This time of year—scorching humid days, once verdant green Spring grass turned brown and coarse, evening fireflies sparking the imagination—always makes me think of summer vacations long ago. Not those taken for a week or two, but the real summer vacation that punctuated our progress in life.
The opening days of Summer—those first glorious days of not having to get up for school, the freedom of having an entire day to do whatever we wanted, the seemingly endless days ahead—made such a powerful impression in our memories.
Then, as June slipped into July and July to August, the first thoughts of returning to school bubbled to the surface. A new grade, new challenges, new teachers, new things to learn, and experience. I may not have looked forward to the end of the summer, but I looked forward to returning to school.
For me it was Ashton School, then Highland Middle, and finally Cumberland High School, CHS ’74.
We had something with us when we ventured back that’s denied today’s generations. Something that made our return both comforting and exciting.
We had stories.
Summer stories to tell our friends in the long tradition of human storytelling. In the telling of the stories, we reinforced (and often enhanced) the memories, ensuring they would last a lifetime.
Today, every moment of every day—tweeted, texted, Instagrammed, Facebooked, or Instant messaged—becomes the same as all the others.
In telling our stories, we had to recall from memory those moments that mattered to us. The things that made enough of an impression on an eight-year-old or a fourteen-year-old to warrant a story.
They would lose their magic in a mere text message.
The stories we told came from the heart—enhanced by our imagination—and created a bond between the storyteller and the listener. It was a way of saying, “you’re important to me, I want you to hear my stories, and I want to hear yours.”
We cannot share such a bond in an email or text. The immediacy of such technology robs the story of all emotion and value. It is just another bit of noise in a noisy world, lost among the cacophony, becoming only more background static.
August is when these thoughts and memories rise to the surface. Back then, it seemed the dog days of summer grew shorter, even if we knew that the days had grown shorter almost from the moment summer vacation began.
The sun, making its way back south, posed new challenges to baseball games. Early summer sunlit ball fields now became danger zones as fly balls disappeared into the blinding August afternoon sun and caromed off a player’s head. (Something which we might turn into a great story.)
Now, we were not without our means of instant communication. We had telephones, and the sound of a ringing phone brought anticipation, hope, and surprises. We often planned calls—I’ll call you at 6—and battles would ensue if the phone was in use.
We faced the frustrations of a busy signal or an unanswered call. Answering machines—those first links in the chain bonding us to communication technology—came later. But when a call went through, we had those glorious moments of speaking with someone we likely hadn’t seen since the last day of school. In these calls, we laid the groundwork for future stories—I’ll tell you more later, I have to hang up now.
Until we hit that magic age of driver’s licenses and the freedom it brought, all we had on returning to school was our summer stories.
If I could give anything of value to today’s world, it would be moments like those I shared with my friends telling those stories.
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(This is a bit of a long one, but it is an interesting topic and, hopefully, worth the read)
The good ‘ole days may not have been as good as we’d like to believe, or were they better? An intriguing question. As I often do, I like to use the words of others with my own to illustrate the commonality of our experiences.
Here’s a quote one of my most influential teachers,
“The past is delusion; the present, elusion; the future, illusion.” Dan Walsh
With the past, we often twist Shakespeare’s words about the evil men do. Instead of “The evil men do lives on, the good is oft interred with their bones.” We change it to, “Our fondness for the wonderful memories of the past live on, the evil is oft interred in the deepest recesses of our brain.”
Was America a better place in the 60s and 70s? Are we a nation in decline? I decided to see what I could discover.
While measuring morality is subjective, there are other benchmarks we can use to test the hypothesis. I looked at various historical events and national attributes—health, infant mortality, education, civil rights, Supreme Court cases, and crime.
Time magazine did a project several years ago seeking opinions from a variety of law professors and legal experts on the most influential—for good or bad—Supreme Court cases.
Often the court serves as a catalyst for change in society, righting wrongs embedded within the fabric of American lives. Some would argue these decisions were not always for the better. But here are the most beneficial and the most troubling in the 1960s-70s contrasted with those the court decided in the 2010s.
In the 1960s, several cases sparked major changes and controversies. Fifty or sixty years sounds like a long time ago. But to those of us alive in those years, thinking back, it’s hard to accept such cases were necessary.
Loving v. Virginia (1967), which found restrictions on interracial marriage unconstitutional.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), which protected freedom of the press in the realm of political reporting and libel.
Baker v. Carr (1962) and Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which established the one-person, one-vote concept in legislative apportionment.
2015 saw the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 same-sex-marriage ruling.
Perhaps the cases necessary in the 60s and 70s set us on a better, more moral path. The law professors saw them as positive cases. Yet, that they were necessary paints a troubling picture of a segregated and less open society.
