Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mom and the Mighty Oak

Even now, I always am startled a bit when the phone rings and my sweet Aunt Elise Gifford is calling from Shreveport. For there on the phone, through some Jobsian Apple magic, the caller ID says, simply, "Mom."

I know it's Elise because she now has Giffy Marshall's old phone number, the phone number I grew up with in our family's homes on Atlantic Street and Audubon Place. Once I even went into my contact files in an attempt to make it say "Elise" whenever she called. But I didn't try too hard, because I really didn't want to delete "Mom" at all. Not that I could if I tried.

Siblings: Giffy, Alec and Elise
On this Mother's Day 2014, it's been more than two years now since Giffy drew her last breath here on planet Earth. It was February 22, 2012, when Mom went to join her forever husband Jack, her force-of-nature mother Mere and her gone-too-young sister Gloria in heaven. And Giffy's best known sibling, the long-time New Orleans broadcast newsman Alec Gifford, joined that great reunion just 13 months ago.

So now it's just Elise from that group, affectionately known to each other as Mother, Yvonette, Elise, Brother, and Glo.

Whenever Elise and I visit, our conversation inevitably is highlighted by various memories of the times this and that happened, or of something particularly memorable that someone said long ago. I used to think dwelling on such things was only for old folks. But I can't possibly be old, can I? So maybe reminiscing like that -- particularly when we laugh together over something funny -- is useful after all. Because the warm embrace I feel when we talk about Mom cannot be just my imagination.

Elise is still in Shreveport, having moved there in 2008 to help Giffy (and to have Giffy help her) as they both slowed down physically and as the Alzheimer's that eventually would take her life was beginning to cloud Giffy's mind.

Giffy and Elise in the chairs Larry Cobb and I bought for them.
Mom and Elise had several wonderful years together in The House That Jack Built on Audubon Place, and I like to think I made a small contribution to their enjoyment. One day at Sam's Club my brother-in-law Larry Cobb and I spotted some Adirondack chairs that looked like they would be perfect in that back yard. We immediately bought them and took them to the house and put them together for Giffy and Elise. And then they "tried them out" and declared them to be just right.

Over the next few years, before it was necessary for Mom to move into a 24-hour care facility, every time I'd visit her on Audubon, at some point I'd say, "Do you want to go sit out back for a few minutes?" And no matter how she felt that day, her face would brighten as she said, "Yes!"

So I'd hold her hand and we'd walk carefully together across the threshold and lawn to those chairs, waiting for us under the wide branches of a now tall and mighty oak tree Mom had planted and Mere had nurtured soon after we moved into that house in 1963. If it was warm enough, sometimes we'd even take off our shoes and nestle our feet in the cool, soft Saint Augustine grass that Jack Marshall planted there by hand nearly 50 years before.

The House, shortly after it was built in 1962. One small tree had been planted in front, and The Mighty Oak was planted in the back yard a short time later.
Mom and I would sit quietly together and look up at the branches swaying in the breeze and over at the tire swing she installed for her grandchildren, still dangling from a particularly strong limb. And we'd lean toward each other and trade stories about all the family events that had taken place at that house and in that very yard. For a few minutes, it was like she was young again, and all her children were home and Dad was about to grill some burgers and all us kids would be playing with our friends from the neighborhood. And then, as she remembered good times with those who were most important to her, Giffy would smile and exclaim, "Wonderful!"

My niece Maureen remembers a day when, even though Giffy's memory was almost completely gone, she still wanted nothing more than to sit under that tree. And how, out of the blue that day, while enjoying the shade of the great oak, Mom recited for her in a clear, strong voice a poem she had learned as a girl:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

(Trees, by Joyce Kilmer, 1913)

After Mom died, it was finally time to sell the house on Audubon Place, the home place of most of our youth. Neighbors with young children of their own bought the house and moved in. My sister Mary sent me a photo last Christmas of the house decorated for the holidays for the first time in some years, with lights outside and a tree visible through the front window. When I saw that, I felt at first a twinge of nostalgia, but mostly I felt happy. I like to think of that house full of life again, with a bustling family coming and going and enjoying that great back yard.

