Rosa and Son

by Don Smurthwaite

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    “Tommy, you are a Rosa,” Dad said. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but I would soon learn.

    I remember the first interview I had with my father. It took place on a Sunday, after church. I was seven, and our family had been Church members only two months. I knew we were Mormons, but wasn’t sure what that meant. Nor did I know what an interview was, but since it was to take place with my father, I thought it would be fun.

    “Tommy,” he said, as mother worked in the kitchen, making manicotti for our dinner. “In priesthood meeting today, Brother Pierce told us that we ought to have interviews with our children. He said it will help our families. I believe Brother Pierce. You come upstairs and we will have our interview.”

    So I marched to the second story of our tall, narrow, blue house in south San Francisco. My parents’ room, like all the rooms in our house, was small. A dresser, a bed, a night table and a worn chair were all the furnishings, with not much room for anything else. Father had scrunched the chair close to the bed and sat waiting for me. I sat down on the bed, my feet dangling a few inches above the hardwood floor. My father and I were dressed in our church clothes—white shirts, red bow ties and blue slacks. His thick, strong arms bulged out of his shirt, reminding me of the heavy steel cables I saw when we drove across the big bridges.

    For a minute my father said nothing. He stared at his hands, then looked up at me, then glanced at the floor again. Words and talking weren’t his strong points. I was beginning to think that an interview was simply sitting by each other and saying nothing. Then he cleared his throat and took a big breath.

    “Tommy, you are a Rosa,” he said seriously, his deep, brown eyes fixed on me.

    “Yes, Father.”

    “And you are a Latter-day Saint.”

    “Yes, Father.”

    “Honor is important. If you honor your family, you will honor your church. If you honor your church, you will honor your family.”

    He sat back in his chair and looked pleased with himself. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I could sense the gravity of his statement. Father looked around the room and then began again with his characteristic dignity.

    “You’re a good boy. You will do nothing to harm your name or make your parents ashamed.”

    “No. I wouldn’t.”

    “Then you will do good.”

    He reached over and shook my hand. “You can go downstairs now. Help your mother with dinner.” Our interview was over.

    Father was a longshoreman. He worked on the docks, long hours, loading and unloading cargo from ocean-going ships. The work made him strong. His friends from the docks often came to our home. They’d sit me on their laps, muss up my hair, and always say the same thing, “Your dad is the best worker there. He does the work of two men.”

    Work was important to my father. His parents were immigrants to America from Italy. They set up a small produce market in Boston, and it was there my father learned to work. He hosed the vegetables, swept the sidewalks, and carried groceries to the old wood homes of the neighborhood. He joined the navy after high school and was stationed in California where he met my mother. She worked as a waitress in a little restaurant not far from the base. Father came into the restaurant, night after night. After two weeks of taking his order, my mom said something about how much he must like the food. Father blurted out that it wasn’t the food that kept him coming back; it was the pretty waitress who was helping him. They began courting. Six weeks later, Father complained to her at the restaurant that there was something in his soup. My mother sifted through it with a fork and pulled out a diamond ring. She looked at him and said, “Yes.”

    After his discharge from the service, he found his job on the docks, bought a home, and settled in. My sister Paula was born, and I followed four years later. My parents seemed content, but even as a child I recall them discussing their plans and their lives—what our family needed and what they wanted to become. Inevitably they came to the same conclusion: something was missing, but they didn’t know what.

    We lived on a hill, but it wasn’t so steep that it couldn’t be used for pick-up games of baseball in the spring and summer. The street was the ribbon that tied together the lives of each boy on our block.

    After supper was over, the boys would gather on the same corner, and when enough were there, we’d pick sides. We used a rubber ball that we bought at Mr. Pinelli’s variety store for a quarter. We’d play baseball until it became dark.

    One breezy June evening, Ricky Cray, the best hitter on the block, was up to bat. My best friend, Chuck Grable, was next to me in the “outfield,” which was the stretch of road between Mr. LaSalle’s and Mr. Kominski’s.

    Ricky sized up a belt-high pitch and plastered the ball a good 20 feet beyond my grasp. I put my head down and furiously chased the ball. Suddenly, I came upon two sets of the shiniest black shoes I’d ever seen. I looked up and there were two young men in suits, smiling. One of them was holding the rubber ball.

    “Lose something?” he said cheerfully. He flipped the ball to me and I heaved it toward my friends, just as Ricky crossed home plate.

    Chuck came over to me. “Who are those guys? That one made a nice catch.” We didn’t see men in suits in our neighborhood often.

