Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Book Review and Reflection: The Book of Separation

October 25, 2017

I’m not Jewish.  I’ve never been through a divorce. And I’m not a woman.  But I can certainly relate to author Tova Mirvis and her life story, as told in her latest work, The Book of Separation.

The book, Mirvis’s fourth, tells of her journey toward ending both her first marriage and her life in Orthodox Judaism. That all-encompassing religious community both enfolded and protected her even as it constricted and repressed her throughout her youth and early adulthood.  Many of us, I’m sure, have felt and grappled with fears, misgivings, and doubts similar to those that Mirvis recounts.

As the book begins, she is standing alone, before the panel of bearded, black-garbed Orthodox rabbis who will rule upon the legitimacy of the get, the divorce document that, by Jewish law, can only be issued by the husband. It’s a dramatic scene. As one who was brought up in old-time, fire-and-brimstone Catholicism, I can only imagine how I would have felt if I’d stood before a phalanx of black cassocks and Roman collars to take my leave of my own Church.

I probably would have chickened out. She didn’t. But she must have considered it many times. As she stated in those first few pages, “If you left, you were in danger of losing everyone you had loved. If you left, you were in danger of losing yourself.”

Mirvis did leave, and she did lose a lot. But she gained and learned much too. I daresay she will bring to mind, in many readers, a raft of similar emotions and memories and should-have-dones – particularly if religion was a defining factor in their lives.

Did you ever feel, for instance, as she did one Rosh Hashanah when, as she remembers looking at the hats of the ladies in synagogue,

“I tried to pray, but my mind kept wandering. Under all these brims and bows, what were people really thinking? Did any of these women ever worry, as I did, that too much thinking might unravel their lives? You were supposed to believe that this way of life was the only true one…Yet along with the actual rules, there was another set of laws, equally stringent yet more unforgiving, enforced not by a belief in God but by communal eyes that were just as all-seeing and all knowing. Inside my head, a voice constantly whispered, What will they think?”

Well, I had learned that my religion was the one true faith as well.  My mind also used to wander as I sat through all those masses and novenas and parish missions and Stations of the Cross. And back then, I would have dreaded the mere thought of facing the opprobrium of parents, clergy, and my Catholic community if I’d voiced my own growing doubts.  I do have a few friends who did boldly voice their own doubts, early in their adult years, and in hindsight I wish I’d had their courage.

I also once lived in fear of the same God about Whom Mirvis expressed her nagging doubts: “”Did I believe in a God who cared about the smallest details of what I ate and what I wore – God the Scorekeeper, God the Punisher, God the King?”

With such passages, Tova Mirvis surely touches some raw nerves and long-buried feelings. Her readers who have ever struggled to strike a balance between God’s message and God’s earthly, self-designated messengers will probably nod in agreement and recognition.

Much of the book chronicles Mirvis’s passage through everyday life: education, marriage and family, friendships, religious practices, and eventually the harsh realities of drifting further away from spouse and community. Along the way she also explains many of the reasons behind Jewish rituals, the rich tapestry of tradition that has distinguished that remarkable people for millennia and will continue to do so.

One of the story’s turning points calls to mind another famous Jewish author – another who was divorced and remarried – Midge Decter. She once said, “Nerve is one thing all writers need.” Mirvis showed the requisite nerve when she spoke, and stood her ground, at a cultural conference run by a large group of Orthodox rabbis.

That occasion was, she noted “the last time I considered myself still inside.” She would not make her writing conform to their rules and demands.  “I didn’t believe their rules contained the ultimate truth…it wasn’t just about writing honestly and freely, it was about living honestly and freely…I was no longer willing to pretend in order to belong.”

Stepping to the outside of the Orthodox community did, as expected, sever friendships and bring rejection and avoidance. The author missed being inside that old community, especially on occasions like Shabbat. One consolation was her knowing “there are other kinds of communities that I can eventually build for myself – smaller maybe, less all encompassing, ones in which I won’t have to cede my independence in order to belong.

There is a telling observation Mirvis makes near the end of the book. Her children have come for the weekend. Her son Noam, who has remained Orthodox, asks her to unscrew the refrigerator’s light bulb so that it won’t go on – one of many Shabbat practices that Mirvis no longer follows.

She gladly agrees to honor his request, noting “I’m doing this, and other actions like it, to help Noam be part of this world that he is choosing. And doing so comes not only in the broad strokes and large proclamations about love and respect but in each of the minute actions – not just God, not just sin, lay in the details, but love lived there too.”

Yes, it is the little things. God and love both are to be found in the details of our everyday lives.

Another heartening passage comes late in the book when Mirvis returns to the scene at the beginning. She’s alone with that formidable panel of senior rabbis. They’ve examined the get, the divorce document whose official name is sefer kritut, a book of termination, of rending, of separation.

The document, written in Aramaic and dated 5772 from the creation of the world, is in order.  In keeping with ancient rite, the senior rabbi folds it up tight and drops it into her cupped hands. She must signify acceptance – clasp the get to her bosom, turn, and walk from the room. When the door closes behind her, the divorce takes effect.