On the negative side, many professors were critical of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010). The case removed campaign-spending limits on corporations and unions, and Bush v. Gore (2000), which resulted in George W. Bush’s winning the presidential election.
Of all the cases I looked at, this one from 1973 troubled me. San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973).
“This decision held that inequities in school funding do not violate the Constitution. The court thus said that discrimination against the poor does not violate the Constitution and that education is not a fundamental right. It played a major role in creating the separate and unequal schools that exist today.” (From the Times article)
The controversial decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) appeared on the lists of both the best and worst decisions. Without once again venturing down this rabbit hole, I’ll leave it to you to decide if this contributed to our “moral decay.”
I know my lawyer friends will all pipe in with their own favorites. Still, the very need for the cases decided in the 60s and 70s casts a shadow on the perception of a more fair or moral American society.
As further proof of the importance of court-imposed mandates, one need look no further than our own backyard and the 1970s desegregation of the Boston School system.
The case—Morgan v. Hennigan, 379 F. Supp. 410 (D.C. Mass., June 21, 1974)—decided by U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Garrity, required Boston to bus students to various schools to achieve a racial balance.
That a court, in 1974, had to force a city the size of Boston—a city which prides itself on its contribution to the very founding of this nation—to comply with the findings of Brown V Board of Education, a twenty-year-old refutation of the concept of separate but equal school systems, is astounding. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/boston-bussing-case/
But before we take too much comfort in this decade being better than the past, there is this. In Cleveland, Mississippi, the school district finally stopped contesting a ruling from 1965 regarding the desegregation of its high schools.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., May 3, 1963 (UPI) – Five firemen stood less than 50 feet away today sweeping methodically with a high-pressure hose and sending hundreds of racial demonstrators tumbling in the street.
The force downs a man as fast as a charging tackle on a football field and is no less damaging.
I was in a corner telephone booth dictating a story as a crowd of chanting, singing, gyrating Negroes surged time and again into the face of a police blockade. Spray hung across the intersection like fog.
When the first powerful blast hit the front line of anti-segregation marchers, they toppled and rolled in the streets, clinging to the curb and to each other.
As the hose swung away, they jeered the firemen, taunting with catcalls. But the ones who didn’t flee at first soon were routed by the full force of spray.
Then the firemen turned their attention to a small group of Negroes on the corner where I was standing.
“Let’s get those people out of there,” an officer shouted.
The firemen swung the hose quickly and the gush of water splattered the seven Negroes on the corner. They fled into a restaurant and the firemen followed, playing their hose in the restaurant for two or three minutes.
“They’re turning the hose on us,” I shouted to another newsman.
Elvin Stanton, of radio station WSGN, jumped into the phone booth with me. We braced for the blast of water which hit the glass wall with a roar.
The water was brown, then a boiling white froth which roared through the cracks in the booth, sloshed under the booth and soaked our feet. Then they turned the hose on an upper ventilating slot and our shoulders were soaked.
I kept yelling that we were reporters, but the torrent kept pounding on the glass booth. Somehow, the glass held until they turned the hose around.
We walked out. As we strode soggily by the firemen, one turned and asked: “Did you get wet?”
SELMA, Ala., March 7, 1965 (UPI) – State troopers and mounted deputies bombarded 600 Negroes with tear gas Sunday when they knelt to pray on a bridge, then attacked them with clubs. Troopers and posse men, under orders from Gov. George C. Wallace to stop the Negro “walk for freedom” to Montgomery, chased the marchers nearly a mile through town, clubbing them as they ran.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs the Civil Rights Act of 1960 into law on May 6. The purpose of the law was to close loopholes from the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and dealt primarily with voter disenfranchisement. The act created penalties for anyone who tried to obstruct voter registration and extended the life of the Civil Rights Commission which had been set to expire. It also established federal inspection of local voter registration polls in an effort to counter-act discriminatory laws in the South that worked to disenfranchise voters on a racial basis.
And then we had Vietnam, or more correctly Viet Nam.
While our involvement in Viet Nam began long before the 60s, most Americans wouldn’t have a clue where the country was until 1965.
Here’s one interesting tidbit of history.
June 8, 1956: The first official American fatality in Viet Nam is Air Force Technical Sergeant Richard B. Fitzgibbon, Jr. He was murdered by another American airman as he was talking with local children. His wife lobbied for years, finally succeeding in 1999, to have his name added to the Viet Nam Wall Memorial.
Think about that for a second. The first official American casualty in Viet Nam was murdered by a fellow American. It gets no stranger than that. Perhaps had we taken that as an omen, we might have decided the avoid the whole thing.
But we didn’t. And when I said it could get no stranger, I was wrong. Fitzgibbon’s son joined the Marine Corps…and was killed in Viet Nam.
