On Front Street At The End Of October

Different times…different places…different memories…

[Photo source: Google search.]

I should mention that, as a child, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was to kick a pile of leaves along a stone sidewalk.

It’s gloomy, rainy and windy here in the North Country.  It rained hard before dawn this morning so nearly all the foliage is now on the ground.  If the wind continues, the little color that is left will leave the deciduous trees naked in a few days.  But, surprisingly, the outside temperature is in the mid-sixties, so it’s hard to think of this being October 8, only a few weeks before my favorite time of year, Halloween! But, we live in a rather isolated location, so there will be no trick-or-treat for us.  There never has been any since we moved here in 2011.

This is not like the place where I grew up, Owego, NY.  It’s about six hours downstate and it probably rained there as well last night.  But, in the vast store of my childhood memories, I’m sure there were wet and dark days in my home town when I was young.  However, once the weather front went through, the air would turn crisp and sometimes there would be frost on grassy lawns, and on the pumpkins, carved and candle-lit, that sat on the porches and front steps like sentinels…or warnings.  The strange truck with the giant vacuum hose had already made its slow way along the curbside to suck up the leaves that were raked in piles.  We were still allowed to burn leaves in those days so the air was rich with the scent of smoldering oak and maple and elm leaves from someones back yard fire pile. Trick-or-treating down Front and Main Streets, as well as John, Ross and Paige Streets was a joyful time of year for me.

My happiest Halloween’s were when I would take my daughter, Erin (in the mid to late 1970’s) and later, my son, Brian (in the early 1990’s) down those fearful streets. Those were when the sidewalks would be crowded with families and the houses would be lit up with orange light and strange candles and we could see our breath in the chilly air.

[My daughter, Erin.  Getting ready for a trip to Owego.]

[My son, Brian…as Fu Manchu.]

After a lifetime of growing up on Front Street, this was my chance to peek inside the older and larger houses…all the way to the business district.

Our first stop was the Sparks’ house next to ours.  Then it was across the street to the old Loring house and then back across the street to walk past the only ‘haunted’ house in my neighborhood, the very old Taylor mansion with the floor to ceiling windows and mansard roof.  We’d be sure to stop at Dr. Amouk’s house (pardon the spelling).  He usually had the best candy which was ironic because he was a dentist.

My children usually made a ‘pretty good haul’ on those nights.  And, it was a joy to view their excitement from an adults perspective.

I remember one Halloween in particular.  My wife and I were taking my son Brian on the rounds.  We got to a house that was almost directly across the street from my old elementary school, St. Patrick’s.  There were corn shocks and fake cobwebs all over the large porch.  Then my son spotted a pair of feet sticking out of a box next to the front door.  He hesitated.  We pushed the door bell.  A woman dressed like a vampire came to answer.  She was holding a box of candy.  But Brian had already made a retreat to the sidewalk.  He was having no part of this woman’s fun that night.

Remembering how my kids enjoyed those walks forces me to remember the times when my friends and I owned those after dark hours while we hid behind the Frankenstein masks or space-suits; the hours when you never knew who would open a door or what monster might cross you path.  So many leaves were scattered on the slate sidewalks that one simply had to kick at them.  As children, we knew the magic of that season would last only a few days.

Now, we can still kick leaves along our road…but it’s not the same as it was.  Nothing will ever be the same as those charmed nights of a spooky holiday when you’re seven or eight…or even fifteen, when your goal is not an apple or twenty M & M’s, but to steal a kiss behind the large elms that once lined Front Street.

To steal that kiss was a treat that couldn’t be bought in any candy store.

 

 

Advertisements

Confessions Of A Gravestone Photographer

[At work in St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Chateaugay, NY]

I would strongly object to anyone who would dare call me morbid.  It is not morbid, in any sense, to appreciate and love old (and new) cemeteries.  It is not morbid to stand over a grave of a total stranger and contemplate his or her life.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York.  Overlooking the village below was Evergreen Cemetery.  I could never tell you the number of times I’ve wandered among the monuments of those who walked the very streets I walked.  Every time I go back to my hometown, Owego, I spend at least an hour strolling the beautiful landscaped, 19th century burial ground.

When I moved to the North Country in 2011, to the Adirondack Mountains where I am closer to Montreal than to any other major urban area, I began to discover the charm of the small graveyards of this part of the state.  Some are hidden and silent among the pine trees, some are six feet from a corn field and some are on breezy hilltops, with faded red barns in the background.

