Tag Archives: friendship

The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Two Simple Words

I am a very sentimental person, and my children often tease me good-naturedly about how easily I can be moved to tears. Honestly, it doesn’t take much, which is why I surprised even myself earlier this year when my old high school was torn down. I passed by the scene during various stages of its demolition but remained dry-eyed and unmoved.

My high school years were complicated and difficult ones both at home and at school. Of course, not all of the memories are painful – far from it. I had good friends, and we shared some experiences I still treasure; but, there was also, throughout that awkward stage of life, an undercurrent of loneliness and uncertainty with which I contended in private. I’m guessing that some who read this essay will understand and relate more so than others.

Thinking back, ninth grade was a particularly intimidating experience. For the previous eight years, I had been in school with the same group of students. We’d grown up together; and, though there were certainly cliques in our Catholic school, they weren’t of the ferocious variety. So, an insecure person like me could still feel some sense of belonging, even among the cooler kids. In ninth grade, however, the playing field changed altogether.

—–

One morning, a few years back, I was praying and asking God for the grace to know God’s presence in my life. Quite unexpectedly, a flood of familiar human faces came to mind, including some I’d not thought about for years. And, I found myself basking in memories of God’s mediated love.

I thought of relatives, friends, teachers, and role models who had made a real difference in my life… people like my little league manager, Mr. Chiulli, who was determined to teach me not to bail out of the batter’s box when a pitch came inside. This good and dignified man actually sprawled face-down in the dirt behind me to hold my ankles in place during batting practice. (His noble plan back-fired, however, when I was hit by a pitch because I couldn’t move my ankles to get out of the way.)

That morning in prayer, I also thought of Domenic Marino…

—–

My former parochial school companions each handled the transition to public high school in his/her own way. In our new social environment, many remained my steady friends while others, perhaps under the weight of peer pressure, strategically distanced themselves. A handful started passing right by me in the halls as if I’d become invisible over the summer. Honestly, that hurt.

One of my old classmates, Domenic, seemed to handle the change with particular grace. Handsome, confident, charismatic, and blessed with great athleticism, he would soon become the quarterback of the high school football team and a leader among his/our peers.

—–

Gym class strikes fear in the hearts of many high school students. Slow to mature physically, I found gym a particular trial. If we were playing softball or whiffle ball, I could hold my own because I was a pretty good hitter. (Thank you, Mr. Chiulli!) Otherwise though, all bets were off.

At the top of the hierarchy of horrors was the dreaded obstacle course. Diabolically conceived, the obstacle course included an array of activities – e.g., climbing a rope to the ceiling of the gym, sinking a basketball shot, and maneuvering through various gymnastics apparatus – designed to showcase athletic ineptitude. That each student was expected to perform this feat alone (in front of everyone) and in a race against the clock only compounded the potential shame.

Just a notch below the obstacle course, for me at least, was any activity related to track and field, especially a long footrace. I was a very fast runner but only for short distances. I have asthma that was rather severe in my younger days; consequently, any race beyond a 50-yard dash would quickly leave me gasping for breath at the back of the pack.

One day, my ninth grade gym teacher announced that class would be held that day on the track around the perimeter of the football field. My heart sank. We’d be racing in small groups, running a complete lap around the track. If memory serves, I believe the distance was 440 yards.

When my name was called, I reluctantly took my place in one of the lanes. One of those running with me – I’ll call him Bill – was among the more popular students in our class. Although a decent athlete, the length of the race would prove a challenge for him as well since he was rather stockily built.

When the gym teacher yelled “Go,” I held my own only for a few seconds. Then, decidedly short of breath, I began to lag behind. Bill did too.

The race seemed interminable. By the halfway point, my lungs were burning and my legs felt like lead. I seriously considered stopping but feared the reaction from the teacher… and my peers. Bill was struggling too; but, we both kept going.

At one point, after the others in the race had completed the course, I began to hear our classmates both laughing and hollering their support for Bill. In retrospect, that was perhaps my most conspicuously lonely experience in high school.

As we lumbered neck-and-neck around the final turn, one lone, loud voice suddenly called out support for me. “You can beat him, Steve! Come on! You can beat him!” I looked up and saw Domenic cheering me on from the sidelines. His encouragement meant more to me than I can express.

No, I didn’t win the race, but I did finish just a few steps ahead of Bill. It was my Rocky moment. Domenic smiled and nodded.

—–

Various labels – geek, nerd, or misfit – might aptly be used to describe my high school persona. One important person, however, used different words – two simple words.

Once, I met Domenic in the hallway between classes. As we walked together, a student I didn’t know, who was going in the opposite direction, asked him in a tone intended to diminish me, “Hey, Domenic, who’s that you’re walking with?” Without hesitation, he decisively replied, “My friend!”

—–

I haven’t seen Domenic in many years. And, he may have no memory of his gestures of kindness and support that meant so much to me at that vulnerable time of life; but, he will always live in my mind and heart as an instrument of God’s love… as one of my heroes… and, as my friend.

—–

We meet so many good people in our day-to-day lives, often never knowing if their lungs are burning, their legs are heavy, and they’re questioning whether or not they’ll finish the race.

What an awesome opportunity it is to be a friend!

(God’s) Providence…

(For privacy’s sake, some names have been changed in this true story. The actual names – and actual people – remain in my memory and in my heart – and always will.)