Here’s a brief historical timeline of the 60s and 70s and the routes of involvement.
1960 The United States announces 3,500 American soldiers will be sent to Vietnam.
July 1964. Gulf of Tonkin incident. U.S. warships come under fire by North Vietnamese gunboats in two related incidents. There is little doubt the first incident happened. The NV Gunboats were responding to an earlier bombing attack on two North Vietnamese held islands by U.S. and South Vietnamese Naval forces.
The second incident, which Lyndon Johnson would use to escalate American involvement, is in doubt. Johnson secretly confided to his advisors, “for all I know, the goddamn Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
On March 6, 1965, two battalions of U.S. Marines waded ashore near Danang,
March 16, 1968 The My Lai massacre—known as Son My in Viet Nam—where American soldiers killed nearly all the people—old men, women, and children, including infants—in the village of My Lai. The months-long military campaign known as the Tet Offensive (January 30–September 23) topped Vietnam news.
Amid the carnage of Viet Nam, on July 20, 1969, Americans put a man on the moon.
1973 The Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by the Nixon administration, reached agreement after five years. Nixon secretly orchestrated a delay in the talks during the 1968 Presidential Campaign through back-channel communications with the North Vietnamese government promising better terms. He then took 5 years, at the cost of almost twenty thousand more dead Americans, to settle the war.
1973 All U.S. Combat troops leave Viet Nam. 500 American POWs return from North Viet Nam.
Military advisors remain until 1975
The U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government surrendered to the Communists on April 30, ending three decades of war in Vietnam. Hours later, the first Communist tanks rumbled into the capital.
During Viet Nam, anti-war protesters and racial strife tore apart the country.
May 4, 1970, National Guard troops fire on war protesters, killing four, at Kent State University. Allison Beth Krause, 19, Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, Sandra Lee Scheuer, 20, and William Knox Schroeder, 19.
Several National Guardsmen were charged in the killings, but they dismissed the cases.
Attica prison riot
Native Americans forced from Alcatraz after citing an 1868 Treaty allowing them to live on the island
Supreme Court rules against the death penalty
The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972, brought an end to the Apollo program.
AIM seizes Wounded Knee, SD The American Indian Movement (AIM) seized the hamlet for 90 days before surrendering. It was a protest of violations to American Indian treaties over the past centuries.
The 60s and 70s were the decades of hard rock ‘n roll.
Crime and Punishment: Police, Violent Crime, & Prisons
The debate over racial bias in Law Enforcement is the latest controversy to roil the nation. In 2014, the Obama administration passed a law— the Death in Custody Reporting Act—requiring Law Enforcement agencies to track all in-custody deaths and report them to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department has never created the database or received any information from the nation’s law enforcement agencies. We cannot identify a problem if we operate in the dark.
But we can compare the nature of a policing, and the relative dangers associated with being a cop, by tracking the numbers of officers killed in the line of duty. These numbers take into consideration all manners of death, not just violent encounters.
Officer Killed in the line of duty
One officer killed is too many, but the trend has been declining. In the 1960s and 70s, during the height of racial tensions and anti-war protests, they targeted police officers with snipers and bombs. Yet, over time these incidents have grown less and less frequent. The media hype of today amplifies and distorts the level of violence beyond reality.
2010-2019 155,034 (4.8 per 100,000 of population. 2019 numbers projected based on average # of homicides of the previous nine years as final numbers from FBI not yet available. Again, there are racial disparities in murder rates, but the overall numbers even among various races are lower.)
Violent crime per 100,000 populations. Rates climbed in the mid-1960s, peaking in 1990-91. They have consistently declined since then.
Prisons (Number of prisoners)
Health and Education
MVA Fatalities Rates per 100,000 population
2018 11.18 (last year data available)
Infant Mortality Rates
The U.S. is far behind other developed nations in infant mortality. Comparable country average (nations with similar levels of development such as Canada, United Kingdom, France, Japan) is 3.4 per 1000 live births
US Infant Mortality Rates per 100,000 population
The U.S. is 7th in the world in literacy rates. The ability of most Americans to read sits at about 99%, although there are racial disparities. Educationally, Americans sit in the middle of the world curve in terms of analytical abilities in math, science, and reading.
In the 1970s, the U.S. led the world in education. Clearly, we have failed in the promise of public education.
Defense spending as a % of GDP
Education vs. Military Budget
1970 Military $79.1 billion Education $1.0 billion
2020 Military $989 billion ($160 billion increase over 2 years) Education $64 billion (10% decrease over 2019)
#1 in Music Billboard Chart
1960 Theme from A Summer Place (Percy Faith)
1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
2010 Tik Tok (Kesha)
1960 Swiss Family Robinson
1970 Love Story
1960 Andy Griffith Show
1970 Marcus Welby, MD
2010 Breaking Bad
In the culture category, while I may be prejudiced here, but the 60s and 70s win this one, hands down.