Then, sometime in 2012, I believe, I came across a website called Find-A-Grave.com.  I checked it out and found out that they were seeking volunteers to photograph headstones for people, upon request.  These were folks that lived in Montana or Texas who were doing genealogical research or simply wanted to see the grave of uncle Robert or aunt Hazel.  These people would place a request to Find-A-Grave and I, as a volunteer photographer, would get the message via email.  I then would find the cemetery, locate the grave…take a photo…upload it to the website and move on.  My reward?  Hundreds of thank you emails from the people who made the requests.

“Thank you for taking the time to photograph the headstone of my aunt Martha.  I knew I would never see her final resting place because I live so far away and I’m getting too old to travel”.  This was typical of the emails I would receive.

Doing this, I have learned a great deal about local history and the stories of the families who were so much a part of this area.

  • I’ve stood over the grave of a young girl who was murdered in the 1920’s.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of suicides.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of old farmers who had four wives…all buried nearby.
  • I’ve stood over the graves of two young girls who froze to death in a blizzard.
  • I’ve stood over the grave of a thirty-something woman who came home from jogging along a road several hundred yards away from where I’m writing this, stepped into the shower, and dropped to her knees and died of a massive heart attack.

I did this alone for a few years.  My wife probably thought I was just trying to get out of the house, until I invited her along on one of my “graving” afternoons.  She became my best partner in this ‘hobby’.  She had the sense to look for women’s graves through the name of the husband.  My number of photos taken began to soar.  At this writing, on a mild Indian Summer afternoon in September of 2017, I have contributed over 1,000 photo requests.

It’s been said by some philosopher that one never dies as long as someone speaks your name, remembers you or thinks about you and your life.

I hope some volunteer photographer will stand over my grave and speak my name…then I know I never truly died.

                                                 [Log book and print-out of requests]         [My ‘graving’ kit]

[An extra note: Below is a link to Find-a-Grave.  It’s all free.  You can open an account and make requests for photographs. And remember, it doesn’t cost anything.]

https://www.findagrave.com/

The Summer We Never Had Is Gone

“I see your true colors shining through…”

-Cyndi Lauper

Green is still the dominant color in the foliage around Rainbow Lake.  Each day, however, brings out a few hundred more leaves that have lost their Chlorophyll and are showing their true colors.

We’ve had our first frost warning on my weather app…and that was in late August!  Since we arrived home in late June from our six months in NYC, there really hasn’t been a true summer, a season like I remember from the 1950’s family camping we did at Raquette Lake.

It rained a lot.  The lows dipped into the upper 40’s F on many nights.

Our burning bush seems to provide the only imaginary warmth…it’s turning red.

I find a beautiful red leaf in the driveway.  I mark the days off on our kitchen calendar.  It’s only two weeks until the Autumnal Equinox…the official end of summer.

I stack our firewood and wait for a guy named Forest (really) to deliver another face cord.

I love the fall foliage, the scarlets, reds, yellows and the deep dark browns of the trees that have leaves that just simply die. Die without giving us a palate of hues that we will remember and take Instagrams of and email to our loved ones who live in just two seasons…summer and winter, like Alabama or Mississippi.

But, I’m sensing a growing melancholy this year, unlike the years past.  I just turned seventy.  There’s far more of my life behind me than before me.

I lay awake at night and think of things that might have been…and now feel that now they’ll never be.

There’s a flash of color this time of year and then the wait, sometimes long, sometimes short, until the first snow falls.

That brings on a whole new catalogue of memories and sadness.

Am I alone?

[All photos are my own.]

The Toboggan

When I enter our garage from the door that faces our house, I don’t often look up.  What could be up there that I’m avoiding?  Well, there is an old oak bed head-board and foot board that was mine when I grew up at 420 Front Street, Owego, NY.  There are stickers of cowboys and indians on the head-board.  There are numerous tiny indentations of BB hits when I was young and used the head-board as a backdrop for my Daisy rifle.  The only other item of mine, settled and resting on the 2 x 4 inch cross pieces of the garage, is The Toboggan.

I stood and stared at the old sled for half an hour.  I brought it up here, to our place in the Adirondacks, intending it to be my first “project”.

