My Immigrant Experience…

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It’s not my thing to take on the topical.  I am a storyteller, an observer of my own space and hope that my narrative resonates with others.  A confluence of experiences this month urges me to speak to something topical.  I will give my story-telling best to the effort.

My condominium is spacious.  It is also dated.  For the past two years, it has reflected my harried, not quite right life.  Reimagining my space seemed an important step in reimagining my life.  And so, I began slowly.  Sage green was the interior color of choice about fifteen years ago.  The previous owners of my condo seized the trend and I decorated accordingly when I moved in 3.5 years ago.  Sage green was getting on my nerves nearly as much as the walnut woodwork which surrounded it.  I have a lovely staircase which leads to three beautiful windows, their light obliterated by equally dated vertical blinds in a faux light brown tweed.

Three years ago I tackled the master bedroom myself – and doesn’t it always seem a good idea to do the painting yourself?  Halfway through my forearm ached, and the biblical Joseph’s coat had nothing on my painting jeans. The light brown with a hint of gold never quite thrilled me.

I treated myself to professional painters this time and they came by van, led by their boss,  a local friend of the Italian Catholic variety.  The workers themselves were Spanish speaking Guatemalan’s, Ecuadorians, and Mexican’s. They did the real work of painting my large family room, grand stairway, upstairs hallway, and bedroom.  Immigrants, each one. perhaps I should whisper, “I’m not quite sure if they were all legal.”

For four days, I was surrounded by drop clothes, ladders, and cans of paint.  My friendly Labrador loved the company and picked up the new shades of gray walls and white woodwork on his tail, ears, and whiskers while accepting endless affection from each painter. My typical background soundtrack is Broadway, but suddenly the sounds in my house had a salsa beat and lyrics foreign to my non-Spanish-speaking ears. For four days, my home was filled with light, laughter, and chaos.  The six immigrant workers were focused, meticulous, and happy. Their interactions with each other were easy and loving, like a band of brothers.   Furniture was hidden by plastic and moved to the center of the rooms and I had nowhere to sit, but it didn’t matter to me.  These worker bees were worth every penny, not just for their good work, but the happy spirit they brought with them.

In an effort to really make some changes, I had offered up a heavy dark wood desk for free on a tag sale site.  It was scooped up quickly and when the new owner arrived to haul it away, the two of us tried to move it. Our effort was pathetic. With lightning speed, two of the workers put down their brushes and bullied the oversized thing right into the back of her car.  She tried to slip them a tip, which they declined with humble smiles.

There is a certain presidential candidate who, had he known the scene in my condo, might have tried to erect a wall around it.

That leads me to my other place of immigrant interaction.  Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the same gas station several times a week.  Often, just for a quick diet coke, or emergency can of dog food.  There are two workers there who know I am a regular.  The first, a twenty-something Indian girl named Suman, studies at the register when the place is quiet.  Over time she has taken to calling me “beautiful lady”, and that has led to sharing bits and pieces of our lives.  She discovered that I am a College Counselor, and often peppers me with questions about her goal of becoming a nurse.  Suman is hungry to improve her lot and achieve beyond her current station.  I found out recently that she has taken a second job at a local deli.  Her work ethic astounds me. Suman’s hours are long, her dreams for herself imbued with enviable hope.

Jahir is my other gas station friend.  When I walk in, I am always greeted with a sunny, “Hello, Ellen.  How are you today?”  If I have been away, he might say, “I’ve missed you, where have you been?”   He is articulate, his English lyrical.  He often arrives at the gas station around 5 am, though I might not roll in until mid-morning.  I have never known him to lack energy or civility.  His heritage was not immediately clear to me.  It did not matter and I did not ask. On one occasion I overheard him being teased by a local young man.  An American young man, who was not kind, though he thought he was clever. He found his fun in Islamic and Muslim references.  Jahir took it in his stride, offering a vague nod and half smile.  When the young man left, I asked him, “Jahir, is that hard for you?”  He smiled broadly, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. It’s Americans, no harm.”  I have since discovered that Jahir is Tibetan, a Buddhist.  Hmmm…, may I please have an ounce of his peace and restraint?