Today, The Mighty Oak towers over the center of the roof. (Google Earth)
I still am coming to grips with the loss of my mother. I like to think of her, alive and well and healthy and happy, sitting out in her back yard and enjoying the special place our Dad provided for her and which she cherished every day.

So the next time my phone rings and the caller ID reads "Mom," I'll smile to myself and know Elise's call also brings me a greeting from heaven. Happy Mother's Day to Giffy Marshall, and to all of our mothers!
Tom Marshall, New York City

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Images of a Jesuit Education

I remember the first time I set foot in the hallowed halls of Jesuit High School in Shreveport.

My oldest brother, John, had started his freshman year there in the fall of 1961, and already I had heard stories of this mythical male world, where priests in long black robes taught their students exotic lessons about diverse subjects – the thinking of men named Shakespeare, Ceasar and Pythagoras, the rules of speaking a dead language called Latin, and understanding the very literal substance of the universe. And where legendary young men with names like Sardisco, Restovich and Cordaro performed wondrous feats of athleticism on the playing fields and courts of the school. (See Jack Marshall's photo below of Coach Frank Cicero and pitcher George Restovich, during Jesuit's 1964 state championship baseball season.)

And where, if you misbehaved even for one second, you were sent to a place called “Penance Hall,” inside of which lurked such terrors that no one dared speak aloud of them.

All of which meant, I could not wait to experience it for myself.

One evening during the fall of John’s first Jesuit year, Jack Marshall took me to a basketball game there, and from the moment we walked into the gymnasium I was in awe. The players' sweatshirts said “Jesuit” on the front, with a big, royal blue block letter “J.” People cheered as they took the court. The building smelled of sweat and liniment and teenaged boys. Up until that time I had no idea that such a place existed, but from that moment on, I counted the days until it was my turn to enter that world.
So finally, in the fall of 1967, I took my place in the one of the periodic classes of “pre-freshmen” who were allowed to enter Jesuit High School starting in their 8th grade year. Which meant I was looking forward to not 4 but 5 glorious years enjoying life in my promised land of academic and athletic excellence.
I was not to be disappointed on either score.

During my brothers’ years at Jesuit (brother Dave had followed John there one year later), and continuing throughout my high school career, Jack Marshall and his camera were ever-present fixtures at school events. Dad photographed sporting events, school plays, fund raisers, dances (Chris Parsons JHS '64 and Carmen Russo SVA '65 are pictured
at the end of this post at 1963's homecoming event), special Masses, academic and religious clubs, honor societies, faculty members and graduation ceremonies. He took pictures for the school newspaper and yearbook, and helped students learn to do the same.

Dating from the early 1960s until his death in 1976, the negative files I discovered in Jack Marshall’s darkroom clearly displayed his love of Jesuit and its sister school, St. Vincent’s Academy (the two schools are now combined in a co-ed school referred to as Loyola College Prep). For in those files I found no category of photographs with more entries than Dad’s pictures of the many days and events in the annual, rhythmic life cycles of the beloved schools of his children and their friends.

During my pre-freshman year, the football team, under coach C.O. Brocato, won every game, many by lopsided scores (one game ended 74-0). The season culminated in a thrilling 34-33 victory over Lake Charles in the 1967 state championship game that some say still ranks as one of the greatest high school football games ever played in Shreveport. Jack Marshall’s photograph of Brocato (above) in action during that season shows the intensity of high school football at Jesuit 40-plus years ago.

In my Jesuit years, I was taught by many teachers who would not even consider the possibility that one of their students could fail. (Gerald Johnson, top left, taught us the mysteries of calculus, and Rev. John Welsh, S.J., right, taught us Latin and religion). There was no place to hide in a Jesuit High School classroom. You were engaged whether you wanted to be or not. You did your homework whether you wanted to or not. You answered questions in class – especially if you didn't want to!
Later, while studying at Centenary College and then the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I kept waiting for the "hard" teachers and the "difficult" courses. Certainly college had to be more challenging than high school, I thought. But truthfully, after Jesuit, I never again took a course that challenged me as much as the priests and professional teachers did every day in high school.