My hands last handled this antique when we had to empty my father’s house after he passed in 2004.  Before that, I had placed it in the garage in Owego. Sometime in the early 1990’s, I stored it in the barn that was part of the house that my wife had owned in the years before we met.  The house was in Milford, PA.

I stood and stared and the memories came slowly at first and then I couldn’t stop them from filling my head with the past.

Was this the sled that my brothers tried to push me down the small hill behind our house in Owego?  There wasn’t much of a slope so I went nowhere until Chris or Denny ran behind me and pushed me onward.

That’s what brothers do.

Was this the sled that I took to a snowy hillside near Owego and jumped on behind Mary, my girlfriend, as we sailed through drifts of snow and patches of weeds and scrubs?  I don’t remember.

Was this the sled that came with me when I moved to a farm-house in the early 1970’s and I began my teaching career?  And also began a new role as a father to my 1 1/2-year-old girl, Erin?  I would take her on tours of the harvested cornfields that surrounded our lonely house on a snow-covered and wind-swept hill–pulling her behind me?

When I went ice skating with my brother Dan on a nearby frozen pond (before “they” broke the dam and drained the pond) and he was interested in film and I would pull them both while he filmed?  After Dan finished his project, I would skate backwards (I could, you know), pulling Erin on the toboggan and giving her a wicked swirl that would almost throw her sliding across the ice on her own.

The toboggan disappeared into the rafters of the slanted old garage behind our house in Owego–to be forgotten for years–with one exception.

I was informed of a great place to go tobogganing, the IBM Country Club in Endicott (or was it Endwell, NY)?  The golf course had a hill that was very popular.

So, one day in the mid-1970’s, we took the old sled down from my dad’s garage and headed for the slopes.  It proved to be a great place indeed.  Then I noticed that someone had built up a small snow bump.  I told Erin that before I would take her over it, I would have to first try it myself.

Off I went, toward the little bump.  The closer I glided toward the bump, the bigger it became.  When I hit it, I rose into the sky and felt I was going to land in someones backyard, across the river in Vestal.  I was airborne for what seemed like forty-five minutes, before I hit the ground.  The toboggan went one direction and my eye-glasses went another.  I simply came straight down onto the slope sliding in a third direction and feeling for broken bones before I came to an abrupt halt against a small tree.

“Mommy? Can Daddy do that again?” was all I could hear Erin cry out.

Was she kidding? My head buzzed for two days.

Back to my garage.  So there is the toboggan.  I had a fleeting thought about restoring it (once again) and mounting it on the wall in our screened-in porch.  It would require the removal of two antique snowshoes, but there are plenty of places on our walls to mount them in a new location. Ironically, the brand name stenciled in orange paint, on the curved bow reads: ADIRONDACK.

There’s a fair amount of dust on the old sled.  My best guess as to its age would be 90+ years.  But there’s one thing I am certain of; toboggans aren’t meant to gather dust.  Their made for the young and the old to ride on and scream from as it flashes past an old barn, an old tree or a fresh snowdrift.  They’re made to carry at least four adults, six kids and a metric ton of memories.

And, once it’s on the wall, I would never be asked to “do it again” on any slope, on any mountain or hill in the Adirondacks.

[The intended site of the restored toboggan]

 

 

Donkey Oatie, The Atlantic Ocean and More: A True Story

[Pam.  Photo: Patrick Egan]

Every so often I run across someone with a story to tell.  Often, the encounter is in a pub in New York City, Yuma, Arizona, Juneau, Alaska or someplace in between.  For example:
  • About twenty-five years ago I met a guy who claimed he had parachuted off one of the Twin Towers of the WTC.  He said he was promptly arrested.  I didn’t buy into the story at the time.  Maybe he did…maybe not…guys say a lot of stuff in bars.
<
  • A few weeks ago I met a musician in an Irish pub on Amsterdam Avenue.  He said he knew Bob Dylan quite well.  He said that Dylan called him one day about ten years ago and complained to my new friend about his (my friend’s) recording of One More Cup of Coffee.  The phone call ended with Dylan hanging up on my friend.  I don’t doubt the truth of this story.  They guy seemed genuine and quite sincere.
<
Then, a few nights ago, at our home on Rainbow Lake, NY, we had our friends Pam and Hans over for some wine and cheese.  (This was the couple who sold us the R-Pod that I blogged so much about during two cross-country trips). We sat in our screened in porch and talked.  I told them of my long time dream to hike the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve never really had much interest in the Appalachian Trail).  Then Pam began a story that made me pull my chair closer to her.  I grabbed a notebook and a pen.  I took notes about her adventure.  I paid attention this time.  It was a story worth hearing–and it was a story I had to write…
Pam was twenty-something in the early 1970’s when her father passed away.  Her dad was the rock, the foundation of her family.  Her parents had met and married during WWII.  He was apparently a man of big dreams and those dreams brimmed with adventure and travel.  He dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail–he considered walking across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  When he died, his dreams died with him.

