The Ladder

A tribute to my father, Dick Kenney, who passed away this week:

Dad, February 1949

My father got high and I held the ladder. “All you have to do,” he’d tell me, “is to hold it steady and turn the radio dial when I tell you. Just don’t move the ladder.” With that, he scooted up to the second story dormer of our house on Hobart Street, fresh paint from his bucket splattering and sticking to Silver, his aluminum ladder.

He ascended rungs like a seasoned, water tower inspector. The higher he climbed, the brighter his mood. With a little jazz wafting from the plastic, black and yellow radio, he was back in the saddle again.

Meanwhile, I was holding the horse. For hours, I’d stand there, checking my watch, my hands frozen to white-hot aluminum. One thing saved me: afternoon ballgames.

A guy named Gowdy, the Red Sox radio voice, broke the clarinet and snare drum hypnosis, his warm twang welcoming us to Fenway. “It’s Red Sox baseball,” he’d say. “Brought to you by the brewers of Narragansett Beer. Hi neighbor, have a ‘Gansett.”

I imagined myself digging in at the plate taking practice swings and sizing up the southpaw on the mound. Daydreaming, though, sometimes meant kicking Silver. “What the hell are you doing down there?” my father snapped, his dripping paint brush blotching the rungs butterscotch. “For cripes sake, Richie, pay attention!”

Dick Kenney's Trio, 1953

We learned to pay attention early on. I practiced my clarinet every day after school. My brother, Steve, did the same with his trumpet. Debbie, our sister, played the piano. You see, Dad was a musician. He played in small jazz bands at weddings, proms and bowling banquets all over the South Shore. I can still see him with his shiny, gold saxophone, breaking in reeds, filling the living room with tunes like The Days of Wine and Roses or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, songs he suggested we learn.

Dad and Me, 1955

Dad was a hard worker, a man of many projects. And he wanted us to be the same way. We’d try sneaking out of the house on Saturday mornings before we’d hear his ominous words: “Don’t make any plans. We have a lot of work to do.” That meant weeding or shoveling dirt over the small river in our backyard that flowed from the faulty septic tank.

Yes, he managed to keep himself busy selling sewing machines, building bedrooms and playing in the band. But his busyness came with a price. It especially took its toll on Ma who seemed sad to see him go off to “play” every weekend. I can’t remember a New Year’s Eve we spent with Dad because those were his biggest gigs. Instead, we celebrated with Ma and the little games she made up for us.  We threw hand-made confetti and pitched pennies against the kitchen wall. But there was always that extra party hat; a  marriage can last only so long…

I stayed in touch with my father after my parents split up. But it was never the same. While Dad remained on Cape Cod, I got the traveling bug and lived in places like Austin, Phoenix and Tulsa. During phone conversations or trips to the Cape, I’d tell him of my love for writing poetry or stories but I think he was quietly disappointed that I didn’t stick with the clarinet. We always talked about the Red Sox, though. It was the strongest bond we had or so I thought…

I used to send Dad my poems every so often. One of them, Hostage, was about how I got soaked in a late-season monsoon by the Hassayampa River in Wickenburg, Arizona. At the end of the poem, I mentioned the river’s legend: “Of the Hassayampa River, it is said, if you drink its water you may never leave Arizona.” He never said anything about it; I wondered if he had even read it.

A few years ago, he left me a message on my phone recorder. It was about paint stains on a ladder. It didn’t make sense. When we later spoke he asked me if I remembered the ladder, the one I held for five summers on Hobart Street. He told me how paint drops still clung to Silver and asked if I could name all the colors of our houses.

He wanted me to know they reminded him of me. He wondered if I had words for a poem, if I knew how much longer I’d be held hostage…

Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.

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Tomorrow’s Cheese

I recently saw this sign outside the First Baptist of Okay, a church in the tiny town of Okay, Oklahoma.

This one took me back to when I was struggling to find words for a book I was writing two years ago. While the project was mostly an enjoyable one, there were days the ideas would not come.

