Looking For A Silk Mill And Finding Barton Stacey

Barton Stacey Graveyard

It was clearly shown on the AA Road Atlas of Britain, right there on Map 19.  It was a stop I very much wanted to make.

We were motoring south on the A34 from Oxford to visit our friends in Romsey.

There at a small town of Tufton, was an attraction labelled SILK MILL.

Admittedly, when I think of the UK, I think of wool and room-temperature beer and the most baffling game on the planet, Cricket.

But, I never think of Silk Mills.  Here’s the sum of my knowledge of silk: It comes from a worm, Bombyx mori and it is native to China.  How it gets from the worm to my multi-colored neck-tie is one of those mysteries of life I never looked into, like computer chips, digital technology, why New Jersey is called “The Garden State”, the fact that Charlie Manson almost got married, and how gravel-filled barges stay afloat.

Back to the A34.

I knew we needed to go west first then east to get to Tufton.  Somewhere in a series of roundabouts, I ended up heading southwest.  The roads were narrow (no surprise here) and the hedges were close by the road’s edge (again, no big surprise).

We drove for a few miles.  I was still holding out for a sign to the Silk Mill.

Nothing.

Then, like a vision of Brigadoon, was a church steeple and the thatched roofs of a small village.

Where were we?

Before we had a chance to check the Atlas, a road sign appeared.  We were in Barton Stacey.  It was quite close to Newton Stacey and a few miles away from Sutton Stacey.

My diuretic was doing its duty so I found a place to pull over near the church.  There was no one about, so I went through the gate and found a totally obscure place among three huge trees and a garbage bin.

I took care of business.

I turned around and found myself looking over one of the most peaceful English churchyards I’ve yet to see in this country…and I’ve seen quite a few.  It was quiet as a, well, a churchyard.  The tombstones were unreadable because of the accumulation of moss and lichen.

I tried the church door and found it locked.  A sign said there was a key at the village market across the road.  I walked over and asked for the key after buying the latest Guardian.

We entered the church and signed the little guest book.  I read a small card that explained that the church was about 1,000 years old!  I put the card down and zipped my jacket.  I was chilled to the bone.  I hope for the sake of the faithful that the sermons were kept short.

Mariam, meanwhile was looking over a financial poster that detailed the church fund-raising efforts.  We were both amazed that they had managed to raise over £10,000!

I was reflecting on this amount when I walked back to the store to return the key.  How could such a tiny village raise that kind of money?

On the way back to the car I walked past an old British Telecom Phone Box.  You know, the red ones they show in all the old English movies?  But, I had to take a second look (a double-take as they say).  This was not a phone booth anymore.  It was a lending library!

BartonStaceyPhoneLibrary

I peeked inside and saw some titles I wouldn’t mind reading, but I already had about 358 titles stored in my iPad so I couldn’t justify borrowing a book.  Even if it was from a decommissioned phone booth.

We drove on to make our first stop in Winchester.

Later, at our friends’ home in Romsey, they said that the money most likely came from the wealthy residents of Barton Stacey.  This little rich village could afford to pay for the upkeep of the church…and to keep the town the way they wanted it, quaint and quiet.

My best guess is that if I return to Barton Stacey in twenty years, I’d find the same village but I wouldn’t be able to buy a MacDonald’s cheeseburger.

That thought was totally fine with me.

Oxford Of My Dreams

Plane

I was drifting off to sleep.  My dreams began.  I felt disoriented.  Where was I?

I was in Oxford, England to accept an award for “Best Blogger in the World.”

I was waiting in a room in one of the 38 colleges that make up the University.  I had walked here from the hotel, but all the buildings were made of the beautiful honey-colored limestone from the Cotswold hills.  This room is where the dons donned their academic robes. The place was heavy with the dust of history…literary history. Books dating back centuries lined the walls. I saw an early copy of “Alice in Wonderland” signed by Lewis Carroll, himself.  Was I in the college that gave the world Richard Burton, the actor? Or, Edmund Halley, who made his name on a comet?  Was this the room where J.R.R. Tolkien thought about the narrative of the Hobbit books?  Did T. S. Elliot walk the path I just walked?