Now, more years than I care to admit have passed since the days my brothers and I roamed the halls of Jesuit. Each of my sister Mary's four children has walked the very same halls during their years at Loyola College Prep. Her youngest, Ben Cobb, starts his junior year in the fall of 2014. The school is more than 110 years old. So Jack Marshall's photographs, during the 13 years from the time John started high school until Mary finished, represent only a small slice of the life of this wonderful place of learning and growth.

Even when I was a student there, I realized my Jesuit years were a special time. It is one of the rare experiences of my life that seemed as good when it was happening as it does in remembering. Since those years, a few of my classmates have died. Others have lost touch. But of the rest, even though we are scattered across the country and around the world, many are still my friends today, with the bonds forged at Jesuit alive and strong.

I look at Jack Marshall's photos of that one generation of boys, and I see myself and my friends again, teenagers all, with our lives stretching out endlessly in front of us. Our hopes and dreams were lofty, and even though not all of them have come true, it is easy in the perfect eye of my mind and of Jack Marshall's lens to remember the important lessons learned at Jesuit High School, and to hope and dream of life's wonders yet to come.

– Tom Marshall, New York City

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Spelling Bee

I contend the word "geneology" is misspelled.

No, all your smarty-pants readers out there, that's not a typo in the opening sentence. I mean, the way that everyone says it is correctly spelled, g-e-n-e-a-l-o-g-y, cannot be correct. It simply cannot be. I mean, can you name for me one other "-ology" that is spelled "-alogy" ... can you??? (And by the way if you can I don't want to hear about it.)

OK, perhaps I still have issues from the 1967 Louisiana state spelling bee. The contest was for Catholic elementary school students, and in March of that year, about to finish 7th grade, I made it all the way to the finals in Alexandria. Always a good speller (thank you Giffy Marshall), I really had buckled down and studied those giant spelling bee memorization books. But for some reason, the word "genealogy" never came up. Or if it did, I conveniently forgot about it.

On the day of my big spelling debacle, I easily breezed through a few rounds of what could only be considered warm-up words. The words were so easy I can't even remember them.

But in the middle rounds things got a little tougher.

And when it was my turn, and I confidently spelled the word in the way that I contend to this day it ought to be spelled, g-e-n-e-o-l-o-g-y, and that gosh-darn nun with her chubby little white-framed face in her sorry black habit rang her stupid little nun bell and said to me in her smarmy, know-it-all nun voice, "No, sorry!" I seriously considered lunging for her skinny berobed throat right then.

Bless me father for I have sinned. Luckily, I was too stunned to act upon my m-a-l-e-v-o-l-e-n-t thought, and so I s-l-u-n-k (hmmm, is that correct ?) back to my chair, to watch the remainder of the contest with the rest of the l-o-s-e-r-s.

Some kid named Gremillion,
from Opelousas or someplace like that, who wore high-waisted flood pants with white socks (wait, that's probably what I was wearing too), won the Louisiana State Catholic Spelling Bee that day. I don't remember the word he spelled to win. Truthfully, there was no way I would have kept up with him and the other real whiz-kids in the final rounds.

But I knew a ton of the words that came after the one they told me I got wrong. Which it wasn't.

Oh, and one more thing. There is no Jack Marshall photograph of me in that spelling bee. Throughout the first 22+ years of my life, I rarely can remember an important moment when my father was not there with his camera to record forever those events – every basketball, baseball and football game, every tennis match, every graduation, dance, first communion, confirmation, and first and last days of school. In the process, Dad demonstrated his love in the most important way possible, by being there.

For some reason though, on this day, although he was there and no doubt wishing me luck, the only pictures I can find on the contact sheet of the spelling bee are ones like this one (below) of the aforementioned young Mr. Gremillion and the nun, rest her soul, for whom I still harbor malicious intent. Perhaps even Jack Marshall knew the dumb wrong way to spell g-e-n-e-a-l-o-g-y and hoped that not taking my picture on such a tragic day would help purge the event from my memory. Not a chance.