I found myself worrying about daily word counts. I fretted over having to make up for lost time (and words) the next day. The what ifs were also taking hold. What if I don’t finish on time? What if I have to start all over again? What if I really can’t do this?

As the humorist, Josh Billings, once said, “There are people who are always anticipating trouble, and in this way they manage to enjoy many sorrows that never really happen to them.”

I was becoming one of those people. So I decided to ask the most important what if question of all. What if I talk with God?

My talks with God may not be what you’d expect. Many years ago, I learned that worries don’t like long walks and, for that reason, my talks are mostly walks. There isn’t much talking either; it’s about letting go and waiting.  I simply walk and wait. If I walk long enough, the answers come.

I guess I walked often and long enough as I did eventually finish the book. Worries fell by the wayside as I waited on God. Words and ideas began to flow again. It’s something I cannot explain. It’s something I cannot teach. It’s a thing called faith.

The best advice I can give you the next time worries surround you is to ask yourself, What if I talk with God? Then, walk and wait.

And try not to eat tomorrow’s cheese.

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Breaking A Chord

A few years back, I worked as a newspaper columnist for the Daily Sun-News which is based in the heart of a retirement community in Sun City, Arizona. In that role, I had many opportunities to write about  people and their passions. I would often set up interviews in a small cafe called the Point of View.

One time, I met with several members of a forty-man barbershop chorus. The music director described the effect that the group’s singing had on him. “When you have a bunch of guys who can really sing barbershop,” he said, “it raises the goose bumps on your arms.”

He then began talking about a phenomenon known as breaking a chord. “If you have four guys that can match up their vowel sounds and sing in tune, you can create a fifth part just by the overtone that’s heard. Sometimes that sound is louder than any of the individual voices.”

The gentleman sitting across from him nodded his head knowingly. “It’s the time when God visits the room,” he said. “That’s the glory of barbershopping—when the chords ring and you get that vibration.”

Another fellow added his take on the breaking of a chord. “When you break a low tone, you think you’re experiencing an earthquake,” he said. “If you break low and you’re standing on risers, you can feel the vibrations.”

I asked them if they could demonstrate this phenomenon with a song, and when they began an impromptu rendition of “Down Our Way,” I felt the goose bumps. So did all the diners sitting nearby as the small barbershop quartet began harmonizing.

Perhaps God is that vibration or overtone we need to listen for a little more closely.

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Is God Really The Tooth Fairy?

“Look at me. Look at my life. It’s been a train wreck.”

I am a social worker and, sometimes, that’s what I hear from people nearing death. It’s what a ninety-year-old, terminally ill patient with heart disease said to me when I first started in the field of hospice care a couple of years ago. We were engaged in a life review discussion in which patients reflect upon the highs and lows of their lives. He brought up the subject of God and how, as a teen, he was a strong believer.

“Lot of good it did me, though,” he said.

“What happened to your faith?” I asked.

“What do you think?” he quickly shot back, his stare, piercing. “You’re an adult. It just stopped working. The older you get, the less sense it makes.”

The sharpness in his tone told me to cut short the questions but I had one more. “Why do you think you had such a strong faith when you were young?”

“Because I didn’t know any better. It was make-believe, like the tooth fairy. At least, I used to get a few quarters out of that deal.”

I walk away from every life review discussion with new thoughts to ponder. Some confirm my own beliefs while others challenge them.

Many are inspiring, especially the people who have made God and faith the centerpieces of their lives. There was the gospel singer with throat cancer who told me she had never missed a single worship service until she became ill. To the day she died, she made it a point each Sunday to whisper the hymns from her bed.

Some are disturbing. A man who would later die of cirrhosis of the liver once confessed to me that he had been a burglar for two years as a young man. “Best days of my life,” he boasted. “Lucky was I to find the Lord later. But I’ll probably pay for those days – and soon.”

I keep drifting back, though, to the conversation with the patient who dubbed his life a train wreck. I think about his take on faith, about it making less sense the older he got.

