Tag Archives: Kindness

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!

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.

(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.