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December 23, 2010

Judith Dupré: Amazing Grace

Posted by Anonymous

JudithDupre.jpgThis morning, author Judith Dupré recalls the grace that surrounded one book and how it inspired her writing in her latest work, FULL OF GRACE: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life.

I grew up in Providence on Lennon Street. It was a street of families, each contributing four, five, six children to the tumble --- the backbone of the American dream, ’60s style. Ours were endless days of four-square, red rover and hide-and-go-seek. We swam in the summer, burned leaves in the fall, starred in Mr. Nickerson’s Halloween movies, and sang carols at the annual Christmas party at the Dionnes’ house --- all of us, every season, every year. Even our dogs played together.

52 kids lived on Lennon, and the undisputed god of that street was my next-door neighbor, Rick Caruolo. Rick would hold court on his front steps, playing the guitar. He always drew a crowd --- teenaged girls mesmerized by his movie-star good looks, his football buddies and old-timers, too. Little kids like me loved him because he’d read “Peanuts” to us, explaining the comic strip, frame by frame. “Do you get it now?” he’d ask. Sometimes, he’d break up a fight, and afterwards you’d see him, arm around the beaten kid, coaching and consoling. He was our paperboy. His peers called him Elvis, because he was cool --- cooler than the King, cooler even than James Dean. But not too cool to miss the neighborhood Christmas party. He never missed that.

In 1966, three weeks short of his 22nd birthday, Rick was killed in Vietnam, one of the first Rhode Islanders to die in that war. He died a hero, shot when he crawled out to help a fellow wounded Marine. Almost 40 years later, when I decided to tell Rick’s story in my book, MONUMENTS, the Caruolo family shared with me the most precious thing they owned --- the letter Rick’s soldier-brother Wayne Burwell wrote to them after Rick died in his arms. As those who have lost a beloved child to war know, not all monuments are made of stone. 

As soon as MONUMENTS came out, I gave a copy to Rick’s sister. Seeing her cradle it in her arms tenderly, as though she was holding her brother himself, made me realize once more (as if I needed convincing!) that books are a most exquisite and irreplaceable art form. A few days later, a woman contacted me, introducing herself as Dale Burwell, Wayne’s wife. She wanted to surprise her husband with an inscribed copy. Although they lived in New Jersey, I urged them to make the trek to Rhode Island --- my sister was having a Christmas party to celebrate the book, and Rick’s family would be coming. “We’ll try,” she said.

What a party! It seemed everyone I had ever known was there, including dozens of the original Lennon Street gang. Gathering around the glistening Christmas tree, we talked, ate and laughed. With every carol we sang --- “Here we are as in olden days, happy golden days of yore. Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more” --- the years fell away.  

Then the doorbell rang --- it was Dale and Wayne Burwell. The entire Caruolo family circled around Wayne. The hugs and tears lasted a long time. Until that moment, I hadn’t known that the Caruolos had never actually met Wayne. After the war, he disappeared, and they couldn’t find him. In one of those graced moments that life serves up unexpectedly, the story came full circle. Wayne --- who had loved Rick as much as we had loved him, who had held him last, giving back to Rick the love he had shared with so many --- was with us. And so was Rick. Christmas was as we remembered it: shining, hopeful, complete.

Epilogue: To this day, perfect strangers write to me, saying Rick’s story was the story of their brother, uncle, father, friend. They have shared their most intimate memories of those they loved and lost. So many people contacted me about that story that I was emboldened to take my own leap of faith and write from the heart in my new book, FULL OF GRACE: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life. Rick’s spirit, the Christmas spirit, lives on in FULL OF GRACE, which tells stories about love, loss and hope --- and the invincible nature of the human heart.

--- Judith Dupré

Don’t forget to check in again this afternoon as forthcoming novelist Pamela Schoenewaldt remembers her own house on Dorian Road…and the best Christmas gift her mother ever gave her.