    “I don’t know. Maybe they’re selling something. Like books.”

    “I think they’re police,” confided Chuck.

    “No, they’re too young. And they’d be more secret. Look, they’re stopping at every house on the street.”

    The next hitter popped a lazy fly ball toward Chuck who easily snagged it. We went to take our turn at bat. Home plate was near our house, and the two men in suits were just stepping to the door.

    Father answered. I heard one of the young men say they were from a church and they had a message about families. Father sized them up.

    “Are you selling something?” he asked.

    “No, sir,” replied the one who had fielded the ball.

    “Are you honest?” Father asked. It would have been an odd question from anyone but my father. That’s the way he was, a man who took himself and others at face value.

    “Yes, sir, we try to be,” the same man answered without hesitation.

    “Are you boys from around here?”

    “No. Elder Cone is from Bountiful, Utah. And I’m from Boston.”

    Father smiled. “Then come into my house. I’m Joseph Rosa, and this is my wife, Leslee.” As soon as the one said he was from Boston, I knew my father would invite them in. A little thing like that, being from Massachusetts. Yet it changed our lives forever.

    We saw the young men in the suits and white shirts many times over the following weeks. Father and Mother listened to them, prayed with them, studied with them, and fed them pasta until they almost could no longer get into their suits. When the elders came, Father pulled me out of the baseball games. “If what they say is true, then you need to hear it also,” he told me. I could see how important this was to my parents. Father’s eyes blazed as the missionaries taught us. “Yes, that seems right. I’ve always believed that,” he often said.

    “We have reached a decision as a family,” Father told the missionaries one night. They both looked nervously at each other. “We would like to be baptized.” The two young men almost leaped into the air. The following night, Father and I went to a department store and bought our church clothes. A week later, the four of us were baptized. Never again did my parents talk about the missing piece. We had found it.

    Six year passed after the missionary from Massachusetts made a bare-fisted catch of our rubber ball on the street. In that time we all grew in so many ways.

    Father was as faithful as any pioneer who crossed the plains. It was not in his nature to second-guess or have doubts. Mother, too, embraced the Church wholeheartedly. They both served in many callings, always giving their best. Paula, my dark-haired, pretty sister, loved the Church from the start. At first I teased her more than I should have about being a Beehive. “Is that why all the boys call you ‘Honey’?” She’d turn red and wave me away with her hand. She graduated from high school and went off to college. I was surprised at how much I missed her. Our home became quieter. Utah was so far away.

    In those six years I grew not only spiritually, but in other ways. By the time I was in the ninth grade, I stood a shade over six feet tall, and like my father, was wiry and strong. That spring I discovered that I was a runner.

    Chuck and I turned out for track only after mulling long and hard about trying out for baseball. We finally decided that the assurance of running races was preferable to sitting on a bench in baseball. With only a week before the first meet, Chuck and I approached the track coach who had us join the other runners in lap work.

    The middle distances sounded good to me. So a week later I found myself at a starting line with a dozen other shivering boys on a chilly April afternoon of the first race, waiting for the starter to fire his pistol.

    The gun popped. “Why are they all sprinting?” I thought as we rounded the first corner. The whole race, it seemed, was a sprint. Four times around the track, pumping my arms, maintaining a stride. I kept my head down, concentrating. Midway through the last lap I looked up and saw another runner 20 yards ahead. I began to run faster, trying to catch him. If I’d come this far and run this hard, why not go for first place? The ease with which I caught him was bewildering. He must be terribly tired, I thought. Then, right in front of me was the tape. I ran through it and, for the first time, became conscious of the cheering around me.

    “Great race, Tommy. Wait until you’re really in shape. You won by half a lap!” said the coach.

    “How could I? I barely passed the last runner.”

    “You were lapping him, Tommy.”

    It seemed that I had met my destiny, all in the space of a little over four and a half minutes.

    That evening, Father finished his dinner and placed his knife and fork across his plate. I had said nothing about the race because I knew he would ask. The time was at hand.

    “So, how was your meet, Tommy?”

    “Pretty good. I won my race. Set a freshman record, too.”

    “In the 1,500 meters?”


    Father sat back and looked at me. “And to think you almost went out for baseball.”

    During my high school years my name began to appear each spring in the Bay Area sports pages. A newspaper columnist wrote that I might be the best high school middle-distance prospect in the last ten years in northern California. Letters from college track coaches began arriving. It was exciting.

    Late one Saturday afternoon near the end of my sophomore year, I found my father sitting in his chair upstairs, reading.

