first (of four) trips to Cuba. My visit was part of an allowable cultural exchange, and I travelled with an appropriate license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Due to legal restrictions, travel between the U.S. and Cuba must involve an intermediate stop in a neutral country. I booked an itinerary through the Bahamas that necessitated an 8-hour layover in Nassau.

Admittedly, spending eight hours in a tropical paradise doesn’t sound like the worst of fates; however, there were no lockers at the airport in which I could store my luggage, so I spent the entire layover sitting in a nearly empty departure lounge lacking even a television monitor to keep me company. By the time the flight to Cuba boarded, I was exhausted and gnawingly hungry.

Onboard the plane, I immediately experienced disquiet. My fellow passengers were a rowdy group; and, I got the sense that many of them were traveling to Cuba for a “good time.” I wanted to disappear.

When the plane finally landed in Havana, many seemingly inebriated passengers gave a mock cheer, as if surprised by the flight’s successful arrival.

Relieved to be off the plane, I gathered my luggage at baggage claim and stood in the long line at immigration and customs. Just in front of me, I noticed another man traveling alone, who looked a bit haggard. I introduced myself and discovered that he too was from the United States. Further, I learned that he would also be staying at my hotel, the Habana Libre, in the newer section of Havana. I was grateful to have a companion for this last portion of the journey.

When we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly 2:00 a.m. We asked about food options at the front desk and were directed to an all-night cafe across the lobby. My new acquaintance and I agreed to drop our bags in our respective rooms and then meet back in the lobby to get a bite to eat. At this point, I was only moments from one of the darkest experiences of my life.

I turned on the light in my room and, as I dropped my bags on the bed, noticed a cockroach running along the top of the headboard. Things were not going well.

Back in the lobby, I joined up with my companion and headed for the cafe. We were not yet through the door when we were met by a very aggressive young man, who kept asking us in broken English if we wanted to go to the disco? I told him that we weren’t interested and kept walking toward the stools in front of the counter. He walked right along with us and sat on the stool next to mine. Again, he asked about the disco and then motioned to someone with his hand. Suddenly, two young women, dressed quite provocatively, came over to join us.

I was exasperated. “No!” I said, shaking my head emphatically. The young man looked at me with a truly puzzled expression and walked away with the two young women. A moment later, two young men – undoubtedly sent by the same pimp – came to take the places of the young women. Again, I looked at them and said, “No!” Ever persistent, two other young women then came by, only to receive the same response.

After that final dismissal, the pimp finally yielded. I hurriedly ate my hamburger, bid goodnight to my quasi-friend, and went back to my room and my multi-legged roommates.

When I entered, I did not turn on the light. Instead, I walked to the window and pulled aside the curtains, revealing the downtown area of the city. On the street below, I saw many young people, each of them a child of God, prostituting themselves.

I felt sick!

Describing what happened next is an impossible undertaking since spiritual matters, by their very nature, defy explanation. It must suffice for me to say that an oppressive and “living” sense of darkness overwhelmed me.

I wanted desperately to rescue those beautiful young people… to help them understand their awesome dignity; but, instead, I felt paralyzed and completely impotent. I could not change their world. All I could do – and this with great difficulty – was pray.

In God’s time, the then-recent conversation between my two boys came vividly to mind, and I suddenly had greater clarity about its implications. And, with that clarity, came peace.

Very few are called to change the world in an obvious and heroic way, least of all me. There is nothing I could have done directly to change the circumstances in Havana at (roughly) 2:45 a.m. that day. Still, I firmly believe that we are all genuine agents of change and that there is a portion of the world in which we can make an enormous difference – namely, in what sociologists call our personal “oikos,” i.e., our regular social circle comprised of family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.

The recollection of the conversation between my two sons broke through the darkness to remind me of my “oikos,” my very own sphere of influence.

Stephen had matured to the point where he understood some of the world’s risks, but there was still so very much to learn. Matthew was in an even freer – and, consequently, more vulnerable – place, where bus fumes were still a good thing.

And me?

I was (and still am) privileged to hold an enormously important place in both of their lives. If I could(/can) help them – and other members of my “oikos” – to understand better their remarkable dignity and worth, I will have made an enormous difference.

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to leaven, which has a transformative effect on an entire loaf of bread.