They summon her back into the room, where one of the rabbis takes the document, draws an X on it, then tears it up so that no one could ever examine it and find an error. It’s over.  After the rabbis recount some of her future obligations and she’s about to leave, the head of the court looks her in the eye.

She says, at that point, that she was steeling herself for rebuke. That’s another thing I can imagine doing. In fact, I’d be expecting to hear that I’m bound for the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

No such rebuke happened. Instead, the man tells her a story. The Talmud, he explains, said that the Temple altar weeps when a man divorces his wife. There was once a rabbi who went through a divorce; his students were confused and puzzled that it could even happen.

“Better the altar should weep than should I,” came that divorced rabbi’s reply.

With that, the senior rabbi tells Mirvis, “It’s a new beginning. Go forth, become the person you need to be.”

That’s wise counsel for anyone, of any age, of any religious faith. And this is a book I’d recommend for anyone of any age, gender, or faith as well.

Eulogy for My Brother Jimmy

July 27, 2017

Youth hoop hopeful

My brother Jimmy, three years my junior, died on July 17, 2017 at the age of 65. His funeral mass was celebrated today, July 27, at St. John’s Church in Winthrop.  I delivered this eulogy at the conclusion of the mass.

Thank you all for being with us today.  I speak for Peter, Peggy, Mary, and all of the members of the extended Burke family. Your presence means a great deal to us.

Today’s reading from Ecclesiastes is especially appropriate as we bid farewell to Jimmy Burke. To everything there is a season. It is familiar to all of us in the liturgy. It is also the source of one of the great hit songs of the 1960s, “Turn Turn Turn.”

It don’t know if that song was in Jimmy’s personal repertoire, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.  It was his style. And as for the season – well, this is summertime. I’m sure than some of the happiest times of Jimmy’s life were the summers of his youth and young adulthood…sitting on the wall at the beach, surrounded by his friends, playing guitar, singing and harmonizing.  So if ever he had to leave us, perhaps it’s best that it be in summer. This is Jimmy’s time.

Jimmy was the fourth of six children in our family. He was different from all of us in so many ways. He had a real gift for music. None of his siblings had that gift. Jimmy had no formal musical training, as far as I know, anyway. But he made himself a superb guitarist. He liked folk and rhythm and blues, and I‘m told that he sounded a bit like Crosby Stills and Nash.

You can see clips of Jimmy on the internet. Five years or so ago he went to some open mic nights at the Artists’ Coffee House.  On their Facebook page, you can see him performing “Captain Jack” by Billy Joel. He’s also doing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” by Bob Dylan.

Meeting Rin Tin Tin, around 1958, at Boston Garden rodeo.

That is something else that’s especially fitting as we lay him to rest today. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Jimmy also loved to sing karaoke.  He was just a fun guy to be around.

He wasn’t just musical. Jimmy also had quite a talent for art. He could draw very realistic pictures and cartoons and caricatures. I remember one time when he took an empty Table Talk Pie box – one with the clear plastic top still intact – he reached in and drew perfect likeness of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble on the inside. It was his Flintstone Theater.

Another time he drew a picture of two steam shovels, a big one and an identical-looking smaller one. But instead of the claw scoop on the front of each one, he drew a rotary sandpaper attachment.  And he put an explanatory caption on it for us.

“It’s a combination derrick and sander. The little one is the son of the big one. It’s Derrick Sander’s Son.”

What kind of a mind would make a creative and imaginative leap like that? Certainly not one that any of his brothers or sisters possessed.  Jimmy was exceptional, all right. If he’d ever gone into advertising, he could have been a creative star.

He also had a talent for getting under everyone’s skin. Particularly with his nicknames. In one of the children’s books we had around the house, there was a story that had a cranky old billygoat. The story said, “My, but he was a crosspatch.”

Jimmy First Communion, with me (being a jerk) and our sister Mary.

That became Jimmy’s nickname for Peter: Crosspatch. Needless to say, big brother Peter didn’t like it at all. Nor did he like it when Jimmy taught the name to Jackie, who was two years old and just learning to talk. He’d say “Co-Pat! Co-Pat!” and burst into gales of laughter. And there wasn’t a blessed thing Peter could do about it.

I know also that a very proud moment of Jimmy’s young life came when he made the Little League A Division at age ten. He made the same team I had been on – the Braves. For the previous three years he had come to most of my games with our mother. My Braves teams had one great year and two terrible ones.  Jimmy’s teams were better and more consistent over his Little League career than my teams were. And he was so happy to be a Brave like me.

Jimmy graduated from Saint John’s School in 1966 and from Dominic Savio High in 1970. And that was the extent of his education. He had no desire to go further. He had a few jobs along the way but nothing you could call a career. He was a homebody. And he had his guitar. He stayed with our parents in the house on Pleasant Street all the way to the end of their lives.

Along the way he became a star of another sort. He was a fixture on radio talk shows: Jordan Rich, Steve Levellie late at night, Bob Raleigh during the day.  He was one of their regulars. It was a hard to beat Jimmy at radio trivia. Those guys came to refer to him as our good friend Jim from Winthrop.

