It has been a long time since my Dad lost his third battle with cancer at the age of 57. I hope that the following short story reminds some of you, and informs the rest of you, what kind of man Dennis Mullervy was.
The year was 1979, and the Mullervy family made the big Rhode Island move from one side of town to the other. It was August, and the school year was about to start. Our new house had a Flintstones-looking walkway from the driveway to the front door. There were semi-flat, multi-colored rocks of various shapes and sizes with grass and dirt in between them. My Mom tripped, and almost fell, because of them right after we moved in. That day, my Dad told my Mom that he was going to build her a brick walkway, and told my little sister and I that we were going to help him build it. Two little kids getting to play in the dirt during a New England summer; Awesome!
That week, my Dad: looked in all of the local papers, checked all of the local bulletin boards, and drove all over the local area. However, he found no one selling or giving away quality bricks. The following week, the school year started (my Dad was a school administrator in town during the day, and ran the city’s adult education program at night). He put the word out in the school system that he was looking for bricks. Half the school year went by before some guy told my Dad that he was going to have the city take a pile of bricks from his lot to the dump the next morning. My Dad thanked the guy, and told him that we would pick through them that night. Unfortunately, it was now a New England winter; Awwwesommme.
It was a weeknight, and a couple hours after dinner. My Dad was getting ready to drive my little sister and I to some sketchy neighborhood in central East Providence to get those free bricks. It was only about 10 degrees outside, so I put on my long johns and winter play clothes. I also put on my jacket and hat, then walked down the hall to the living room. We had a fire going in our fireplace that night, but I was surprised to see my little sister in her pajamas under a blanket next to my Mom on the couch. At that moment, my Dad walked in to the living room. My little sister immediately snuggled up to my Mom, and tried to look cute for everyone, but I knew exactly what she was up to, and was not going to let her get away with it.
I looked at my Dad, and asked “How come Beth isn’t going?” He said “It’s too cold for the girls tonight, so it’s just us guys.” Not satisfied with that answer, or my sister staying warm while I froze, I replied “But Dad, that’s not fair!” My Dad smiled like he knew that I would get the answer someday, and simply said “Don’t forget your scarf and mittens.” What?! Not only was my little sister not going, but now I had to wear my ugly, itchy scarf, and mittens that were more like pot holders. I was a big kid now, and didn’t need to wear a scarf and mittens anymore. I said “But Daaad”. He looked at me, and said “Sean Michael”. When you’re a kid and your parent uses your middle name, you can tell that either the conversation is going to end, or that something bad is going to happen. I was a pretty smart kid, and never found out about bad things. I ran down the hall, grabbed my scarf and mittens, and left the house with my Dad.
Boom! The 10 degrees hit me hard. And to make it worse, we owned a used, early 70’s Volkswagen Bus. Basically, it was a tin breadbox on go kart wheels with a lawn mower engine and no heater. The only heat came from a silver dollar-sized hole in the floor between the front seats, but that heat only came from the engine in the rear after about 15 minutes of driving. So, we often drove under blankets. We took the middle seat out of the bus, and put it in the garage. My Dad went back inside, and came back out with two hot cocoas.
Boom, again! It was windy that night, and there was black ice on the road. That’s a bad mix for a normal vehicle, but really bad for one that two guys can pick up and carry. The wind and ice had us facing oncoming traffic a few times. We didn’t have cup holders in the bus, so I had to hold both of our hot cocoas while my Dad steered and shifted. With my beaver tail mittens and the roller coaster ride, my blanket and the floor got more hot cocoa than we did.
Finally, we made it to some deserted industrial section of town. The heat was just starting to come out of the floor when my Dad said “This is it.” He jumped out of the bus, opened the gate that the guy left unlocked, jumped back in, and drove in to the lot. On all three sides of the lot, I could hear guard dogs barking from behind the flimsy fences. The only light was from a dim streetlight near the gate. We parked next to the loose pile of bricks, and my Dad said “Time to get out.” It didn’t really matter because although it was only 10 degrees outside, it was only 15 inside the bus. He opened the sliding door, and laid his blanket on the floor for the bricks.