    “I’m going to a party tonight,” I said nonchalantly.

    “That’s nice. Some of your friends from church?”

    “No. New friends. Guys from school.”

    “I see.” He continued reading.

    “They’re some very popular kids.”

    “Oh.” He laid his book down. “How long have they been paying attention to you?”

    “Since track season, I guess.”

    “Maybe they saw you in math class handing in your homework and thought, He’s someone we need to get to know.”


    “It wouldn’t be that they saw your name in the paper, I’m sure. What are Chuck and Ricky doing tonight? And the guys from church?”

    “The church guys are going to a stake dance. Chuck and Ricky were talking about going to a Giants game. Ricky’s dad is going.”

    “Oh. How long have you known Ricky and Chuck and the guys at church?”

    “Chuck and Ricky, all my life. The guys at church, seven or eight years.”

    “Before anyone knew you could run fast, right?”


    “You have fun with your new friends tonight. Remember priesthood at nine tomorrow.” He picked up his book. He was leaving the decision to me.

    I made two phone calls. One to my new friends who had invited me to the party, a gathering at which I could easily guess what would be going on. The second call was to a friend from church, to see if he would pick me up for the dance.

    My senior year in high school came, and my life and the lives of my friends and family were again changing. I had less than a year left in our blue house. Chuck talked about joining the military after graduation, while Ricky hoped to play professional baseball.

    Paula had married the year before, to a guy who reminded me of the tall missionary from Massachusetts a decade earlier. In November, she and her husband came from school to our home for Thanksgiving. Paula handed my mother a jar of peanut butter with pink and blue ribbons tied around it. Mother looked sharply at her, and Paula nodded. Then Mom burst into tears. It seemed that my mother had craved peanut butter when she was expecting me. Paula’s present was her way of announcing that a new arrival would be born to the family in the spring.

    I took my college entrance exams, filled out applications, and sorted through the letters offering track scholarships. A mission was only two years away. I took a part-time job at a restaurant to help save money for it.

    Mom was doing great and Dad landed a promotion at work, one that took him off the dock and into an office. He was almost 50, and I was happy to know that his days of heavy physical labor were over.

    On the track, my times kept improving. I hadn’t lost a race in two years, but my streak was in jeopardy. At an invitational meet in Sacramento, I was going to race the top runners from California, including Michael Banks, a senior from Los Angeles.

    I had never met him but knew his reputation. On Mondays at practice my coach kept me apprised of Michael Bank’s achievements. “You were good on Friday, Tom. But Banks was two seconds faster.”

    “Tomorrow’s the big race?” my father asked innocently the night before the meet.

    “It is. I’ve never been so nervous about a race in my life.”

    “You run in a circle four times; then it’s over. What’s so tough about that?” he kidded. “You’ll do fine, Tom. I’ll leave work and drive up to see you.”

    My father was a stake clerk and went to a meeting of the stake presidency that night. I was asleep when he got home, yet he had already left for work when I arose just after six.

    “Couldn’t Dad sleep?” I asked my mother at breakfast.

    “No. He met with the stake president last night. He has something to tell you, but I’ll let him do so in his own way.”

    I couldn’t imagine what he wanted to tell me, and I didn’t think of it again. Michael Banks and his fearsome times were crowding out everything else.

    “Good luck. We’ll be there to watch and we’ll be proud of you whether you win or not.” She kissed me on the cheek, and I left for a half-day of school before driving to Sacramento with my coach.

    Almost 11 hours later I stood at the starting line in the fifth lane. A half-dozen other boys stretched and shook their arms, preparing for the race. Tension was thick, a very real presence. My stomach was wound tight and I felt a little sick. Michael Banks stood two lanes away, looking confident, hands on his hips, staring down the track. We had met in the tunnel on the way to the track. He nodded in my direction and I murmured hello. That was all.

    My coach gave me a few last-minute instructions. “Take the lead early in the fourth lap. If you don’t, Banks will out kick you down the stretch. You have the better stamina, but you can’t match his kick. Good luck, Tom. You’ll give it your best, I know.”

    We were called to our marks. I scanned the crowd, but I couldn’t see my parents. I tried to block the worry from my mind. Concentrate, I must concentrate, I repeated softly. Your parents are in the stands. Don’t worry. The starter raised his pistol, and it cracked into the air. Arms and legs rushed, and there was a jostling of elbows as we started around the first corner. I began talking to myself in my mind.

    How do I feel? Legs are tight, relax. Who’s on my shoulder? Don’t get boxed in. Breathe, breathe, relax. Keep your arm motion smooth. Glide, not too fast. Where’s Banks?