Can we say the U.S. has suffered a decline, moral or otherwise, over the past 50 or 60 years?
Yet I can make an argument we have become more socially open and accepting. We embrace a more democratic form of social interaction, minimizing the once formidable lines of separation between races, ethnicities, and religions.
Despite the constant bombardment of “breaking news,” we have become less violent people. By all measures, we have seen a reduction in homicides and other crimes of violence.
The burgeoning prison population and the de-emphasis on education are troubling. The overwhelming number of people are in prison for non-violent crimes. Imprisonment has little to do with crime reduction. It turns people into career criminals doing life on the installment plan.
What drove the reduction in violent crime? Many theories abound.
Some claim the high rates of incarceration take violent offenders off the street. This seems logical, except with a fifty percent recidivism rate, it is only a partial explanation.
Increased community policing efforts is another suggestion.
Reduced opportunity to commit crimes due to the prevalence of home surveillance cameras, cellphone cameras, and other technology such as DNA evidence is a factor. The “graying of America” is another possibility with the average age rising above the mean for those most likely to commit crimes.
Two wild theories relate to reduced violence within society. One, proposed by Rick Nevin, a Virginia economist, claims a correlation between eliminating lead from gasoline and a reduction in violent crime. In a peer-reviewed study, he makes an interesting case. He even wrote a book on the subject, Lucifer Curves. (https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Curves-Legacy-Lead-Poisoning-ebook/dp/B01I3LTR4W)
An even more controversial theory, by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics, and John Donohue of Yale University, argued that the 1973 Supreme Court Case of Roe v. Wade legalizing abortions was a significant contributor to reduced incidents of violent crime.
Research shows unwanted children had higher incidents of psychiatric problems and propensity to violence. Eighteen years after the decision, when those pregnancies legally aborted would have reached the age of 18, the start of the range of age of most violent offenders, the incidents of violent crime decreased. Controversial, to say the least. Critics of the theory tend to oppose abortion, so a full analysis is lacking.
These matters are all complex and intimately related. I doubt one explanation can account for the data. Yet, an honest look at comparing and contrasting the America of the mid-20th century and the one we live in today would show a vast overall improvement.
We have not suffered a “moral” decline. We have entered an age where we are overwhelmed with information absent any legitimate controls over the validity or veracity.
Fake news is a real phenomenon, but it is not characterized by just the things we disagree with. If there has been any decline, it is in our undervaluing the benefits of education.
The world becomes a more stable, safer, and fair place when we fundamentally understand our differences. There is no single path to a better America. Yet there is one certain path to our demise and decline, ignorance.
Until we set our minds to creating the best educational system and opportunity for success in the world, we will continue to look to the false memories of the good ‘ole days.
Our success lies in seizing the day, not clinging to the past.
I have always enjoyed walking. I once spent six months walking from Georgia to Maine. When you walk, life slows down. You notice things you may never see in a car.
Even the most familiar roads contain surprises hidden in plain view. That is one problem of living at vehicle speed, we often miss the opportunities of life.
Although I have lived in many places, some longer than I ever lived in Cumberland, it is the first place I ever knew as home. Thus, it is etched onto my soul and the most memory-rich of the places I walk.
When I lived in Lincoln, my walks would often take me by many such familiar places. I lived just over the line from Cumberland and sometimes walked a loop up Albion Road to Mendon Road and down Manville Hill Road.
Passing by Cumberland High School released a floodgate of memories of the Class of 1974. It seemed at once like such a long time ago and the briefest of moments, despite the abundance of memories. Many of the houses I’d pass once were the homes of friends. Some may still be there; most are scattered by the winds of fate. But the memories still live.
Memories of many firsts, many experiences, many moments.
Passing every house, even those I now walk by since moving away from Lincoln, I think of the memories within a home. Cumberland memories are more intimate, more familiar, more embedded in my DNA. In my new neighborhood, or wherever I find myself walking, all the memories are hidden away in other lives.
But I know the memories are there. I know they exist. It is the way my mind works. I picture the moments. I hear the voices, the laughter, the tears. I am a spectator to a kaleidoscope of lives, anonymous yet familiar.
It is a universal bond all humans share, the magic of memory.
Christmas celebrations, births, birthdays, deaths, new puppies, old dogs, hot dogs, charcoal smoke, snowstorms (No school!), baseball games, marriages, divorces, learning to ride a bike, watching a child take those first steps or a loved one taking the last ones, even if you don’t know it at the moment.
Moments of every life remembered.
I wonder if the spirit of all the memories, the quantum energies of life, still echo within the walls. Inside every house—sometimes a home, sometimes the scene of heartbreak—do the memories still remain?