It can defeat us to imagine trying to help an entire world “rise” to wholeness and holiness. But, if we can leaven just our personal “oikos,” the loaf entrusted to our care, we will have done a great deal, i.e., we will have changed the world.

Love dispels even the deepest darkness.

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NOTE: This essay is definitely not intended in any way as an indictment of the Cuban people, who were among the warmest, kindest, and most hospitable people I have ever encountered while traveling internationally.

“Salieri”

(This is the last of five re-posts of previously buried essays.)

In the 1984 movie Amadeus, composer Antonio Salieri is (fictionally?) depicted as being insanely jealous of Mozart’s remarkable talent. Gradually, he descends into actual madness; and, in one compelling scene, he throws a crucifix in the fireplace in rage and despair. He had wanted to glorify God with his music; but, in the shadow of Mozart, he felt the terrible sting – rooted in pride – of being a lesser talent. It is truly tragic.

I feel sympathy for Salieri.

Many times, I have wanted to express something I was feeling in words, but the words won’t come. Many times, I have marveled at someone or something but have found myself incapable of conveying the height, depth, and breadth of my experience.

One idea that I treasure about heaven is that it will bring transcendence of our all-too-human limits. We will love and be loved perfectly. We will know and be known perfectly. We will understand and be understood… perfectly.

And our song(s), now playing obscurely in our souls, will give perfect glory to God and bring perfect satisfaction to us.

All shall be well!

“All Shall Be Well”

“All shall be well. And, all shall be well. And, all manner of things shall be well.”

These eschatological words were spoken by Jesus to (and through) Julian of Norwich while she was engaged in mystical prayer. I hold them very close to my heart and find in them a definitive statement about God’s goodness and good intentions for the world.

We may quarrel, but all shall be well.

We may struggle, but all shall be well.

We may suffer, but all shall be well.

We may be so wrapped up in our own selfish pursuits that we miss God’s blessings in the moment, but all shall be well.

We may be discouraged and lonely, but all shall be well.

We may doubt, but all shall be well.

Life’s burdens may sometimes seem too heavy to bear, but all shall be well.

We may be divided ideologically, politically, and theologically, but all shall be well.

We may ache to find a deeper purpose in life, but all shall be well.

We may question our own ability to accomplish the tasks before us, but all shall be well.

We may be wilting under the judgment and criticism of others, but all shall be well.

We may be experiencing terrible grief, but all shall be well.

Ultimately, all manner of things shall be well.

Being Buppa (a.k.a. Grandparenting)

This is re-post three of five…

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Image

When our daughter, Rachel, was expecting her first child, friends who were already veteran grandparents promised us that we were going to love the experience. “It’s all of the fun and none of the responsibility” was the typical refrain. Of course, there’s a degree of truth to that, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.

For me, the genuine wonder of grandparenting comes from perspective.

As a young parent, I was often so busy providing for my children and tending to their day-to-day needs that I failed to appreciate fully the transitory nature of their childhood. And then, too suddenly, they were grown.

As a young parent, I tended to idealize my children and to have unrealistically high hopes that they might avoid some of the mistakes and the pain that had colored my life. And then, I watched them struggle.

As a young parent, I worked hard to protect my children from harm. And then, I saw them suffer.

Today, when I gaze into the eyes of my grandchildren, I understand that the huge place I now occupy in their worldview will necessarily (and rightly) diminish over time. So, I gaze more intently.

When I read or tell a story to my grandchildren, I understand that the narrative of their lives will, far too soon, become more complex and cloudy. So, first, I try not to rush; and, I emphasize (and relish with them) the simple wisdom each story seeks to convey.

While playing with my grandchildren, I really try to play.

And, when I hear my grandchildren cry, I sometimes cry too.

… (By the way, our grandchildren call me “Buppa.” It is an identity I truly cherish.)

Dementia’s Curious Lesson

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. This essay, “Dementia’s Curious Lesson,” is the second of four re-posts I’ll be making this week.)

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Loving someone stricken with dementia is a curious journey. The disease not only robs a person of precious memories, but it also can tear down some of the afflicted person’s personal boundaries.

A few months ago, I was visiting my Mom in the nursing home, and we were having a nice chat about family matters. I mentioned that her ninth great-grandchild would soon be born, and she smiled.