Perhaps I was in a room off a small lecture hall in Bodleian Library, which claims to have over 100 miles of shelves (The Strand Bookstore in NYC says it has 8 miles of volumes.)

In the lecture hall next door I could hear the shuffling of feet and chairs as the runner-up and past winners were taking their seats.  I could hear Fineguy6076, who blogged out of Jersey City.  There was the instantly recognizable voice of martagoesyo, who wrote from a small town in Ohio.  Last years winner had just arrived to a smattering of applause.  He may have a large following and was quite an original blogger of 2014, but many readers, including this writer, were put off by his daily output of cats dressed as dogs and disguised as trivets or mid-southern house plants.

His wrote under the name of HeSheGuy.

You do the math.

The opening speeches droned on and on.  The room was warm and I began to grow sleepy.  I drifted into a peaceful land of Nod.  I began to feel I was near a great dining hall with floating candles and a really bad bully was picking on a guy named Harry.  Wait! That was the Great Hall of Christ Church College around the corner.  I continued into a light dream-like state.

“Ahem”

My senses became fully awake.

“Order please!”  The words came from the lecture hall.

I knew then they were about to announce my name and I was to make my arrival through a massive oak door.

Applause and shouts of “Here! Here!” and “Hussa” and “About time old boy” would soon ring out.  Pretty ladies would stop fanning themselves and whisper, ever so discretely,  “ I want him to be the father of my children.”

But I was not out of my nap.  Another, less salutary voice spoke:

“Ladies and Gentleman” the calm business-like nature of a man’s tone had indeed broken my REM sleep.

I still felt it was my time.

I tried to rise but felt a restraint around my waist.  I opened my eyes and found myself staring at a small TV monitor mounted on the back of the seat in front of me.

On the blue screen was a small icon of an airplane. Behind it was a blue line that connected it to JFK. As the plane was set against a blue color, I surmised that we were over an ocean. The little icon seemed to be headed toward the letter LHR.

As I regained full awareness, it all came back to me. I wasn’t in Oxford, yet.

I was on American Flight #106.

Then more reality came flooding back to me.

We were caught in traffic somewhere near La Guardia Airport.  Despite being picked up three hours early by a car service from the Upper West Side, my wife was beyond frantic.  She was convinced we were going to miss the flight.

I said we wouldn’t, traffic was always like this out here in Queens.

She said we would miss the flight and that it would cost a small fortune to make new arrangements.

I suggested, calmly, like a man, that one screwed up ticket was only half as bad as two and I suggested she get on the flight without me.

[She was TSA approved and I wasn’t, so I would have to take off most of my clothes and pass through a scanner that would prevent me from having any more children in the future.]

She could breeze past all that and still make it to Gate 14.  I told her I would sleep in the airport or go to some cheap motel and find something to amuse me, like going bowling with a woman named Candy from Flushing, and I would catch up to her in London.

She flatly refused. [Sometimes, women just see the logic in some things.]

Without making this blog any longer, we actually made flight #106

So, now my watch reads 5:15 am.  We’re about 45 minutes away from landing.  Some kind of breakfast just got slapped down next to this computer.

My eyes turned red about two hours ago.

We’re going to pick up our rent car at Heathrow.

Our first night is already booked and it’s not that long a drive.

Where, you may very well ask, are we going first?

Oxford, of course.

My birthday is nine days away.  It’s not too early for a gift, is it?

Maybe an award for writing something like this?

Yes, But Why Can’t You Go Home Again?

It’s a cliché.  It’s a meme.  It’s been repeated a hundred billion times by three hundred billion people.

“You can’t go home again”

I’ve read Thomas Wolfe’s book by the same name.  It was a long time ago.  I may be wrong (correct me if I am), but I do not recall Wolfe ever saying exactly why that fact is true.  I’m sure it was part of the subtext, but it got by me when I was nineteen.

I’m writing a book (a short memoir) of my childhood memories of our family home in Owego, NY.  Perhaps that’s why this question is on my mind these days.  Or, maybe it’s because I’m looking hard into the eyes of my 68th birthday.

