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.”

ITSY BITSY MACHINES

The mega international company, IBM, was born in 1911. It was first called Computing-Tabulation-Record Co. Someone, most likely Thomas Watson, after some corporate maneuvers, changed the name to IBM.

My father was hired at the flagship company in Endicott, NY in 1936. He always told his sons that if he took the offer of employee stock options back in the day, our family would have been worth millions by the 1990’s.

The joke was on us.

His kids used to joke with dad.

“Where do you work, dad?” “IBM”, he’d answer.

“You mean ‘Itsy Bitsy Machines.’

Here is a very brief history of how objects that were so big got to be so small (and then big again).

The first attempt to store information was done on an ‘IBM’ card:

[SOURCE: Google Search.]

Information storage then went to the great invention, the Transistor:

[Typical Transistor. Source: Google Search]

Today, computers are now ‘Main Frame’, like a lot of little units working together.

[Typical Main Frames: Source: Google Search.]

I wouldn’t be typing on my laptop, and in 1969 we never would have landed on the moon if big, bulky electronics hadn’t gotten so small (and this is just the beginning.

10,000 Eyes

Most seasoned travelers to Paris would not be surprised that many of them are walking on countless remains of past Parisians. It is estimated that there are over 6,000,000 bodies, skulls mostly, that are buried in ancient rock mine shafts.

It all began with a gruesome and tragic collapse of a catacombs from the church St. Innocents. This prompted the city engineers to use the remaining mine shafts to bury the dead. Only a portion of these unfortunates are on view and open to the public. Touring the tunnels will cost 5€ and I estimated that only about 10,000 skulls and bones are on display.

Who were these people? What were their lives like? Did they often meet, fall in and out of love? Cry? Laugh? Grieve? Were they happy or were their lives spent living in squalid misery? We only have the blank eyes staring back at us to even give a hint.

But we are confident that as Parisians, they approached life with a certain savoir faire.

Think of it. The sightless eye sockets of 10,000 watch your every move. Try to steal a kiss from a sweetheart or a nip from a flask, you certainly won’t be alone.

Oddly enough, it not a dismal environment.

On the streets above, you’re mostly alone. But in the catacombs you have thousands of friends, although mute, at least they are watching you in their own way.

A Young Boy’s Walk

[Source: Google Search.]

My first eight years of formal education was at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, NY. Many former students of many Catholic schools will complain about horrid nuns with rulers and black straps. I had no such issues with the Sisters of Mercy who ran our school. Most knew our parents personally. I can’t blame the good Sisters for the lapses in my education (I don’t know the difference between a gerund and a participle). And it’s ultimate irony that someone who had virtually no science classes ended up being a teacher…a science teacher!

But I digress.

My forth grade teacher, Sister M., liked to take walks. Owego was ideal for school children to walk. The streets are mostly set on a grid sistem. Out the school, keep making lefts when you come to a corner and before you can say Susquehanna, you’re back at the school.

[Source: Google Search.]

Sister M.loved the autumn and there’s nothing like that season in Owego. The sidewalks fill with leaves and all is right with the world. She had the patience of a saint, so on the most perfect days of fall, we would go, as a class, on our ‘science’ walk. East on Main Street and a right on Ross. We’re at the corner of Ross and Front, ready to make the right back to school. I can glimpse my house. I wondered what my mother was doing. Which room she was cleaning or which fall flower she was picking. Our class did this walk, every year, with the particular nun who taught us. The ‘science’ part took place when we got back to school. In the back of the building was an unused room…our ‘lab’. There, using a hot plate and an old used pan, we would choose our favorite leaf picked up on the walk, and  each pupil would carefully dip their leaf into the melted paraffin. The nun stood close by always thinking about the possible and the much dreaded phone call:

“What?! My daughter got scolded with hot, molten wax? It’s true. It’s true that you nuns torture our kids.”