“Really? Who is having a baby?” she asked.

I told her that her granddaughter, Sarah, Christine’s daughter, would soon be having her first child. Her expression changed when Christine’s name was mentioned.

“She’s gone, isn’t she?” she asked.

We talked a bit about Christine’s short life and, in an attempt to console my Mom, I mentioned that she would be reunited with Chris in heaven. Then, something unexpected happened.

My Mom not only gave me the gift of life, she also passed along her strong Catholic faith. Many factors/voices have contributed to my faith formation, but I first learned of God’s great love sitting on my mother’s knee.

Even during family crises, my Mom’s faith was always an anchor. She was a daily communicant, a woman of prayer, and, for many people, an instrument of God’s mercy and love. In fact, even in her diminished capacity, she continues to minister – through tenderness and contagious joy – to her fellow residents in the nursing home today.

“Do you think it’s true?” she asked (about heaven). “You know, when you’re in your eighties…” and her voice trailed off.

I couldn’t believe it! For the first time in my life, I heard my Mom express doubt about God and God’s promises. Dementia made that possible.

Though we may be guarded in sharing our personal struggles in this area, doubt is always a part of the life of faith. In fact, I have discovered that it is precisely my doubts that draw me further along the journey, that cause me to seek answers to some of life’s – and faith’s – deepest questions.

“I believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24) With these brutally honest words, a desperate father cried out to Jesus on behalf of his afflicted child. His words could also be my words every day of my life. And now, I have my mentor’s (i.e., my Mom’s) example to let me know that it’s okay to voice that very human struggle. Again, dementia made that possible.

I looked at my Mom and encouraged her to hold fast to what she has treasured her whole life. Now, it is my turn to minister.

Listening

(NOTE: When I started this blog, I uploaded a number of essays all at once so that there would be content there if/when people visited the site. After checking the stats, I now see that those few early postings got quickly buried and, thus, were seen by very few people. I’ll be re-posting four or five of them, beginning with this essay (below) titled “Listening.”)

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Like you, I have a lens through which I view and interpret the world. It is a lens forged by the entirety of my life — my religious formation, for sure, but also my upbringing, my relationships, my education, my opportunities, my inclinations, my struggles and losses, and my many mistakes. I make no claim that mine is a perfect lens. In fact, when I go to prayer each morning, I do so with the stark awareness of my need to see more clearly.

My vocation, at least in part, is to consent to the gradual sharpening of my vision by God’s own hand, which will happen as I do a disciple’s work, namely, as I listen with an open heart to the countless words of God spoken – sometimes as a whisper – into my life each day.

On a continuum, be it religious or political, my lens (or worldview) falls somewhere between far left and far right. From my vantage point, when I look in either direction, I see friends whom I love, who are themselves words of God infused with profound meaning and deserving of my utmost consideration.

If I speak from my worldview, my place along the continuum, and express a perspective at odds with yours, I hope you will be patient with me. And, I hope you will recognize that I have arrived at my position after careful soul-searching… and often with an anguish born of love.

Most people, I believe, follow a similarly thoughtful path of discernment. In our politically volatile culture, however, even good, sensitive people seem prone to lose sight of this.

The world may indeed have its share of small-minded people, spouting bigotries and reacting in knee-jerk fashion to the issues of the day. Nonetheless, to presume such a disposition in another, especially on the sole basis of a conflicting worldview, seems a grave offense against that person’s dignity. Further, presuming such a disposition of an entire group or community of people (e.g., “traditionalist” or “progressive” Catholics; or, members of the “Tea Party” or the “Occupy Movement”) represents, in my opinion, a genuine flirtation with evil.

We are quick, these days, to demonize. It is so much easier, after all, to brand and dismiss someone than it is to listen thoughtfully to the circumstances that have shaped that person’s perspective. Such is the carelessness of our age; and, we collectively suffer as a result. The chasms between us are sometimes shockingly wide and deep. But love and respect are a marvelous bridge and a reason for hope.

I am pro-life. I say that with no intent to confront or accuse, though some may hear it as such. I say it though painfully aware of the exploitative, abusive, and terribly irresponsible behavior so often manifest in those of my gender. I say it with shame for the ways in which such behavior has been manifest in me. I am truly sorry! And, I am pro-life!

