A Memory Is Immortality

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

—Anon

[A cremation box, not my brother’s]

I stood and stared at the box. I was alone. All the relatives, guests and friends had left after the service. The room was quiet except for the almost imperceptible recorded tones of funeral music. I stood several feet away from the box, in the center of the room. I took three steps backwards and sat in one of the empty folding chairs. I continued to gaze at the box. I had asked the funeral director if I could have the room to myself for a few minutes to gather my thoughts.

The box, golden hued, had only a few words printed on one side:

Daniel Charles Egan

March 1, 1945 – December 26, 2019

Inside the box were the cremains of my brother…my last brother. I began to wonder which Dan I was thinking about. Was this the teenager that took apart a ’57 Ford in the backyard and after honing the cylinders, put the entire thing back together. (He had two bolts left over when he finished.) Was this the guy who used-up most of my Brylcreem on his curly hair before a sock hop at Owego Free Academy?

Or was this the boy that swam away hours at Brown’s Tract Pond when we went family camping each summer in the Adirondacks?

Was his the hand behind the wickedly fast snowball that nearly took my ear off, or maybe the future boat maker who turned down an offer of $11,000 for his hand-crafted Adirondack Guide Boat?

Was this the reader who was fascinated by the history of the Mohawk Valley, who collected Native American sinker stones or flint chips of arrowheads?

It occurred to me that in that box were the remains of a great many Dan Egans.

But not all of Dan’s existence consisted of possessing skills (he was a licensed pilot) and knowledge. Early in the 1990’s life began to take on a downward spiral. His only daughter died tragically.

This was quickly followed by the passing of our mother which was shortly before our eldest brother, Chris died. In the late ’90’s and into the next century Dan survived cancer only to lose the battle in 2019.

All that was left of my last brother was inside that box.

Now, as the years pass, more and more of his friends have died. He survived (barely) Viet Nam and was still being handed a piece of Viet Cong shrapnel that the surgeons found every time he had a hip replacement.

So, that’s the end of the life of my brother.

Or is it?

Many years ago I read the perspective of the Native American view on death. To them, it’s all about stories. As long as someone is spoken about after death, then they never really have died. The memory of someone lives on into the future…as long as there is a story to tell or a song to sing about that person. As Dan’s story is told, he’s not in any box. He’s sitting next to me, alive as he could be. Dan’s memory will fade in our hearts over time…but he’ll remain part of the living world.

I know it’s my turn next, but I have children and they will have children and they will carry Dan’s story with them. They will know Dan through the tales I will tell. One could say that it’s only a box with some ashes but the story doesn’t end there.

Go ahead, speak of the departed…but tell the listener to speak with loving generosity.

Coal For Christmas

[My regular readers will recognize this story. I republish it every holiday season with a tweak here and there. This story is true and I am passing it down to new readers and my two children. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great and meaningful holiday.]

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor]

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventy-fourth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now, the last of the Egans.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something, get a name wrong or a date incorrect.  Or, forget the event entirely. This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever my parents lived  during any particular winter.  There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays.  The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind.  It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago. 

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile.  It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words. 

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys, Paul and Jack and two girls, Jane and Nelda comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were five sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was nearly out. My father managed to find three lumps of fist size coal hidden or forgotten behind the bin. The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the tracks.  A pale moon helped light the way.  The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all. A nearly full moon shining off the snow gave the landscape a light that helped him keep on the trail of the four footprints.

In his anxiety my father had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the eight feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking various-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after that midnight trip to the coal pit, my family moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor.]

A Guide to Delivering the Perfect ‘Father-of-the-Groom’ Wedding Toast

[Source: Google Search]

Let’s say that you find yourself in the position of having to write and deliver a wedding toast at the rehearsal dinner. If you’re more than a little nervous and uncomfortable before a crowd of strangers, then pick and choose some of the pointers I’m providing. Above all, don’t be scared because no one will remember anything you say on the morning of the wedding. They will be searching for their bottle of Advil. Another major starting point is to remember NOT to say you’re the father of the bride. You’re the father of the groom. Father of the Bride is a movie with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Don’t do this because you’ll seem uneducated and culturally illiterate…you’ve plenty of time for that in your speech. Feel free to jot down any of these tips to help you get through this inept experience.

–Check your new sport coat and locate any place that can hold at least four air-sick bags. Hold one in your left hand throughout the speech.

–Take three Valium before dinner and two more during dessert. Wash them down with a healthy mouthful of Jamison.

–Locate the bride and find out her name. At all costs, avoid having any words with a member of the bridal party. Otherwise, MeToo will be all over your tail and you’ll end up on a filler segment on CNN.

–Order food that can be chewed on for a least ten minutes; a) It makes it appear as though your actually eating and, b) It kills time.