Last week, I saw him reading something at the counter and asked about it.  It was a Christian Pamphlet, which mused about the need for Americans to get back to Church.  While explaining the content, Jahir paused, and said, “I don’t know about that, but I do wonder why everyone in this country seems so angry?”  There was no aggression in his question, not an ounce of judgment or implied criticism.  Only thoughtfulness.  I replied, “I wonder the same thing, too.”

I am sure that Suman and Jahir are legal.  I know that someday they will find work better suited to their ethic and intellect.

I want them to meet my other immigrant friend.

Today, Andrei, the Russian I so often refer to in this space, will officially become an American Citizen.  It has been 25 years since he arrived here from the then Soviet Union.  Beyond his dynamic persona, Andrei is one of the smartest men I know.  He speaks four languages and was a linguist and teacher in Russia, after serving in the Army.  Twenty-Five years ago, when he decided to stay, he began the arduous climb so many immigrants must. I have never, not once, heard him complain about work.  I hear Americans complain about work all the time.  If I was punching someone’s clock, it’s likely I would be complaining, too.

I will not be present for Andrei’s ceremony.  He would like to do it as he came to it, alone.  Someone has given him an American flag for his lapel, which he will pin on his freshly cleaned blazer.  Directly after his induction as a citizen, he will register to vote.  I can see him now, in my mind’s eye; shoulders straight, serious of purpose, proud that he has made this great country his own through grit and determination. I am so very proud of my Russian friend.

I am out of my depth in answers to regulating immigration so that it works for the benefit of this nation. I don’t pretend that my opinion really matters at all. All I know is that the immigrants with whom I am familiar are an inspiration and inform my life in a very positive way. I also know, that unless we carry Native American Blood, we are all of immigrant stock.  Perhaps a good thing to remember when the rhetoric gets hot.

My Wednesday Place…

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it.  And so I did, one winter Wednesday night ten months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and I had nothing in me that resembled mindfulness.  Getting through without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a wonderful, weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy, tall chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side is a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of 30 somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple;  like apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp Autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana, too, does not disappoint in commitment.  A mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in Memorium  They came, and I traded my Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by my friend’s patience for stories of him.  Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday night place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Ten months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

High Loft

 

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It has been ten years of mounting loss: my mother, father, marriage, favored Aunts and Uncles with children of their own, and finally, the dearest bachelor Uncle who belonged mostly to me.  The cumulative weight of it all stole my footing, left me imbalanced and tired.

The first thing I did once Uncle Bobby took his leave was make an appointment with the sea: to think, to write, to breathe.

As I write this, I glance at the Horizon of Napatree Point, on the southeastern most tip of Rhode Island.  I hear fog horns, and the clang of ship bells.  The tide is low and so the waves do not pound, but rather lap rhythmically.  I haven’t breathed this easily in ten years.

I was plucked from a Catholic Charities orphanage in Saint Paul, Minnesota at six months old.  Louise and Bill Toole became my parents and brought me home to Rhode Island; the smallest of states which boasts a remarkable 400 miles of coastline.

Serendipity and the sea began for me at a very young age.

My grandparents had a home in Weekapaug, a tiny hamlet of Westerly, just north of Watch Hill. I didn’t know, when I was a girl, what a privilege it was to be by the sea.

Summers vacations were spent running up, down and around my grandparents seven-bedroom, clapboard shingled house on the shore at Weekapaug. It had a long front stairway which led to a sprawling porch a few hundred yards from the ocean.  On a clear day,  you could see Montauk Point.

My days began at the beach and ended tucked in, sunburned and sleepy in a tiny trundle bed, studying the sea glass I collected after dinner from the stretch of rocky shore in front of the house.  Blue, clear, dark olive green, turquoise, and brown. I would roll the smooth, opaque treasures in my tanned fingers as I drifted off to sleep enveloped in crisp, clean white sheets. The sound of waves was like a gentle lullaby.