My Dad grabbed a flashlight, and said “I have flashlight duty, and you have brick digger duty.” At first, that sounded fair. He has a duty, and I have a duty. Moments later, it didn’t. I thought about me on my knees outside sifting through a brick pile, while he sat in the bus holding a flashlight and half a hot cocoa. But then, it did again. I thought about me moving around, keeping warm and throwing bricks, while he sat fairly motionless in a freezing bus holding a cold metal flashlight and a now cold cocoa. Deal! Looking back, I know that he knew I would be warmer and have more fun being the brick digger.
As I approached the brick pile, my Dad said “Grab one brick, and hold it up.” So, I grabbed a brick from the top of the pile, and held it up. He flashed the light on it, and said “Now, show me the other five sides.” I turned the brick, hesitated, turned the brick again, hesitated again, etc. He would say “Good…Good…Good…” If all six sides were good, he had me underhand toss it to him. If even one side had a defect, he would say “Bad”, and have me toss it to the side. There were a lot of bricks with five good sides and only one bad side. I said “But Dad, no one will see this side.” He replied “Just because other people won’t see it, that doesn’t mean we should use it.”
Damn, it was cold! Even the guard dogs stopped barking, and went back in to their dog houses. My Dad somehow knew that I needed some motivation, and said “When we’re done, I’ll buy you a Haven’s hot dog and a coffee milk.” Whoa! A Haven’s hot dog and a coffee milk?! Haven Brothers was a food trailer, and Rhode Island institution, since 1888. And, coffee milk was a RI specialty, and good any time of the year. With my dream food and drink incentive, I became a machine, and no longer felt the cold. He and I began to process each brick in less than 10 seconds. I was digging through the pile with my fingerless mittens like a large rodent. I would toss the good ones to my Dad, and he would carefully pile them in the bus. I would toss the other ones all over the place.
After an hour or so, we got through the whole pile, and had just enough bricks in the bus to make a walkway. Haven’s time! I hopped in the passenger seat, and waited for my Dad to hop in the driver’s seat. Instead, he said “Sean, we need to clean up this mess for the guys tomorrow.” Mess? What mess?! We came to a lot that had a mess, we took some of the mess, I threw around most of the mess, and now we’re leaving a smaller mess. Plus, the garbagemen coming the next morning were trained professionals in cleaning up messes. They’re sanitation engineers! So, I replied “But Daaad”. He said “Sean”, and I hopped out of the passenger seat before he was able to say Michael. Together, my Dad and I cleaned up the area, and made the neatest brick pile in the history of brick piles for the garbagemen. He rewarded my additional effort by offering to buy me some Haven’s baked beans, too. With beans on the side, this would be a kid’s meal for the ages! We got in the bus, and were off to downtown Providence. And, the bus actually drove better in the wind with the bricks in it.
Downtown Providence was a lot different in 1980 than it is today. It wasn’t chic; it was $&!#, especially around City Hall where the Haven’s trailer parked. We parked on a side street near a shady bar, then started walking past some shady characters. I could barely feel my face, but I couldn’t wait to stuff it with a Haven’s dog and beans. We turned the corner around the backside of City Hall, and my Dad stopped suddenly. The spot where the trailer had always parked was empty. “Where was Haven’s?!”, I thought. I looked up at my Dad, and saw his head drop (he had just realized Haven’s was open 6 nights a week, and he picked the 7th). I was cold, tired, starving, 30 minutes from home, and wasn’t going to get my meal. As quickly as his head dropped, it picked up, and he said “C’mon, Sean”.
We got back in the bus, and drove for what seemed like forever around Providence looking for a good wiener joint that was open. We ended up at another RI institution, Olneyville New York System. Tired and weary, we ordered: six with sauce, two beans, and two coffee milks. It was the best meal I ever had (outside our home of course, Mom). We ate and warmed-up for a while, then got back in the bus and went home. That spring, we made the walkway.
Growing up, my Dad rarely told me what to do. However, I learned what to do by watching him. Whether it was getting bricks for his wife, or food for his son, he would always try to overcome obstacles. Whether it was at his school, or in a deserted lot, he always tried to leave a place better than he found it. He always did the right things in the right ways, even when most people never saw them. He was always a gentleman and fair, even when some people deserved less.
No matter how long it took, how or what the conditions were, he always did nice things for the ones he loved. And, he always made sure that I had my scarf and mittens.
I feel blessed that I had you for 30 years, but I wish that I had you for more. I love and miss you, Dad.