–If anyone bothers to to talk to you, just nod a lot and agree to everything.

–If you are forced into a conversation just drop the names Fermi, Dostoevsky and Pliny the Elder.

–Locate the nearest men’s room. Go there frequently to be sure you’re wearing a shirt.

–Avoid taking Ex-Lax for least four days prior to the wedding. If you’re having problems “down there”, see a specialist immediately.

–Wear a Depends. It helps avoid peeing into a champagne flute.

–Have five copies of your speech taped to the bottom of your chair in the rare case of your original catches fire.

–Always, always open a speech with a joke. I suggest an original and hilarious one:

“I just flew in from Boise and boy are my arms tired.” It’s original and funny.

–Ask that all cell-phone and recorders are collected at the entrance. Their contents can be used in a Court of Law.

–Get a haircut at least four months before the event. Otherwise it may appear unkempt.

–In your speech DO NOT quote JFK. Nobody present (except the bartender) will know who you are talking about.

–If a joke falls flat, fall to the floor and yell “Heimlich!!” and “I’ll see you soon Grandma.” (Adds drama.)

–Be a man…be an example for your son. Have four Jack Daniels doubles before dinner. It will calm your shaking hands.

–Don’t mention any of your war wounds you got at Iwo Jima in ’45.

–In your speech, do not mentioned anything about your son’s life that occurred anytime before he was twenty-eight years old.

–Avoid mentioning Betty Ford more than twice and don’t confuse her with Betty White or Betty Crocker.

–It will be unexpected and perplexing if you read your speech on a cell phone. Use paper notes. The elderly diners will respect that.

–If anyone’s cell phones rings while you’re speaking: a) Stop, b) Stare at him or her for at least ten minutes, c) Make a mental note of the offender. Have a few “friends from Queens deal with them later.

–Disregard any remarks when you request a bib from the server. Vomit stains will raise issues with the Tuxedo Rental Agency.

At all costs, avoid using the following terms:

a) Philadelphia divorce lawyer.

b) Settlement

c) Alimony

d) Child support

e) DNA

f) Crimes of Passion

g) Condom wholesalers.

So, there you have it. Relax and enjoy this joyful occasion.

Dear Kristin

[Source: Google search]

Your betrothed, Brian has no idea that I’m sending you this note. He is probably at his computer working out his next Bitcoin move. I will be quick with this note because my furlough from Dannemora will begin soon and the mini-van will be picking me up any minute to take me to my part-time job at the pumpkin farm. I hope you received my monthly payment of $3.77 for restitution.

I am just a poor old man about to lose his only son to you. It will be especially difficult to work the old farm without my boy. Now it’s up to me and Old Paint to get the last of the hay cut and stored in what’s left of the barn after the fire. Old Paint is getting on in years and one of these days I’ll have to take him out behind the woodshed and….oh, I can hardly think of it. That will leave Mariam and I to plow and harrow our two acre farm.

I think we’ll move to Kansas.

So, from what Brian tells me, you’re to have a small party to celebrate your blessed union. And it’s only one week away! My how time flies. I feel like it was only yesterday that I took him to the Five and Dime for his first pair of bib overalls. Whatever you two choose to do in the future, don’t let him near silos.

Mini-van is here now so I must be ending this note. He’s my only boy (that I know of) so take care of him.

Love to you both.

Pops

My Secret

I am the holder of something secret, very secret. Something so very secret that even the elite and highly trained police force of Saranac Lake cannot access. It is so secret that sometimes even I can’t remember what it is. The NYPD, FBI and Interpol do not have the ability to know my secret. Hackers from Lithuania and Bulgaria have attempted to get their hands on this secret…to no success,

But the time for this secret to be made public is approaching. October 8, 2021 to be precise. But all awesome happenings involve a time of waiting.

–To view Halley’s Comet, a stargazer must wait seventy-six years. I saw it in 1987. Next appearance will be July 28, 2061.

–The Shroud of Turin is publicly displayed every ten years or so.

–The paintings on the wall of the Lascaux, France caves waited about 17,000 years before the eyes of modern humans saw them. (Some things are worth waiting for, I guess.)

But our modern technology allows many things to be viewed at a moments notice. With the push of a button we can see reruns of Laverne & Shirley or I Love Lucy. One can even find ancient recordings of Bob Dylan actually singing before he “went electric.”

But I digress.

You may be asking yourself: “What is this secret that he’s talking about? That’s a fair question. The answer lies two feet from where I am typing. It’s in a manila folder. It’s something I have written. I’ve spent almost three months working on this project. No eyes but mine have seen it and it will stay semi-hidden until October 8.

I’m talking about the toast that I am to give at the rehearsal dinner. The dinner is the evening before my son gets married.