Dad died in 1994 and Mom passed away in 1999. The house had to be sold. He was on his own, and the years since then were very difficult on him. But there were many people who knew Jimmy and did all they could to help him get by.  I want to thank Peg Lyons of the Winthrop Housing Authority, and Nancy Williams and Kathy Dixon of the Senior Center. They knew what Jimmy was all about, they cut him slack when he needed it, and he knew that they cared.

Chillin’ with our dad in the man cave.

Peter, our oldest brother, became Jimmy’s surrogate parent. He handled Jimmy’s finances and went to bat for him and advocated for him with any authorities that Jimmy encountered. What Peter — and Monica, inviting Jimmy over for countless meals — did for Jimmy over the past 15 years or so has been nothing short of heroic.  Their daughter Katie also, always had a soft spot for her uncle Jimmy, and she let him know it. That’s important.

I would like to conclude with Jimmy’s own words. These were written on papers that Peter found in his apartment.  Jimmy knew. Death did not come as a surprise to him.

Life’s Lesson Learned

To whoever finds me lifeless, remember me fondly in your hearts.

Be a giver, not a taker. To give another love and to make them smile and laugh is life’s greatest reward.

Live each day as if it were your last day, with love and kindness towards all.

Thank you for all your kindness, and to you all who made me laugh, I thank you.

And to you all who made me cry, I thank you too.

After tears, laughter feels so much better, like a sunny day after endless rain.

I ask all of you to pray for me, and God speed to all until we meet again.

JCB

Jimmy and Mom.

Back at you, Jimmy. We thank you too.

You made a few of us cry along the way. But you made many more of us smile and laugh. So thank you.

You’re now with Mom and Dad and Jackie. Half of the Burke family of Winthrop has crossed the river.

Soon and very soon the rest of us will cross that river.  And we’ll all be together again.

Until then, may God bless and keep you, little brother.

You’re free at last. Free at last.

 

 

 

 

 

Great Men and Great Guys

April 23, 2017
grinold

Jack Grinold

This week’s passing of Northeastern University’s and Boston sports’ beloved Jack Grinold, my good friend and good friend to countless others, brought back so many memories. Here’s one, a recollection of one his personal anecdotes, that’s not only a fond memory. It’s also instructive.

Jack lived in Brighton, about a block from Boston College. One of his walking routes, for those infrequent days when nothing was going on in his life, took him through the campus.

It was a mid-summer Sunday afternoon a few years ago. BC was deserted. Summer session was over, and the students had not begun to arrive for the fall semester.  Boston College’s middle campus is a landscaping gem; the trees, greenery, flower beds and walkways have been beautifully maintained for many years.

Jack was strolling through campus when he saw a man hunched over, close to the side of one of the buildings. Coming closer, he realized that the man was a gardener, digging with a hand spade and pulling up weeds that had begun to sprout through the mulch.

monan

J. Donald Monan, S.J.

Coming closer still, he recognized the lone gardener. It was J. Donald Monan, S.J., former president and then chancellor of Boston College.

“Hey, Father, what you up to?” cried Jack.  And if you knew Jack, you know exactly how that high-pitched greeting sounded.

“Hello, Jack,” came the reply. “I just saw these weeds coming up, and I figured I’d better do something about them.”

Then they had a nice little chat, just the two of them, and each proceeded along his way.

Kipling once wrote something about walking with kings but not losing the common touch.  The late J. Donald Monan’s station in life made him one who frequently walked with kings. But how many of those of his social rank would – literally – stoop to pull weeds from a garden in the realm he ruled for so many years?

More importantly, Father Monan sought out and valued the company and conversation of people of all stations in life. He also knew that he had a kindred spirit in Jack Grinold. That’s a quality that makes those who rank as “great men” truly great.

In that respect, Jack Grinold was J. Donald Monan’s peer. And both of them knew it. Jack’s place on life’s organizational chart wasn’t as lofty. He wasn’t a king. But kings sought him out and valued his advice. So did students, and athletes, and writers, and historians, and everybody else.  Jack Grinold always had a kind word and genuine, sincere interest in others, no matter what their station. So too did J. Donald Monan.

I can imagine the two of them now, meeting up in the Second Balcony and looking down on the rest of us. There will be no weeds to pull, no press releases to get out. Still, they’ve got plenty to do up there, legions of old friends and acquaintances to catch up with.

But I suspect that each February, perhaps, they’ll get together for another little chat. Fierce competitors that they are, they’ll root for their respective schools’ teams in the Beanpot. But only if it’s a BC-NU matchup. Otherwise, I bet, they’ll be pulling for each other.

After all, that’s what great guys do.

Book Review and Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy

February 17, 2017

hillbillyPerhaps the best thing that I can say about J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy is that it reminds me of Catherine Marenghi’s Glad Farm.

Both are personal memoirs of people who grew up in dire poverty and “made it” despite the odds that their respective backgrounds had stacked against them. But there are as many differences between the tales as there are similarities.