    Glide, glide. Move outside when you can. Was that Banks in the lead? No. Maybe neither of us will win. Wouldn’t that be something. Don’t make your move yet. Do I have enough left in me to even make a move? You’ll die by the fourth lap. Remember what the coach said.

    The second lap was nearing an end. My head hurt and I could taste blood in my mouth. I guessed I was in fifth place. My legs were rubbery. I didn’t have much.

    Maintain, just maintain. Let your mouth go slack. Glide a lap … Oh, what’s the use? You don’t have it today, Tom. Banks has this one.

    My pace slowed a bit. I was on the inside lane. I turned my head slightly and saw a familiar face, hands cupped to his mouth, standing on the infield. It was my father.

    Quick strides brought me within hearing range. What was he shouting?

    “Tommy … !”

    Yes, Father.

    “… Paula—you’re an uncle.”

    What? An uncle? A boy or a girl? Get this race over, Rosa. You’re an uncle!

    I forced my arms to pump faster. I moved to the outside and fought past two runners. Third place now and Banks clearly in the lead.

    Paula, she isn’t due for two more weeks. But … But … a new baby in the family!

    My pace quickened. I took over second place. Only Michael Banks loomed ahead. My lungs burned and my legs ached. Still, I managed to pull even with him. In unison, Michael Banks and I ran, leaving the others behind. We came around the bend again. There was my dad, shouting jubilantly.

    “Tommy …”

    The crowd was going berserk as Banks and I matched strides. Could I hear my father? I drew nearer and heard only two words: “You will!”

    I will … I will … Now!

    I moved inches ahead with a half-lap to go. Now! My fists rammed forward; my legs pounded the track. The lead grew to a foot, then a yard. I heard Michael Banks’ strained breathing behind me. Never had a race been so hard for me.

    A baby!—Paula was a mom. My mom was a grandmother. And my father, a grandfather, who somehow made his way to the infield because he knew I needed to hear him.

    I rounded the last corner, now in a dead sprint, my chest heaving.

    Remember Banks’ kick. Don’t hold anything back. Pump your arms, run on your toes.

    The tape loomed ahead. I frantically ran toward it. A few yards away, I stumbled, fought to keep my balance, and broke across the finish line. Michael Banks whisked in behind me. I turned and we threw our arms around each other. “Great race, man,” he gasped. “You ran inspired.”

    “You’ll never know,” I panted.

    I walked to the grassy infield. I knew that I should keep moving, but my legs refused. I sat down, then leaned back. I looked up into the clear, blue sky. A face filled it, the face of my father.

    Some boys, they say things about their fathers. They say they aren’t friends, that there is too much of a difference for them to understand each other. They say they don’t know if their fathers love them. I feel an emptiness for those boys and their fathers. When thousands were shouting in a very tough race, it was my father’s voice that I listened for and heard.

    On the way home, my parents told me why they were late. They got a phone call from Paula’s husband just as they were leaving. When they arrived at the stadium, the race had just started. One look told Father that I was struggling. Before he stopped to think about it, he was at the edge of the stands heading to the infield. He said he thought it was the only chance for me to know he was there.

    “What a day,” he sighed. “And I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. I suppose that’s what happens when the stake president asks you to serve as the bishop.”

    He said it so casually that the impact didn’t hit me for a few seconds. My dad was going to be the bishop of our ward!

    I went off to school that fall. I was on the track team, and though I was not a star that year, I ran straight and hard. When I came home that summer, I had an interview with my bishop to begin the work of serving a mission. It didn’t take place in a bishop’s office, but in a blue, two-story home in south San Francisco. I sat on the edge of a bed, and the bishop pulled close his favorite old chair. He seemed a little hesitant. His eyes were wet.

    “Tom, you are a Rosa,” he began. “And you are a Latter-day Saint.”


    “If you honor your family, you will honor your church. If you honor your church, you will honor your family.”

    “I understand that.”

    After asking me the normal missionary interview questions, he concluded, “You will do good. You will be a fine missionary.”

    Then he told me to go help Mom in the kitchen. I looked back at him as I left. His hair was mostly gray now, and his arms were not as thickly muscled as before. He sat in his chair and stared out the window at ten thousand sparkling lights on the hillside across the bay from our home. I wondered if he knew how proud I was to be his son and how much it meant to me to share his good name. I walked downstairs realizing that all those years I had been running, my father had been growing, and I would never lack for someone to look up to.

    Illustrated by Paul Mann