Nearly everyone I know has this same feeling.  There are a few people I know that continue to live in the house where they grew up.  For them, there may not be the sea-change like those that do leave.

They wait for a turn on the swing set.  They dress for a prom.  They turn around and they are telling their children where the peanut butter jar is located.  They go into the kitchen to get a cup of tea or a beer and they return to find six grandchildren.

And on it goes.

I’ve lived through my own “you can’t go home again” moment, but I’m at a loss to explain the small details.

Exactly when did that moment occur when I realized it was not my home anymore…just my parents house where I could spend the weekend?

When did that moment enter my mind?

How long do you have to be away before the comfort and magic of home become only a room to find a bed among storage boxes?

Is it a month?  Six months?  A tour of duty?  A year at college?  Getting married and buying a home of your own?

When did you cross that line?

I realize I’m speaking only to those who have (or had) a home in the first place.  I’ve never been homeless in America or lived in a shanty-town, like so many of people of the Third World.

I can’t speak to that.  I had loving parents and siblings.  I had a fireplace to warm myself in a drafty house.  I had stairs to climb, in tears when I knew I would not be able to fall asleep.  Those stairs were there when I was carried in the arms of my father when I fell asleep…exhausted from the heat of play in the heat of summer, or worn out by rolling a giant snowman in January.

Often I feel cursed by the fact that I live so deeply in the past.  Memories keep me awake at night.

I worry about whether someone I haven’t seen in fifty years, still thinks good thoughts about me.

In the end, I still don’t comprehend when the moment comes when the home fires go out, and the living room where I fell asleep on the floor (and my mother covers me with a blanket), is now empty.

The laughter has stopped, the crying had ended and the arguments are over.

The bedroom I slept in while I struggled through my teenage years is empty now and waiting for someone else.

If a child gets to use that room…someday in the distant future…they will move away and then come back to visit.

Then they too will know that you can’t come home again.

MyChildhoodBedroom

 [The bedroom where I studied and slept when I was a teenager]

Dance Like A Wave Of The Sea

IrishCliffs

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…

–W. B. Yeats

Three decades have passed since I last walked the streets of Dublin, Galway and Sligo.  A great many things have changed in those years.  And, a great many haven’t.  The smell of peat-fires in Dublin on a December night, the blasts of wind from the North Atlantic that sting your face when you look out to the west from Donegal and the foamy black pint of Guiness…these things never change.

I will be in good company.  My wife and my son will be on their first visit.  Where does one begin to plan such a trip?  What to see?  What to gaze upon?

We shall avoid the touristy places like Blarney Castle.  But, we will stand above the sea on the Cliffs of Mohair and look up at the keep that is the Egan ancestral castle..Castle Redwood.  It was once said to be haunted.  I, myself, heard Michael Egan (who restored the structure) tell of being awakened by something dark that was choking him.  He called in the local priest the next day.  He slept soundly ever since.

redwoodweb2a

[Castle Redwood, Headquarters for the Egan Clan]

We will stand amid the ruins of Cashel and contemplate the glories of the past.  We will drink alongside unshaven farmers in pubs with names like Egan’s, O’Malley’s and Fitzgibbon’s.

Egan PUB

As I sit on the right in the driver’s seat and drive on the left, we’ll wait for the herd of sheep as they muddle pass us on a narrow lane.

IrishCasteNearCashel

[Near Cashel]

My wife and I will walk up Grafton Street (my son won’t join us until we reach Shannon Airport) and perhaps see a woman with black hair…and she will weave a snare…that someday, I might rue.

My wife and I may sit at the 19th hole and wait for my son to do 9 holes with an old duffer in tweeds.

All this, and more will happen.  And I will, yes I will, yes…sit them both on a stone wall under bare Ben Bulben’s Head, at the edge of the grave of the greatest of Irish poets, William B. Yeats, and read to them from the dark marble of his headstone:

Cast a cold eye

on life, on death.