Marenghi grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, a dreary Boston exurb. Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio. But he considers Jackson, Kentucky, his native town. His great-grandparents had a place in “the holler” of Jackson, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. He spent most of his summers there and a lot of other time visiting Jackson, which he called “the one place that belonged to me.”

Shortly before World War II, his grandparents had traveled the “Hillbilly Highway” that brought thousands of hill people to work in the smoky factories and steel mills of Rustbelt America. But those folk brought their hillbilly values and culture out of the hills to wherever they settled.

Glad Farm, which I reviewed here, is an inspiring personal odyssey. So too is Hillbilly Elegy. But Vance frequently steps back and explains what’s going on and why. That’s good, and much needed in America – especially at this time in our history.

The plight of poor white citizens, a virtually forgotten segment of our society, hasn’t been discussed much at all.  Be warned, however. Don’t refer to it as “plight” if you’re talking to one of Vance’s kin. You’ll likely get busted upside your head. Or worse.

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky. It’s called “Bloody Breathitt” because it was the only county in America to fill its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers.  There’s much to admire in its rough-hewn people, with their loyalty to family and country topping the list. But hill folk take those loyalties and many other things to extremes.

The stories Vance tells of his family history and his early life bring their share of chuckles. But they are rueful, dread-laced chuckles. You wouldn’t want to be there.

A distant cousin of Vance’s married into a family named Hatfield and joined a band of former Confederate soldiers. He murdered a former Union soldier named Asa McCoy, thereby launching one of the most famous and violent family feuds in American history.

An uncle, called a “son of a bitch” by a truck driver, pulled the man out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Somehow, the guy survived.

Author J.D. Vance

Author J.D. Vance

Another uncle, called “Teaberry” because of his fondness for that brand of gum, once heard a young man tell a female relative that he’d like to “eat her panties.” Teaberry drove home, obtained a pair of the woman’s panties, sought out the kid, and forced him at knifepoint to consume them.

After World War II, many poor whites had a choice to make: whether to stay in the hills and work in the coal mines or take the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the industrial Midwest.

The book’s hero is Vance’s grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance. She was known as the toughest and meanest woman in Jackson, even long after she and her husband had taken the Hillbilly Highway out. She once saw a couple of guys trying to steal the family cow. She fetched her rifle and brought down one of them with a shot to the leg. Mamaw was fixin’ to put the final bullet through his skull when Papaw intervened.

Later on, when Vance was in the seventh grade and teetering close to taking up with weed-smoking peers, she told him blithely that, if she saw him with any of that crowd, she’d run them over in her car.   “No one will ever find out,” she warned.  He stayed away from them.

Still later she was paid a visit by a Marine recruiter.  Not happy with her grandson’s decision to enlist, she greeted the recruiter from her front porch and said, “Set one foot on my f—- porch, and I’ll blow it off.”

The Marine stayed down on the lawn. I could only think of a deadly serious version of Granny Clampett. Again, a chuckle, but one from a respectable distance, just as that Marine guy sensibly kept.

Vance lived most of his high school years with Mamaw. His mother, one of her three children, was one of the tragic cases who never made it out of the desperate cycles of poverty, addiction, and despair in Appalachia. She went through several husbands and common-law husbands and eventually succumbed to heroin.

In his book, Vance frequently critiques and analyzes what’s going on.  In a cri de coeur about the hillbilly mindset and pathology, he writes,

 

“This was my world; a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans…We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over….Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. ..We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job. Sometimes we get a job but it won’t last…We talk about the value of hard work  but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

 

But Vance was one of the rare hillbillies who took advantage of the few good cards in the hand he was dealt. Of his grandmother, he states, “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”

Mamaw died at age 72 when Vance was in the Marine Corps.  The Marines were a positive and transforming experience for Vance. After military service he went to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Generous scholarship help as well as the GI Bill enabled Vance to finance his education.  He did well in both schools. But even then, as he was discovering the richer and more prosperous side of America, he was torn between his new life and his hillbilly roots.

One time, on a visit to the old home country, he was wearing a Yale t-shirt while filling up at a gas station. When the attendant asked if he went to Yale, he denied it and said that his girlfriend went there. “I lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor,” he writes.

So J.D. Vance escaped his past. Or did he? You can decide that, after reading his book.

I can envision a college course built around Hillbilly Elegy and Glad Farm.  Book clubs and discussion groups might also consider taking up the two of them together. These two fine authors, both penning their first book, have much to teach us.

Catherine Marenghi’s writing style is more lyrical and picturesque than Vance’s meat-and-potatoes prose. Glad Farm has a Hallmark ending; it would make a better movie or miniseries than would Hillbilly Elegy.  You feel a nice, admiring glow for its author when you put it down.

You also admire the dickens out of J.D. Vance. But you can’t help but feel a bit depressed when you close his book. At least that’s how I felt.  The intractable problems that he lived through can be overcome, as his story shows. But those problems will always be with us.

What Two Soldiers Can Teach Both Our Political Leaders and All of Us

January 22, 2017

Today I would like to reflect on long-ago wartime deeds of a couple of soldiers. One of them wore the uniform of the United States of America; the other, the uniform of Nazi Germany.