Every so often, I’ve felt that way, too. I’ve been in the train wrecks; I’ve wondered about the logic of faith. But make-believe? God – a tooth fairy?

To believe in God is to collect the evidence. For me it’s the way the sunrise makes itself known like an urgent bulletin and how a child’s smile does the same thing. It’s the nurse with the reassuring touch gently holding a patient’s hand or the teacher’s aide with the white cane teaching kids Braille. It’s a concert hall of strings and reeds or a willow tree’s family of lady bugs.

What evidence have you found?

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Crosier in a Banana Box

And after all these years, I thought Crosier was either a bone-crushing lineman or a sergeant in the fighting archangel corps…

Crosier is the name of my high school yearbook. It’s been sitting in a Chiquita Banana box with my old photo albums, childhood diaries and Little League clips for about four decades.

I take it out of the blue and yellow banana box every few years to look back to 1969, the year I graduated from Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Massachusetts. Crosier 69 is written in dark blue letters on a golden jacket cover, the course texture of which is still a mystery to me.

More of a mystery, however, is the lack of reference to the word on the inside pages – nothing. But that’s no excuse; I should have researched it long ago.

For all I knew, it was someone’s surname – maybe a linebacker from the class of ’55, somebody they called Bone Crusher Crosier who helped win football conference championships. Or was it about angels – a fighting archangel, Crosier the Obscure?

The truth is I never looked up its meaning or how it came to be the name of our yearbook. Deep down, I assumed it was a word  cloaked in Catholic secrecy. Perhaps it was an unspoken blessing, rarely used incense or a seldom-sung hymn.

The word surfaced this past Sunday at church. It popped out at me from a stack of cards in our pew. There it was, in bold text, next to the graphic of a shepherd’s staff with a definition from the Diocese of Tulsa:

“The crosier is a walking staff, a symbol of authority conferred on bishops at their installations. The top of the staff is curved like a shepherd’s crook to remind each bishop of his pastoral duties toward the people entrusted to him through Christ. The crosier is a support to a bishop as he leads his flock on their journey through life.”

During Mass, I thought about the crosier and its symbolism. But mostly, I thought about the nuns who taught at Archie’s, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who founded the school in 1949. They were our bishops, our shepherds without the symbolic staffs.

They led us in Latin, lit and religious studies. They were taskmasters, cheerleaders and sounding boards. They led us in prayer in the classroom and by the lobes of our ears out of it whenever necessary.

There were the comic intimidators like Sister PJ, she of little patience for those who drew blanks in class. “Sit down, ham bone,” was a line I heard more than once. Or, “Sweet mother of the light,” a favored utterance in times of complete exasperation.

There were eccentric vigilantes like Sister Tall Paul who spoke in tongues of trigonometry and who once interrogated me after class about “profaning” the top of my desk with mathematical commentaries about square roots. When she later apprehended the actual perp, she apologized and handed me an apple in peace.

There were jewels like Sister Virginia, a.k.a. Sta’, the quiet rock whose spirit I still feel today. Her gentle prayers had legs; they took us places. So did her smile and laughter. She was the sunbeam behind ominous clouds.

All this from the word, crosier. I’ll remember it now, just like I’ve always remembered those nuns. They were the ones who helped us get ready for our journeys through life. They were our teachers, our candles and our shepherds of light.

Crosier… what a great name for a yearbook.

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How Do You Pull Through?

Ever get put through the wringer? Well, here’s the real McCoy…


I found this ancient gizmo while driving through Okay, Oklahoma yesterday. It was sitting outside on someone’s front lawn.

 The wringer (in this photo it’s the attachment on the upper left that looks a little like a lobster claw) is a device that squeezes water out of clothes. When people washed clothes by hand in the old days, it was a rather demanding experience, an ordeal. Over time, the wringer has become a metaphor for anything that is considered difficult or painful.

 Sometimes, life can be a wringer. Cancer puts people through the wringer. Deaths of loved ones put can put people through the wringer. Losing jobs put people through the wringer.

Where does faith fit in?

When you get put through the wringer, how do you pull through?

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