Perhaps it will help if I explain that I see all life as proceeding from the mind of a loving God. When I see you, regardless of your worldview, I see one who has been intended for all eternity, who has been “spoken” into existence purposefully, and who has a worth well beyond my comprehension. God does not waste words!

For us, however, language is often a big problem. Civil discourse has all but evaporated because of, what I call, a “contraceptive mentality” (i.e., an automatic tendency to close our minds and dig in our heels the moment certain buzz words or phrases are uttered, such as “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “gay marriage,” “traditional marriage,” etc.). Such barriers – or shields, to borrow an image from Star Trek – prevent the life-generating sharing of our human stories and prohibit discovery of what we hold in common, including our shared beliefs and frailties.

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:20)

Do we believe this in practice? What if, for example, one of two is a strident so-called “American Catholic” and the other an unapologetic “Papist?” Before considering the possible tenor of their conversation, perhaps we should wonder if they ever would “gather” in the first place… in the name of the Lord they both profess.

It seems irresistible to mock the “left-wing loon” or the “right-wing bigot,” as though the entirety of a person’s life, the complex circumstances that have forged her/his worldview, has no validity. How can we miss this injustice in ourselves?

It hurts terribly to be branded! And, make no mistake; we are diminished profoundly by branding others!

So, we remain a polarized people, living in fear and anger, suspicious of each other, and yet craving to be understood and accepted.

There is a creed that I profess. In faith, I embrace the elements of that creed as “objectively true” in the fullest sense of that phrase. My understanding of these truths, however, remains a work-in-progress, especially regarding their practical and pastoral application. I am reminded of the traditional definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” As a person of faith, my life’s work is to strive for a deeper understanding of all of God’s wonderful words – the ones printed on pages in holy books that I treasure… and, the ones who will pass by me, some on my left and some on my right, as I live this day.

The gift that is this day!

The Red Sweater

“Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)

On the Tonight Show many years ago, comedian George Gobel jokingly posed this question to long-time host Johnny Carson: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

People laughed, of course; however, I’d wager that more than a few hearers could personally relate to that experience of feeling different from others, about which Gobel had spoken.

I have a “brown shoes” kind of story to share, but it actually involves a different kind of apparel – namely, a favorite red sweater I had as a child. First, however, I must provide a bit of context.

I was a pious little boy. Faith came quite naturally to me; and, obedience to God and my parents defined my sense of normalcy. Innocent faith, however, can often be stretched almost to the breaking point as life becomes more complex.

During my teen years, my first family began a slow and agonizing process of disintegration. I need not divulge specifics, but it is necessary that I admit of a uniquely painful gulf that developed between my father and me. Eventually, I came to seriously doubt his love, which is a torturous experience for an adolescent boy.

As my parents’ marriage crept steadily toward divorce, and as I wrestled with the associated emotions that seemingly invaded every fiber of my life, I also began to question, for the first time, the goodness of God. Honestly, I felt betrayed by the One I had always trusted. My best friend seemed to have turned a deaf ear precisely when I was most desperate for God’s consolation.

Disillusioned, my heart strayed from God for quite some time. Strangely, I never stopped believing; yet, bitter experiences had numbed my faith and (seemingly) rendered it irrelevant in my life. This spiritual state of confusion persisted through my college years… until God resuscitated my soul.

In my early twenties, I met my future wife, Marianne, fell in love, finished college, and proposed marriage. There was much cause for hope, yet, when alone, I was persistently sad.

One day, I woke up feeling particularly distressed but unable to identify the cause. The malaise worsened as the day went on; so, desperate for some solitude, I decided to take a walk. In the midst, I began to feel an interior sense of longing that I could not squelch. I kept walking… and awkwardly lifted up a prayer.

At one point, I found myself standing in front of a rectory. Had I purposely come there? I don’t believe so; but, once there, I felt an overwhelming urge to ring the doorbell. I resisted for a time, unsure of what I’d say, but then I reluctantly consented. That concession to grace has made all the difference.

A young priest, Fr. Bob, welcomed me and invited me into a private room where we could talk. My mind blanks on the specifics. I remember only a rush of thoughts and words, a sympathetic listener, a reassurance of God’s love, and an invitation – for both Marianne and me – to the prayer community that met on Thursday nights in the Parish Center.

