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.

Coal For Christmas

[Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t think you’re getting senile. It’s perhaps the fourth or fifth time I’ve posted it.  It’s my version of a pure Christmas Story. I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  As the years pass, I hope these newer memories are adding reality and not just wishes. This is not a made-up story by me.  It really happened].  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory. Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache in my joints and every sadness of my seventy-third year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  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 or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls deep and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer to brighten the dark and endless winter evenings. It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.  It’s time for a Christmas story.

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 presents, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little 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, if we were bad little boys, as my parents often said, he would leave a lump of coal. You deserved nothing more.

My father, Paul Egan, 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.  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 to find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. When we had a house in Owego, N.Y. and we had plenty of space for a large tree in the living room.  And we had plenty of fist-sized chunks of coal in the cellar.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And the coal so much more dear.

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 and two girls, 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 never broke the silence after that and family legend has it that he 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 cold. Frigid is more apt a term. The chill of the season found a way into a house using the smallest openings. There was never enough flannel.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after midnight, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet. It was too chilly.  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.

In the corner of the small living room stood a stunted Christmas tree.  There were a few bulbs on the branches. My father never spoke about whether there was a string of bright lights, but my suspicions were that there were no bright red, green and white bulbs.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold, bare feet into an old pair of his father’s cold boots that were five sizes too large.  He then 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 now merely embers. Not enough for a house.  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 air.  In the fresh 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 prints.  They 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 a common 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.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

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 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 ten or more feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the inside of the pit.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was nearly full with 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.  The embarrassment was evident on their faces. They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked 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 the ladder 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 load between them. My grandmother carried the third pail.

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 had 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.

The Christmas morning that followed a few hours later was in a warm living room.  My dad never spoke anything to his siblings about the previous night.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers 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.  That dreaded lump of coal in the stocking that was tacked to the mantle over the little-used fireplace.  My fears left me.  Dad’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.”

Split Personalities

[Source: Instagram Search.]

Don’t worry, this is not going to be a symposium on Multiple Personalities or a detailed peer-reviewed paper on Schizophrenia.

Maybe it will.

Many of you know that after I retired, I chose several ways to keep my sanity and be assured that boredom didn’t become an aspect of my life. I tried Literacy Volunteers and teaching the incarcerated. Both were quite satisfying but getting myself to a library or prison in the middle of a typical North Country winter was a challenge you don’t want to even contemplate.

I tried guitar lessons, watercolor, banjo and recently purchased a fine concert ukulele complete with a one-hundred song book that uses only 3 chords: CF-and G. None of this matters, of course. I comprehend nothing at all about music. So, it’s merely a way to hang up cool looking instruments and talk about them.

My seven-year-old grandson, Elias can even play Wild Horses, in his own sweet way.

I always had a desire to write so I began by blogging. I have no theme or special topic so I write whatever interests me. The topics are serious, funny, satiric but usually profound in some small way.

I tend to be nostalgic in my choice of subjects as I grow older. So many memories to recall. Recently, I posted my five-hundredth blog. It’s hard work to keep coming up with original and thoughtful ideas.

It’s the same with writing (a large leap for a blogger.) I always felt the need to be a writer. (I ended up spending over thirty years as a science teacher.) I’m no Stephen King but I have my own style. Y/A horror and the supernatural seems to be the genre I’ve fallen into, for now.

All this sets up a serious problem. For the better part of a day, I’m a twelve-year-old boy. The rest of the time, I’m Boris Karloff.

So, who am I really? I try to amuse and I try to frighten with only a few hours to be the real me. Sometimes, the wires get switched

Being a clown at times conflicts with creating profound sadness.

I don a mask and moments later I cover my face with tragedy.

My parents would have been better off naming me JANUS.

[Source: Instagram Search]

It’s Not Easy

Elisa Pumpkins[Elias has to choose. It’s very important what to consider.]

[DEDICATED TO ELIAS MUIR GOLDSTEIN, MY GRANDSON]

It’s not an easy life being a child. No, the easy part of life is being a grown-up.  They can go to bed when they want, they can watch any TV show on the cable…like The Bachelor in Paradise or Hoarders, take a bath when they choose and even get to drive a car.

All is not perfect in child land at certain times of the year.