On our forth grade walk, something odd happened to me. At the end of a two-block leaf walk, I had changed. I always enjoyed finding a colorful maple or oak, but on that ideal day, a day with a deep blue sky, the smell of leaves, the hint of crispness in the air and Halloween a week or two away…I saw the true colors shining through. The sky became a deeper blue and the thousands of leaves took on a brilliance I had never seen before. (This same experience happened years later when I was a freshman in high school. I recall lying on the grass in our backyard and staring at a budding spring flower. I never saw a flower the same since. My senses had made a quantum leap into a higher level of insight).

I looked up at Sister M. She had a slight smile on her nearly hidden face. I looked around at my classmates. Did they experience what had felt that moment? I believe for them each moment came at a different time. I had my moment. On their way to adulthood, they all would have their moment. I glanced again and my friends, this time i noticed a young petit girl with dark hair cut in a pixie style.

I began to notice many different things that day. It was a walk I will never forget.

NOTE: All the leaves are still green here in the North Country. But, seasons change fast and so here is my autumn blog.]

What To Do?

[The puzzle as of April 9.]

Dear Dr. Fauchi,

I am in need of a motivation transplant. I know that isn’t your field but I felt it wouldn’t hurt to ask. And I ask this at this particular time because you probably have little or nothing to do since the pandemic situation is totally under control because of the perfect job our President is doing. It’s just that I’m losing my way here. The Troll of Boredom has begun to knock on our front door. I am a senior citizen and because of a tangle with leukemia in 2003, my immune system is quite compromised so I have to be very careful.

But, I digress.

All is not lost.

I am a man not without some talents and skills. After all, I’m writing this, correct? Other interests have occupied my time in the past. I’ve written several books (all are self-published, but we don’t need to mention that, do we?)

For example, here are the collected notes, outlines, drafts and research of a novel I began several years ago. It needs a little work but I lack the motivation.

[Note the fireplace in the corner.]

I also have a more than passing interest in watercolor painting. This is my art table:

[The Art Table. The tubes of paint have been stored for the winter.]

Another interest of mine is to learn to play a musical instrument. I’ve been through the Recorder, Guitar, Harmonica, Penny Whistle and, as you see, I’m ready to take on the Banjo. But I lack the motivation.

[An almost unused banjo.]

:

[My next project.]

I enjoy Needlepoint. I’ve already did a lady-bug as practice, so I know I can to it…if I get some motivation.

Right now, Doctor, my time is spent attempting to assemble a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The top photo shows our progress as of April 9. It is, by far, the most detailed and difficult puzzle I’ve ever done.

A few minutes ago I sat in the dining room staring at the puzzle. The glare of the overhead light made all the pieces look the same. That is not a good thing. I stand up and look down. It’s an impossible task. I feel like a sort of god looking at lost people who are crying out to me:

“Please put me where I belong. Please don’t leave me unattached.”

I begin to feel pity until I think of the tens of thousands of humans who are crying out that very plea. I turn around to the window to take my attention away from misplaced pieces…and I see this:

[?]

Am I lost in time? I rush to the calendar, passing my Weather Monitor. It’s April 10 and the humidity is still low. The only comfort is that we’ll be enjoying a White Easter. I tried holding an Easter Egg Hunt once when we had a surprise snowfall. I ran around the yard hiding the eggs and then realized I forgot to color them. Needless to say the neighborhood children weren’t pleased.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done. But I beg you…I truly beg you not to do any harm to yourself after standing on the podium for two hours listening to The Man Who’s Named Must Not Be Mentioned.

Don’t worry about me, Doctor. I’ll check the yellow pages for a Motivational Doctor nearby.

Patrick

[All photos are mine.]

 

 

 

Snow

The woods are pleasant, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

–Robert Frost

 

[Our tiny forest. Our front yard. Photo is mine.]

I can think of nothing in nature more calming, soothing and tranquil than standing in a forest while snowflakes nearly the size of marbles drift slowly downward through the trees.

