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.
[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.]
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.
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.”
To me, Halloween evokes memories of walking down Front Street in Owego, NY, kicking the piles of unraked leaves while dressed up in a throw-it-all-together costume. Clutching paper bags, my friends and I would go door to door seeking treats. There was a chill in the air, mixed with the rotting leaves that produced a scent that has stayed with me over the years. Never has an autumn arrived that doesn’t take me back to the old houses of Owego and the leaves.
It was a magical evening that enriched my store of memories that etched themselves in my fascination with the past.
Before the advent of such films as Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, the themes were witches, Frankenstein, vampires of all sorts and ghosts. Every young kid on the streets that night became believers in spirits from beyond the grave.
It certainly didn’t hurt to live in a town overshadowed by the presence of the awesome Evergreen Cemetery set on a hill to the north of town.
Do I believe in ghosts? I’d like to say that I do but I am a true skeptic. I’ve heard many strange unsettling stories about my hometown over the years and I do believe some of them sound quite believable. But still I wonder. I have never seen a spirit (once in a B&B in Cooperstown a voice called me at night.)
I post many photos in my blogs and on Facebook and I love looking at supposed “spirit photos’. I look at these pictures and wonder.
Here are four of my favorite:
This photo has never to my knowledge been fully debunked or proven authentic. This is arguably the most famous ‘ghost’ photo that has been published.
I have no comment on this photo.
Again, I am not familiar with the background of this photo.
This photo has always fascinated me. If it’s a faked picture, it’s a very clever one.
[If you care to comment on any of these or just tell a ghost story, be my guest. firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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.
“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.
It’s not really a wedding gift…it’s a gift for the future beyond that.
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.
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.
I’ve been through a lot of situations in my life thus far. I fell into a glacial crevasse, got lost in Alaska, got lost in the Adirondacks, capsized a canoe in the Susquehanna River and visited a grave on Cemetery Hill at midnight.
But I could deal with it.
I spent nearly a week in a hotel room in New York City (see previous blog), pacing the well-worn rug, waiting for results of an MRI. The results were good. Barring accidents, I’d live. But boredom set in and I lost the desire to read. I play Words With Friends until well past my usual bed time while trying to think of what names to give my two hernias. On or about midnight I would take my sleep medications but the strong diuretic from the afternoon was still on board. This meant hourly trips to the bathroom.
But I could deal with it.
Back home we spent money on a suet feeder that was double caged “to deter squirrels”. Within a day, one red squirrel figured out a way to enter the feeder…this animal is eating well and doing a great job at keeping out the wrens, chickadees and finches. There was a moment when I thought of finding something in my shop and attacking the feeder like a piñata.
[The squirrel-proof suet feeder.]
My shop door is next to a certain red snowblower. It’s been used twice. I never knew how difficult those blowers can be until I tried to use it. My back pain told me that this is something for younger men or women to do. I was disappointed but I listened to my back. I’ll find some neighbor kid to handle all that. The only problem is that there are no kids, teenagers or otherwise on our block.
But I can deal with it.
For the three hour trip from Albany (we break the trip in half) I sat or rather squirmed in our Honda Fit. Took my pills after Albany and went to bed around midnight. Then came the urge to urinate. I made several unsuccessful attempts. Nothing. Something was wrong. On each attempt, the pain increased. I cried out in pain. Mariam came to help. Suddenly, at 4:15 am, I passed a bladder stone the size of a Buick. Then came the peaceful sleep.
But I can deal with it.
What I can’t deal with is another curse thrown my way. Insomnia. Couple that with restless leg syndrome and you have a combination of pure pain. Insomnia. What should I think about to bring on sleep. Everywhere in my mind was a place I didn’t want to go. My boyhood? My schooldays? My so-called fond memories of my so-called adventures just reminded me of how terrified I was at the time. I have to face the fact that I’m afraid of the dark.
I can’t deal with that.
While fighting off insomnia, I close my eyes and try to envision this:
But this is what I see:
When all is said and done, I want spring to come early and surprise me. This I can deal with.
[All photos are mine with the exception of the green mossy one. Source: Pinterest]
Old Nan: Oh my sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for winter, when the snows fall one hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord, when the white walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story you like?
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: C–F-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.
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.