Horseman, pass by!

dad ireland  copy

[To my knowledge, this was my father on his last visit to Ireland]

When we come at the end of time

To Peter sitting in state,

He will smile on the three old spirits, 

But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,

Save by an evil chance,

And the merry love the fiddle

And the merry love to dance:

And when the folk there spy me,

They will all come up to me,

With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’

And dance like a wave of the sea.

–W.B.Yeats

Watch for my blogs from across the sea.

Beaver Lodge Available: No Cable Necessary

 BeaverDish

[You have to look close for the small blue-gray dish. Trust me, it’s there.]

Beavers, as everyone who has studied their natural history can attest, are amazing in a variety of ways.  The first thing that comes to mind is that they are considered “Natures Engineers” because they have the instinct to secure a site, chew down dozens of trees and proceed to construct a clever and efficient dam.  But, it doesn’t stop with the dam.  The water that is impounded behind said dam makes a small pond or bog.

This is where things get interesting.

Somewhere near the middle of the pond, the beaver eagerly builds a “lodge” that is made of mud, twigs and assorted detritus from the surrounding area.  From a distance, this “lodge” appears to be a mound of…well, twigs, mud and assorted detritus.

Here’s yet another feat of engineering that the beaver adds to this already interesting complex of well-engineered structures: The entrance to the “lodge” is below water level but most of the interior is above water level.  I mean they aren’t fish.  They are mammals so they need to breathe air.

Every Natural History Museum in North America has a fake beaver “lodge” inside a giant plexiglass tank and is displayed in cross-section so that we can see the cozy little chambers and cute living areas.

How safe and warm and secure the little beaver family looks (at least the stuffed ones in the museums) as they live and play in their dry “lodge”.

Leave it to the beaver to have the genetic wiring to be able to build these units.  Believe me, I’ve seen plenty of these places in real life, and I can attest to the same style, generally speaking, of these beaver dwellings.

If you watch Animal Planet or any National Geographic special on “amazing animals”, you will also see footage of the beavers at play or just sleeping the cold days away in their middle-of-the-pond home.

So, as I was driving along a forested road north of Lyon Mountain, NY, I was not at all surprised to see a beaver “lodge” complete with a satellite dish mounted on the highest point.

Was I incredulous?  Not at all.  As I’ve said, beavers are something close to “genius” level…in their mammalian world.  Why not have a dish?

After all, what human is going to slog through neck-deep muck to place a dish where it allows them to watch 3,000 TV channels?  Does anyone in the northern Adirondacks really care about Rugby results from Paraguay?  Or, God forbid, Cricket results from Surrey, England?

Have you ever watched a four-day Cricket match from Sussex?  You could build three “lodges” before anyone scores a run.

Digging A Grave On A Beautiful Spring Afternoon

I stood in the soft loam, nine inches below ground level, leaned against my shovel, and thought about death and insects.  This is not a difficult thing to do when you’re helping to dig a grave on a day in May when the gnats and flies are biting ankles and arms.  After all, it is the Adirondacks.

Life is hard up here in the North Country.  The temperature can flirt with -40 F or the high for three days straight can be -9 F.  Yet, despite the cold that causes a finger to turn black and be amputated by a surgeon, the little annoying insects survive.  I get the science here.  They winterize themselves by simply not freezing, or if they do, some sort of chemical prevents lethal cell damage.  So, what seems to spend months in a state of near-death, merely needs a few days of warmth to emerge and find an unprotected patch of skin to bite and suck the blood (and they do).

Humans are different.  We don’t possess these uncanny abilities to stay alive when death is all around.  And, the tragic irony goes further.  Someone who was alive and breathing on a Friday afternoon, can be as dead as dead can be on Sunday morning.

Which brings us to cemeteries.  Many of my readers know that I am a volunteer photographer for an online group (something like Ancestry, but free).  I spend a fair amount of time roaming the forgotten, lonely country cemeteries in and around Franklin County.  I don’t find my fascination with cemeteries morbid in any way.  Indeed, I find them endlessly interesting.  I learn about local history, admire old headstone carvings, copy heartbreaking epitaphs and just sit and wonder about the lives that are behind the names on the stones.  I was roaming a large cemetery near Malone when a pickup truck stopped beside me.

“Genealogy stuff?” The driver asked.

