The Holiday Card

[What follows is pure fiction. It is a short story that I hope you will enjoy. It’s not funny, but it’s what I wanted to write. Please don’t read anything into this post.]

It was during a brief April thaw, when a chance breeze blew the snow and a few minutes of sunlight melted the white crystals.  That was the moment I saw it.  I picked it up and slapped it against my thigh.  I could read my name on the envelope. I could read the return address in the upper left corner.

It was too late.  Things would never be the same now…never.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that men do not bond easily with each other.  We have trouble sharing.  True friends are hard to find and keep when you pass your fifties.  Friendships that last into ones seventies are indeed rare.  The thread that holds these long relationships are usually rooted in childhood.  If you’re lucky, one or two childhood buddies will grow old with you.  Such was the case of the one-time friend whose holiday card I held in my right hand.

We met in elementary school.  Played in each others back yards.  Entered into adolescence together.  In high school we traded secrets about girls…those mysterious beings that we thought constantly about.  We talked about first kisses and puzzled over the best way to find and unlock those strange bra hooks.

We had our first legal beers together.  We played high school sports together.  We went on camping trips together.

We were the best of friends.  As the years passed, other playmates drifted into different social circles.  But we stayed close.  We celebrated our jobs, listened to the same music and showered affection on each others children.

My friend and I went through divorces, sat in empty bars, looked at younger women and talked to each other and into our pints of beer.

When our retirements approached, things began to change.  He called less.  I emailed less.  Our visits to each others homes became more and more infrequent.

We were growing apart, something that seemed to me to be the opposite of what life would be like after retirement.  The phone calls went unanswered and the postcards stopped arriving.

In the late fall, I became quite annoyed by being ignored.  I unfriended him on Facebook.  I deleted his email address.  I stopped making meaningless phone calls.

I decided to put the issue to a test.  I sent him a holiday card.  If he sent one back, then I knew something of our friendship would survive.  If I got nothing, I knew that for some reason, he did not want to be a part of my life.

So, I waited.

A few holiday cards arrived but never did much to fill our mailbox.  Facebook and email greetings were slowly out pacing the USPS.

On Christmas Eve, I picked up the mail.  I placed the few cards on our bed.  There was nothing from him.  I knew then that our life-long friendship had come to a slow and sad end.  It would be a lie to say that I did not weep a little over a friendship that had lasted for over sixty years.  Men do have emotions.

* * *

It was in early March that I found myself browsing the internet.  I came to a Facebook page devoted to people in our class who had passed away.

I felt the blood drain from my face and I went numb when I read that my friend had died of a massive coronary a week earlier.

Then came the April thaw.  I had pulled the envelope from the snow and placed it on the top of our mica lamp to dry out.  When I felt it time, I sliced it open.  It was a holiday card from my friend…apologizing for not returning my calls.  I knew then that the card arrived before Christmas, but as I struggled to get out of my car, trying to avoid the unplowed snow, the card had slipped from the rest of the mail.  That afternoon, the snow-covered card was concealed…until April.

“Let’s meet up in the summer and take a hike,” he had written.

So, now I feel I know the real essence of loneliness.  I have no true male friends up here in the North Country.  My wife has always been and still is my best friend…but I don’t have a buddy.  A guy to shoot a game of pool with at the local Irish Pub, a friend to bounce writing ideas off,  a pal to sit on our deck (or his) and sip a cold beer.  We wouldn’t even have to say anything.  After all, its common knowledge that men don’t bond easily.  We have trouble sharing our personal thoughts orally, but we know each other’s minds.  Or so I thought.

But what men can do is sit, side by side, just sharing a beer and assuming we know what the other is thinking.

There is a large blank space in my life now.  My wife has to be two people.  The woman I married over twenty-five years ago and a mate that I have been close to for six decades.  It’s going to be a big job for her, but she’s more than up to the task.  The presence of my wife makes these things more tolerable but not less painful.

Me?  I can stare at our campfire and remember details of the adventures with my friend.  I can watch the ripples on the lake and remember my friend.  I can look to the far range of the High Peaks and remember the trails, snow-covered, rain-soaked and sweltering in the August heat…that I hiked with my friend.

Or, on a cold night like this, when the temperature outside is in single digits, our fire-place is crackling and warming our house and my wife is reading quietly beside me on her Kindle, I can sit mutely staring at the flames, throw on another log, watch the flames leap even higher.  I am thinking of the holiday card.  As the flames rise to the top of the wood stove, the loneliness for this old guy gets deeper.

[Photo is mine]

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For Me? It Was a Hard Days Night

Lennon

[Source: Google search.]

There were no classes scheduled for that Monday. It was parent/teacher conference day at Ridgefield High School in Connecticut. I was assigned to meet the parents of my students in an office close to the front entrance. I sat at the head of a large conference table made of a dark wood. Mahogany? Perhaps.