That family home was sold sixteen years ago, forced by the complications of an aging generation and the next dispersed with their own growing families. The concept of a shared “family” vacation home became impractical. The sale of High Loft was heartbreaking.

I drove by that beautiful place last week, like some Peeping Tom not wanting to be seen, but wanting to see how our home weathered the last sixteen years.  I had done this drive of reminiscence before, but never when the new owners were home. Sure enough, a gentleman walked down the steps to see my stopped car and I felt “caught”.  Rather than move along, I took a chance and rolled down the window.

“Hello, I’m Ellen Toole”.

It took him but a moment to make the connection and he grinned,

“Well, hello there! Would you like to come in and see the place?”

Frank and Clare Toole had owned that marvelous home since the early 1950’s. Their name had not been forgotten.

I parked and walked up those wonderful stairs, as I had so many times, and saw that the home’s name was still in place: “High Loft”.  Rather than go right into the house, I walked immediately to the magnificent deck and was amazed to see that the green and brown wicker rocking chairs so familiar to me had been re-caned to perfection, and the wrought iron furniture of my childhood was still in place. In the center of the deck remained a vertical beam, which serves as the center hold of a circular table, painted hunter green still.

I could almost hear the chatter and laughter of so many summer nights spent on that deck. In my mind’s eye, I pictured my imposing grandmother in a colorful shift dress, and my elegant, sweet grandfather in a seersucker shirt, his wire-framed glasses suggesting dignity.  My mother’s laugh flooded my senses and I could almost see my dad, sipping a martini on the deck of the home he loved the most.

Adults with proper cocktails and the requisite cheese and crackers around 5 p.m.  Cocktail hour was a signal to the kids that dinner would soon follow.

As well,  the presence of Uncle Bobby was sharp.  He would stop there on occasion for a cocktail before heading back to Providence after a beach day in Misquamicut.  Uncle Bobby was an in-law, not a Toole.  But Grandma Barry, Aunt Rita, and he were always welcome and memorable visitors to High Loft.  The Barry’s and Toole’s were a model of melded families.

I entered the house from the back screen door, my unexpected host pleased to hear my rambling narrative of memories.  Each room brought a smile to me, so much of the home completely unchanged in the intervening years.  It was purchased “as is”, and so the kitchen and pantry were a special delight.

I spied an old-fashioned, red-trimmed glass maple syrup server often used for Saturday morning breakfast, and the dishes, with a soft pink floral design, remained unaged. Glasses, shelves of them, were the same as I remembered.

We worked our way upstairs, by the tiniest lavette I’d ever known tucked on the first landing, and then upstairs to the bedrooms which were frozen in time. The same beds, bureaus, mirrors and chairs, refreshed with new coats of paint. While in my time I’d slept in each room but the master, I hastened to my favorite: the first bedroom on the left.

That room had two things going for it: a lethally soft mattress which enfolded even the slightest body and a door which led to a porch.  As children, my brother, various cousins and I would sneak from that porch and climb the shingled roof which hung over the deck.  From that perch the view of the Atlantic Ocean was unparalleled and during cocktail hour you could safely eavesdrop on all adult conversation.  Climbing was taboo, but we rarely got caught.  If we did, it was likely that my dear dad would be sent up to retrieve us.  He would, with a wink and a smile.  It was just the sort of shenanigans that tickled him.

I’m not the first to revisit a childhood home and won’t be the last.  Regardless of any reality I’m missing, my childhood memories at High Loft are sacred.

The current owner was armed with questions about our history there.  I answered as best I could, but have no idea of my accuracy.  I’m a curator of family history, but my memories have a gauzy film; a soft lens which knows the soul of the place better than its bones.

I was called to task recently by an old someone I used to know that one of my innumerable flaws includes being “privileged”.

I would guess they’re right:  an orphaned child from Saint Paul, Minnesota finds her way to a loving family with a magnificent summer home by the sea?

Privileged seems the right word.  In my world privileged equals blessed.