Our memories are a quantum entanglement, always with you no matter how far away from them you’ve wandered. That’s the most precious thing about memories, they persist even if we cannot recall them. Once made, always bonded, even if they are shadowed and hidden by the mists of passing time.
Our own thin place, where we see with the utmost clarity or vague familiarity that which reminds us of our common humanity.
By taking the time to notice things we often fly by in the cocoon of everyday living, we experience the most common of shared human qualities. The community of memories.
“This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions; these are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater, and delivered upon the mellowing of occasion.”
In our lives, most of us live in many places but few we think of as home. For the less fortunate, home may be as distant as the nearest galaxy. I have been most fortunate to have several places I could call home.
In my first few years on this planet, home was Robinson Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Vague, swirling memories hide in the deepest synapses of my brain’s cortex and limbic system. Flashing to the surface through unexpected and random stimuli.
I know I lived there, some memories and old home movies confirm it, but it wouldn’t be my first answer to the question where did you grow up.
In 1962, we had the good fortune to move to Harriet Lane in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This was my first home. Aside from saving me from the impending doom of Catholic School in Pawtucket, it plopped me down into the most fantastic place to grow from childhood to adulthood.
This opened a whole new world to me, free to explore to my heart’s content. My friends and I spent countless hours climbing trees, wandering the woods, capturing frogs, snakes, turtles (and releasing them.) Sledding down the street after snowstorms, playing kick the can in the road, lying in the sun on a warm summer day, or catching fireflies as night fell with nothing to concern us but what caught our fancy.
I can still see the trails we followed along meandering streams to scum covered ponds. Hopping from mound to mound in swamps. One swamp we referred to as Alligator Swamp, although no one ever questioned why.
Some claimed they saw ‘gators, our own version of an urban myth. We doubted it but avoided the place just in case.
The home expanded over time. Three more siblings to the original two of my sister Peggy and I. To accommodate the growing troop of children of Peg and Joe Broadmeadow, physical additions were built.
The memories here are closer to the surface. Easier to recall. Almost endless in number. This was a home. And while some may see sadness in the way we left there, for me, it will always be my first home.
Like many young adults, I entered what can only be described
as a nomadic period. I had nothing resembling a home.
I had an address. A space. A focal point. One that changed
every few months or years.
The nomadic period ended, as it often does with young men,
because of a woman.
In 1981, Susan and I married and moved into a house on Belview Street in Seekonk, Massachusetts. This became my second home. Our original plan of staying there for five years turned into nineteen, punctuated by such events as a pool, two dogs, a fence around the yard, eight fruit trees, vinyl siding, redone hardwood floors, and many hours cutting the grass and painting the house.
And then there was a child, Kelsey Broadmeadow, who turned what was already a home into the best home ever.
Kelsey can speak for herself—which she does well and without
reservation—but I would hazard a guess she thinks of this as her home.
But time, like yesterday’s breakfast, moves on.
After nineteen years, we built a house in Rehoboth,
Massachusetts and moved—lock, stock, and barrel—to a new home.
This became the home where Kelsey would launch her own nomadic period. Moving out on her own to college in Florida, then law school in Connecticut. While Quinnipiac Law is an excellent school, the decision to go there, tempered by her time in Florida where the memories of winter in New England mellowed, caused moments of regret. Something she experienced soon after the first snowstorm turned her car into an unrecognizable mound of snow.
Part of the learning curve of nomadic life.
Facing the specter of the empty nest, my wife and I entered a temporary period of nomadic existence ourselves. Flirting with a move to Florida before deciding to sell the house and downsize into a condo in Lincoln, Rhode Island.
The condo became our base of operations for various expeditions. Ecuador, Costa Rica, Germany, Aruba, Southeast Asia, Morocco, and a short walk along the entire Appalachian Trail. It is a perfect base of operations. Pleasant, quiet, convenient to the bike path and fishing in the Blackstone River (who’d believe that?)
But to call it home would be a stretch. We’ve enjoyed living
here, but we also enjoyed living in a tent.
None qualify as a home.
Thus, it is time to end the last of the nomadic wanderings of Joe and Susan Broadmeadow and go home. We began packing boxes and taking stock of things to keep and things to let go. Soon, we will move into our house in Cranston near where Kelsey and her husband, Chuck, have their first home.
For now, the proximity makes it easier for us to get to our unofficial but critical function of caring for their dogs, Ralph and Seamus. More servants, than caregivers. Fulfilling the demands of dogs who see themselves as superior to all other creatures.
Dogs have a much different concept of home. Home is where they are as long as someone feeds them, nothing else matters.
