The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gathering: A Farewell

The time for tears has come and gone.

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

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

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

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

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

Reunion

[Source: Egan Family Archives.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Old, Too Soon: Two Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had a car and I called him Blue.

Betcha five dollars he’s a good car too.

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

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

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

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

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

I need you.”

Shadows

[Above the clouds as they cast shadows on the earth below. Source: Google search]

Like the wallpaper sticks to the wall

Like the seashore clings to the sea

Like you’ll never get rid of your shadow

You’ll never get rid of me

–Al Jolson & Billy Rose

Fast. Fast I ran, as fast as my little legs could carry me. I glanced over my shoulder. It was still behind me. I slowed and it slowed. It mimicked me when I jumped to the left and then to my right. I thought I would fool it so I turned around and began running. This time it was in front of me. I had discovered my shadow. I was young and there was much more of life to learn about. It was all ahead of me. Now, there’s still more to learn but time is not on my side.

Yes, I found my shadow and it’s still with me. It even got bigger as I grew to be an adult. I only once lost my shadow but a pretty girl sewed it back onto the bottom of my feet (but that episode belongs to another story.)

Like clouds, I’ve never taken shadows for granted. I do believe that most adults have forgotten the significance of this phenomenon. The sun (I’ll call it the shadow-maker) is sometimes annoying. One cups their hand to block out the sun on a beach while trying to have a simple conversation. A guy named Phil folds and repositions his cap while sitting in the afternoon glare in a seat off first or third base at Yankee Stadium. Alternatively, a young man and his girlfriend walking in a park want to speak of important matters. We all know this can only be done in the shade of an old Sycamore tree…or perhaps an apple tree blooming small white flowers.

But I digress.

I’m taking an on-line water color painting course. (Many of my friends are accomplished artists in that medium. They can skip a few paragraphs here. They can find something more important to do, like taking a few minutes to finish their whittling project or check the suet cage). So the subject of shadows came up. Someone wanted to know what color to make a tree on snow. I shot a photograph, shown below on a frozen pond. I looked and noticed the shadows are bluish…grading to gray. Yet that shadow that still follows me is more or less black.

[The Frozen Pond. My photo]

Shadows. I’ve spent over thirty years as a science teacher and never heard about many aspects of shadows. I won’t tell you about the umbra, penumbra and antumbra, fascinating as they are. I was quite surprised to find out that shadows have three dimensions. But wait. I look down at the ground in front of me and I see only length and width. That’s two dimensions. Where is the third dimension in the dark shape in front of me? It turns out that if you see your shadow when its foggy, you’re looking at the third dimension. The whole concept sounds like the basis of a science fiction story.

It’s 23.2 degrees outside right. It’s cold but I think I’ll put on my L.L Bean down jacket (probably on sale now since the new Spring/Summer line is out) and go out to any part of our front deck that doesn’t have a mountain of snow, and study my life-long friend…my shadow.

[Wonderment for the child. Source: Google search]

[Is she walking toward love…or away. Does she know she’s being followed? Source: Google search]

The Toboggan

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

[In the garage]

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

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

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

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

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

[Clipping the old knot]

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

[All done]
[Appropriate Title]

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.”

The Bearded Man Beholds The Autumn

 

[Photo is mine.]

He sits on the front deck of his home. Despite recent chilly weather, this particular Wednesday proved to be mild…even warm. He has spent the last half-hour watching a red squirrel scurry about a pile of chipped wood. Doubtless, this is to be his winter den.

The bearded man is sitting like countless other men and women like him. He spends his idle hours either writing or thinking of odd topics to comment on. At the moment, he is musing on the science that explains the breakdown of the Chlorophyll that is necessary for the tree to reveal the true color of it’s leaves.

[Photo is mine.]

He scratches the whiskers on his cheek. He is fully aware that before he can say Blitzen all this foliage will be composting beneath two feet of powder-white snow,

The relentless challenges of winter will keep the old man close by the fireplace. He will likely be typing about the awesome beauty of the North Country winter.

Some Sunday afternoon in mid-January he will find himself in the icy garage staring at ski poles and snowshoes. He’ll recall times when pain didn’t accompany a simple walk in the woods.

Soon, he will be sitting in his favorite leather wingback chair. His fingers will linger with the buttons of his treasured L.L Bean plaid flannel shirt

Like many old men who sit and think, he’ll ponder his youth, wonder what happened to his middle years and doubtless dread the future left to him.

Then, without a doubt, he’ll reach for a good book.

[Photo credit: Google search.]

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.]

The Mermaid

[Source: Google search.]

I shall always remember how the peacocks’ tails shimmered when the moon rose amongst the tall trees, and on the shady bank the emerging mermaids gleamed fresh and silvery amongst the rocks…

–Hermann Hesse The Journey To The East

Once upon a time, I traveled to the Seven Seas…to take a swim in all the waters of the earth. It was in the sixth sea that I chanced to meet a mermaid. Few men get to meet a real mermaid…and few men get to walk away from the mystical, magical and forbidden aura that these fantastical creatures and the spell they can weave.

“Come, swim out to where the sea is truly blue…as blue as blue can be,” I said.

“I can’t swim that well,” She said. “I’m afraid of how deep one can sink.”

“I’ll show you new lands,” I promised.

“I’m in a new land,” She said.

So we lived on an island. I took her to places she only had dreamed of. We had a son who rose from the waves and grew to be a pure and a strong soul.

Then, one day, she swam to where I dangled my feet in the cool water.

“I have to go away,” she said. “I need to see the sunset one more time.”

“Will you ever come back to me?”

“No,” she said. “Did you forget what happens to a mortal man when he falls in love with a mermaid?”

I had forgotten.

She swam away. I never saw her again. She met her last sunset.

[Google Search.]

 

{Nancy Dunn Egan}

{November 22, 1953–May 11, 2020} 

{Good night, Nance}