I’ve sat by gurgling brooks. I’ve felt the winds of the prairie whistle in my ears. With a mug of Oolong tea laced with local honey at my side, I’ve sat and listened to the rain fall, sometimes heavy and in waves…sometimes only a dribble. These are all transcendent. And you need only one good sense, hearing.

Snow, on the other hand is silent. You can’t hear a flake settle on a pine needle. A rainfall doesn’t lend itself to a visual experience, unless you count thunder and lightening. A snowstorm, in its aftermath, can leave you breathless…the absolute whiteness of it all.  Well, not all. A mere three weeks can separate the dazzling colors of late autumn to a black and white world where only a hint of dull green marks the presence of coniferous trees and a cluster of brown Aspen leaves that have not yet fallen from the mother tree.

But snow is a superb example of what could be a blessing to one but can be a curse to another. Yes, I appreciate the quiet solitude that snowstorms bring, but I can also see darkness that lies beneath the ten inches of the white fluffy stuff.

It wasn’t always like this for me. I skated when I was young. Tobogganed every hill around Owego, NY and skied Whiteface Mountain. I spent five summers living on glaciers of the Juneau Icefield in Alaska. I knew ice. I knew snow.

Then I aged. Snowshoeing became difficult. X-Country skiing became problematic and downhill alpine skiing presented its own set of dangers to my body.

Blame it on my Lumbar region (L4 & L5) for my falling out of love for the winter season.

[Me shoveling. You can’t see my L4 & L5, but I can feel them. Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis.]

SIDEBAR A few facts about snow.

It is a myth, often repeated, that the Inuit (Eskimos) have dozens of words describing snow. There is no way to determine the real facts here because of the multitudes of Northern Native People. Different country…different way of viewing snow. There are however, researchers who study snow and keep track of these sort of things. The latest list contains 121 different types of snowflakes.

Is it true that no two snowflakes can be the same? This is mostly true, but recently scientists have found ways to practically duplicate a snowflake pattern.

Most snowflakes that we are familiar with are hexagons. There are thirty-five common types in all. Here is a short list:

  • Stellaar Dendrites (pictured below)
  • Columns & Needles
  • Capped Columns
  • Fern-like Stellar Dendrites
  • Diamond Dust Crystals
  • Triangular Crystals
  • Twelve-branched Snowflakes.

[A Stellar Dendrite flake. Very common. Photo source: Google search.]

There is even a Field Guide to Snowflakes available. I tried to examine snowflakes one afternoon a few winters ago. I wore a dark jacket and held my geologic hand lens in my frozen fingers. A flake landed on my dark sleeve. But when I put the hand lens to my right eye and leaned forward to examine the flake, my warm breath melted it, leaving me to examine a small drop of water. This is something I could do in my kitchen. I learned nothing. I’ll learn the technique, someday, perhaps.

So, I believe it can be stated that there is a snowflake for every taste. It would be an understatement to say that snow is the engine that runs empires, so to speak. What would winter TV every four years be like if it weren’t for the Winter Olympics. Hallmark Movies? Who would know about Tanya Harding? (I’m including ice as a sub-set of snow). How could we live without the likes of Lindsey Vonn? If you’re old enough your heart stopped for a few moments when Franz Klammer won the men’s downhill in 1976. And of course, who can’t forget the aerial flights of Shawn White?

[Alpine skiing. Awesome. Photo credit: Google search]

I celebrate winter. I love snow. But, these days it’s a visual thing. I must leave you now to contemplate my winter landscape.  I’ve sat long enough. I need another heat patch placed on my L4 & L5 region. I will make another mug of Oolong tea and add a tad of honey.

[Winter on our road. Photo is mine.]

[All of the factual information about snow came from several Google searches.]

 

Good-bye Rosie

[Rosie. Photo is mine.]

My mother passed away in her sleep on a quiet Easter Sunday morning in 1992. A sad event indeed. Just days before on Holy Thursday, she sat in the living room of our home and told the priest that she was tired and was prepared. She was ready. She also told him she wanted to depart this life on Easter. She got her wish. This event put into motion a series of events, a journey of sorts, in my life, that of my wife, Mariam and Cracklin Rosie.