The bond between Pam’s mother and father was sublime and solid.  So it was no great surprise that his death created a void in the world of Pam’s mom.  She went into a deep depression and this darkness alarmed the family.

. . .

One New Year’s Eve, Pam and her two brothers sat at the dining room table pouring over their father’s maps and articles, thinking of his unfulfilled travel dreams.  The siblings sat and pondered about what they could do to honor their dad’s memory and perhaps to bring their mother back into the light.  That night a plan was made.  Why not take their mom on a journey–something that would approximate the cross-country hike?

But, could their mother, now in her 60’s carry a full backpack on a lengthy hike?  It seemed unlikely, so another decision was made.  They would use a donkey to carry some of the load!  The Sicilian donkey was purchased from a farm in Massachusetts.  One of the siblings came up with the name Donkey Oatie.  It seemed to fit.

“Let’s start at Harriman State Park in New York State and head west.” I could hear the brother say.  “We’ll see how far we get and when feel we’ve had enough, we’ll end our trip”.
The family looked at each other and must have been thinking the same thought: “An impossible journey…it’s 840 miles of walking!”  But the planning went forward, nonetheless.
They mapped out a trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania using State Parks as campgrounds.  When they reached the Keystone State, they ran into a problem.  NO PETS ALLOWED in many of the parks and a donkey was classified as a pet (?).  So they took to the back roads and soon found that this “very private trip became a very public one”.  A family friend was an AP photographer and he began phoning newspapers and Fire Departments along the route.  It wasn’t long before the travelers were being greeted by small crowds in small towns and villages.
But, it was on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town where the story takes a special turn.
They were invited by a woman to have lunch on a lawn.  This stranger, this woman brought her mother out of the house to join everyone for lunch.  The mother had her own story to tell.  Sadly, the mother had terminal cancer.  She had also lost her husband.  Pam’s mother and this woman spoke about dreaming of destinations.  It was a widow to widow conversation.  The ill woman said that her life-long dream was to see the ocean..but something always came up and the trip never took place.  The daughter sat nearby and listened to the talk of the unfulfilled dreams of two women–who had both lost their husbands.  The ill woman told Pam’s mother how much she admired her efforts to fulfill her dreams and that of her late husband.  Pam’s mother told the woman that the sea wasn’t so far away.

The daughter sat and listened.  Several weeks later she did indeed make the trip with her mother, who finally got to look out over the sea.

The woman died two weeks after the trip.
Her daughter wrote later and told the family that she would always be grateful for the advice of Pam’s mother.  She said in the letter that those two weeks gave her that precious time to bond in that final way and to say good-bye to her mother.
Since that evening on our porch, I’ve thought about my own dreams of making a journey..but my plans seemed lame and insignificant when compared to the story I had been told.
And, besides, how could I ever make such a difference in the lives of two strangers from a simple lunch on a lawn in Pennsylvania?
The answer came to me during a sleepless night.  You really can’t plan for such outcomes–they somehow seek you out and fall into your lap.  The important thing is that you take that first step on the journey that only you can begin.

And, why are all such journeys of such importance?  Why was the terminally ill mother and her daughter’s trip to the Atlantic of such importance?  Why did Pam’s trip with her mother..attempting to honor the father’s fascination with journeys..make such an impression with a stranger on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town?  And why did the story touch me so much?

It’s all been said so well in a cliché, an old saying, a common remark made in many situations..You just don’t know how long you have on this earth..every moment is precious..and can never be regained. 

Kissing Manhattan Goodbye

So, it’s time to say farewell to the city I love.  A week from today, if you have a drone, you will find us driving north on the I-87…through Albany…onto Exit 30…and then fifty more miles, through Lake Placid, to our home at Rainbow Lake.