The parents were on a set schedule. I had a list of those in line waiting to discuss their sons/daughters academic performance. I didn’t have a lot to say to many of the fathers, mothers and couples that sat down, each at their appropriate time, since 99.9% of my students (grade range was from 9th to 12th) were serious about their work, were not discipline problems and were polite to me as their teacher. The most critical remark I made most of the afternoon was: “Your child needs to raise their hand more often”.

Sometime in mid-afternoon something in the air changed.

[Meanwhile, in New York City, a young man was hanging out near the entrance of the Dakota Building on Central Park West and 72nd Street.]

The door opened and a man and woman walked in and took a seat. The man’s head was covered by a fair-sized bandage. The couple held hands. The husband spoke first.

“I hate to waste your time, Mr. Egan, but I’m not really concerned very much right now about my daughter’s behavior in your class.”

I stared at him and waited.

“Four days ago I was caught in a fire at the Stouffer’s Inn where a conference for the Stouffer Company was being held. I’m sure you read about it. Twenty-six of my fellow employees were killed. I ran out of the building and into the arms of firemen. The guy behind me didn’t make it.”

I noticed the couple’s hands tightened their grip.

“I am more thankful for being alive and ready to celebrate the holidays as a family than I am about my wonderful daughter. No offense, Mr. Egan, but I have more important issues to deal with right now.”

I was speechless. “Your daughter is a great student. I’m so very sorry about…”, I couldn’t finish my sentence. The couple rose from their seats. We shook hands and they were gone. I sat in silence hoping the next set of parents would be late.

After the conferences were over, a small group of teachers gathered at the front door. Someone suggested we go to a restaurant/bar to have a drink. I followed.

We sat with our beers watching some kind of comedy show. I wasn’t laughing. Suddenly, the TV was switched off and the lights came on. The manager came out and said that the bar just received a bomb threat and that we would all have to leave.

[The guy was still standing near the main entrance of the Dakota on 72nd Street.]

Most of the teachers drove away leaving three of the science teachers in the parking lot. Two of the teachers shared a small house beside a lake just north of Ridgefield. One of them suggested that we drive to their house and have one more beer.

I remember sitting on the sofa. One of teachers was stretched out on a Lazy-Boy chair. My other friend, Jeff, was in the kitchen rummaging the fridge for two beers. The TV was on.

Whatever show was being aired, it was interrupted by a “news bulletin”. The man was standing in a Manhattan street with his hand-held microphone. What he said next made me stand up.

“Jeff,” I said, “come here quick!”

Jeff came in the room. The other teacher sat up in the Lazy-Boy.

The reporter said: “It’s official. It’s now been confirmed that John Lennon is dead. According to NYPD, he was shot by a young man who had been waiting for John and his wife Yoko Ono to arrive in their limo. All this happened just a short time ago here.” He pointed to the archway of the Dakota entrance. The camera followed his arm.

My friend Jeff visibly paled. I felt nauseous. We watched for a few minutes and I left.

Never have I felt the sorrow that hung in my heart as I slowly drove home that wretched night.

newspaper

[Source: Google search.]

 

Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]

 

The Birch Tree Clock: An Update

After I posted the blog about a clock that my father made from a birch tree in our backyard in Owego, NY., I got some responses.

Several people said that it would be a tribute to my father to restore the clock. Refurbish it. Make it come alive again. So, I did it. A friend, straightened out the hands. I found a AA battery. In a few minutes it was silently ticking away the time.

I put the clock on the top shelf of my Adirondack/Mountaineering bookcase.

It’s there for a good reason. On the shelf below are my pitons, carabiners and climbing slings. I was once a fair rock climber. Now these items only remind me of who I once was. I can’t climb 5.4 rated climbs in the “Gunks” anymore. I put the clock in a corner. You will notice that there are no numerals to mark the hours. I thought of going to Michael’s craft store in Plattsburgh (I won’t go to a Hobby Lobby because of their discrimination policy) and buying small foil numerals for the clock.

I decided that I wanted the clock to be free of numbers. I have a fairly good sense of how a clock is set up. I don’t need reference points to mark the passage of time.

I can sit on the sofa and look at my rock-climbing paraphernalia and remember my life when I was in my thirties. I was fit and I was strong and I was fearless. Now, I look up at the clock with moving hands but no numerals. Do I care if it’s 5:15 or 6:15?

Not really. Time is relative. My memories are flood waters in my mind. I think about the past more than most people and probably more than I should.

But, when I look up at the clock that ticks silently and without the hours marked…I don’t feel that time is ticking away in my life.

It’s just a piece of wood, full of memories, full of my father’s love for his sons and now, a new-found love for my dad, who took time to put the timepiece together.

When I look at it, I don’t wonder what time it is.

It is what it is.

An August Omen

Omen n. Something believed to be a sign of good or evil.