When I told Marianne of my experience and of my inclination to accept the invitation, she graciously agreed to accompany me; so, the following Thursday evening found us among a group of strangers, who would quickly become instruments of God’s healing in both of our lives. Marianne and I were married (by Fr. Bob) shortly thereafter.

At one Thursday gathering some months later, Peter, an intense yet obviously tender-hearted man, gave me a book about the Holy Spirit and said that he hoped it would bless my life as it had blessed his. I accepted his gift knowing full-well that I’d need to report back to him and, therefore, would actually have to read it.

“But, what about the red sweater?” That’s coming.

I felt strangely at home in the pages of that book. It seemed to tap into the dormant piety from my past. Again, I experienced an interior longing, but this time the longing had an object. I wanted God again.

Then, I reached a chapter in the book that stopped me cold. It was a chapter on reconciliation that was based upon these verses from the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:23-24:

“… if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Immediately, I sensed that God wanted to be admitted into the relationship between me and my father. I felt nothing but desperation and fear. The wounds were indeed very deep.

For days, I could read no further in the book. I felt as though an obstacle was now in my path that I had no power whatsoever to overcome. Would my rediscovery of a spiritual center in my life end here?

Then, one evening, I sat on my couch trying to pray. Marianne walked into the room and could see that I was distressed. She asked what was going on and I told her about the book… about the obstacle… and about my failed attempts at prayer. She wisely asked if I had done any listening during prayer, and I admitted that I hadn’t. I’d only been pouring out my heart to God.

Marianne told me that she would give me complete privacy and advised me to sit in silence. She was God’s instrument in that moment, and I will forever be grateful for her sage counsel. After she left the room, I turned off the light and waited for God in the quiet.

What happened is quite difficult to explain; but, it literally changed my life. Please bear with me.

I did not have a vision. In fact, I can’t even be certain if my eyes were opened or closed. Neither was the experience a dream, as I was far from asleep, nor a hallucination, as I had taken no drugs.

That evening, as best I can describe it, God placed me inside a lost memory such that I actually relived the long-ago experience with all of its attendant emotions. Afterward, I remembered that this incident had really taken place, but it was so obscure, so seemingly inconsequential, I had long forgotten it.

I was perhaps six or seven and was in the schoolyard during recess. It must have been chilly that morning because my mother had dressed me in my favorite red sweater, the one with the zipper in front. She had also told me not to remove the sweater. You see, I was a rather sickly child, and she was being cautious.

By recess time, any morning chill had yielded to a hot sun. All of my schoolmates were in their shirtsleeves running and playing. But, I was obediently wearing my red sweater and sitting on the short wooden fence at the side of the schoolyard… feeling quite different and very alone.

Being “brown shoes” is especially painful for a child.

Then, I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard. Instantly, I leaped off my perch and ran to him.

(Since my mother had ordered me to wear the sweater, surely my father had the authority to allow me to remove it.)

I looked up into my father’s eyes and asked him: “Dad, can I take off my sweater?”

Now, when this episode actually happened, I’m sure that the young version of me missed the most important detail. All I cared about at the time was securing permission to remove the sweater, which my father granted.

As a man in his mid-twenties, however, looking through the eyes of that little boy, I saw my father’s expression anew. He looked at me with understanding and compassion. His was a knowing look… the look of one who had, himself, been “brown shoes” to the world’s tuxedo.

His was that look of love that I had longed for my whole life!

Sitting there in my living room, I broke down and wept forcefully.

God had plucked from obscurity an event long forgotten and miraculously revealed its deeper meaning.

When I finally collected myself, the remarkable peace that I felt quickly gave way to darkness and sadness. I remembered feeling betrayed by God in my teens and realized that, just as I had needed to know the love of my father, I also needed to know myself loved by God.

I decided to sit in the darkness again with all of the interior stillness I could muster.

Rather quickly, I was drawn into the identical memory. Again, I was sitting by the edge of the schoolyard, in my red sweater, under the hot sun, feeling different and alone. I looked up and saw my father walking past the schoolyard…

But, this time, Jesus was guiding him there by the hand.

(Tears! Intense healing!)

—–

The moment of grace described above happened thirty-five years ago. Although daily prayer has long been a part of my life, I have never again experienced God so vividly and intimately; and, perhaps that is by design.