May the actions of both men serve as moral and ethical guideposts for everyone: for those who hold positions of political and personal power and make decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, and for those of us who make our own, seemingly less consequential decisions that affect our fellow human beings as we go about our daily lives.

Lawrence Colburn

Lawrence Colburn

The first of these soldiers is Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn.  I recently read of his passing, which took place on December 13, 2016. Colburn was the gunner in the three-man helicopter crew that passed over the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai in March 1968 and saw a horrific scene of mass slaughter taking place. The chopper landed between the villagers who were being gunned down and the U.S. solders, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley.

Colburn remained in the helicopter along with specialist Glenn Andreotta.  They trained their guns on the clearing, covering their pilot, Hugh Thompson, as he angrily confronted Calley. Thompson ordered Calley and his troops to stop the carnage, and threatened to fire on them if they did not. The killing stopped, but not soon enough to spare the lives of the 500 or more villagers that Calley’s men had murdered.

My Lai is perhaps the darkest chapter in American military history. As the magazine that mentioned the news of Colburn’s death pointed out, the mass killing took more lives than the Nazis’ slaughter of 340 people of the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia. That mass murder was a reprisal for the assassination of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of that region.

We all know of the policies and practices that drove Nazi Germany to the mass murder of some six million Jewish people. But the Holocaust, or Shoah, also brought forth here and there some tiny glimmers of heroic charity of the kind shown at My Lai.

One Holocaust survivor, my dear and admired friend Mary Wygodski, tells of a German soldier that a friend of hers encountered in a concentration camp. Mary never saw him herself, but she heard of him. He was a young man of short stature, working as a guard and wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. He was not a member of the SS, that diabolical rabble that were charged with little more than killing Jews.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

Somewhere along the way, that guard encountered a young woman known to Mary. He offered to leave his lunch for her every day, stashing it in a place that would be known to just the two of them.  How and why he came to that decision, what motivated him to risk severe punishment if not his very life, we’ll never know. He also admonished her, “You don’t know me. You never saw me. We never spoke.”

So it was, until they had to move on. Mary’s friend shared the lunches – real food like wurst, bread, cheese – with a few others who were being fed starvation diets as they were worked to death. We don’t know if that shared food saved their lives, but it doubtlessly gave them hope and strength to carry on.

I singled our Lawrence Colburn here only because his death was the most recent.  Andreotta died in combat in Vietnam, and Thompson died in 2006. Thompson was probably the one who determined what they did on that awful day, but all three were heroes.

They were initially regarded as traitors for reporting the massacre and testifying against Calley. They all received, belatedly in 1998, the Soldier’s Medal.  Thompson and Colburn were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but they were passed over.  No surprise there.

That nameless German lad undoubtedly did not receive a medal for his quiet and unsanctioned heroism from his government.  I only hope that he survived the war and lived a good life. Perhaps, either now or in the hereafter, he can take comfort in knowing that he may have saved the lives of several Jewish girls. Their lives and those of their children and descendants are his gift to all of us.

Finally, as the writer of the story on Colburn noted, he and his crewmates never forgot that their highest duty was to humanity and to the law.  Nor did the kid from the German army.

There is a new group of people assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C.  I hope that they too remember that their highest duty is to humanity and to the law. That goes for them and for those who opposed them at every turn, and still do.

It is also a good thing for us all to remember. Our decisions and deeds may not have the grand, widespread impact of those of our leaders.  But they are no less important to those whose lives touch our own.

Book Review: Glad Farm, by Catherine Marenghi

August 12, 2016
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Glad Farm Second Edition Front Cover

(Note: Glad Farm’s second edition is now available. The review that follows was done upon the first edition’s release in the summer of 2016.)

It’s tempting, and too easy, to describe Catherine Marenghi’s memoir, Glad Farm, as a great American success story.  It is that, to be sure. She lived her first 17 years with her parents and four siblings in a ramshackle home in Milford, Massachusetts.  The grinding poverty of her childhood reminds one of Jeannette Walls’s early years in her 2005 memoir Glass Castle.

Like Ms Walls, Ms Marenghi set herself free through her education.  She earned a full scholarship to Tufts and went on to a prosperous career in writing and public relations.  That’s the bare outline; that’s the American success story.  That’s not enough, however. It doesn’t do justice to this elegantly written but searingly honest tale.

The Glad Farm that gave the book its title was the plot of land where she was raised. Her parents had grown and sold gladiolus flowers. The business did well for a time but failed before Catherine, the fourth of their five children, was born.

The family remained on the land and barely eked out an existence.  The author is unsparingly frank in describing it all, including her inability to have school friends come to visit, her dealings with thoughtless peers and adults, and her often-contentious relations with mother and sisters.  We also read of her coming of age on the outskirts of hippiedom in college, of her happy junior year abroad in Italy, and of a unique job as one of America’s first telecommuters.

Biography and memoir are best writ small. How well we experience the fine details – the colors, the smells, the images – are usually the difference between an average read and a superior one. Glad Farm is the latter.

Catherine Marenghi has a delightful knack of painting pictures with her words, of crafting similes and metaphors and of employing all those rhetorical devices that we’ve heard about but never could do ourselves.

