Seeing your childhood friends after so many years is a blessing. So is growing up in a neighborhood like mine.
Last week I had the privilege of attending a wake for a wonderful man who lived down the street from us growing up. He was a teacher, our school athletic director, devoted husband and father of eight children.
Our neighbor lived to the ripe, old age of 96. In so doing, he outlived his wife and two of his children.
This family was an anchor on our street. Their home was the 50-yard line for our neighborhood touch football games in the street, center-ice for street hockey, center-court for endless games of HORSE and 3-on-3 basketball.
Up a little further was where we played rundown, a baseball base running game.
Their back yard was home base for summer twilight kick-the-can and hide-and-seek games with what seemed like dozens of kids running around hiding in bushes, climbing in trees, and having a great time.
As I was going through the receiving line of his now quite grown children, I recalled a time when I was 10 or 11, when all of their family was home from college for Thanksgiving weekend.
This was before the 'Black Friday' shopping nonsense took over that weekend. It was family time, and our neighbors had a big family. And our street had a lot of kids.
On this occasion, the father and the oldest son - older than me by 10 years at least - were the quarterbacks of the 2 touch football teams.
Rather than fool around with fancy stuff, our grown-up quarterbacks took turns telling us kids to 'go long' and they would throw it as far and high as they could. We would all jockey for position as the ball came down, ready to jump and snag it at just the right moment.
Those guys must have been icing their arms after the game because they must have each thrown 50 or 60 long passes because we wouldn't let them stop. We were having so much fun.
I told the story in the receiving line and the warmth of the memory settled over all of us. The oldest son, now pushing 70 smiled, not remembering the specifics, but still warmed by the story.
I remember their youngest, a daughter, being born when I was about 10. I saw her grow up to the point when I got married and moved off our street. I didn't expect to recognize her at the wake since she was so young when I last knew of her, and that was over 30 years ago.
I was wrong. I recognized her instantly. She looked the same as she did as a little girl playing jump rope on our street. She was delightfully sweet and kind to my brother and me.
We explained to her, and to all of them, that we remember their dad as a true gentleman. A class guy. People like to hear that from friends who knew their loved ones for a long time. Especially when it's true, as it was here. The youngest also warmed my brother and me with memories of our own sweet mother, who she remembers very well.
In fact, the last time I saw our neighbor was at my mother's wake. He was still vigorous and tanned at 90 and he greeted me, my brother, and especially my father, warmly. His kind, gentle, respectful manner was always on display.
He was not a glib man, but he managed to say just the right thing whenever I was around him. Not too much, always on target, and always appropriate for the occasion. An Irishman with a gift for, not 'gab' really, but a gift for conversation. A gift for listening as well as for speaking.
Like my own father, he was a naval officer in World War II, and, also like my dad, he was proud yet humble about his service.
I had a few observations that struck me about our visit with our neighbor's family and their grief. Although I have had these impressions at other wakes, I haven't thought so much about it as I have this time. Or written about it. Anyway:
The Greatest Generation - those men and women of our parent's generation, born of the Great Depression and forged in the fire of World War II and the Korean Conflict, are leaving or have already left the stage. They gave birth to the Baby Boom Generation, and they leave a country that they built, one of the most powerful in the history of the world, better than they found it.
Military service was an obligation that these folks accepted happily. Their patriotism was sincere and genuine. Their service, and it's results, will live on for many years longer than they will. We may have more technologically advanced armed forces today, but in terms of love for their country, the Greatest Generation will never be defeated.
Growing up in the '60s and '70s was a magical time. Though we had TV, and we did waste a fair amount of time watching it, life was nothing like it is today. We ran and swung and slid and climbed and threw and caught and chased and swam and biked and even pogo-sticked all day long. We played dodge ball (and really any game where we could throw things at each other, up to and including rocks including ball tag with all kinds of balls and even once with a toy rubber knife (knife tag)), wrestled, boxed, and I even got shot in the thigh with a pellet gun once. I was unarmed. Ah, good times.
In the winter, we would be out sledding (in the street, mind you) all day until the street lights came on in the late afternoon. We cursed the sand trucks and plows that came through and ruined our sledding surface, before pivoting to snowball fights and building snow forts. We threw snowballs at cars whenever we felt we could get away with it. We usually did.
We rarely left our neighborhood, which consisted mostly of Lyme and Rindge Streets, the latter being a dead-end in those days. This also provided a few acres of woods to play in. They've since extended the end of Rindge Street and built houses where the woods once stood.
The big takeaway for me was what a nice reunion we had with this family who was so foundational to our neighborhood and our upbringing. There is such comfort in meeting people who remember you fondly from a time when your life was just starting.
Our childhood friends, like our parents, are gifts from God. We were brought together in that crucial time of life to be shaped, molded and refined in the furnace of growing up. Like your family, you did not end up in your neighborhood with those particular friends by accident. There were times of great pleasure as described above. There were times of trouble when fights would break out between friends, and life would cool for a while before warming up again, better than ever.
There were times of pain and sadness, as when our friend's dog was hit by a car and killed, our first brush with death which to me was terrifying. Or when one of our friend's dad 'dropped dead' while playing golf. That took a while to process too.
Through it all, we learned together. Our parents always built the foundation and the framing, but it was our friends who painted, wallpapered, and furnished the space, giving life and fun to the structure of our lives.
Dear God, please watch over and bless our neighborhood friends, especially the DeVincentis's, the Dempseys, the Enemarks, the Ready's, the Logues, the Stevens, the Davids, the MacDonalds, the Dwyers, the Scannells, the McGowans, the Currans, the Cullinanes, the Andersons, the Mahlers, the Floras, the Crosses, the Flanagans, the McKenneys, the Giacommozzis, the Johnstons and the Kenneys.
May they remember those long-ago days as fondly as I do, the good and the bad, realizing those times had a large hand in shaping who we became. We are plumbers, business executives, writers, electricians, artists, doctors, lawyers, auto mechanics, teachers, engineers, carpenters...
We are husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws. We are friends, colleagues, frat brothers, sorority sisters, alumni, pastors, churchgoers, non-churchgoers, agnostics, and atheists.
Whomever we have become, let us always remember our happy times together and in those rare times when we come together, let them experience the warm, happy feeling I felt last week.
In Jesus' name, I pray, Amen!
Regardless of the labels the world puts on us, we were created by a God who loves us so much that He gave his only son to take on the punishment for the sins of the world so that we might be saved and share eternity with Him in heaven.
All of Lyme Street and much of Rindge has new residents in the old houses. One of the brothers told me at the wake that he was the last of the original neighborhood to move out of Lyme, doing so just 3 weeks earlier.
He also experienced the trauma of seeing his old family house, two doors down from his own and where they all grew up, torn down and replaced with a new house.
The people can move away, and you can even knock down the houses, but your old neighborhood lives on in the hearts of those who were born, grew up, played, fought, loved, died, cried, grieved, laughed and laughed and laughed some more.