As I walked to the car, the owner asked me to wait a moment and he raced up the steps to return with a piece of stationary featuring a pencil sketch of High Loft.  The sketch was done by my Aunt Jeanne in 1990 and was somehow left behind.  He handed it to me as a gift.  He was the perfect host.

I wasn’t in my old home more than thirty minutes, but I left warmed by the grace of my host and the sureness I have that High Loft is well loved and its’ history, honored.

My visit was an unexpected gift;  a great privilege.

 

Pots and Kettles..,

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And, I fail….

Often, I fall short of my best self; disappoint my positive self-perception. I don’t need to be reminded. It’s fair to say I am my own worst critic.  I’ve spent much of this past week in communion with my flaws, in reaction to a comment about my competitive tennis piece.

Perhaps you’ll indulge me.

A comment from a reader called Pot and Kettle initially made me smile. People who know me, know I have a soft spot for idioms. How clever of a reader of mine to one up me with one?  As I read, it became obvious the commenter was a familiar someone. In cleverly crafted prose, there was the suggestion that in my recent blog I had hoisted myself on my own petard; an idiom marvelously imagined by William Shakespeare.

I was quick to understand that They were the kettle,  and I, the pot.  It was an accusation that despite my public persona, I am a hurtful person.

Suddenly, the reading of comments lost their pleasure and self-doubt grabbed my heart. The Catholic girl in me chafed with guilt at the suggestion that I might be a hypocrite, a phony.

So here’s my first confession:  I recoil at criticism. In writers’ groups, on the tennis court, in the face of my seventeen-year-old daughter, criticism raises in me, first guilt, then instantaneous defense.  I might have become an attorney, so adept am I at swatting away its initial blows.

But here’s the other truth:  part of my mercurial personality comes with the guarantee that once the hot white spotlight of criticism fades, I am likely to ruminate in it, dig and pull at it incessantly to understand its source.  I can say with surety that more often than not criticism settles into a place where I give it serious study.  It is my nature to reflect on the good and bad in me and here is the not so grand:

I can be, in no particular order, judgmental, sarcastic, opinionated, and sometimes clever at cost to others. Let’s add that I might enjoy some gossip and sometimes that swagger I love morphs into an unearned feeling of superiority.

I am guilty in all those things. I have wonderful people in my life who have none of those flaws, save the gossip.  It is my experience that few of us are immune to that temptation.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  All of us walk around in this human skin which makes being our best selves, all the time, uniquely challenging.

However, there is nothing I write that is exaggerated or spun outside my truth. I write from my soul and I do not employ poetic license or seek to make my mark in creative nonfiction.  As a writer, one might call me a personal essayist.  I am not imaginative enough for fiction. The facts within my stories have credence because, to paraphrase the stunning Broadway musical Hamilton, “I was in the room where it happened.”

I do not seek to hurt.  Even in the weakness of my soul, or when anger inhabits my heart, I never take aim at someone’s Achilles.  If you see yourself in my musings and the reflection doesn’t flatter, well then, it’s likely you behaved badly.  It’s also likely that I sought to diffuse, or make amends sometime after the dust had settled.

You will not see Pot and Kettle’s comment on this page.  I suspect the source, but cannot verify. The commenter posted anonymously using a hijacked email address.

Here’s another truth: if I have something to say to you, I will say it with my ‘owned’ voice.  People pretty much know where they stand with me. Want to poke at me, challenge my veracity?  I’m open to discussion and pretty easy to find.

If you have something to say, own it.  And for goodness sakes, my blog is not required reading for anyone.

A final thought: Anonymity is the righteous domain of good deed doers and philanthropists. It’s best left to them.

 

Me and My Hobby….

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I had an old friend who once loved competitive tennis and me.  During his meandering, protracted exit from us, he said in a pique of unexpected anger,

“You #%! @?!  people take your ‘hobby’ too #%! @?! seriously!”

There was purposeful bite in the delivery and the expletives were splendidly explicit. The purpose of the pronouncement was not really to mock competitive tennis, but rather to diminish me.

Diminishment of me sort of became his hobby for a memorable stretch of time. He took that pretty #$%*! seriously.