A day later my wife and I drove to Tioga Gardens Nursery to pick out a spray of flowers for the funeral home viewing. The nursery was owned, I believe, by my high school classmate, Ed Kuhlman. He commiserated his sorrow at my mother’s passing and took an order for a floral display.

“Wait;” he said as we were leaving. “I have a gift for you, Pat.”

He disappeared into the depths of the greenhouse and emerged a few minutes later with a small potted plant.

“Here, this is from me. No charge. It’s a Begonia and I’ve named it Cracklin Rosie. I love Neil Diamond. Take care of her and she will bring back memories of you mom.”

[For all my botanists readers: Begonia x corellina hybrid. The plant scientist who created the hybrid named it after the Neil Diamond song. For years I thought it was Ed Kuhlman’s favorite song.]

We took the plant and departed.  After the funeral and all the necessary things that had to be done, we headed back to New York City. I was a teacher and my wife was a nursing administrator at a major city hospital. We had to go forward to our lives. We put Cracklin Rosie in a nice place in our one bedroom apartment.

The years passed.  We grew older and Rosie (we dropped the Cracklin part) grew up and out. Then up and out some more until she became as prominent a part of our home as a sofa or a library.

In 2000, we bought a lake side house in Rainbow Lake, NY. We rented it out on a weekly basis for several years. It helped to pay the mortgage. Then in 2005, I retired from teaching. Over thirty years of pushing chalk was now to become a memory.

In 2011, we let ourselves be bought out and left the City for our home in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State.

We brought Rosie with us. By now, she was the size of a china closet. Every time we travelled abroad we had to find someone to watch over her. It was like having a pet; but one that never crawled on to your lap or wagged a tail. In our dining room, she became a presence…a conversation starter…a center of attention. It was like having the skeleton of the Elephant Man watching you eat your pasta primavera.

Sadly, an era is about to close for us. My son, Brian and his fiancee, Kirstin are coming for a visit over Columbus Day weekend. They have agreed to take Rosie back to Queens and become her new owners.

I’m sitting here as I type this and staring at her in her floppy green glory. She has witnessed dinner parties, made way for a Christmas tree or two, watched us having a candle-lit dinner, an argument, a deep philosophical discussion and all the events of life that come with a happily married couple who live in the North Country.

Knowing how this plant/human relationship will eventually end, we gave cuttings to many of our friends. There are baby Rosies in many homes. And, when Mariam and I visit Brian and Kristin, we’ll meet up with Rosie and talk about old times.

She has felt us brush by her as we haul luggage out to the car or back into the living room from our travels. She sensed us. She welcomed us. I think she’ll miss us.

I’ll miss her just like I’d miss an old friend.

Just like I miss my mother.

 

 

A Cemetery With a View

[The grave of Sa Sa Na Loft. Evergreen Cemetery, Owego, NY.

Photo credit is my own.]

I’m back in my home town of Owego, NY for a reason.  I have no one to visit.  Nothing to purchase (I did buy two books at River Row Book Store), but I was there on an early September afternoon for a sad occasion.  I was there to attend a memorial service for a long time friend of mine, Teri Ware Bramlett.  It was held at the Hickories Park under a glorious sky.  The Susquehanna River flowed slowly behind my chair. It was the color of an olive.

But this post is not about that.  Perhaps I’ll post my memories of Teri at a later date.  I had errands to attend to.  The top of my list was going to TOPS and buying flowers for my family’s grave at St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  Then I had to center myself.  Find the place where I can take in the whole of my early life.  And there is no other place than the “Indian Girl’s Monument” on Cemetery Hill (Evergreen Cemetery).  From there I can scan the valley below.  I can oversee my hometown like a king rules from the highest castle tower.

Certain places are obvious, other less so.  The trees are still full and green block some of what I wanted to see.

