At the assisted living facility I think he is charmed that his caretakers call him by his surname: Barry. He doesn’t correct them. They work for too little pay doing the noble job few of us would; emptying catheters, changing diapers, lifting ancient bodies from bed to wheelchair. All but a few are African American, Hispanic or have the sing-song accents of the Caribbean. There are few white Americans who work with him, and those who do seem limited. White American children are not born to this work; they dream more grandly for themselves.
Growing up he was called “Red”, a nod to the ginger hair that sat atop his lanky frame. He lived most of his life on Kingston Avenue in Providence, in the left side of a duplex on a tree-lined street with his Irish mother and sister’s, Rita and Louise. He was flanked in age by the girls. Uncle Joe Murphy lived there as well and became his role model when his own dad, my grandfather, died when “Red” was but 14 years old.
It’s hard to imagine, seeing him now, that at one time his adolescent companions called him “The Red Baron”. He shakes his head in practiced humility if I mention it. It is a sad shake of his still wonderful locks, completely white now. He dismisses it as though the image is too far gone. However, if I tease him in just the right way he laughs out loud and, with a tilt of the head, says “come to think of it, I was pretty good”. His weak, stiff, now flattened hands fly up as if to shoo the memory away.
In the hilly streets of Providence, Rhode Island known as the East Side, Red Barry was a legend on ice. At 6’4″, he loomed larger on skates. If legend is to be believed, he was known at every snow cleared pond within walking distance of Brown University. This is what teenagers did in the 1930’s and ’40’s; raced from their homes on winter weekend mornings with shovels in hand to clear the local pond for a long day of skating. For The Red Baron and his friends, hockey was the sport of choice and he dominated, making his mark throughout the city and on the Hope High School varsity.
Providence, a quietly proud city, sits in the corridor between the historic grandeur of Boston and undeniable importance of New York. It is a microcosm of the two. In the mid-twentieth century, the city was defined by ethnocentric neighborhoods: Italian, Irish, Portuguese, French. The suburbs belonged to the Protestants, regardless of culture, with occasional pockets of rising Jewish economic success joining them.
While he was known as Red, he was also Bobby, as most Irish Catholic boys were called by the familiar variation of the formal. So Robert was Bobby as William was Billy, and then came Patty, Johnny, Danny, Teddy, and so on. When Uncle Bobby consents to share a memory of this time, I am struck by the boyish names of his childhood pals.
My knowledge of The Red Baron does not come from the man himself, his innate humility discourages self-aggrandizement. It comes from my own father, an Irish Catholic Billy, who crossed paths with Red during those years. They were the same age, though dad was a product of neighboring Pawtucket. The Red Baron’s reputation found its way to the ponds of my father’s childhood. It tickled me to hear my dad tell proud tales of his brother-in-law. Those stories framed my impression of that era as innocent and uncomplicated. A time when reputation was earned and spread through word of mouth, no social media required.
There are days with Uncle Bobby when his mind seems as exhausted as his body; when he can’t talk about medical issues, finances or the presidential election which he follows voraciously. The room I visit daily is home to him now, but lacks the warmth of that duplex on Kingston Avenue, as it is littered with medical equipment and the lingering odor of the incontinent elderly.
There is an upholstered chair that sits four feet from him on the diagonal. It is my seat as he rarely has other visitors. His interactions outside of me are almost entirely with the overworked nurses aides who call him “Barry”. On days when he is too mentally exhausted to engage in our standard conversation, I gently prod him to reminisce. Some days I am lucky and his blue eyes will engage for a bit, he’ll clear his raspy throat and give me his standard preface, “I’m tired and don’t want to get too wound up, so I won’t say much.” Then it comes in full description; the pond, the sticks, the puck, the snow, his pals and the day he received an invitation to try out for the 1940 Olympics in Japan. In these moments I find “Red Barry” in Uncle Bobby. On these days, I forget that the work of being there for him is hard because we escape together to a time when he was whole and full of promise.
Joni Mitchell once sang of “A river I can skate away on”. I wish I could give that to Uncle Bobby now; a frozen river, hockey skates, sinewy muscles and the energy of youth.
Red Barry did make it across the Pacific Ocean, but not to Tokyo and not for sport. That is a story for another day.