Tag Archives: Memories

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.

Bonding with a Beloved (Dead) Stranger

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The memory is vague, almost dream-like. My paternal grandfather, who died in 1960 when I was still a toddler, is atop a fight of stairs in the family home and speaking with my father, who is with me at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t describe my Grandpa’s features except to say that he was an old man, nor can I recall anything distinctive about his voice or manner. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I can trust my recollection at all. I know, it’s not much to go on; but, somehow, it’s proven to be enough. That one obscure memory has always served as my relational touchstone with my father’s father, a foundation upon which to build.

For most of my life, I had no such connection with my maternal grandfather.

During the opening credits of Rocky Balboa, the 2006 entry in the “Rocky” film series, there is a touching scene wherein the aging title character visits the gravesite of his beloved wife, Adrian. While brother-in-law Pauly awkwardly watches and waits, Rocky sits on a folding chair in quiet communion with his departed bride.

When he’s ready to leave, Rocky tenderly kisses the top of the headstone as if it were Adrian’s soft, blushing cheek. Then, he collapses his chair and returns it to its storage place in the sturdy branches of a nearby tree. The message is clear. Rocky visits often; and, the audience feels the good man’s pain.

Intentionally or not, this scene models behavior that contemporary grief counselors might describe as an “enduring bond,” i.e., a psychological and/or spiritual relationship that continues even beyond death.

While love is typically the defining characteristic of such bonds, other sentiments can certainly be involved as well. It is not unusual, for example, for someone to come to a gravesite bearing unresolved anger, regrets, a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, or countless other all-too-human emotions.

Indeed, graves can be complicated places.

Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why I seldom visit graves, even of people I’ve dearly loved. Knowledge that the bodily remains (the “earthen vessel”) of a loved one lie beneath my feet affords me neither inspiration nor consolation. By faith, I believe the person I cared for is no longer there. Rather, she/he is now in the hands of a loving God. That considered, I’m far more likely to work on my “enduring bonds” behind closed doors during prayer. It is there, rather than in the cemetery, where I’ve had some of my most satisfying “conversations” with departed relatives.

There is, however, one grave that tugs at my heart like no other.

John J. Christopher, my mother’s “Papa,” died when he was my age, 58, in 1944, a terrible year for the family. I’ve shared previously about how little I know of my grandfather’s life and death. In fact, as I write these words, it occurs to me that I can’t ever recall even seeing his photograph. Whenever I’d question my Mom about my grandfather, she’d always seem hesitant to speak. Was it grief or something else that knotted her tongue? Judging by the sensitive tone her voice assumed whenever she did speak of him, it was clear that her Papa held a special – albeit, a hidden – place in her heart.

Over the years, I’ve found myself a number of times pondering unanswered questions in front of my grandfather’s grave, a resting place he shares with his oldest child, Mary, my aunt, who pre-deceased him in 1944.

So, who was this man? What were his treasures? Did he believe in God? Did he make friends easily? What made him smile, laugh, cry? Did he have a hobby? What burdens did he carry? What were his gifts? His regrets? His foibles? Did he pray? Was he a dreamer? What were his politics? Was he satisfied with his life? Was my grandmother his first love? Did he love her to the end? Was he always faithful? What thoughts filled his mind in quiet moments… and, in his final moments? What were his fears? His temptations? Who were his heroes? How did he die? And, more importantly, what guided how he lived?

My Mom was the last surviving member of her first family. When she passed in March of last year, it meant that all those who had been closest to my grandfather were now gone. So too, I imagined, was any hope I had of finding answers to my myriad questions concerning this stranger whose blood I share.

While going through my Mom’s things shortly after her death, my wife Marianne and I came upon a diary my Mom had kept in 1940 when she was 13 years old. I’d never known of the diary’s existence and couldn’t resist immediately exploring it’s pages, which were a genuine revelation to me. Marianne, ever-gracious (and knowing me only too well), gave me a pass on further sorting that day.

Just holding the book stirred my emotions. Seventy-five years earlier, my Mom recorded the highlights of her adolescent life in its pages, beginning each entry with “Dear Diary” and concluding with “Love Eleanor.”

The textured cover of the book bore the words National Surety Corporation 1940, and the title page read National Surety Diary 1940. A handwritten note on that title page explained that the diary had been: “Given to me from Johnny as a Christmas present.” Johnny was my Mom’s older (and only) brother. Just a few years later, in 1944, he would be horribly wounded by a German soldier during ground fighting in Sicily. He’d be in recovery for a long time, but he’d live and eventually return home.

My Mom wrote faithfully in her diary through May 27th of 1940. Then, for whatever reason, her daily entries abruptly ceased. Mostly blank pages followed; however, there were a handful of later entries, including a few dating from 1949 and 1951.