“Kind of,” I replied.  These were two cemetery workers beginning on the spring burials.  I was thinking quickly.

“Do you dig all the graves with a backhoe?” I asked.

“Almost all,” the driver said.

“So you dig some by hand?”

“Well, this guy next to me is heading up to Brasher Falls.  He’s gonna dig one by hand.”

“Can I help him?” I asked.

“I’m sure he’d love an extra hand.”  He then gave me directions.

Half an hour later, I’m waiting at this particular cemetery when the young man pulls up in another truck.

“I’ll bet you never thought I show up,” I asked as I approached him.

“Oh, you.  I forgot.  Guess I didn’t think you were serious.”

He extended his hand. “Ray,” he said.

“Pat.”

So, I watched as he measured.  I watched as he cut the sod into slabs.  I watched as he spread out a tarp to hold the sod pieces until after the burial the next day.

I stopped watching and I picked out a shovel from his truck and began to dig.

I thought of many things.  The vast majority of human burials for thousands of years, were hand-dug.  I don’t know when the backhoe came on the scene, but digging a grave by hand will soon become a forgotten act of loving labor.

That’s correct.  I think about my taking a small role in preparing a hole for another human to be laid to rest is an ennobling act of a high order.  A guy on a machine is very different from a simple soul with a shovel and a blister.  While I dug, I made some quick mental calculations.  The grave was 8′ x 4′ x 6′.  That amounts to 192 cubic feet of earth that has to be moved.

I glanced at the sun.  It was getting low in the west.  We were about 65 miles from home.

“I won’t be able to help much longer,” I said.  I also had just lifted a sod piece to the tarp.  It must have weighed 40 pounds.  My back surgeon would have slapped me until my ears bled.

After another thirty minutes, I had enough.  Enough of moving soil and scratching insect bites on my shins.  I put the shovel back into his truck, gave him a cold bottle of water I purchased on the way, and said thanks and good-bye.

I’m sorry I couldn’t have finished the job with him.  I wanted to shave the sides and make everything just right to receive the old woman whose funeral was the next day.  I wanted it to be right for her.  I had no idea who she was, but this was going to be her final home…it had to be right.  But, I left that to  Ray.

I have no illusions about how hard it can be for many people to think about graveyards.  I’ve watched most of my family buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Owego, NY.  I’ve stood in the chilly rain and watched a broken-hearted family inter their mother.  It went well beyond the definition of sad.

I recently visited the grave of a former student of mine who was murdered by her husband.  I stood and reflected on her sitting in my classroom thirty years ago and smiling at my goofy jokes.

In a few weeks, I shall stand over the graves of my Irish relatives in a sea-side graveyard in Inishcrone, County Sligo.

As we drove along the country roads, I thought about the irony of life.  The insects “die” a temporary death during the deep winter, only to reemerge as hungry and voracious as ever.   An old woman lives in a hospice, in her home, wherever, and dies when the warmth of spring arrives.

One departs while one arrives.

It’s one of life’s exchanges.  I suppose it’s fair.

It doesn’t really matter.  There’s nothing at all we can do about it.  We can curse and scratch at the newly reborn insects…and we can cry at the departure of person.

I can’t spot any glitches in this.  If you can, you’re a better, more perceptive person than I.  For even the insect who comes back after sub-zero temperatures, must die at the end of the summer anyway.

No matter how you look at it, it’s a one-way street for every living thing.

diggine

 

 

 

 

My Search For The Mythic Buns Of The Woman’s Shoe Salon in Macy’s

Princess Leia Bun

This whole situation started because the front pockets of my jacket zip down instead of up.  This may seem like a small matter but it is not a good thing because it can make it easier to lose such things as Metro Cards, iPhones, keys, hotel key card, reading glasses, sunglasses, pens and notebooks.

Things I keep in the front pockets of my jacket.

So, I did what anyone in this neighborhood would do…I went to Macy’s to look for a jacket that had proper pockets.  The escalator took me to the second floor and I stepped off in the middle of the Woman’s Shoe Salon.  How could I know that the next few seconds would change my immediate future and put me  on a quest for a woman with the most interesting buns I have ever seen.