I do, however, have a picture of a Marshall child performing in the state spelling bee (top of post). That would be from the following year, when my sister Mary, The Princess in a family of boys (see Forever Mary, September 23, 2009) also was a contender in the big event.

Just as with me, Mary today told me that all these years later, she too remembers the word she misspelled to be eliminated from the competition. "Inimitable," she said without hesitation when I asked her on the phone a few minutes ago.

C'mon Mary. That should have been a no-brainer. Spelled just like it sounds. How could you possible miss "inimitable" anyway?

I wasn't there that day so I can't tell you exactly how it went down for Mary. There is a priest in the picture, and it looks like he's calling out the words. But I'm guessing that somewhere in that gym was that same dang nun, and she probably dinged Mary off the floor too. But at least Jack Marshall took her picture!

Nowadays, I watch the big Scripps National Spelling Bee on television each year and I marvel at those kids. I mean, really, we weren't even in the same league as they are today. Most if not all of the "championship words" that today's contestants spell correctly are words I've never even heard.

But each year, I watch, and wait, on the off chance that some poor, unsuspecting kid from some little town will walk up to the microphone on national television and get the word "gene*logy."

I'm still waiting. And if he or she happens to spell it g-e-n-e-o-l-o-g-y, I most certainly will feel vindicated.

–Tom Marshall, New York City

Friday, December 25, 2009

Remembering Christmas Past

When John, David, Tommy and Mary Marshall were very young, each year on the first Sunday in Advent, Jack Marshall would try to set the proper tone for the upcoming Christmas season.

"Stir up thy power, we beseech thee oh Lord, and come!" he would read with his most fervent Catholic voice, while John, the oldest, enjoyed the privilege of lighting the first candle on our homemade Advent wreath as we sat down to our Sunday meal.

The process was repeated with the appropriate reading for each Sunday in Advent. Then the candle-lighting privilege passed down through the birth order, so that David was accorded the honor on the second Sunday, then me on the third, and finally little Mary, usually with some help from Mom, lit all four candles in the final days before Christmas.

For a while it worked.

All of us spent the weeks watching as Dad added little creatures to his homemade nativity scene. The manger remained empty, though, until Christmas morning, when a tiny little plastic baby Jesus appeared as if by magic.

But despite Jack Marshall's best efforts, the weeks leading up the big day in the Marshall household inevitably and steadily devolved into a frenzy of gift buying, tree trimming and house decorating.

It started perhaps with the famous Christmas Festival just down Highway 1 in tiny Natchitoches, LA, where our St. Joseph's band sometimes marched in the annual parade on the first weekend in December. (The festival was made even more famous years later when it was portrayed in the movie "Steel Magnolias.") The same parade where Jack Marshall snapped the photo, below, of "Miss Christmas Festival" on December 5, 1959, as she proudly waved to the crowd in front of the Piggly Wiggly store.

It continued when we finally persuaded Dad it was time to buy and trim the Christmas tree.

Buying a tree always was a big deal to Jack Marshall. The whole family would pile into our '52 Chevy (nicknamed "The Metal Monster" by my older brothers) and drive to the big tree sale lot run by the Optimist Club near the corner of Youree Drive and Kings Highway. I imagine that when the tree salesmen saw our big crew unload, they all suddenly wanted to take a break and duck into Murrell's Grill for a cup of hot coffee. Because each of us had a different -- and strong -- opinion about which tree was best.

After careful inspection of every tree on the lot, and mindful of Dad's budget restrictions ("Nothing over $10 kids"), a tree was selected and ceremoniously tied to the roof of The Metal Monster using an intricate series of slip knots that my father proudly demonstrated to us. Then we drove home with our prized possession blowing in the wind above us, like the carcass of a giant moose that was going to feed the family for the winter.

Once home, the fun turned serious.

First, Dad, John and David were charged with putting the tree into the stand and getting it straight. This usually took only an hour or two, while Mom, Mary and I were unboxing the rest of the decorations and checking the lights. For some reason, Christmas tree lights mysteriously ceased to operate during their summer in the scorching hot attics of Louisiana. After several trips to the TG&Y store for spare bulbs and working extension cords, the tree was lit and decorated with ornaments.