Like October. This is when the difficult choices begin to manifest themselves. The major issue at this time of the year happens to be pumpkins. Every year a child (except those that are home schooled and believe that Halloween is a satanic practice) has to choose the perfect pumpkin to display on the front steps of his or her house. This is not an easy matter. There are endless considerations to be made. To make a very long story somewhat shorter, I will use bullet points to illustrate my…points.

The usual first step for the parents is to take the child to a Pumpkin Farm. At such places, many choices come into play. Shall the child have a cup of cider? A candy apple? Or, perhaps a doughnut?

But then, reality begins. Choosing the absolutely perfect pumpkin. And this is the most difficult process of all. A child has to consider a number of factors in selecting the correct pumpkin. if I remember correctly from my childhood, this is what the youngster needs to consider:

  • How does the pumpkin heft? How do two pumpkins feel when held in each hand?  Is there a proper equilibrium?
  • How does the weight (or mass) compare with others with the same volume? This can be determined, in large part by the heft, but it is not based on solid scientific empirical data.
  • What is the carvability factor? How easy would the knife cut through the orange skin?
  • The size. Will the size support a proper face carving?
  • Is there enough surface area to support a carved face? Should it be scary or funny?
  • The specific gravity. How does the pumpkin relate to it’s volume in a bucket of water?
  • Does it have enough internal space (post-carving) to support a stub of a old dinner candle?
  • What is the Curb Appeal? Can this be seen easily from the street? Will it scare away trick or treaters or will it signal that goodies are to be had in the house that sits behind this special pumpkin?
  • What is the life span? How long can the child keep the pumpkin on the front porch before it becomes a moldy mass of yellow pulp that needs to be shoveled from the steps? Can it last into December?

So many things to consider when you’re a child. But the one thing that will not be a worry is that you will have a loving Mommy and Daddy that will tuck you into bed and tell you that the spooks and goblins are not real and that the candy will have to wait.

Then they can get back to Hoarders.

 

Trying To See Orting Through The Eyes Of Elias

[Elias and Erin nap. Erin has a cold.]

Behind my back, twenty-three miles east south-east, sits Mount Rainier. The second day we were here, the sun set into the Pacific Ocean and bathed Rainier in the most spectacular alpen-glow I’ve seen in years. We had a few days of clear weather. Today, it is rainy and cloudy. Kind of the usual for this time of year.

This is the view that my grandson, Elias has grown up with.

[Mariam, Erin and Elias.]

Yesterday, Mariam, Erin, Elias and I made the walk to the Kindergarten, where Elias is taught by Mrs. Misner helped by Miss Jo.

I walk behind the three of them…Elian, his grandma and his mom. I feel old, achy. Like a grandfather. We walk slowly back to home.

[Clam Guns. I never knew such things existed]

I ask to stop and visit the local sporting goods store. I needed shoelaces.

I always follow behind on the walk back home.

[Elias escapes the car seat after a shopping visit with his dad, Bob.}

[And of course, Rainier}

 

It’s A Girl!

There is this girl who  my heart and she calls me Daddy.

–Anon.

[My Little Cowgirl]

I got the call when I was assembling computer components at a bench in Building 18, IBM Endicott, NY.

Actually, the manager took the call.  He came over to my work place and said that there was a message for me from Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton.

It was June 9, 1972.  I was expecting the call.  I was about to become a father.

When I arrived at the hospital, the nurse took me to the waiting room.  In those days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery room.  Expectant fathers are usually depicted on TV and in movies as nervous, bumbling jangled fools.  Not me.  I calmly read the out dated magazines.  I do believe I even read an entire article in the Reader’s Digest.

How long did I wait?  I simply don’t recall, but I was approaching that boring stage, when a doctor entered the room.  He asked my name and extended a hand.

“Mr. Egan, Bernadette is here.”

With those words, my life changed.

Let me backtrack for a moment.  After the IBM manager told me I had a phone call I went to him and told him I had to leave for the hospital.  On my way to the door, I stopped to tell the news to a guy whose job it was to keep the assembly people (me) supplied with diodes and transistors.  He shook my hand and wished me luck.

“Oh, more thing,” he said.

I went back to his window.

“Boy or girl, doesn’t matter.  But a word of advice.  Play with them.  Love them.  Watch them because they will grow up faster than you can possibly imagine.”

“Thanks, I will,” I replied as I headed for the parking lot.  I really didn’t believe him.  How can time go faster just because one becomes a parent?