No one can predict the future, but we hope something more complicated will arrive in the home of Kelsey and Chuck. We look forward to expanding our creature-sitting skills to include sentient beings with interests in things other than slimy dog toys and taking turns peeing on each other’s heads.
All possibilities exist.
But I know this. My days as a nomad are over. The cycle is complete. I started out in a home, and this is the home where it will end. I will carry boxes in but leave wearing a toe tag in a body bag with someone else carrying me out.
But not yet. I follow Dylan Thomas’s advice and rage against the dying of the light. I will not go quietly into that good night, but I will go someday.
I intend this to be the home I lived in longer than any
other. To make that goal, I need to be here a little over nineteen years. Let’s
round up and call it twenty. If I stay until 2039, when I will be eighty-three
years old, it will set a record.
I intend to break that old record by a wide margin. For now, I will just enjoy being home “where my music’s playing.”
“Homeward bound Home where my thought’s escaping Home where my music’s playing Home where my love lies waiting Silently for me…”
(Here’s a re-posting of a piece I wrote some time ago. It’s the time of the year…but with all the uncertainty, I missed the actual date of March 19th. My mom has now been gone for 11 years, but the sentiment remains. Nevertheless, here it is…)
It has been almost 8 years since my mother died. Thoughts, sights, and sounds remind me of her almost daily.
Words she often turned into her own askew versions. Her penchant for reading EVERY street sign whenever she was in the car. Twinkies she hid in the freezer in violation of her diet. The one constant reminder is my white hair, undeniable genetic evidence that part of her remains with me.
These are memories of a special woman.
Each year, on a particular date, there is a poignant reminder of something she did for me.
I suspect she had similar traditions with my brother and sisters; she was that kind of a mom.
She had a way to make you feel special.
Nevertheless, this one was between us.
As many of you know from my writings, I do not share the faith that my mother did. She had absolute confidence in her beliefs. Despite all the things she experienced, the joys and the sorrows, she never once doubted them.
She made a valiant effort to share her faith. If there is any blame to go around for her failed attempt to instill that in me, the fault is mine.
What is the annual event that triggers such a memory?
St. Joseph’s day.
Every year, I would get a card from my mother. It came in the mail. It was not a text, an email, or a phone call. It would arrive in the days just before the 19th, more evidence of her careful consideration and purpose.
She took the time to select, address, and mail a card. Through a simple gesture, she preserved the dying art of thoughtfulness.
The card celebrated the Saint’s day of my (sort of) namesake. Her thoughtful gesture had a dual purpose, serving as a subtle reminder of her faith. I used to chuckle whenever I opened the card. Amused by my mother’s determination, yet touched by such a simple, caring act.
She never gave up.
Since her passing, I miss the card every year and her every day.
Mom, while you may not have succeeded in making me a Saint there is a good chance you made me less of a sinner.
Halloween was such a disappointment and such a joy. Disappointing because the number of kids was abysmally low. A joy because I now get to eat all the candy I didn’t have to give away.
Yet the joy is tempered by the loss of such an opportunity. It would seem the paranoia of our world to avoid any risk (no matter how unlikely) in favor of safety and security robs children of the chance at creating memories.
I know not every neighborhood is conducive to allowing kids
to wander house to house on such a holiday (or even on a day-to-day basis) but
not most neighborhoods. Where I grew up in Cumberland, Rhode Island we would map
our strategy to insure we went to every house in Broadview Acres to maximize
our candy haul.
Then, in our house, each of the kids would pile the candy into one huge pile and divide it up. We learned to share, to be selective in our choices, and to spread the joy as far as we could among us. It wasn’t socialism, it was balancing abundance among family.
But the real loss I see in the lack of kids trick or treating was their being deprived of adventure out of a sense of fear all out of proportion to reality.
Wandering the streets in costumes unfettered by parents who didn’t follow us around, hovering over us like bodyguards, was a memorable adventure. One I cherish among my many memories. Yet, truth was, we weren’t really “on our own” at all. Every adult became a guardian that night. Letting us believe we were independent yet still with a protective umbrella. Where has that sense of community gone?
We built memories of our adventures and, once we outgrew the age of trick or treating, recognized the wisdom of such controlled independence. Yet, somewhere along the way, we’ve lost something.
It seems today people are so concerned with what might happen;
they deprive their children of all the potential joy of gaining independence,
making memories, and enjoying life.
My mother always said life in not fair. And she was right. There are no guarantees in this world, but there is opportunity. And the opportunity to make such memories when one is just a child pass in a blink of an eye. Don’t lose out on opportunities because you fear what might happen. Embrace them because they are one of the best things about life.
If you focus on the small chance of bad things happening, you’ll miss all the best things in life. And there is no turning back.
Now that the Christmas Holiday is here, and there are 364 more shopping days until the next one, it’s time to consider the memories.