And then, the much anticipated final glorious ultimate level of decoration: tinsel.

Each of us was given a carefully tied bundle of tinsel from last year's tree, which my father had carefully saved. (Others families inexplicably discarded their trees each year after Christmas with most of the tinsel still tangled in the branches, but not the Marshalls!) And we were reminded vigrously that for the most realistic effect, each and every strand of tinsel must, repeat MUST, be hung carefully and individually from the limbs of the tree. Dad ceremoniously demonstrated the proper technique, and then retreated to one corner of the room to watch his young charges follow his careful orders.

John was exacting and perfect in following the guidelines (he is now an accountant by the way). David, being tall, always did a great job at the top of the tree. Which left the bottom branches to Mary and me.

Let's just say that's where Jack Marshall's plan usually went awry.

I promise, I tried to follow Dad's instructions. And I actually did for the first few minutes. But my young attention span was not focused enough for the task and soon I was sneaking two or three strands at a time onto the limbs. And almost from the start, Mary believed the tinsel was just plain fun, and should be twirled, spun, waved and ultimately tossed in huge unruly chunks anywhere and everywhere on the tree.

In her defense, Mary had more fun than the rest of us put together. And, I believe, Jack Marshall had fun watching her too, as you can see by his photo at the end of the article, taken in December of 1958.

With the tree decorated, it was time for one last photo, top, before the presents began to fill the space underneath. And then began the countdown to Christmas Day itself, when all those wonderful presents provided the Marshall kids with a fitting end to the holy season of Advent.

Wherever you are this morning, I hope you are with family, sharing the wonder and magic of Christmas. I am in Shreveport at Mary's home, and her expertly trimmed tree is a perfect centerpiece to this happy day. Somewhere in heaven, I am certain that Jack Marshall is enjoying his fragrant fir with real icicles hanging gloriously and perfectly from each branch.

Merry Christmas everyone!

–Tom Marshall, New York City
on Christmas Day 2009 in Shreveport

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Shopping at the TG&Y

As we officially approach the end of the annual Christmas shopping season, I am finding special inspiration in some of Jack Marshall's classic holiday photographs.

When I was a kid, Christmas shopping was easy. You saved your allowance, supplemented it with income from odd chores and perhaps a little parental largesse, and a few days before December 25 you headed to the TG&Y Store and knocked it all out in less than an hour. No muss, no fuss.

What's that you say? You haven't heard of the TG&Y Store? Well, let me tell you...

Long before the big Shreve Memorial Library that now occupies the site off Kings Highway between Patton and Preston just east of the bayou in Shreveport, there was an outdoor movie house called King's Drive-In Theatre. In the mid- to late-1950s, the theater closed and the state-of-the-art Shreve Island Shopping Center opened in its place.

It was the newest idea around, something totally revolutionary, called a strip mall.

The center featured a big A&P supermarket (relocated from near Centenary College), a small department store called Beall's, the Shreve Island Drug store (which featured 5¢ cherry Cokes at the soda fountain), a dress shop called Sa-Ru's Fashions, a barber shop (75¢, four chairs, no waiting), a dry cleaners and the greatest thing ever to hit our end of town, the TG&Y.

TG&Y was sort of like Walmart, only smaller and cheaper.

Back then I had no idea what TG&Y stood for. The kids in the neighborhood concocted a slogan that went something like, "Take It, Grab It, and Yell" for how we felt when we went shopping there. Jack Marshall liked to call it "T-Gyp-and-Y." The chain's slogan was "Your best buy is at TG&Y."

(The all-knowing Wikipedia now tells me that TG&Y actually represented the last names of the store's three founders – Tomlinson, Gosselin and Young. The chain was based in Oklahoma City and at its peak boasted more than 900 stores. After a series of sales and consolidations, the last vestiges of TG&Y went out of business in 2001.)