It’s impossible not to feel the chill in that unheated home in the woods of Milford, or the cold wind on the slushy, ash-strewn pathway to the outhouse.   We can see the streets, the artworks, and the people of Florence and Perugia, Italy. We can also feel her joy in motherhood and the swirling emotions that accompanied her divorce proceedings.

Author Catherine Marenghi

Author Catherine Marenghi

It takes the author almost a full lifetime to discover all that she, and we readers, need to know about her parents and about her extended family’s past.  Her discovery of family correspondence and clippings in an old cedar chest reveal the details of her parents’ dreams and ambitions.  She also learns of a betrayal, by relatives, that kept her family out of a much better house that was rightfully theirs.

Finally, she and we learn of another family tragedy that had proved too much for her father to overcome. It wasn’t just the failure of the gladiolus farm that crushed his spirit.

As she puts it, after first seeing a picture of her father in his younger days, “He was a good-looking man – not at all like the world-weary, gray haired father I remembered. I could see what my mother saw in him.”

To endure and prevail through the hardships and injustice that Catherine Marenghi experienced is remarkable enough.  To endure and prevail without allowing bitterness to take hold would be much, much harder for most human beings.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to report that that’s not what happens here.  Catherine’s final words are a precise and eloquent summation, the essential message that readers should remember.

“Life, precious life, always wins over death. Life gets the last word.”

Yes, it does. And this wonderful book shows why.

 

Sporting Reflections – Farewell to Bud Collins

March 5, 2016
Bud Collins

Bud Collins

I once met the pope. Got his autograph. And he signed his name, not his official title.

 

The name he signed wasn’t his real name. And I didn’t meet him in the Vatican, but in the press box at Foxboro Stadium, where I worked for many years as a statistician.

 

Pope Alvin was Pete Rozelle, the infallible autocrat who ran the National Football League for almost 30 years. He was born Alvin Ray Rozelle, and he’d been dubbed Pope Alvin by Bud Collins.

I was tempted to ask Mr. Rozelle to sign my game program “Pope Alvin,” but I chickened out. Probably a good decision. He did sign the book, but he seemed just a little affronted at the request. I rather doubt he liked the moniker from Collins, the fun-loving, nonpareil sportswriter-turned-broadcaster, who died earlier this week at age 86.

I met Bud several times over the years and had brief conversations with him, but I can’t say that I knew him. That’s my loss. What a great mentor he would have been for me, as he was with many other writers too numerous to mention here.

For Bud Collins, it seemed, writing wasn’t work at all. I was play. It was joy. He had a joie de vivre that came through on the printed page. Even if he was needling or obliquely criticizing, as was probably the case with “Pope Alvin,” I can’t imagine people staying angry with him.

A major portion of Bud Collins’ professional career was taken up with tennis, first as a writer and then as a broadcaster. He knew everyone and was revered by everyone. I’m a little sorry that his sport happened to be tennis, because tennis and its people never caught my fancy. So I didn’t seek out Bud’s stories and deprived myself of regular reading of a truly superb craftsman.

He was a master at the quick quip-in-print, the off-the-wall simile or metaphor that was just too clever for anyone else to dream up under pressure of a deadline. He was a master, and not just with his nicknames like “Bucharest Buffoon” for Ilie Nastase, and “Sisters Sledgehammer” for Venus and Serena Williams.
Once, when covering the handsome and rising tennis star Bjorn Borg, he described the Swede’s adoring female fans as experiencing “Borgasms.” If memory serves, that one got edited out before the Globe hit the streets. Of course, it would remain in the story today. Probably in the headline.

Bud loved what he did, and he loved the people he covered in their victories and their defeats. He knew that sports was the toy department of society. He enjoyed that department to the full, traveling around the world to cover it. One regular feature in the Globe was “Bud Collins: Anywhere.” And he could be reporting from just about anywhere, dressed in his trademark outlandishly patterned colored pants.

The first I met Bud Collins was back in the late 50’s or early 60’s. It was at the Corinthian Yacht Club during Marblehead Race Week. Bud was still working for the Boston Herald at the time. He came to Marblehead to find an intriguing subject for “The Collins View.” He got to talking with a bunch of us from Winthrop and told us he was a Herald sportswriter. I asked him if he was Tim Horgan. Nice try, but in any case he seemed favorably impressed that I knew somebody with a byline.

He decided to do his column on Winthrop’s own John “Mac” McDonald and his red-haired, freckle-faced Turnabout crewman, Peter “Red” Fenlon. He wrote of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as I recall, and of girls wanting to go out in Mac’s boat, “Sea Note.” Mac and Red had their picture taken, shaking hands, to accompany the article. They had to go in to the Herald building in Boston for that, if memory serves.

The encomia for Bud Collins keep coming, as well they should. He was one of a kind. Rest in peace, Bud!

What Writers Live For

February 24, 2016

Cover front2Our book was published a little over a year ago. I just have to share the email (below) that I received from Shauna Sullivan McDonald. She is the daughter of Charlie Sullivan, Boston College Class of 1942.