In the days leading up to this Christmas, I took some time to recall my other fifty-nine Christmas Days. I tried to think of those many gifts I received and remember.
I had to think a moment.
I do recall one gift from when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. A time when I considered myself sophisticated by having outgrown the need for Santa Claus. My parents got me an electric guitar. A gift that was so far beyond my expectations as to make it seem impossible.
Of all the gifts, I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye as the reality of the instrument in my hands took hold. I am sure they experienced some buyer’s remorse as I fought to learn Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and a host of other bands not on my parent’s playlist.
It is this single gift that I can recall with little effort.
Now I know for a fact I received hundreds of Christmas gifts over the years. Gifts from family and friends who spent time and money picking out things for me. I know they put much care and thought into the process.
And yet, despite knowing this, I cannot recall them without great effort.
I do recall the faces and voices of those who, once being a big part of Christmas, have now passed away.
But I do not remember the gifts.
I remember the family gatherings around Christmas.
But I do not remember any of the gifts, given or received.
Of all those many gifts, long faded into the fog of hidden memories, there are few I remember.
But I do remember the moments of Christmas. The moments of waking on a Christmas morning and making your way to the tree.
The faces of my parents at the excitement of sharing Christmas with a child.
The first Christmas with my wife as we started our own traditions.
The first Christmas with my daughter, just a month old, who had no idea of what all our excitement was about
The many more Christmases as my daughter went from an infant to a young woman.
She is now married and hosting Christmas as her own. Yet all those gifts vanish into lost memories.
These things I remember. Not the gifts, not the giving, not the receiving but the people that I shared those moments with.
This I recall.
We forget that these gifts are but the dust of life and our time with those we care about will pass with alarming speed.
Hold onto the memories of the things that matter, not the memory of things themselves.
All these years my subconscious knew what was important. It preserved the important memories and hid away the insignificant.
For most of us, it is the memories of Christmas past that drive the spirit of the season. The innocence of belief in the magic of a Jolly Old Man and his generosity tempered by expectations of good behavior brings a smile to one’s face.
My sister, as she is wont to do, recently posted a picture of one of those Christmas moments. It is not a digital image, not a tweet, not an old Facebook post, but a picture taken with a camera that required one to wait for the result.
A simpler time.
Emblazoned on the image is the “text” of that era; the date the picture was taken, ‘Dec 61.’
I was five years old and my sister was three. We were quite fashionably dressed for the time as you all can see.
A moment in time of an age of innocence. I don’t know if I have ever seen the photograph before now. The moment and the picture are lost in fading memories. My parents would have had the film developed and placed it among their other pictures. Perhaps they showed it to me, perhaps they didn’t. Pictures weren’t so important to me at the time.
I wonder if my eyes were closed to preserve the moment in my mind? I wonder if somehow, I knew the next time those same eyes saw this moment, it would be from a time then long in the future?
Or I wonder if I closed my eyes, so I could enjoy those fleeting moments of that simpler time, somehow suspecting that once my eyes opened time would draw me inexorably to a loss of that innocence.
May your Christmas be Merry and Memorable and may you always keep a part of that innocence alive in your heart.
While rummaging through what is known in most households as the junk drawer, I came across this medal. It is a Good Conduct medal issued to my father during his service in the United States Marine Corps.
I believe he received it early in his enlistment before he ended up on an all-expense paid cruise up the coast of South Korea. Followed by some beach time. (The Marines call it an amphibious landing.) Other than the North Koreans shooting at them, Inchon was lovely.
He later got a full land tour all the way to the Chosin Reservoir where the Chinese cut the trip short. Along the way, he gathered some other tokens of his time in Korea, three Purple Hearts, Two Bronze Stars, and the Silver Star.
But this one he gave to me and seeing it brought back memories. Funny how it is the only thing I have from when we lived in Pawtucket, RI. But here’s the story.
It was 1960 or 61, just before we moved to Cumberland. My sister Peggy–do not call her Peggy Ann. She hates Peggy Ann so do not call Peggy Ann, Peggy Ann—were playing in a neighbor’s yard. In this yard was a rather large hole being dug for some purpose I never knew. In the bottom of this hole were pipes, rocks, and water.
The hole was several feet deep and surrounded by…nothing. Different times, those.
Of course, we were intrigued.
Anyway, Peggy An..I mean Peggy got too close and tumbled off the edge. I managed to grab her by the jacket. I wasn’t strong enough to pull her up. All I could do was hold on.
Eventually, someone noticed this. Whether it was me yelling or them I don’t know, but the next thing I knew my mother ran over and pulled Peggy up.
When my father came home from his tour of duty with the State Police (they lived in the barracks then, so it was a few days later) my mother filled him in.
For my actions in the line of facing deep, muddy, and dangerously unprotected holes and for hanging on I was awarded the medal.