I’ve spent many brain-hours trying to make it a really good speech. After all, I will give the speech only once in my life, my son will hear it only once…and then it becomes an archive in my private files. I call them the X-Files. I tried to make it special but my son, Brian told me I only had about five minutes.

Seems a pity. All this effort for five minutes? All the important things to say to my son and the assemblage of wedding attendees.

So much to say…so little time.

The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

[Not my brothers canoe. But you get the point. Source: Google Search]

Canoes were always a part of my boyhood. Our family was definitely zero-octane. It’s all very logical given the fact that our property at 420 Front St., Owego, NY, my childhood home, happened to have the Susquehanna River in our backyard. And, we used the river often. My memories and adventures on those waters often give me solace when I leaf through my Book of Youth. One of our favorite afternoon activities was to collect a few empty mayonnaise jars, a few empty bottles of Coke and perhaps even a tomato sauce jar, put them in the canoe and head up-river toward Hiawatha Island. We were armed with our trusty Daisy BB guns. After our paddle to the island we would slowly make our way back home. We’d toss the bottles into the river and shoot at them until they shattered and sank to the silty river bottom. The shattered glass is still there sixty-some years later. This lasted until my brother Dan, bought a pellet gun that would blow the jars and bottles to shards with one shot. Who would want to compete with that?

None of this would have happened if my older brother, Chris didn’t obtain and restore a large Old Town canoe. Most average canoes are 16′ long. This was a 19′ long craft. It reminded me of an Indian war canoe or something you’d find at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills. Somewhere in my photo boxes I have a picture of Chris working on the bow of his canoe. I cannot find this photo so the downloaded featured picture is the best I could find. You get the idea.

I recall an afternoon paddle. It was getting late and I was a tired boy. The boat was large enough for me to lie down with my head beneath the bow seat. There was a tarp. I pulled it over my head and put my ear to the floor board. I listened to the faint flow and gurgle of the water that was an inch from my cheek. I thought of the broken bottles sitting in the mud below me. The BB itself would be long gone in the future. Not so with the glass.

I lifted the tarp and saw the dark outlines of Cemetery Hill and the trees along the river bank. I knew we were close to home.

As we paddled slowly toward our property I thought of the river. I was aware of my geography so that if we left all things alone, we’d drift downstream for days into the mighty Chesapeake Bay…beyond that…the Atlantic Ocean. All the history and importance of the Susquehanna watershed began at the mouth of a moderate sized lake in central New York State, Otsego Lake in Cooperstown.

But we didn’t get to the Bay. We got home in the dark and I was left with only a memory of my evening on the floor of a large canoe.

So, on a recent trip to Owego I went over to the Hickories Park. None of the stores, hotels or the Hiawatha Bridge existed back in the day of that trip. I stand and look out over the choppy waters and think of the glass shards still resting on the river bottom. A great deal of water has flowed past the Hickories where I stood.

It’s all a memory now. Once the water passes me it’s off to the great ocean. It’s a little like life. It flows past and to really understand it and love it, one has to lie still and listen to the sound of flowing water.

A Gathering: A Farewell

The time for tears has come and gone.

You passed from our lives a year ago. It’s sad Nance, that you won’t see your son on a hilltop be married to an amazing woman, Kristin. They moved back to Binghamton, the virus, and other events delayed a final gathering in your name until this day, May 15th.

But here are many of your friends and relatives, each carrying a Nancy story in their hearts, coming together to celebrate your life. You certainly made a mark. Your memory book is filling up. We made a mark together as well. We created a boy named Brian. As awesome a child as can be. He was our gift to the world.

He and Kristin will begin a new cycle on an autumn day in the finger lakes, hopefully under a sky that will be cloudless.

Clouds will come later…they always do. But the love between Brian and Kristin will keep those clouds at bay.

Today is your day Nancy. Enjoy the multitude of friends and family that fill this room. And then… Let It Be.

Reunion

[Source: Egan Family Archives.]

I’m working on my family tree using Ancestry.com. As my son has said: “It’s addictive.”

When my father passed away in 2004, there were boxes of old photographs. Many. of course, were unlabeled. My father would dig this photo out of wherever he stored it and name almost 75% of those in the picture. If you haven’t found him yet, my father (aged 12) is the third boy from the left, bottom row. My grandparents are the last couple on the right, back row.

The rest of those sitting or standing at an unknown farm in Orange, PA. are strangers to me, yet connected to me by blood or marriage.

How I wish I was there that day sitting among four (my best guess) generations of Egans, Hotchko’s and Berlews. I would pepper the old timers with question about a world I would never know. (A word of advice: always label any and all old photos.)

Yes, it’s sad to say that it’s likely that all those in the photograph are gone from us. But each had a story about themselves…each had a memory of someone else in the picture.

And each grain of memory has, through some mystery…filtered through time to make me who I am.