My brothers John and David and sister Mary and I did all our Christmas shopping there. We also hoped Santa was smart enough to shop there too, because it seemed to us that the store had everything we wanted. Mary had her eye on a Chatty Cathy doll, and I was a big fan of coin collecting and model airplanes. Lucky for us, TG&Y was just the place to find such things.

In Jack Marshall's photographs, you can see mannequins (top of post) sporting the latest scarves for Mom, Mary and I reaching for our dreams (above), Mary enjoying the Chatty Cathy display (below), and finally, Mary counting her pennies to see if it all adds up (end of post).

I fear I am starting to sound like –no, I fear I am becoming – an old fogey who too fondly remembers times past. But I make no apology for happy memories of walking into that TG&Y a few days before Christmas with considerably less than $10 in your pocket and buying something for everyone on your shopping list, with enough left over for a bag full of Hershey's Kisses to give you strength for the bike ride home.

For some reason, I especially remember a framed painting I bought one year at TG&Y for my grandmother, my father's mother whom we called "Muds." It was a mountain scene and I thought it was beautiful, and I hoped fervently that Muds would appreciate it, for she was an accomplished oil painter herself. I recall that the painting, frame and all, cost 79 cents. I remember the delight on my grandmother's face when she unwrapped the present on Christmas Eve, as we all gathered to open the non-Santa presents before going to Midnight Mass at St. Joseph's.

But what I especially remember is that for the next 20 or so years, that 79¢ painting hung on the wall of Muds's little house on Rutherford Street and then in the nursing home where she spent her last years, proudly displayed among her truly beautiful oil paintings.

Because for 79 cents at the TG&Y, you surely could show your grandmother how much you loved her.

Here's to your own successful last-minute Christmas shopping!

– Tom Marshall, New York City

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My Friend Tommy Wall

A long time ago, I had a friend named Tommy Wall.

In Jack Marshall's photograph, above, taken in the summer of 1963, my friend Tommy Wall is standing confidently in the back row, second from the left, with his hat cocked just so. Tommy Marshall is the one just in front of him, leaning in to hold the bat with my right hand. We were playing for our first baseball team, in the South Shreveport YMCA. I recall we chose the name "Tigers" for our team that long-ago season. We were 9 years old.

Tommy Wall lived on the same street as I did, just a couple of blocks away. Tommy was his family's only son; he had 5 sisters. From kindergarten through eighth grade, we played together on all the same sports teams. Usually we played for teams sponsored by St. Joseph's Catholic Church. We played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring and summer. When we were kids, there was a perfect symmetry to the seasons of sport, because those three were the only pursuits available to us. There was no such thing as soccer or lacrosse or any of the other more exotic sports that kids play today.

In our corner of Shreveport, Tommy Wall almost always was the best athlete on our teams. And even when he was challenged for athletic superiority -- which was rare -- Tommy Wall was our undisputed leader. It was never questioned. He just led us, and we followed.

Chances are you knew someone like Tommy Wall.

Have you ever seen the Disney movie, "The Sandlot"? It's about a group of boys who spend an early 1960s summer playing baseball together. Tommy Wall reminds me of the Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez character in that movie, the kid who is the fastest and best athlete on the team, and also the undisputed leader of the group.

At St. Joe's, whenever the nuns let us troop outside for recess, Tommy Wall was the kid who was organizing a game of some sort. Choosing up sides and playing whatever sport was in season.

All these years later, the most amazing thing I remember about Tommy is not how well he played the games of our youth. Instead I remember him most for a certain innate skill he had from the earliest age of being that game organizer, and more importantly, the one who made sure everyone was included, and that the teams were fair.

Tommy Wall was the one who switched teams to even up the competition. Or who played catcher for both teams when no one else wanted the job. Or who coaxed the shy or unsure kid from the sidelines into the game.

I was that kid on the sidelines once. Though never shy (ask my family and friends about that), I never was a very confident athlete. I played on all the teams, and I had a great time with sports, but I just didn't feel I had the same skills as many of the other kids.

That didn't matter to Tommy Wall.

He wanted everyone to play, and in a prescience beyond his years, I believe he understood that we were better as a team than he ever could be as an individual player.