I can say now, without hesitation, that that man was absolutely correct.

There was a song I remembered:

Turn around and she’s one, turn around and she’s two…turn around and she’s a young woman going out of the door.

Erin (her middle name was fast becoming her first name) did grow up quickly.  I took her hiking in the Adirondacks, canoeing on the Susquehanna River and showed her London, Paris and Moscow.  I took her to Broadway shows.  I watched her skate on New Years Eve at Rockefeller Center.

In college, she earned a double major, English and Religious Studies.  She’s a trained Paralegal, she proofs and edits the books I’ve published and she beats me without mercy in our ongoing online Scrabble game.  Now we play chess on our iPads.  She lives in the Pacific Northwest and I live in the North Country of New York State.

Now, she is a mother of an adorable five-year-old boy, Elias.  I gave her the advice that I was given.

[Erin and Elias]

“Erin, it all goes by so fast…love him and play with him…it all goes by so fast.”

Generations come and go like water over Niagara.  Being a parent isn’t for everyone.  It’s not a requirement for life.  But the experience of holding a tiny girl baby one day and then cuddling her tiny little baby boy is a part of life that I wouldn’t trade for a brick of gold.

[Erin:Thanksgiving 2017]

[All photos are mine]

The Three-Eyed Turkey From Mars

Reprinted from the Journal of Unbelievable Results, Nov. 2017. Vol. 1, No. 1.

About ten or fifteen years ago, the New York Post ran a bold, full-page headline which read: Life On Mars!

(or something like that).  It seems that one of the NASA Mars rover vehicles turned over a small rock and analyzed the sand beneath.  Some sort of Amino acids or complex molecules were discovered that indicated that Mars could, indeed, support life.  Well, thirty-five years of teaching science has taught me one thing at least: Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Post.

I’ll put it out there as kindly as I can.  There is no verifiable evidence that life exists anywhere except here on Earth.

I firmly believed that until this Thanksgiving past.  My soon-to-be-five-year-old grandson, Elias, was given the opportunity to construct a turkey in his pre-K art class.

What he constructed is the first example of an alien fowl.  He told me that it had to be an alien because it had three eyes.

I submit the enclosed photo as proof of this amazing discovery.  I leave it up to my faithful readers to decide for themselves the validity of this evidence that clearly disproves the long-held theory that Mars is a lifeless planet.

It remains to be seen, however, if, given the current state of politics, whether or not there is intelligent life here on Earth.

[Actual photograph of the alien three eyed turkey as constructed by Elias.  Photo is mine.]

 

Love At The End Of The Tunnel

[My photo. Elias leaves pre-K.]

The longest and most uncomfortable, painful and seemingly endless flight I ever undertook began at 4:00 am on Monday, November 20 when I forced myself out of the bed.  I forgot our wakeup call was for 4:15 am.  Our flight was scheduled for 7:00 am.  It was going to be a long day.

We were at a lower level Marriott about two miles from Logan Airport.  Our shuttle picked us up at 5:00 am, on time and the driver was even awake and courteous.  I was numb with lack of sleep.

The first leg of our flight required a stop-over in Chicago.  Time to breathe real air and stretch our legs for an hour.

Then we boarded American Airlines flight #1239 for Seattle.  I bought one of those neck pillows but it did nothing but keep me upright with my head forced into one position, much like you see in the photos of the poor souls in the electric chair..  Everything in my body hurt when we finally landed.

We were on the first segment of our winter vacation.  First stop was to visit and spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, Erin, husband Bob and, my one and only grandson, Elias.

From their home in Orting in Washington, we were due to fly to LA and then spend the month in Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert of California.

But, I digress.

We called Erin who was waiting in the cellphone lot.  Within a few minutes, she pulled up in front Pick-up Station #1.

We loaded her 2013 Hyundai Accent.  We drove south for about forty-five minutes and we were at her home in Orting.

I had been awake since 4:00 am and was drugged with Valium and Dramamine so I was grateful when every one else left to do some shopping, I drifted on the sofa, the large black cat, Guinness, sleeping on my lap.

Everyone returned from shopping.

Then the real fun began…Elias began to remember his grandpa and Emmy.

It seemed to me to be the longest and most painful flight I’ve ever made.  But the love at the end…made it all disappear.

[My photo]

Postscript: Guest proofreader for this post is my daughter, Erin.]