–The American Heritage Dictionary

Can you see it? Between the two large trees…behind the birch. I can see it. I first noticed it a few days ago but held-off saying anything about it.

It’s not a cardinal or an oriole.  It’s a leaf. And it’s turning red. So are the few other leaves on the same branch.

I know about omens. For example, I don’t need a crystal ball or magic stick to know that my next flight on American Airlines is going to be painful. Painful because I have two legs and American must assume you won’t need them during your flight. Other than that, I’m Irish and the Irish know omens.

But the leaf omen is telling me something special. It’s a warning from the Weather Gods of the North Country. Leaves, you see, are not supposed to turn color until it’s autumn. That’s the rule I grew up observing when I lived downstate New York.

But its August. August 22 to be exact. Legally, its still Summer. Fall colors are not to be a part of ones life until late September or October. Trick or Treat time, when you walk down the street and kick leaves dressed as a vampire.

So, what does all this mean? It means that WINTER is around the proverbial corner. I mowed the lawn once this summer. I haven’t blown the leaves and pine needles off the roof yet. And, yet, these leaves are telling me something:

“Winter is on the way. Get your snow shovel out and keep it handy.”

(Yes, I listen to the leaves. Is there a problem with that?)

I just put the shovel away in the garage. What am I supposed to do? Things are happening too fast for me. I’m retired. I should be slowing down.

But no. Winter in the North Country is just weeks away. It’s almost September. I predict that before the end of October, I’ll need to bring out the shovel again.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fall colors…all eleven days of them.

 

 

 

 

Sleep And The Birch Tree Clock

[Our Limelight Hydrangea.]

I look at the clock. It’s 4:35 am. I can’t sleep.

I begin another chapter in the book I’m reading. I go into the kitchen and eat a cracker. I sip some Tonic Water (it helps my leg cramps). I go back to bed. I can’t sleep. I take a little pill. Sleep isn’t coming to me tonight.

Sleep evades me almost every night. It’s been that way since I was a child. “What do you think your missing?” my mother would say. I had no answer.

I look out of our bedroom window and see our Limelight Hydrangea plant. In the pre-dawn light, it looks unearthly bright…like I left the car lights on. Or that small moons have dipped into our front yard. Or is it possible that I had indeed fallen asleep, slept through the rest of the summer…through fall and now I’m waking up to a new and substantial snowfall?

It’s dawn now and I still can’t sleep. Then I remember something. Two days ago, Mariam got me to open the door to the attic. Not so easy in this house. She wanted to do some gleaning of our stuff. We are trying to “de-thing” ourselves. She said she found a box of NYC books. I told her I didn’t want to go through those books right now. Who knows, we may move back to the City in the not-so-distant future. I might want those books then.

When she got back down from the pull-down ladder, she said there was plenty of my “stuff” up there in boxes.

I asked her what she saw. She said there was the tree clock. I asked her to repeat. She said: “You know, the clock that your father made from the tree”.

I’m still awake and now thinking about the clock that my father made…for me.

I grew up in Owego, New York. We were blessed with a large back-yard. There were enormous evergreen trees just beyond the lawn where my swing set was located. In between those two tall coniferous trees was a small Birch. Its trunk was only a few inches in diameter. One day, my father rounded up his four sons. He had us sit in front of the Birch tree. I’m on the right and look impish. Is that a sling-shot in my back pocket?

[The first of four Birch Tree photos. Early 1950’s]

Over the years, my brothers and I recreated our positions in front of the growing Birch. We were all growing up. The final posed photograph was taken on a lovely spring day in 1992. We were holding a wake for my mother who had passed away on Easter Sunday morning.

[The 1992 photo is the last one.]

Soon after that, the Birch caught a tree infection. It died. My father was left with no choice. It had to be chain-sawed down. I was in Owego that weekend. I asked him for a small section of the tree. He cut it down. He cut it up into sections. I wonder how he felt when he touched the chainsaw to the tree. It must have broken his heart. It breaks mine just contemplating it. He loved his sons so very much. Did he cry? He never would have shown it. But I would have been in tears hoping that my watery eyes could still keep the saw on track. I left for my own home without the tree section.

Six months later, my father presented me with the piece of the tree.  He had cut open one side and inserted a clock mechanism. On the other side, he attached the hands of a clock. He glued the hour numbers and attached a hook.

Since then I’ve moved many times. The clock always came with me, but over time, the numerals fell off.

That afternoon, after my sleepless night, I retrieved the clock from the attic.

I wondered what thoughts my father had when he cut the tree into pieces. So many decades have passed since he had his four boys take up a pose in front of the tree. I hold the clock in my hands. It’s all I have left of those four photo sessions. I run my fingers over the varnished clock face. I count the rings and calculate the ring that grew the year of the first photo.

Two of my brothers are gone now, as is my father.

I hold the Birch Clock in my hands.

These memories make me sad. I pray that I will sleep a dreamless sleep tonight.