Love At The End Of The Tunnel

[My photo. Elias leaves pre-K.]

The longest and most uncomfortable, painful and seemingly endless flight I ever undertook began at 4:00 am on Monday, November 20 when I forced myself out of the bed.  I forgot our wakeup call was for 4:15 am.  Our flight was scheduled for 7:00 am.  It was going to be a long day.

We were at a lower level Marriott about two miles from Logan Airport.  Our shuttle picked us up at 5:00 am, on time and the driver was even awake and courteous.  I was numb with lack of sleep.

The first leg of our flight required a stop-over in Chicago.  Time to breathe real air and stretch our legs for an hour.

Then we boarded American Airlines flight #1239 for Seattle.  I bought one of those neck pillows but it did nothing but keep me upright with my head forced into one position, much like you see in the photos of the poor souls in the electric chair..  Everything in my body hurt when we finally landed.

We were on the first segment of our winter vacation.  First stop was to visit and spend Thanksgiving with my daughter, Erin, husband Bob and, my one and only grandson, Elias.

From their home in Orting in Washington, we were due to fly to LA and then spend the month in Joshua Tree in the Mojave desert of California.

But, I digress.

We called Erin who was waiting in the cellphone lot.  Within a few minutes, she pulled up in front Pick-up Station #1.

We loaded her 2013 Hyundai Accent.  We drove south for about forty-five minutes and we were at her home in Orting.

I had been awake since 4:00 am and was drugged with Valium and Dramamine so I was grateful when every one else left to do some shopping, I drifted on the sofa, the large black cat, Guinness, sleeping on my lap.

Everyone returned from shopping.

Then the real fun began…Elias began to remember his grandpa and Emmy.

It seemed to me to be the longest and most painful flight I’ve ever made.  But the love at the end…made it all disappear.

[My photo]

Postscript: Guest proofreader for this post is my daughter, Erin.]

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The Quiet Feast/The Great Cycle

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

Concentrate.  Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of  “lunch duty”.  A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders, and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you.  Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room.  Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription.  Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty home room and eat alone.  It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass.  Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River.  It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands.  It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates.  A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

A year ago, in October, along with our great friends, D’Arcy and Judy,  Mariam and I took a walk along the Silver Lake Bog trail.  The sky was azure.  The foliage was at a peak.  Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

I hung back and walked alone.  I stopped to listen.  The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain.  I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead.  What was alive was consuming what was dead.  This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed.  Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words.  I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life.  I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me.  The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material.  The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that was breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

And, all this was done in total silence and  would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

And, that fly would find out where I lived.

 

 

Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

A Halloween Ghost Story Told To Me By My Niece.

 

[Photo source: Google source.  This is not the spirit girl described.]

My niece and I share a fascination with stories.  Many of them are odd and unusual.  Many of them are ghost stories.

I’ve shared copies of ghost story collections with her over the years, mostly M.R.James and Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany.  All were classics and I hoped she pulled the comforter to her neck as she read them in her small cabin in eastern Maine.

Mostly, she lived alone in that state of endless forests, pulp wood factories and rocky coastlines.

She had a job as a receptionist at an Inn in North Conway, NH.  I’m sure you know the kind of inn where she worked.  Nestled in the midst of the White Mountains, where the shadows of Mount Washington darkened the glens and trails and leantos…where the evening shadows came early in the valley’s New England pubs and quaint olde hotels that could be found at many cross roads.  She would tell me local ghost tales, but I never had the opportunity of staying at the Inn where she worked.  Then she told me about the little ghost girl who was a legend at the Inn.  She laughed at the idea but I, to the contrary, thought that the story was something of interest.  Spectres of children always evoke a certain melancholy in me.  I’m a skeptic when it comes to ghosts in a general sense, but I love the ‘idea’ of them.  (I’ve never encountered a spirit, restless or not…that I know of…although I’ve have had some strange feelings in many an old hotel).

So, a few months ago she emailed and, with much excitement, said “I saw the girl in white”.  She said she was looking out of the window of her office and saw a little girl in white running around the corner of the Inn.  My niece ran to the back window expecting to see the girl…but there was no one in the large backyard.

She felt she had seen the “girl ghost”.  I’ve no reason to doubt her.  After all, its New England, it’s in keeping with legend and tradition and it fits all the requirements to compel me to tell this story.

At this time of year, as the night of All Hallow’s Eve is upon us.

This story of a little lost girl who died on some unknown date many years ago.  My niece’s astute observation skills puts to rest any need or reason for embellishment.

I trust my niece and I trust you to believe this old New England ghost story.

It’s a classic.

 

 

At The Museum…For Decades

[I loved this Alaskan canoe when you could see the people in it.]

The more things change, the more they stay they stay the same…

-Anon.

I never understood the above quote, except to say that I think it means that history repeats itself.

I certainly can get that…considering the Trump Era.  You can figure the rest out for yourself…if you believe in reading history and science.

But’s that’s not the point of this post.  No, I want to go back when I was about ten years old and my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).  It was decades ago…long before The Night At The Museum.  

When I was a child, I saw the dioramas of the ice ages, the history of farming along the Hudson valley, the mineral crystals as large as a park bench and, of course, the dinosaurs!

Over the years, when I was a teacher in NYC,  I had chaperoned so many trips to the AMNH that I think I should have been on their payroll.

What is amazing is that some of the building on Central Park West and between 81St and 77th Street has changed dramatically…and some of the exhibits haven’t changed since I was a child. The beautiful old Hayden Planetarium gave way to a giant glass cube.  More ‘state of the art’ but less architecturally beautiful.

[Hill of skulls…I don’t know what skulls they are.]

Is that good?  Shouldn’t museums remains in a state of stasis or should they “change with the times”?

Want my opinion?

I want both.  Up to date science about climate change (yes, it’s real) and astronomy (there’s so much new stuff out there, it will blow your Star Trek Mind).

Take me to the old galleries that haven’t changed in decades and let me dream about how I fell in love with science, anthropology, evolution, minerals and the stars when I was a child.

And, take me to the Hall of the Native Northwest Americans.  Show me the ceremonial mask that is supposed to

be ‘haunted’.  Night staff won’t go near it.

[Is this the haunted mask? I don’t know.]

 

Then, tell me that science and myth don’t blend in a beautiful and mysterious way. And, I’m praying to whoever may be the god of myth and history and childhood, I would love to walk my grandson, Elias, through the halls of history and myth and childhood.

It meant so much so me and I wish I could pass it on to my grandchildren.

That’s what Natural History (and family history) is all about.

 

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.

 

 

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/