There were many gems to discover in the diary’s pages, including my Mom’s first (recorded) encounter with my father on Thursday, May 2nd. That entry reads as follows: “Then Robert Dalton called me by my first name and then hit me over the head with a magazine. It seemed so nice.” Knowing the pain that awaited them later in life made this sweet passage particularly poignant for me.

I won’t delve into the specifics of my Mom’s early adolescence beyond these few observations. At age 13, she was a bit boy-crazy and seems to have prompted innocent flirtations (e.g., the magazine on the head, above) from more that a few young suitors. She struggled in a couple of her subjects at school, was somewhat fashion-conscious, and was prone to being “kicked out” of the public library. She and her older sister, Edna, were inseparable, but they also had strong arguments, a characteristic they would carry into old age. My Mom’s allowance at the time was $0.30/week, and she often used the money to go to the movies with her friends. She felt things deeply. In short, she was a typical teenage girl of her time.

As these previously unexplored aspects of my mother’s life unfolded with the turning of each cherished page, I was too taken with her story to anticipate what was coming; but, my Mom was about to introduce me to my grandfather.

Mystery sometimes begets romanticized notions; but, any idealized images I’d subconsciously formed about my grandfather were quickly humanized by my mother’s pen. In all, there were twelve entries in the diary that mentioned my grandfather. Some were just brief references, but a precious few were more revealing.

Rather than recount all of the details, I will instead summarize the still thin portrait of my grandfather that emerged for me from the diary. Some general aspects of his life, e.g., that he once worked for a railroad and that there was some tension between him and my grandmother, were not a total surprise. The insights I gleaned about his temperament and character, however, were altogether new and satisfying. I was also surprised and saddened by the intensity of the rift between my grandparents.

John J. Christopher was an emotional man whose identity was closely tied to his work. For twenty-five years, he was employed by the narrow gauge railroad that operated in his community. After experiencing a serious drop in ridership, the railroad shut down on January 27, 1940. My Mom’s diary entries on that fateful day and the next both speak of her Papa’s constant tears at the loss of his job. “He cried into five hankies. Ah diary, it was so sad.” At one point, she also recounts him calling out hysterically: “It’s gone!” His children gathered around to console him in his grief. That was very heartening to read.

My grandfather seems to have had a strong sense of responsibility regarding his family. As much as the job loss devastated him, he was quick to search out employment and apparently found a new position in less than two months. My mother mentions both a new job and the start date, but she provides no further details about either the employer or her father’s adjustment to his new work.

As mentioned, the relationship between my grandparents was strained, perhaps torturously so. Six of the twelve diary entries that mention my grandfather reference either their fights or their complete lack of communication. No motive for their discord is ever mentioned, but the impact upon my Mom and her siblings appears to have been quite severe. At one point, my Mom reports that her oldest sisters, Mary and Barbara, had devised a plan to save their money and move out of the house with all three of their younger siblings (Johnny, Edna, and my mother) due to the fighting. That plan, at least during the period covered by the diary, was never carried out.

Alcohol is mentioned in passing once, but the reference, as I see it, is open to interpretation. Exactly one week after the traumatic loss of his railroad job, my Mom wrote: “Papa is very good lately. Hasn’t drank any liquor. He used to all the time.” Can her last sentence be taken literally, or did she mean “all the time…” since losing his job? I will likely never know.

Finally, despite the stress in his marriage and his devastating work situation, my grandfather appears to have had a strong relationship with his children. As noted, they gathered around to console him after his job loss. Also, when my Mom was laid up for two weeks with a terrible sore throat, she wrote of how kind he was to her during the illness. And, he apparently tried to involve his children in activities around their home. My Mom reports affectionately, for example, about spending a Saturday morning painting woodwork with her Papa.

This last point evokes a beautiful picture in my mind, a picture that, like the image of my paternal grandfather atop the stairs, can serve as a foundation for an “enduring bond.”

My Mom’s diary doesn’t come close to answering all of my questions about my grandfather. Still, it provides marvelous insights I’d never had before about both him and my mother herself. I consider it one final, loving gift passed from mother to son.

I only wish she’d written much more.

P.S. Writing is difficult. One reason I take up the pen (or, the keyboard) is to provide future generations in my family with an understanding of who I was and what I valued. Perhaps it won’t matter to anyone. Then again, if one of my grandparents or great-grandparents had shared something of her/his heart in writing, I would treasure it beyond measure. By the way, I also hope that my experiences might strike a familiar chord within you and somehow prove to be a blessing in your life. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my reflections.