This is why I love writing stories about people – whether they are athletes or not.

Charlie was the oldest former player whom I interviewed during the course of my research. He is, I am quite sure, the oldest living BC hockey alumnus. My co-author Reid Oslin interviewed Bill Hogan, Class of 1933, who lived to the age of 100 and who, unfortunately, did not live to see the book published.

Bill Hogan was the true founding father of Boston College hockey. He was class president in 1932-33. Hockey had been curtailed at the school due to the Great Depression. He persuaded the administration to revive the sport, and he recruited John “Snooks” Kelley to be the coach.

Charlie Sullivan came along a few years later. He was on a team that had three great players — Ray Chaisson, Fishy Dumond, and Johnny Pryor — and a bunch of scrubs including Charlie. In 1941, with World War II looming and knowing that he’d be called to service, Charlie didn’t come back to school in the fall. He waited around, but wasn’t drafted right away.

He happened to be on the campus one day when one of the priests saw him and asked why he was not in school. Charlie told him, and the good father promptly ordered him to report to the dean and to the athletic department.

Charlie played most of that 1941-42 season before the army came calling. His last game was on February 7 when the Eagles lost 7-2 to Dartmouth. Charlie wasn’t around at season’s end for BC’s first national championship. They won the George V. Brown Memorial Trophy as the top amateur hockey team in the country, besting the High Standard, Massena, and Saint Nick’s Hockey Clubs in the National AAU Tournament.

Charlie was just full of stories about his BC days. The team practiced only a few times a week, very early in the mornings at Boston Arena. Frequently, the practices were scrimmages against BU or Northeastern. The players would pitch a quarter each into a pot. The winners would use their money to buy breakfast at the White Tower restaurant on the way back to class.

The all had jobs on the side — usually at the Post Office or in supermarkets — while playing hockey and studying full time. For extra money, they’d sell pints of blood to the Red Cross.

Yes, times were different then. It was a privilege to be able to tell the stories after speaking with someone who lived through them.

Shauna Sullivan email

 

 

 

I’m Not Mike Carruthers, But This is Something You Should Know

December 28, 2015

It’s about actor Richard Dreyfuss. And good on him, for his work in education.

Smithsonian magazine for January-February interviews the 68-year-old Dreyfuss about his upcoming role as financial fraudster and uber-thief Bernie Madoff. Dreyfuss’s career has come a long way since his “I’ll get the cops” line in The Graduate back in 1968.

richard-dreyfuss-flagLooks like Dreyfuss is a great fit to play Madoff. They both are natives of Bayside, a section of Queens in New York City. Dreyfuss tells of his youth as a streetwise, smartass kid who grappled with the big questions of good and evil with the specters of communism, socialism, and fascism lurking in the background. His big breakthrough as an actor was a wise guy in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

(Aside – that book was by Mordecai Richler, a Canadian who also wrote some superb stuff about professional hockey and the six-team NHL. Read his Dispatches from the Sporting Life, and you’ll agree.)

In the interview, Dreyfuss compares the amoral Madoff to Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. The evil that Iago wrought goes beyond the merely personal to the cosmic. He wants to destroy everything in his path.

Dreyfuss also talks about his work in Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and about how his career spun out of control – literally – back in 1982 and nearly got him killed. He’d made it big, gone Hollywood, and was sleeping around and indulging heavily in recreational chemicals. One night he threw a tantrum, stormed out of a tryst, and flipped his Mercedes convertible off the road into a canyon.

Miraculously, he survived that accident and “turned his life around,” as the trite line goes. That’s why I say “Good on him.” He’s a former “red diaper baby,” a child of socialist/communist-leaning parents, and still serious about big-picture political discussions like those he heard growing up.

It’s not that all such discussions were about weighty issues. Once, when he asked his mother why she was a socialist instead of a communist, she replied “Better doughnuts.”

But that seriousness propelled him to study political philosophy at Oxford and, ultimately, to take the lead in the Dreyfuss Civics Initiative.

He also cites the important influence of his wife Svetlana, a most impressive lady whom I once had the pleasure of meeting. Svetlana is a Russian émigré and daughter of a KGB heavyweight. She let Richard know what it was like, even for those in the power elite, to live in a country where civics is non-existent.

The Smithsonian interview states that Dreyfuss believes “deeply in the brilliance of the Constitution, and that what’s really wrong with America, and the world for that matter, is that no one any longer teaches or studies the values of the Constitution.”

The article goes on to say that Dreyfuss seeks to “encourage civics education and Enlightenment values at a time when Enlightenment values – tolerance, free speech and the like – are under attack by sectarian values in the world.”

Sound familiar, boys and girls?

Let’s let Dreyfuss himself have the last word on the subject.

“You’ve got to protect the system of secular faith in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and Enlightenment values. That way you can protect all religions.”

And I’ll repeat my last word on Richard Dreyfuss: Good on him!