The most special thing that Tommy Wall ever did for me happened at recess one day at St. Joseph's, during our third grade year. We were playing baseball, and Tommy was the catcher for both teams. Since it wasn't an official practice there was no real equipment, just a baseball and a bat someone had brought from home. And no protective gear for the catcher.

When it was my turn to bat, a kid named Danny Brooks was pitching. Danny wound up and threw a fast, hard pitch, right down the middle. I closed my eyes, took a mighty swing and hit a foul tip that changed the ball's course just enough so that Tommy Wall was not able to catch it in his glove. Instead, the ball plunked loudly into his ribs, and he rolled onto the ground in obvious pain.

Everyone gathered around, waiting to see how badly he was hurt, what he would say, what he would do. I was in the crowd, half expecting him to come up ready for a fight. After all, I had injured the great Tommy Wall! Slowly he rolled over, grimacing from the pain. And then he said words I'll never forget: "That's all right, a lot of batters do that." The best athlete in the school had just saved my life, I thought, and on top of that, he had called me a "batter." On that day, Tommy Wall set for me an example of leadership and fairness among peers that never would be surpassed. I felt I owed him a debt I never repaid.

Throughout our elementary years, our St. Joe's teams won and lost games, but due to the skill of Tommy Wall and several other good young athletes, we won far more than we lost.

In the middle picture above, Jack Marshall's camera caught Tommy Wall scoring a run in a seventh-grade baseball game in 1967. Immediately below is our 6th grade football team, in November 1965. Tommy Wall is in the front row, No. 18, our quarterback. The picture at the bottom of this post is our 5th grade basketball team, celebrating one of several city championships. If you don't recognize him by now, Tommy is 3rd from the right in the front, smiling and reaching out to touch our plaque.

After St. Joseph's, I went on to Jesuit High School, and Tommy Wall went to a different high school. Somewhere over the next few years, we lost touch as we finished high school and enrolled in college.

For my freshman year in college, I lived at home and went to Centenary College, where Jack Marshall received his education. Tommy, like so many other young Shreveporters, headed down to Baton Rouge for college at LSU. One weekend during the fall of that 1972 freshman year, on an infamously treacherous road between Shreveport and Baton Rouge, Tommy Wall was tragically killed in an automobile accident. I never got a chance to thank him for how he treated me on that 3rd grade playground.

Because of the memories inspired by Jack Marshall's photographs of our glory days at St. Joseph's, today my sister Mary and I went for a run on a chilly, breezy morning in Shreveport. Our route took us to Forest Park Cemetery, where we found the shaded gravesite of a boy who died too young, just 18 years old, on September 14, 1972. We wiped away the fallen leaves from the small marker, and when I saw the name Thomas Charles Wall, Jr. etched in the cold, hard stone, it brought tears to my eyes. Tears I never shed for a friend to whom I never said goodbye.

So today, finally, I stood quietly for a moment and said goodbye to my boyhood friend Tommy Wall. And, most importantly, I whispered a silent prayer of simple thanks, remembering a wonderful act of genuine sportsmanship bestowed upon me nearly 50 years ago by a young athlete and forever friend. And for which, to this day, I remain grateful.

--Tom Marshall, New York City
Written while visiting Shreveport

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving at the Marshalls

Over the years, what stands out in my memories of our family Thanksgiving dinners is that they were remarkable for their lack of drama.

In the years before Martha Stewart made everyone feel guilty for not creating memorably lavish gastronomic triumphs, Jack and Giffy Marshall did a pretty good job of creating memories for me with the small core group of regulars who each year came to our house on Audubon Place in Shreveport to give simple thanks.

In my recollection, there was nothing outrageous enough to make into a movie, or even into a sitcom script. No breathtaking revelations from family members, no drunken brawls amongst aunts and uncles, no unruly dogs eating the turkey from the kitchen counter. Nothing but good food and a larger than normal group around the table.

Don't get me wrong though. Thanksgiving at the Marshalls always was a special day, and I looked forward to it as a highlight of each year of my young life.