Too Old, Too Soon: Two Friends

“I want to go for a ride,” said the car that had a teal fender.

“You can’t. You’re a mess. Your engine hasn’t run since the early sixties. A car also needs four wheels and you need three. Your ride isn’t going my friend. This is going to be where you will stay until someone buys you for parts. I hate to be blunt, my friend, but you need to get used to it. But don’t fret. I sort of always wanted to spend time with you,” said his friend.

“I used to run with the big boys back in the day. I could hit 48 mph on a good day. My vinyl seats matched the skirt of any pretty young thing that was brave enough to go out with the guy that owned me. He kept my hood polished and my engine tuned. Boy I was really something back in the day,” said the once black car. By the way, what color were you?”

“Me? I can’t remember those things. I’ve been a sort of rust/brown since the Eisenhower administration. Besides, color doesn’t’ matter. I know so don’t yell at me. You’re going to say that with cars color does matter.”

“I don’t like it here, next to a nearly shuttered Sunoco station in some town that has seven houses,” said Old Blue.

“You have to live with it, ole buddy. The fast times are long gone. You can’t do the things you once were so good at doing. You’re invisible now. No body sees you…I mean the real you. All they see is an old thing. But rest assured, that’s not how I see you.”

“I remember the day when my then owner, Sam, had me painted blue. I was the only blue car around town. All the rest were black. The girls giggled and nodded when Sam asked them if they wanted to ride around the block once or twice. And, boy they giggled when Sam parked me behind the Grandstand at the old Fair Grounds. They nearly wore my springs out. He’s the one who painted me blue.

“I remember when you drove up to the rest of us in your new blue coat of paint. I knew an old song that I changed some words for you. I’d sing it when you’d drive away from me.

I had a car and I called him Blue.

Betcha five dollars he’s a good car too.

“I want to go home. Maybe that traveling salesman who first bought me has a place for me. Perhaps the kid who was just back from the war and used to have me race other cars out on Old Farm-to-Market Road. You remember. He got real sick and had to sell me. He died too. No. He can’t have a place for me. I’ll bet that lovely blonde who owned me in the late 1960’s. She’ll be an old lady by now, just like me. She’ll have a place. And don’t forget that teacher who fixed me up real good in 1992. He had a nice home. He’ll take me.”

“None of that is going to happen, Blue.”

“You can’t go home again no matter where you can find a home. Just settle in right here…next to me and once the last bolt of yours has been sold, or thrown away…it all won’t matter anymore.”

“I beg to differ. All of the people who owned me and are still around have wonderful memories of me. They talk about me and the things we all enjoyed. The stories about me will live on and in that way, so will I.”

“Okay Blue, if you say so. Meanwhile, stay close to me when the night comes. I’m kinda afraid of the dark. But stay near.

I need you.”

The Toboggan

It’s not really a wedding gift…it’s a gift for the future beyond that.

[In the garage]

When I was growing up in Owego, NY we had a garage that my father built using spare lumber he had accumulated since the late 1940’s. I cannot locate a proper photograph because I, more than likely, never took one. The whole structure leaned at a dangerous angle. It was never painted but it had many uses, mostly storing old oil cans, ladders, a canoe or two and a lawnmower. If you stood half-way along our driveway one could see a snarl of yellow plastic rope handing from the rafters. This was our toboggan. We rarely used it because we lacked proper slopes. You would have to drive to the IBM Country Club and find joy and thrills on the snow-covered golf course. I only took my girlfriend out for a few runs. Other than that, the toboggan waited patiently in the rafter of the old garage. My father probably acquired the sled sometime in the 1940’s.

I grew up and went to college, forgetting the old toboggan. It lay upside-down, above our ever changing cars. As my dad aged, he urged his four sons to begin claiming and cleaning the objects of our childhood. I spoke up and said I wanted the toboggan so it was handed down to me. Only in the 1970’s did I actually remove the sled from it’s resting place and took it to Pennsylvania. There it got well-used, fulfilling its function, when I took my young daughter, Erin for many pulls.

I relocated to Connecticut. I was getting older and Erin was getting heavier. The toboggan went back to it’s little home on the rafter of the garage at 420 Front St. in Owego. There it waited out many winters and watched the snow come and go.

Now, I am a father again. I have a son in his mid thirties. On October 9, 2021 he will be marrying the woman he loves. Perhaps they will choose to raise a family…perhaps not. But I could think of no better gift than to restore the old toboggan. That way, regardless of whether they have a family or not, they will get a lovingly new old toboggan to hang on their wall or hang from the rafter of a garage.

During the restoring process, I found myself challenged by a knot in the old plastic rope. It was so well tied, I needed scissors to cut the rope.

[Clipping the old knot]

In a way it was like cutting old ties to objects of my youth. The snip that broke the knot broke something in my heart.

[All done]
[Appropriate Title]