Every once in a while, the anthology of cruelty he built with words echoes in my brain; sneaks into my frontal lobe despite the good work I’ve done to exorcise it.  That’s the thing about words I guess; powerful, deafening bells that can fade in time, but the echo never really gets unrung.

Words, words, words…. That “sticks and stones” nursery rhyme? Pure poppycock.

I’m nothing if not painfully reflective, and so two years later I might adjust the missive to suit my own voice

“Aren’t you lucky to have a hobby that means so much to you!”

Damn Straight, I am!

I recently returned from the United States Tennis Association forty and over Sectional Championships, held North of the great city of Boston.  With ten incredible ladies well passed the 40-year-old mark, I took my place on indoor tennis courts which baked in their aluminum and steel coverings all day during this relentless August heat wave. No such luxury as air-conditioned indoor courts North of Boston.  I felt like a hot dog at Fenway Park, just sitting on one of those rolling griddles waiting to be plucked and put out of its misery.

And boy was it &#%!? fun!

I admit, USTA competitive tennis can seem a little nutty to the layperson’s eye, and perhaps some of us border on obsessive. But dadgummit, it is a rare joy at our age to compete athletically for something that means anything.  Candidly, it’s been part therapy for me as I have muddled through the last 2 years.   The tennis court is a place of peace from the perseveration of things over which I have no control.

And like love, serious often comes with unadulterated joy.

I am an athlete of the Labrador variety.  As a child,  I would chase or gather any orb in site.  Softball, basketball,  and golf were the choices in my athletic prime.  Tennis was just an entertaining way to while away an afternoon with my friends after the real games were done.

At 42, I turned to tennis when sports of my childhood became more memory than sensible reality.  The ladies and gentleman I play with on USTA teams are a raggedy clan of athletes who find that competing at this stage is worth every groan of lumbar or knee, every piercing pain that shoots through shoulders and elbows.   On the court, we feel young and tend to our aches with a gladiatorial pride that we ache at all; so happy we are to still compete.

I am also mostly Labrador in my everyday life; friendly, engaging, playful and approval oriented.  Once the sports bra and the nearly too short tennis skirt gets wrestled onto my middle-aged body, all bets are off.  When I take the court in a USTA match I am there to do one thing: to win.  I am helped a great deal to that end by an opponent’s bad line call or any hint of mental gamesmanship.  Any whiff of arrogance or unsportsmanlike behavior across the net from me and it’s GAME ON!  Once a match is settled, I revert off the court to my affable self.

I have a wonderful regular woman’s partner whose on court disposition is quite different from mine.  She loves a little chatter with the opposition on side changes and court controversy discomforts her.  Her game face demands peace and focus on that fuzzy yellow ball. She calms my fiery competitive core when it overheats, while I draw grit from her zen-like center when our backs are to the wall.   Accepting each other as we are leads to winning more than losing.

This is not to say my tennis life is all serious business.  Often, USTA matches in regular season are just plain fun.  Locally, I usually know and like my opponents and those matches can seem inconsequential and controversy free.  On those days, I marvel at the lot of we middle aged athletes racing forward and backward, side to side, chasing that fuzzy ball at endless risk of injury which might wreak havoc in our “real” lives. On any match day, a teammate might catch me doing a little salsa step on the court, cuz even when it’s intense, I never forget that it’s fun.

As well, this midlife foray into tennis has brought to my world people I might otherwise never come to know in my regular world.

I have USTA tennis to thank for unexpected friendships with international flavor: Russian, Indian, Moroccan, Japanese, Chinese, German, South African, British and Spanish. I count among my tennis pals: Nurses, teachers, businessmen and women, scientists, attorneys, allied health professionals, and many friends who are chief executives of their families.   They have all added texture and richness to my life off the court.

Hmm.  That’s some serious musing about a ‘hobby’, and maybe more metaphor about life than anything else.

As in life and love, commitment, dedication, investment, enthusiasm and stamina are noble attributes to apply.  The rewards generally reach beyond expectation.