That moment is a touchstone for my spiritual life. I return there often when I am in distress to drink in its lessons once again.

The red sweater helps me to understand God’s interest and involvement in every detail of our lives. It makes sense of the promise that even the hairs on my head are counted.

Amen!

One Real Hero

Heroes need not be bigger than life. One of mine, in fact, was a rather diminutive man, whom I met only when he was in his later years.

I was eight years old when my parents bought their first (and only) home together, a two-family structure wherein my family would occupy the first floor. Upstairs, there lived an elderly couple, John and Alice Mackey, who had already been tenants for many years.

John Mackey had a “yes” face, which – I imagine – must have put many people at ease over the span of his years. His features were soft and kind; and, his thinning white hair, frame-less glasses, and understated mustache all contributed to his grandfatherly countenance. He was hard of hearing, walked with a Walter Brennanesque limp, and always sported a simple wooden cane. I came to love him dearly.

John was a huge Red Sox fan whose history with the team could be traced back almost to the local nine’s very beginning, around the turn of the last century. He had actually seen many of the greats of yesteryear – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, etc. – ply their craft; and, he had a storytelling gift that brought their exploits to life again for me, a budding fan.

I was not conscious of this at the time, but I now understand that John must have recognized the void in my life. And, in his own quiet and generous way, he tried to fill it. Consequently, many summer days of my childhood found me at Fenway Park with him.

Daytime baseball was common then, and crowds were nothing like they are today; so, John would buy us inexpensive tickets, and we’d gradually move to vacant seats in our favorite location, the grandstands behind first base.

Those games were a baseball immersion experience for me. I’d watch Yaz (Carl Yastrzemski), Boomer (George Scott), Rico (Petrocelli), and the other stars of the day playing on the field, and, between innings, I’d listen in rapt attention to tales of Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, Cy Young, and so many others. What a gift!

Around the sixth or seventh inning, John would reach into the paper bag he’d carried into the park and proclaim: “I have a surprise for you.” Then, he’d hand me a home-made egg salad sandwich, cut diagonally and carefully wrapped in wax paper. Even though the gesture was far from a surprise, and despite the fact that I was not at all a fan of egg salad, it was a part of our routine – our relationship – that I really came to depend upon. “Grandfathers” are thoughtful like that.

As traveling became more difficult for him, John and I would sometimes watch baseball games together on his television. We both missed the ambiance of the ballpark, but it was still a privilege to be in his presence.

Baseball got into my blood largely through John Mackey’s influence. My continuing love of the Red Sox is, at least in part, the legacy of that very good man’s kindness to this little boy.

Today, my wife and I own that same two-family house purchased by my parents in the mid-sixties. And, we live in the space once occupied by John and Alice. I think of him (and them) often… and smile.

Heroes often disappoint when their true character is revealed. John’s true character is precisely what made him my hero.

To this day, my preferred seats at Fenway are the grandstands behind first base.

The Other Son

One day, I was speaking with a heartbroken father about the death of his son. Tears came to his eyes as he spoke of the boy’s life and accomplishments, of which he was rightly proud.

I listened carefully and with sadness.

After a time, the man also spoke of his other son, whose life had comprised one struggle after another. It was obvious to me that this older boy had been a disappointment to his father.

At one point, the man paused, looked away, and softly but clearly said something quite disturbing.

“The wrong son died.”

While I still felt compassion for this man’s terrible loss, my heart really ached for his surviving son.

How difficult it must be to live as the one who, in his father’s eyes, is expendable.

(God’s) Providence…

 

Seemingly, little had changed in the old neighborhood, and the sentimentalist in me felt appropriately gratified. Employing a light touch on the gas pedal, I drank in familiar sights and easily yielded to the flurry of tender memories.

Wyndham Avenue was just ahead.

As I turned the corner and saw that marvelous old house – wherein Marianne’s and my young love had endured and deepened and in which our oldest child, Rachel, had taken her first steps and spoken her first words – I was unexpectedly confronted by a disquieting question. Would May still be there?

When we left Rhode Island, nearly a decade earlier, May was already in her late seventies. Sadly, we’d not been very good about keeping in touch.