I sit on the bench with my wife.  I can see St. Patrick’s Church…where I was baptized and where most of my family’s funerals were held.  I can’t make out my old home, too many trees.  I can barely see the backyard of my childhood girlfriend’s house.  I see the Susquehanna, entering the view from the far left and fading off toward Pennsylvania to the right. I can see the Court House.  There’s Lake Street where I hung out with my friends in the 50’s and 60’s.  All of us overwhelmed by the power of hormones we never knew about until we bacame adults.

It’s all below me, but so far out of reach.  My youth was spent on these streets.  Memories began to flood my mind.

It’s time to go.

I realize I’m no longer a physical presence in this village, but I can never fully find myself free from the chains of the past.

A Tale of Three Rings

[Antique wedding ring.  Price? About $5600. European Cut. Source: Google search.]

Eileen, a colleague of Mariam, wanted to meet us for a drink.  We were in New York City for the usual doctors appointments, meetings and our yearly Yankee game.

The three of us sat at the bar of Brendens Irish Pub on W. 35th Street.  I don’t know…maybe we were talking about Tolkein or circuses, but the topic turned to rings, specifically our wedding rings.

We each had a story about our wedding rings.  My story was probably the least interesting so I’ll start with me.  I wore my wedding ring for many years, removing it only for activities like kayaking and picking up hot babes in cheap bars (that was a joke).  Kayaking tends to cause my ring to rub against my finger.  But, for the last several years I’ve not worn my ring.  I began to lose weight and in the dry air of the North Country, my skin shrinks.  I performed a simple scientific test.  I shook my left hand several times onto the sheets of our bed.  The ring slipped off.  Not a good thing so I put it on Mariam’s jewelry tray where it sat until I decided it was time for action.  I needed to take the ring to a jeweler and have something put inside to hold the skin of my third finger.  This is what I got:

The nubs you see on the inside hold the ring securely in place.  I am now wearing the aforementioned ring 24/7.

Mariam’s story is a bit more interesting.  When we picked it out (Macy’s. circa early ’90’s), she chose a cubic zirconia.  It was a fine ring and fooled a jeweler once who commented on the quality of her “diamond”.  She worked at St. Vincent’s Hospital in those days as a Nursing Supervisor.  Often she would help in the bedside care…and that is how she damaged the facet of the cubic.  She continued to wear it for years, until we went to the jeweler on 86th Street and Broadway.  The woman behind the counter said it could be easily replaced with a new stone.  So we did it.

Here is her ring after the replacement:

But the real interesting story was the one told by Eileen, Mariam’s friend.

Eileen and her husband  are Filippino.  His grandmother had beautiful diamond earrings, given to her by her mother.  WWII brought the Japanese to the Philippines.  They weren’t a very friendly lot.  It is historical fact that the Japanese Army did some dispicable things to the Chinese and the citizens of the Philippines.  Knowing what was coming, his grandmother had the stones reset in nondescript (read ugly) metal earrings, which she wore throughout the war, hiding the precious heirloom in plain sight.  On her ears.

They survived the war.  His grandmother then had them reset as wedding rings.  One was lost.  The other was handed down to Eileen’s husband.  That is the one that resides on Eileen’s finger.  And she was sitting next to me.

I was taken by the story.  There are probably a thousand stories that are similar, but this ring…I was able to touch this ring.

As I did, I felt the weight of history, love, family, war and survival.

This is Eileen:

And, this is her ring:

Rings are real material objects.  You can touch them, lose them, pawn them, steal them or even throw them into the East River.  But, they are also symbols of things that endure…like love.

The No-Name Motel

[The motel with no name]

Most of the time I can erect a fence to contain the images and imaginations from escaping my brain.  Sometimes a little white picket fence with pink daisies in purple pots are enough to hold back the most innocent and decent imagery that my mind can create.  Then, there are times when a more sturdy wooden enclosure is necessary.  My thoughts have gotten a little darker and far-fetched.  At the end of the line, I need to put up a stockade of lichen-covered stone, dusty bricks or cement blocks…topped by razor wire.  These keep in the real demons; the ideas, thoughts, dreams, musings and nightmares that one finds along a dark path in the dark woods, deep ravines and foggy patches in misty churchyards.  These fences hold my odd thoughts where they belong…in my brain.  It works.