I wore it to bed.
I wore it to Kindergarten.
I wore it to Church. (Yes, I used to go there, under penalty of parental damnation mostly)
And somehow, after all these years, it’s the one thing I’ve held onto…or it held onto me.
On a recent walk along the bike path onto Martin Street in Cumberland, I chanced past a field where I experienced my halcyon days of Little League baseball. It was where I believed my professional sports career would flourish.
Halcyon, yes. Flourishing career, not so much.
I believe I set a record that stands to this day in that league. I was hit three times by a pitch at-bat in one game.
The pitcher, a rather sizeable 11-year old who looked like he shaved and, I believe, parked a car somewhere hidden from view since I never saw his parents, had two conflicting abilities. He could throw a fastball, and he lacked any control over the direction of the ball.
Combine that with my sloth-like reflexes, and you have a recipe for disaster. I wasn’t so much a batter as a backstop. My ability to move as if in slow motion earned me the nickname “Turtle” from my teammates. The longest ball I ever hit bounced off the fence in center field, and I got thrown out.
At first base. Slow doesn’t even come close.
I’m not sure which one of those guys gave me the name, no matter how well deserved and accurate as it may be, but I recall Eddie Reilly, John Johnson, Scott Partington, Greg Vartanian, and others hollering it with great vigor in between laughing at me and falling to the ground.
Now that I think about it, I was bullied. I probably have PTSD from all those games, plus the bruises. I should sue.
What sparked this memory was the changes going on in the field. They are installing lights for night games.
NIGHT GAMES in Little League. Next thing they’ll have signing bonuses and no-cut contracts.
Our idea of night games were those interminable games when the score was 25 to 23 in the fourth inning, 8:30 on a Saturday night in August, and the darkness creeping in. At the sound of the ball hitting the bat we all had a fleeting glimpse as the ball disappeared into the night. We pretended to look for it, but we were really trying to figure out where it would not land so as not to get smacked in the head.
Now they have lights.
They probably have pitchers with some control over the ball.
Age has always been a minor, albeit varying, factor in my life. As children, we all go through those stages where we want to be older. Rushing what we perceive as our unlimited time. As we get older, some try to resist. But most of us eventually reach a truce with reality and just accept time’s passage.
A recent conversation, for whatever reason, stunned me. While speaking with someone interested in telling his life story (a complicated one involving bank robberies and prison time), He asked how old I was, wanting to see if I had any point of reference to the Watergate incident and a man named G. Gordon Liddy.
I told him I was in high school and had watched the Watergate hearings. I prefaced this by saying, I’ll be sixty-two this year.
As the words came out, it caught me by surprise. I could not put my finger on why my age stunned me. Hanging up the phone after arranging a meeting, the memories of those sixty-two years rocketed through my brain.
So, I do what I always do when something strikes me as odd, or funny, or troubling. I write about it. It is a habit I’ve developed over, incredibly, sixty-two years.
I have a misty memory of the first grade where I was sent down the long, intimidating hall to bring a book to the eighth-grade classroom. In my mind, the eighth graders were ancient ogres. I had to navigate around them like giant redwoods. They were the scary “big” kids. Old and dangerous.
Now, I’m shocked when I see graduate students from Brown University driving cars. They look so young. My grandfather used to say, when cops and priests start looking young, you’re old. He had that one right.
When I was seventeen, a group of friends and I would stake a claim to one of the many dunes of Horseneck Beach. We had our stash of fake-id acquired cold beer and plans of conquering bikini-clad young women. At least the part of the beer being cold was true. Our tales of sexual conquest pure fantasy that improves with age as it drifts further from the truth.
On one expedition I recall a conversation, between our fruitless attempts at charming any girls, about how we would be forty-four years old in the year 2000. Both elements seemed unreal and unreachable. Here I am in the year 2018. Both 44 and 2000 are distant memories.
My daughter, her birth another life-altering event when she arrived in 1988, will soon reach one those milestones in life. I won’t say she’ll turn thirty this year, but you do the math. To some, such things are traumatic. I never found them so. How she’ll react is as personal to her as it is to everyone. Age and the progression of time is the one equal opportunity aspect of this shared life.
Age discriminates against no one. Time gives itself with little regard for anything.
I suppose it may be the reality of understanding the unknowable allocation of the time we each have left, and that we are all ticketed for the same departure event, which caused this simple conversation to shock my consciousness.
Time continues its unalterable passage. The summers of our youth will take on almost mythological alterations of reality. By holding onto these memories, we may embrace the summers of our future with greater appreciation.
We can strive to enjoy every day for within each moment is the potential to create a memory.
Age is a state of mind. But it is not what defines, hobbles, or imprisons us unless we let it.