I first saw her as I was standing next to a single display of a Cut-out Booty with Wedge Heel.  I wasn’t here to shop for a Caged Heel With Open Mesh Fronts, Salvatore Ferragamo or a Low Heeled Mule by Manolo Blahnik (although the Leopard Print Cork Sandals did have some interesting features).

I was really looking for a jacket to solve my zipper problem.  I needed to find Men’s Outerwear.  I was thinking of a Barbour jacket…after all, my birthday was coming up.

Instead, she walked into my life and just as quickly, walked out.  Does that make for a simply passing encounter or was there something more mystical going on here?  I prefer the latter because she appeared and vanished leaving a deep and lasting impression with me.  That puts it into the mystical category in the notebook that I keep in life.

Sometimes the most extraordinary experiences can happen in the most ordinary of places…even a Shoe Salon.  Perhaps the stars were aligned in a correct way, or the waxing gibbous moon over the City carried a spell…or maybe it was the blankets of yellow tulips that covered the flower beds of Central Park and floral pots on every block.

Whatever it was, something fell into an order and set in motion a series of events that can cause a man to question his sanity, moral standards, and logic and simply leaving him questioning whether his heartbeats were visible to the public through his fleece vest and the jacket with the wrong zippers.

It happened to me on the last day of April, 2015.

This woman’s destiny is to haunt my nights, alter my daydreams and question if I was the only human to actually see her.  Actually, I wasn’t the only one to see her because I saw her stop to answer a customer’s question.  I noticed a lanyard around her neck with a plastic card attached.

She must work here!

She answered the question with a few finger gestures to direct the customer to what she wanted.  Then she vanished behind a wall…you know, the place in a shoe store where the clerk will say:

“I think I can find that in another color, just give me a minute.”  Then the clerk goes behind some wall and returns with the correct box.  But, this lady was no clerk.  She was a manager of some kind.  You can always determine this fact by watching how fast managers walk.

The woman didn’t reappear.  I stood against a column.  I looked to the right and saw six marble stairs that led to the Men’s Outerwear Department.

I was torn.  Wait or look for the jacket with the big pockets?  I reached (with difficulty) in my pocket and gripped my iPhone.  If she reappeared, I was going to do one of two things.  Snap a candid from the hip without her knowing it, or politely approach her and ask permission if I could take her photo.

By now, you are wondering what it was about this woman who so fascinated me.  Well, the answer is really quite simple.  It was her buns.

Now, those of you who think they know me are expecting me to make this some kind of lame joke about tushes.  Shame on you!  That’s not where this is going at all.

It was, you see, her hair.

I admit to being attracted to some hair styles.  Being Irish, red and curly is high on my list.  But this woman had two buns over each ear that made one think of an Art Nouveau goddess.  You simply do not see women in “real life” wearing their hair in such a fashion.  Along with her ankle length dress, she looked like she had stepped out of a silent movie or a work of art.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that the closest comparison I can give you is the style worn by Princess Leia in “Star Wars”.  But her’s were black and somehow unreal.  The woman I had seen…her hair was not golden, not copper…but somewhere in the spectrum between. (I think each bun sparkled slightly, but I wouldn’t give my good word on it.)

Again, she was real (?) and not on her way to a costume party.  I may never again see such a coif in my life.

I pulled out my iPhone and pushed the button for the Camera mode.  Then I realized that a man holding a camera in a woman’s Shoe Salon (wearing a jacket with odd front zippers on the pockets) might alarm Security.

I gave it up and went up the six marble steps to Men’s Outerwear.  There I found a Barbour with a price tag of $399.00 (plus tax).  It had the best pockets I’ve ever seen, but quite out of my price range.

Another dream shattered.  I’ll never own a Barbour.  And, I’ll most likely never see the woman with the beautiful buns again.  But, I don’t give up easily.  I put the Barbour back on the rack and went back toward the escalator in the Woman’s Shoe Salon.  I looked around again.

She wasn’t there.

But that didn’t stop me from going back for the next four days and having a look.

Cartoon Buns style