Believing in Santa

Did you ever have a “God moment?” Even if you’re not a believer, have you ever experienced a surprising insight, a sudden drawing back of the veil, that caused you to stop whatever you were doing simply to ponder what you’d just seen, heard, or felt in your heart? I’ve had many.

Once, for example, I had traveled to the Boston Public Library for a meeting. Since I’d arrived a bit early, I spent a few minutes people-watching in the lobby. An assortment of interesting characters passed by, but my attention was especially drawn to a class of middle-schoolers, who had come for a library tour.

The social dynamic among the students was eerily familiar. Some were the cool kids, comfortable being the center of attention, which they commanded by their antics. Others, the clear majority, seemed indifferent to their surroundings. They conversed in small clusters while waiting for the tour to begin. (This was before the age of the ubiquitous cell phone.) Finally, there were those bringing up the rear. I’ll affectionately call them the misfits. They generally appeared ill-at-ease and eager just to get beyond this ordeal. I understood.

As I watched, I felt compassion for this latter group, whose members quite likely endured taunts and trials for being perceived as different or for failing to measure up to some unjust standard. Then, however, I noticed something important. Yes, the misfits were segregated somewhat from the larger group, perhaps by choice; however, amongst themselves, they genuinely cared for each other. Maybe they weren’t as audacious as their more confident peers, but they talked, goofed around, and laughed together. They shared a bond, a communion of souls. It’s difficult to explain, but that awareness was startlingly joyful for me. In that unexpected moment of clarity – a “God moment” – I appreciated anew the wonderful blessing of comradery.

On another occasion, my wife Marianne and I were in our stateroom awaiting the launch of a Caribbean cruise. Shortly before the scheduled departure, the ship’s captain made an announcement that we’d be leaving late due to a mechanical problem. Since our balcony overlooked the pier, we were able to witness some of the feverish activity below as cruise line personnel scrambled to resolve the unnamed issue. It looked like exhausting work.

We finally set sail about three hours late, and I watched the departure from our balcony. As we exited the ship’s berth and crept toward the open ocean, I saw three workmen gathered at the far end of the pier. Most likely, they’d been forced to work overtime and were quite tired. Still, they lingered, enjoying each other’s company. The last sound I heard from those men was a hearty, shared laugh. It seemed to speak directly to my soul about the healing power of friendship.

Right there, I lifted up a prayer of thanksgiving… under the stars, on the Dolphin Deck.

—–

I’ve noticed that, on social media sites, some atheists mockingly equate belief in God with belief in Santa Claus. That always makes me smile.

I learned the truth about Santa on Christmas Eve when I was only five years old; and, for a few hours, it felt as if all the magic had drained from my world. Then, I had a “God moment” – perhaps my first (though I doubt that) – and learned what C.S. Lewis might have called a deeper magic.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I offer this wee bit of context.

Exactly one year earlier, when I was four, I had a Santa Claus nightlight. It plugged into the outlet, just below pillow level, behind the headboard of my first big-boy bed. And, if I were frightened during the night, one quick look at Santa’s backlit visage, with rosy cheeks and kind, smiling eyes, was all I needed.

“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

How thoroughly wonderful that, with all of the many children in the world, Santa cared so much for me. My devotion was real, and it reached its peak on that long-ago Christmas Eve.

Alongside the foot of my bed, there was a drafty old window, which routinely frosted over during the winter months. By late December, the frost was already thick enough to obscure the night sky.

I was restless and far too excited to sleep; but, it was the promise of presence rather than presents that denied me slumber. Santa Claus would soon be near; and, thinking back, it felt as though hope itself, rather than blood, was coursing through my veins. Eventually, after many adoring glances at my nightlight failed to satisfy, I pulled off my covers and made for the window.

I haven’t many crystal clear memories from early childhood, but that night is an exception. My big sister, Christine, who shared the room with me, asked what I was doing. “Watching for Santa,” I replied matter-of-factly, while scratching out an icy peephole with my thumbnail.

Through that tiny portal, I expectantly searched the dark sky for a sign. Every twinkle, every shadow passing in front of the moon, quickened my pulse. I couldn’t have identified it at the time, but this was, I’m now convinced, an early experience of desire for the Transcendent.

—–

That moment apparently left a profound impression. Even today, when I go to my prayer room hoping to encounter the un-seeable One, I can almost feel a ribbon of frost melting beneath my thumbnail.

—–

Despite a valiant effort, my four-year old self never did see Santa that night. I ultimately returned to bed and fell asleep. While I’m sure it was wonderful, I have no memory of Christmas morning that year or of the presents under the tree. The next year, however, would be quite different.

—–

Months passed, and Christmas Eve arrived again.