—–

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 Minnie still be there?

When we left Rhode Island, nearly a decade earlier, Minnie 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 Minnie and, while still embracing her, started to cry. In character, she scolded me and told me to pull myself together. Yes, Minnie could be tough; but, there was no mistaking the sadness in her eyes that day.

Minnie 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 Minnie, 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 Belcher, 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, “Minnie DeFranco,” 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.

Minnie 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 Minnie that we were very interested in the apartment and, sneaking a hopeful glance Marianne’s way, I asked about the rent. Minnie’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, Minnie 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 Minnie’s husband, and I can’t recall exactly how we responded to this stunning news. I do remember, however, that – even in her grief – Minnie 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 Minnie. 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, Minnie 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, Minnie 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 Minnie. 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 – DeFranco – 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. “Minnie, are you okay?” Minnie 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 Minnie had such a caring neighbor; but, it was Minnie’s response that really touched my heart. “Oh, there’s no need to worry. Steve is family.”

Erminia “Minnie” DeFranco went home 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, Minnie revealed the face and heart of God to me. And, trust me, God’s face and heart are so very kind.

“… Make Way for Other Toys”

No matter my age, the waning days of August – and, therefore, summer – always bring to mind Puff the Magic Dragon and his once-great friend, little Jackie Paper.

When our children were small, Puff was often their bedtime song of choice. They never knew, as we laughed, danced, and sang together, about the strong connection their Dad felt with this song, which is a metaphor for the end of childhood.

“Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sails…”

As a boy, I had three very best friends: Paul, Philip, and Evans. There were certainly others, good friends all, but these three were special. From ages eight to fourteen (and much longer with Paul), we were inseparable, at least during the summer.

Summer days began early and ended as late as the grown-ups in our lives would allow. Baseball was our first fascination, but there was also ample space made for kickball, bike chases, lunches at the local sub shop, swimming, bowling, and all other activities comprising the “stuff” of childhood.  We had great, uncomplicated fun.

“A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…”

My memory may be a bit fuzzy, but I believe I was ten when the disturbing news came that Evans would be moving away – rather far away.

He and his family had been living on the bottom floor of a two-family house owned by Evans’ grandmother, who lived upstairs.  His grandmother chose to remain in our neighborhood, but the rest of the family would be moving out of state.

When Evans broke the news, our sadness was mitigated by his promise – supported by his parents – that he’d be spending summers with his grandmother… and, therefore, with us.

Evans proved good on his word; and, for the next several years, summer was redefined as the time between Evans’ arrival (always by early July) and his departure (in mid- to late August).

“One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more…”

Each return was a time of genuine anticipation and joy. Between visits, however, life happened.

As time passed, Evans’ connections at home and the lure to remain there year-round naturally grew stronger. And so, a summer eventually came when Evans opted to not to come.

“Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys…”

The following summer, Evans, who had recently gotten his driver’s license, surprised us by driving to Massachusetts himself. (His father had always driven him previously.) His car was a brand new Datsun 240Z.

Evans’ visit was a short one, just a few days; and, while there, he kept mentioning how much he missed his girlfriend back home. I understood.

There were no baseball games; and, throughout his visit, my bicycle remained idle and rusting in my parent’s garage. In a few short years, the world had changed so very much.

I saw and spoke with Evans a few more times between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties, but it’s now been nearly thirty years since I last heard my dear friend’s voice.

I’m so very sentimental! For me, childhood will always mean Paul, Philip, and Evans… my little Jackie Paper.

I still love them all dearly. I’ll always cherish the times we “went to play along the cherry lane.” And, whenever I reminisce, I’m sure that I’ll find myself wiping off the “green scales” trickling down my cheeks.

A Special Childhood Memory

There is a single moment from my childhood that I uniquely cherish, a moment against which all subsequent experiences of happiness have instinctively been measured.

It was a morning in early summer, and I had slept in. I was, perhaps, nine or ten, and life’s complications had yet to dawn on me. So, it was easy to love… God, family, and friends.

I wish I could describe the otherworldly peace I felt while lying there in bed. I was awake and refreshed but felt no compulsion to move. Instead, I was fully content to watch the graceful dance of the curtains and to drink in the sounds and scents of the young day.

After a time, the doorbell rang, and I recognized my mother’s footsteps in response. When she opened the door, I could clearly hear the conversation that ensued.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dalton. Can Steve come out?” It was Philip, one of my closest childhood friends. He was always polite.

“He’s not up yet, Phil, but I’ll see if he’s awake.”

I bounded out of bed. Time to play!

Thereafter, the blessed memory fades.

“Corporations Move On”

Not too long ago, I visited the website of one of my former employers. I spent nearly twelve years of my life with that organization as a member of the management team; and, I hope that I made some small contributions during that time.

While on the website, just out of curiosity, I searched under my name and found just two rather obscure references. I had to smile.

I don’t say this to indict my former employer. In fact, I still believe it to be a very noble company, one that I am proud to have served.

I guess my point is that corporations move on. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as irreplaceable in our jobs, it really isn’t true.

So, what lesson do I take from this?

Honestly, it’s the people that matter.

I may be a distant memory to the “organization,” but there are still people from that organization whom I consider very dear friends.

By all means, work hard for your employer; but, take special care of the people you meet on the job.

Memories are made of this!