Our final, somewhat hurried good-bye had been an emotional one. After our rented truck was fully loaded and our friends/”movers” had already embarked for my family’s new home back in Massachusetts, I hugged May and, while still embracing her, started to cry. In character, she scolded me and told me to pull myself together. Yes, May could be tough; but, there was no mistaking the sadness in her eyes that day.

May was a “God-send” to us! And I mean that quite literally.

In early 1984, Marianne and I discerned that my pursuit of a master’s degree in Religious Studies was the right direction for us. Of course, there were obstacles. We’d only been married for two years and were, frankly, broke. We were also expecting our first child and needed a stable home for her. An assistantship from Providence College (PC) that both covered my tuition and provided me with a part-time job on campus, along with a pledge of monthly financial help from members of our prayer community, addressed some of our financial concerns, but we still needed a good place to live while I studied.

The very first time we met May, she became our patroness. It was an unusually hot spring day, roughly a month before my two summer classes were to begin. We bundled Rachel, who was not quite two-months old, into our stifling car – base models did not come with air-conditioning back then – and set out for Providence. Our (unrealistic?) goal for the day was to find an acceptable apartment that we could afford; and, we couldn’t afford much.

When we arrived in the city, I suggested making the Religious Studies department on the PC campus our first stop. The Dean’s administrative assistant, a warm and friendly woman named Mary, welcomed us and asked why we were in town so early. We told her of our mission for the day, and she smiled. “You know,” she said, “there is an elderly woman who has rented to some of our students in the past. She hasn’t done so for a while, but it’s worth giving her a call.”

Mary said the woman’s name aloud, “May St. Angelo,” while reaching for the phone book. She quickly found the number and encouraged me to use the office phone to call. I did, and, without visiting a single realtor, we had an apartment to view.

May lived in a quiet, beautiful neighborhood only two blocks from the campus. Her sturdy old house was originally a two-family, but the attic had been converted into a legal apartment with two bedrooms, a good-sized kitchen, a living room, and a bath. It was perfect… and available.

We told May that we were very interested in the apartment and, sneaking a hopeful glance Marianne’s way, I asked about the rent. May’s response nearly floored us. She wanted only $180/month – an outrageously low figure even then. We told her on the spot that we’d like to take it, and she welcomed us as her new tenants.

Providence!

The day we moved in was one of those beautiful times when the hand of God was unmistakably at work. When our small caravan, with the rented truck at the head of the line, pulled up in front of the house, May came out to meet us. She looked tired and sad. “You’ll never guess what happened this morning,” she said. “My husband died.”

We had never met May’s husband, and I can’t recall exactly how we responded to this stunning news. I do remember, however, that – even in her grief – May looked lovingly at Rachel and gently brushed our daughter’s cheek with her fingers. At this moment of profound loss, God had delivered new life to May. Beginning that very first day, Rachel was a healing presence for this kind, dear woman, who had already been such a blessing to our family. Love was happening!

For the duration of our stay, May was to us a surrogate grandmother. We shared meals and long conversations; we got to know her siblings, as well as her son and daughter-in-law and their children; and we saw first-hand her charity, which happened without fanfare and which was often directed our way. At a time of real loneliness and need, May was both our friend and protector.

Providence indeed!

All those years later, it was a business meeting that brought me to Rhode Island. I finished a bit earlier than expected and decided to surprise May. I pulled up in front of the house with uncertainty. While climbing the front stairs, my fears were somewhat relieved when I saw her nameplate – St. Angelo – still fixed beneath the second floor doorbell. I rang the bell and waited. After a minute or so, I heard a familiar voice calling from the landing. “Who is it?” I sighed gratefully and turned the knob of the door, which was unlocked.

A few minutes into our visit, I heard an unfamiliar woman’s voice calling up from the front door. “May, are you okay?” May hollered back an invitation, and the woman came up the stairs. When she came in, she explained that she’d seen me, a stranger, enter the house, and she wanted to be sure that her friend was safe. I was pleased that May had such a caring neighbor; but, it was May’s response that really touched my heart. “Oh, there’s no need to worry. Steve is family.”

Erminia “May” St. Angelo went home to God on December 16, 1996. Our lives intersected for only a brief time, but hers is a treasured place in our family’s history.

I believe that God’s deliberate choice to work in and through people is ultimately one of life’s greatest blessings. In her own inimitable way, May revealed the face and heart of God to me.