Most of the time.

I’m on Route 11, the main highway that crosses the North Country.  I’ve been on this road many times heading either west or east out of Malone.  This isn’t the first time I’ve spotted the old motel.  I pull over.  The weeds in the old lawn are chest high.  The welcome sign is getting loose around the hinges and bolts.  I don’t know how long this place will exist.  Perhaps the next time I drive this way, the whole structure may be replaced by a Tractor Supply, a Bowling Alley or a Car Wash.

To me, that would be a shame.  It’s obvious it will never again function as a motel…and that is why it attracts and charms me.  Here, in what may have been the driveway, I sit in my Honda and survey the old buildings.

The style of the buildings could be 1960’s, but I’m going to place it in the mid-1950’s.  It suits my narrative style better.

Then I close my eyes.  I can see the phantoms that once stayed here.  I can imagine their stories.  I can feel their history.  It’s happy and sad, tragic and fortunate.  The lives that passed through these rooms, pass through me now.

I see the shadows move about.

The traveling salesman, with his valise full of brushes and combs, slips into Room 2.  Once inside, he hangs his seersucker jacket on the door hook, kicks off his worn wing-tipped shoes and stretches out on the lumpy bed.  He unscrews the bottle of bourbon and takes a long pull.  He doesn’t want to go home.

A blushing teenage couple from Watertown just bluffed their way intro Room 9.  He has a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon that is slowly getting warm.  He uses his church key to open two.  They sit awkwardly on the sofa before moving to the bed.  In exactly ten months, she’ll give birth to a baby boy who will grow up to own his own auto repair shop outside of Burlington, VT.  His parents will each die in separate car accidents in 1974.

A cheap thug who just robbed a liquor store in Plattsburgh takes Room 5.  His girl has a bruise on her cheek, her arm and her thigh.  They will stay one night and then drive non-stop to Chicago. There she will leave him for a chiropractor.

A family is on their way into the heart of the Adirondacks.  They have driven south from Quebec City and will spend the next two weeks swimming at Golden Beach on Raquette Lake.  One child  will become an astronomer and the other will become a teacher.  Room 10 is their final night under a roof.  Tomorrow night the tent comes out.

A troubled couple from Binghamton will argue well into the night about in-law problems.  The wife will turn up the radio when Billie Holiday comes on.  Maybe the volume will drown out the threats from Room 14.

An insurance salesman from Buffalo will quickly enter Room 7.  He knows this motel well.  Room 7 is hidden from the office.  Following him through the door is his secretary, Helen.  He promised her many things during the long drive.  Anything, he thinks, as long as she gives me a night of pleasure that he can’t find at home with his lawful wife.

Two young men in their twenties passing themselves off as brothers on their way to visit family in Lake George walk boldly into Room 11.  Here they can be themselves and love each other like they have wished for the past three years.

Yes, the lawn is chest-high with Timothy grass, Ragweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.  Butterflies and black flies flit from flower to flower.  No more cars will be stopping here, ever.  The motel once had a name, but even the sign is gone.  A little VACANCY sign is visible.  Those who passed through this office, slept on creaky mattresses and used the stained toilet are long gone.  Some of the stories had happy endings while others ended with a broken heart or a bleeding nose.  These travelers have moved on.  Many are still alive, most are buried in some local cemetery or a burying ground a thousand miles away.  A few who laughed, drank, sinned and prayed in these rooms are possibly being sedated by an RN in a nursing home…somewhere.

I go back to my car after taking a few photos and I notice something that may seem ironic.

The empty motel with no name is directly across the road from a hospice.

Another flood of imaginings come rushing from my brain.

[All the lonely people.  All the empty rooms.]