Taking one’s hobby too %&#*! seriously might apply to risking your life to find a Pokemon. Tennis, golf, knitting, writing, and anything that constitutes a “hobby” deserves enthusiastic engagement. Otherwise, what’s the point?

My ladies team advances forward to next weekend’s New England Regional Championships with a shot at a spot to compete in the national USTA Championships late October.

What’s that I hear in the distance?  Hmmm, I think it’s the echo of that swagger I used to have, coming to find me.

Belittle my hobby all you want, but at 54 that calls for some serious %$@!* celebration!

 

 

Sifting….

 

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It has been a month since his death, and friends want to know what life is like for me in a “post-Uncle Bobby” world.

Well, the big stuff is behind me.  Funeral done, the attorney engaged, insurance claim forms filled out and his apartment cleared.   My garage is filled with the big stuff: a bed, chairs, tables, walker and boxes of clothes which will find their way to Goodwill. I held out a wonderful terry cloth bathrobe and flannel shirt to call my own.

The real treasures, however, are inside my home and they cannot be rushed.

What do I do now?

Often, I find myself sifting.

Sitting Indian style on my office floor reaching into boxes with the intent to discard, but instead minutes’ turn to hours and the save pile outperforms the throw away by a wild ratio.  They are too rich, these treasures he brought forward with him through 90 years.  These boxes in which I sift and lose myself inform me further the measure of the man.

Uncle Bobby was a sentimentalist.

There are pictures, so many, of a grandfather I never knew, but am finally coming to know.  Louis Barry died when Uncle Bobby was 14, my mother just 10.  He was handsome and tall and a man of letters, and writing…. reams of writing.  He was a storyteller with a devilish wit.

A letter, typed on the most delicate sheaf of yellowed paper to the Reverend Father Gilfillan dated December 19, 1938, extolls the virtue of straight bourbon over whiskey or mixed drinks,

“Cocktails, a distant relation to both alcohol and whiskey, is ruinous to health and happiness, and mostly consumed by the idle rich, actors, actresses and the great writers.”

Or the letter dated July 12, 1936 to his son,

“Dear Bob,

            How about the warts?  All is quiet in Providence.  Mama, Rita and Louise went to Narragansett Pier today, while I worked.  What is going on at camp?  Are you broke?  Miss you and will send some dough when I can.”

                                                            Love,

                                                                        Daddy

When Uncle Bobby received that letter he was only 12 years old, at the camp in Matunuck, RI that he spoke about wistfully to me 78 years later.  Imagine, “Daddy” taking time for his boy on a hot July day.  I think I would have loved my Grandfather.  He was a sentimentalist, too.

Two years later, there is a note card from Bobby written in cursive,

Dear Mother and Dad,

            I suppose you are waiting for this letter I am sending you.  I suppose you want to know what I do down here and how I like it.”

Uncle Bobby was an anvil even then, dragging himself through the sand with a piece of taffy.  I read and want to say to this 12-year-old boy – “get on with it, already!”

He does in his own time,

” I made friends with the Hunt brothers.  I must say they are the funniest two boys I have ever known.  We went, as we call it, ‘bumming’, and but no luck and had to walk from Bonnet Shores to Wakefield.  I got quite a sunburn on my legs.”

“Bumming” would in due course be called hitchhiking, a little mid-century political correction at play.  12-year-old boys hitchhiking and reporting it to their parents?  There is a beautiful innocence to that.

He closes with this,

            “Please come down to see me on Sunday.  I would be glad of it.”

                                                            Your son, Bobby

            P.S.  please excuse my spelling.

 

Can you imagine Louis and Mary Barry sharing that letter at the dinner table on Kingston Avenue on a steamy July night?  I imagine my blue-eyed, curly dark haired eight-year-old mother hanging on every word of her big brother’s escapades.

Two years later, Louis would pass away. How Uncle Bobby’s heart must have ached at that loss.