I’ve heard it said so many times: “New York City is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

Fine, I understand everyone has different tastes.  Besides, it’s all true what people say about New York.  It’s so big, crowded, diverse and varied, that whatever anyone says about the city… is true.  It’s safe, dangerous, cheap and way too expensive.  It’s all true…but I love the vibrant life, liberalism, culture and gravity.  Yes, there is an intense gravity to this place…someone once said that everyone should live in New York City at least once in their life…and I agree.

I lived on the Upper West Side for over twenty-five years.  With some exceptions, I loved every minute of my time.  Then, I retired and in 2011, Mariam and I decided to get bought out (our building was going condo) and we decided to head north to our place on Rainbow Lake.  We needed the quiet.  Mariam went part-time, working from home on the computer.

We got our quiet…sometimes, it seemed to me, a little too much.  I was lonely.  Only a few of our friends made the six-hour trip to visit us.

Then, we were offered the opportunity to come back for six months, on a full salary, to put things in order at Mariam’s place of business.  We got a sub-let on W. 74th Street and became New Yorkers once again.  I saw my son more often and reunited with old friends.

But, not all went as expected.  For reasons I won’t discuss here, I found myself falling into a mild depression.  I brought many of my “works-in-progress” for my writing  projects.  I lost the creative energy to plug-in my memory stick and write a few chapters.

The winter was wet and chilly.  The spring was little better.  Then it got really bloody hot.  But, we saw a number of Broadway and Off Broadway shows that were fantastic.  We made friends at our local pub, the Beacon Bar.  We had a good time.

And, now, we’re packing things up…unread novels, unread magazines and putting away unfulfilled trips.

This was kind of an experiment ….to see if we could ever move back here.

I’m conflicted.

The “Dream House in the Woods” can sometimes  be something you’re not expecting.  Where are your friends and local pubs “where everybody knows your name?”

It’s just another move in our lives.  Mariam will be retired and I need a hobby.  I was thinking about carving duck decoys….I’m serious.   Maybe I’ll write the Great American Novel. Maybe I won’t.

Maybe I won’t and just drift on my kayak.

Stay tuned.

Six Days Can Be A Long Time

[Photo credit: Mel Brown]

The moment happened a few hours ago.  I was probably sitting in Starbucks on Broadway and 75th Street when the time came and went.  I was aware of the time, but I was likely checking my email.  Our apartment wifi was dead for the time being.

It was an arbitrary time, marked only by a sweeping second hand on an office wall clock.  It turned over at 5:00 pm on June 12, 2017.  One moment it was 5:00 pm, and then it was another time altogether.

So, what’s so important about this?  That changing moment marked the end of a work day for my wife, Mariam…an ordinary work day.  But, now, she now has only six days left to the end of her working career, her fifty-one years in health care is coming to a close.  That’s a long time of working and an inspiring event to celebrate.  Ever since she graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing, she has changed bed pans, helped AIDS patients, started up a cardiology unit in a hospital, and rose to being the head of the hemophilia treatment center at Mount Sinai Hospital.  She also is the president of two boards, both in the bleeding disorders world, in the intensive and competitive world of New York City.

I have expressed my concerns about the vacuum that will enter her life from a powerful position…into retirement.  She says she is not concerned.  I trust her instincts…but I still worry.

Her boss, Dr. Chris Walsh, is now reviewing aspects of her job.

“I’m going to miss you,” he understated.

I am proud of Mariam’s accomplishments.  I am looking forward to when she will be by my side, each day…for years to come…to travel and to sit at home…reading, playing chess, discussing politics and learning new things. We’ll be having a quiet dinner at a small Italian restaurant on 73rd St. on June 21.  Yes, June 21, her final day…and the traditional Summer Solstice.  How appropriate is that?  The longest day of the year.  The days will be getting shorter, but I will be there with you, Mariam, to help you through the long winter nights to come. And, I will be there on December 21, the traditional Winter Solstice, when the days begin to grow longer.  I know that’s the date you look forward to the most.

I will be there when the black flies come and go and the mesquitos arrive.  I’ll be there when the hail hits the roof and the leaves begin to fall.  I’ll light the campfire and I’ll play some Leonard Cohen for you on Spotify.  I’ll be there to ease you into your years of retirement.

Good luck to you, Mariam.  God speed!

Six days can be a long time…after all, that’s how long The Creation took.  Let’s hope there’s rest on the seventh day.