Just before bedtime, Christine, who would turn ten the next morning, pulled me aside and said that she and my Mom “had something important to tell me.” She had a strange, sad expression on her face, and I sensed something was wrong.

They both knew of my sensitivity, and it must have been quite difficult for them to bear such crushing news. I don’t remember the precise words they used, but I do recall their reason for telling me on that particular night. Though I hadn’t known about it, our family had been struggling financially. Consequently, Christmas was going to be lean that year – just two gifts per child.

My Mom had decided it would be better to tell me the truth the night before than to have me wake up the next morning thinking I’d somehow disappointed Santa during the previous year. Today, I marvel at her concern. That night, however, I was too brokenhearted to think.

I cried… and, so did my Mom.

Grieving is hard work for a little boy, especially on Christmas Eve. I still had my Santa Claus nightlight, but looking at it only magnified my sadness.

That night, the frost on my window remained undisturbed.

—–

On Christmas morning, I lingered awake in bed. The birthday girl, my very closest friend, came over to encourage me.

“Come on. Let’s go see.”

“Okay,” I replied, but I was still slow to move.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not that Santa isn’t real. He’s just not who you thought he was.“

—–

Two gifts awaited me under (and beside) the tree. And, honestly, of all the presents on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, they are the only two I can still recall. One was a paint-by-numbers kit with a special kind of glittery paint. The other took my breath away. It was my first and only childhood bicycle, a 24-inch Columbia that I cherished immediately. Was it my imagination, or did it really glow?

No other conclusion was possible. I must have been a very good boy that year!

I looked across the room at Santa’s now smiling face.

She knows when you are sleeping. She knows when you’re awake.”

“God moments!”

—–

Philosophical proofs of God’s existence make my head spin. Try as I might, I just can’t follow the arguments; and, I’m honestly not edified by them. I don’t say this to disparage intellectuals, whom I greatly admire. It’s just that, if the world is comprised of thinking people and feeling people, I’m a card-carrying member of the latter group. In Myers-Briggs typology, I’m classified as an INFJ, which is a fancy way of saying that I lead with my heart.

My “proof” of God isn’t found in logic, reason, or even the theology I so dearly love. Rather, it’s found in the comradery of misfits, in laughter at the end of the pier, in frosty peepholes, and in Santa’s smiles and tender tears.

Yes, I still believe!

Forever in My Heart

When I was a little boy, I forced myself to stay awake one night after being convinced by my big sister that a spaceship would soon be coming to pick me up. Apparently, a monumental intergalactic war was taking place, and my help was desperately needed if the good guys were to prevail. In the morning, Christine had quite a chuckle.

And then, there was the “May Procession” incident.

In the 1960s, our (Catholic) parish held an event every May honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. There was always band music, a parade through the nearby streets of the town, and a crowning of Mary’s statue with a wreath of flowers.

“O Mary, we crown Thee with blossoms today, Queen of the angels, Queen of the May…”

I remember it well.

Now, I look back on those events with great fondness and admiration; however, on one unusually hot “May Procession” day, this diminutive (yet stubborn) parochial school student didn’t want to march. My mother’s pleas fell on deaf ears; so, her secret weapon – Christine – was deployed.

My big sister took me aside, saying that she had something really special to show me. In the palm of her hand, she displayed two thick, but otherwise ordinary, rubber bands.

“Do you know what these are, Stephen?” she asked, before answering her own question. “These are very special rubber bands, the kind that baseball players like Mickey Mantle use to hold up their socks. I’ll give them to you if you march in the procession.”

Resistance was futile. Of course, I marched. Christine could always convince me.

When I was seven, my parents purchased our first dog, a smart, frisky miniature poodle. One morning, the front door was accidentally left ajar and our new puppy ran outside. Christine, still in her pajamas, bolted out the door to catch her. I watched out the window as passers-by laughed at the sight. I teased her about that for years… and, I wish I could tease her still.

In prayer this morning, I suddenly became aware that I’ve now lived longer without my big sister than with her. With that realization came tears, surprisingly ferocious tears, like those I cried on January 27th, 1985.

I’m not sure why the particular memories mentioned above came to mind today, but I treasure them all.

Christine was beautiful in every sense of the word. Phony space adventures aside, I’ve never known a kinder, more thoughtful, more faithful human being in all my years, and I’ve known a great many wonderful people.

I loved her so. And, you would have too. Everyone did.

—–

P.S. I’ve written previously about my sister in the essay Hearts and Treasures. If you’ve never done so, you might check out this entry: https://musingsamidthethorns.com/2013/08/21/hearts-and-treasures/. It speaks to the depth of her character.

 

 

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.

“… 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.