The treasures are bottomless.  There are his sisters report cards from Saint Sebastian’s School.  My Aunt Rita was a crackerjack student, and my mom?   Well, she was a little like me and it turns out my daughter; exceled at what she loved (History, English), and struggled at what disinterested her (Math and Science).  This is new information for me.  I assumed my mother was a scholar. I should have known her patience with me as a student was less virtue than empathy.

As I winnow, I open a delicate envelope with a return address from the Bristol, RI Superintendent of Schools.  Uncle Bobby was a lifelong teacher, and I had no idea he had taught anywhere but Pawtucket.  My heart lurches a bit as I read that this Superintendent was not renewing his contract due to unsatisfactory performance.  It was his tenure year and my sweet, sensitive Uncle Bobby was sent packing.

Who saves that sort of rejection?  It was written in 1966 and was still in his possession some 49 years later.  I would have torn it up on the spot, sunk it to the bottom of a river, or burned it.  A letter like that would be destroyed so as not to give it the power to nick at my self-esteem.

Uncle Bobby was smarter than I;  wiser by furloughs.  That letter, co-mingled with letters of love, is a reminder that humility keeps us grounded.  Failures do not define us, but inform us going forward.

A lesson from beyond the grave, I suppose.

The remainder of his treasures await me for another day.

So what am I doing “post Uncle Bobby?”

Sifting through the treasures; uncovering the lessons he left for me.

Farewell, Uncle Bobby

saint sebs

 

 

And they came, a surprising number of them, to say goodbye to a wonderful man. They came to a beautiful stone church nestled in a quiet neighborhood on the East Side of Providence.  A neighborhood whhere the young Robert Barry slid down snow-covered hills and skated on pristine frozen ponds.  Where he passed a long armed wicker basket among the communicants each Sunday morning at 9 am for forty years.  Where he lived the life of a gentleman for 86 of his 90 years.

And we said goodbye with laughter and tears, and finally, with a full military salute as a young officer handed me a perfectly folded American Flag and with extraordinary grace informed me, “On behalf of the President of The United States, we thank Robert L. Barry for service to his country in the Second World War.”

It was a marvelous day.  And here is what I had to say about my dear Uncle Bobby:

“It is good to be home here in a church which meant so very much to the Barry Family.  Built in 1916, Our Grandfather Louis Barry was one of the builders of Saint Sebastian’s.  Robert Barry served as an Usher here for 40 years.

He was, for most of my life, my elusive bachelor uncle. My earliest memories are of a Volkswagen beetle and my wonder that a man so tall could fit in a car so small.  He was a teacher and a veteran and a constant guest at my mother’s dining room table, not a holiday missed. He loved the great writers, and Herman Melville was his favorite.  He was like Ishmael: a man of the Sea.

It was not until the final years of his life, that I came to know the core of him.

Uncle Bobby was, in no particular order, Charming, stubborn, private, witty, sensitive, resolute, exasperating, and sentimental.  He was, above all things, a gentleman and a gentle soul.

His Accountant, Attorney, Financial Advisor and notably, his cousin John Murphy were intimately aware of how very exasperating Uncle Bobby could be.  No decision came quickly, no action moved upon swiftly.  He was careful and cautious.  All things on Uncle Bobby’s time. When he came to Connecticut to live his final year I came to understand this.  Asking Bobby to move in a concrete direction was much like trying to drag an anvil through the sand with a piece of taffy.  Make no mistake, he was captain of his ship til his final breath.

His charm was disarming.  That was his secret sauce and he spread it around liberally. In the great battle he fought with his body this past year, he always had a reserve of charm.  When he passed away, I received notes and calls from the care workers, mostly young women, mostly Hispanic. They spoke not of his death, but of the songs he might sing to distract from the intimacy of his care, the anecdotes he would share while they went about their noble work, or the questions he would ask them about their own lives.  He had the charm of a true gentleman

As for me, this journey with Uncle Bobby was a great gift.  In his suffering, I learned perspective.  In his mounting challenges,  I learned that patience and trust in the God are essential to finding peace.

He wrote in my elementary school autograph book, which I still have, “To Ellen, Miss America, and my very best girlfriend.”  He remains one of the most memorable men I have ever known.”