Eulogy for My Brother, Jackie Burke

October 16, 2014

Delivered by Thomas Burke at funeral mass, Saint John the Evangelist Church, October 16, 2014

John V. Burke

John V. Burke

On behalf of Jackie’s son Patrick and all of Jackie’s brothers and sisters, I thank you all for being with us this morning. Your presence here and your thoughtfulness during recent weeks has meant a great deal to everyone.

Our lives are but a brief moment in time between two vast eternities. Jackie’s moment is ended, and he has entered the eternity that follows. But however brief was his life, however brief is anyone’s life, that doesn’t mean it cannot be filled with wonderful and happy memories. And as Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey reminds us, “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

So let’s share some of those memories of my brother. I’m sure you all have many favorite ones, as do I. Jackie is with us now in spirit, his pain is gone, and he wants us to smile when we think of him today.

Childhood. Jackie was born ten years after I was. That decade’s age difference let me be the big brother in ways that Peter and Jimmy weren’t able to. I delivered newspapers all through grammar school, and my bike was equipped with a special, extra-large, industrial strength wire basket on the front. It was ideal for carrying 75 Boston Globes or one two-year old boy.

When I was taking care of Jackie, I used to love riding about the town with him in that basket. We’d go to the parks, the playgrounds, the beaches. Every time down at Winthrop Beach, he would point out “the balls.” Those giant golf-ball domes atop the Fort Heath radar towers.

It’s so much fun showing new and wondrous things to little ones. And for me, on those rides around town, I got to show him off to all the friends I’d meet. Especially to the girls. How I loved to do that.

I was so proud of my baby brother.

Adolescence. That meant hockey memories. They begin with all those years of my mother and Catherine McDonald driving Jackie and the McDonald boys here, there and everywhere. They all became very good hockey players, and when they got to high school they played together on the “Irish Line.” Jackie was the right wing, Bobby the center and Joe the left wing. They were the highest scoring high school Division One line in the state in 75-76. They won the East Coast Aero Tech Trophy for that. They’re in the Winthrop High Hall of Fame.

Jackie did pick up one edgy little habit along the way. When he scored a goal, sometimes he’d rub it in by turning his stick around and pretending he was shooting the goalie with the Ugly Gun. The Danvers athletic director complained to Jim Evans, and he put a stop to it.

I was there for those state tournament games at the Garden. That third overtime against Norwood – after midnight – Jackie stealing the pass in the Winthrop zone and going in alone for the winning goal, 4-3. Then again in the Eastern Mass final against Braintree, he got the game winner.

I made it into the locker room after the Braintree game. Reporters were all over the place, and I happened to catch a glimpse of one guy’s notepad after he interviewed Jackie. By that time, word had gotten out that he was the nephew of the late Walter Brown, and Jackie told the reporter that he used to come in to the Garden and practice with the Bruins. Well, Jackie was five when Walter died in 1964. He never knew his uncle Walter, and he certainly never practiced with the Bruins. I tapped the reporter on the shoulder and asked him not to include that tall tale that Jackie concocted in the flush of victory.

Sorry, Jack. I’ve never told anyone about that. But I think I saved you a little embarrassment. Not that your uncle wasn’t pleased to see what you’d done, watching from the Second Balcony. He coached the first American World championship hockey team, he ran the Garden from 1937 to 1964, he was president of the Bruins, and he never had a hockey thrill like that from any family member.
Those were great times. I knew that I’d never see a performance like that again.

I was so proud of my younger brother.

When the cancer came, it was horrible. It’s an angry, diabolical disease. Neither surgery nor intense radiation could slow it down. But Jackie fought it all the way. He got excellent support from his nurses, especially Colleen Kilbride, and from Patrick, a trooper during that battle just as he had been for his country, when he served in the US Marines in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Jackie’s friends rallied to put on a nice benefit evening for him – Charlotte Macrillo Flynn, Owen Gillis, Sharon McCarthy and their committee. Jackie was fighting a lonely battle but he wasn’t alone.

The last day I saw Jackie was on October 7. I was with him for a couple of hours at his apartment. He was in a lot of pain and had difficulty talking. We knew how hard it was for him to take care of himself. When he and I were alone together I asked him to consider going to hospice care. He wrote me a note on his note pad that said “No. If I go there, that means I’m giving up. I’m not giving up. I’m going to fight this.”

That wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear at the time. And eventually he relented. Patrick brought him to the hospice in Danvers to next day. The following morning, Jackie was asleep when Peter stopped by to visit. I was getting ready to leave and go up there later in the day when Peter called. Jackie had not awakened, but had died that afternoon.

So the last time I saw Jackie, he was still fighting, still battling against odds that had become impossible. But maybe that’s just what we should expect of a hockey player.

I was so proud – I am still so proud – of my brother.

Jackie, now it is time to say goodbye. You’re back with Mom and Dad. You’ve probably already been in on some pickup hockey games. And if they designed it properly, hockey players’ heaven is the old Boston Garden, that House of Magic where you had your greatest triumph. It’s jammed with 13,909 souls. And Mom, Dad, Uncle Walter, and all the rest are cheering you on from Section 34, Rows C and D.

Please give them our love. Your brothers and sisters, and all of us here today, will be along to join you by and by.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

And forever, brother, hail and farewell.