First was the food itself. Not so much the quality -- although our mother was an excellent cook -- but the quantity. The Marshalls were neither poor nor rich. But, on the 364 regular days of the year, there were limits imposed on what we could eat and drink. ONE slice of bacon and ONE glass of orange juice at breakfast. (There was a lot of bartering, however, between siblings.) Lots of spaghetti and casseroles. Salmon croquettes or fish sticks on Friday. Roast beef with rice and gravy once a week, on Sunday. Few snack foods or desserts.

Thanksgiving was just the opposite. There was a full and diverse menu from which to choose and plenty of everything!

Most memorably, we ate in the dining room, not the kitchen. Mom and Dad made a big deal out of putting the large oval top on the dining room table, which made it big enough for 12 or more. If the crowd was particularly large, a series of card tables was attached from the bottom of the oval, and stretched into the living room area. Thanksgiving was the one meal a year when we ate off the "good china" with the "real silverware." And thanks to Land O'Lakes and the A&P Supermarket, there always was "real butter" too -- an unheard-of treat!

Another thing that was special about Thanksgiving to me was that there usually was no
kids table. My sister Mary says Giffy wanted it that way, for everyone to sit together. I always liked that. Even when I was small, I remember sitting with the grown-ups and listening to grown-up talk, about President Kennedy, maybe, or the new Pope who had changed the rules regarding fasting before communion, or whether Navy could beat Army in the week's big game. My mother's mother, Mere, had a favorite expression from growing up in a large, multi-generational, French-speaking home. "Let only six talk at a time," Mere would say, and at our Thanksgiving table, that often was the case.

When all was ready, Jack Marshall would begin the blessing. Nowadays, we usually improvise, with one person or everyone giving specific thanks for the many blessings in our lives. Back then, Dad's leadership was limited to saying the familiar first words, "Bless us oh Lord..." and then we'd all join in, "and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen." It was the same blessing we said every day, for every meal, but on Thanksgiving, we recited those well-known words with special fervor. For on that day, the word "bounty" really meant something.

The pictures with this post were taken 39 years ago today, on Thursday, November 26, 1970. When I saw the date noted on the back of Jack Marshall's contact sheet, I was amazed that Thanksgiving fell on the same date, November 26, as it does this year. I checked an online calendar to make sure it was true!

Before the meal, everyone trooped out front for Dad to take our picture: Mom, my brother John, and my sister Mary, with only brother David missing; Mere, and my father's mother, Catherine; my father's sister Doris and her husband Harry (in his Navy uniform), along with their daughter Patty and her husband Bill, and Catherine's sister, Blanche. I believe I took the other picture, of Dad, just before he began carving the turkey, with a happy Mere to his right and his mother Catherine to his left. Dad always made a big show of honing the knife to its sharpest just before starting to slice.

There are so few pictures of Dad -- since he usually was the one behind the camera -- that I really love this photo. Even though he is giving me a big, cheesy pose, I think I can see the twinkle in his eye and his true joy at being surrounded by his family. He is not quite 50 years old, in the very prime of his life.

Less than 6 years later, Jack Marshall was gone.

If he were still alive today, we could be celebrating Thanksgiving dinner with a crowd including his 4 children (and spouses), 11 grandchildren -- many of them now with spouses, and even a couple of great grandchildren. There could be 30 or more around the table, and I bet Dad would still be leading us in "Bless us oh Lord" before proudly carving the turkey. I'm sorry Dad died without ever sharing that huge Thanksgiving feast. There might have to be a kids table now, and there definitely would be even more food.

And I'm very certain Jack Marshall would have taken the definitive photograph of the assembled group, because that's what he always did. He would have enjoyed this day immensely.

Today when I give thanks for the many blessings in my life, I will, as I always do, say a silent prayer of gratitude for our heroically normal, quietly loving father, Jack Marshall. For he gave us the gift of a happy, secure, wonderful family, his forever legacy to us all, a gift of infinite, inestimable value.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

--Tom Marshall, New York City,
Celebrating Thanksgiving 2009 in Seattle