A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

Into The Woods

[The Adirondack Forest. Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”

–Carl Jung

In the rearview mirror of the last three weeks of my life, I see I’ve left behind many things and added many memories. I’ve left behind the heat and sand of Florida, the peaches and boiled peanuts of Georgia, a friend and his wife in North Carolina, the breathtaking vistas and overlooks of the Blue Ridge Parkway and later, Skyline Drive. Mariam and I sat in a restaurant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and played music bingo. We passed Carlisle where my daughter went to college so many years ago. We drove apace with the trucks and cars across New Jersey and plunged straight into the Holland Tunnel.

The Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Once we were settled in a generous friend’s apartment, we began to search for a place of our own. Both of us want to come back to New York City to live. But it’s proving to be harder than we expected. One place is too small, another lacks outdoor space. One might be a walk-up. I can’t do four floors as well as I once could. No, not now.

Why move? you might ask. You have waterfront, kayaks, canoes, snowshoes and bikes. The answer is simple and complex at the same time. We love the quiet woods. We love the sound of our paddles as we glide along on Rainbow Lake. But, so much of what the ‘dacks provides are activities that are fit for a younger man (I speak here for myself). We miss people. The quiet can be overwhelming sometimes and brings with it the loneliness of the North Woods. As a person who has struggled with insomnia since childhood, I dread the dark nights, those dark nights when the wind shifts in strange ways and the moon struggles to peek out from behind a dark cloud.

I don’t want to shovel another millimeter of snow. I don’t want to get into my car just to get our mail. I want something of a social life. I want to be able to order in Mexican or Chinese food. I want company.

Bob Dylan: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea. Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, at times it’s only me.”

With the exception of my mother (she never took to the camping), my entire family had strong ties to the Adirondacks. They made Eighth Lake, Raquette Lake and Long Lake special places. But these people have passed on. Around every corner I turn, behind every tree, on any lake, along any trail…there are ghosts lurking…not to harm me, but to remind me of the many great times I had among the mountains. One spirit, however, follows me. He was a good friend. I took him on his first trip to the High Peaks. On a chilly November night…I remember the gibbous moon…this friend died, not in my arms but very nearly so. I’ve told this story before. His presence, his souI and his life have followed me for forty-eight years. My memories of the night he died are dark and are the stuff of my nightmares.

Gordon Lightfoot: “Like brave mountaineers, we aren’t bothered much by time.”

I’m heading headlong toward a milestone birthday…and I am fearful. There are so many years behind me and not very many left to me. I accept that. But I don’t have to like it.

I’m not done yet.

I can only hope.

But, in the end, I will never totally forget my love of the mountains, even though they are now beyond my grasp.

‘There is beauty in everything. Even in silence and darkness.”

–Helen Keller

A Beautiful Day in My Neighborhood: Then & Now

You can take the guy out of the neighborhood but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the guy.

–Frankie Valli

[My first apartment house in NYC]

It was a spectacular day in my old neighborhood. A mild May day, breezy and comfortable with the sun splashing the sidewalks with a warm glow. I decided to take a short walk and check things out…

I was a new resident in a great building on the Upper West Side. I came to the City to teach again after an 18-month hiatus from the classroom. A difficult divorce behind me, I was determined to make the most of what the City had to offer. I stood on the corner of W. 92nd Street and gazed at my new home. My mind was overflowing with plans, ideas and questions. I stood for a long time looking at the front entrance. How will this turn out? I thought. How long will I be here? Will I meet someone soon? I felt I was on the cusp of something very different from what I was used to. City living is not for everyone, but I didn’t see myself being overwhelmed by it all. I was ready. Little did I know…

I walked up the street and turned left, downtown, on Columbus Avenue. The crowds, the crates of bottled water and delivery guys at Trader Joe’s blocked my way. This was new since the days I lived here. I reached the corner of W. 92nd St. There was a young man standing and staring at the building across the street. He needed a beard trim and perhaps a new haircut. He was mumbling to himself. As I passed him he crossed the street and entered the apartment house. I snapped a photo with my iPhone. That was my old place, I thought. Such memories of my two years there. And the rent was more than reasonable…$450/mo. for a studio on the 26th floor. How I came to live here is the stuff of another blog.

I met my wife shortly after arriving in the City. I barely had time to settle in. She lived on W. 93rd. Take all the five boroughs and the millions of residents…what an extraordinary coincidence. We used to be somewhat beleaguered by the nighttime basketball playing in the next door school yard. And the car alarms…well forget it. I once walked the entire block in an effort to silence a particularly persistent car horn. I clutched a raw egg in my right pocket. I was going to ‘do’ his windshield. Just as I got to the car, just as my grip on the egg firmed and i began to pull it from my pocket, a police car from the 24th Precinct pulled up. New York’s finest was there to silence the alarm…much to relief of several hundred residents.

I walked west on 91st. About halfway to Amsterdam Avenue I passed the same young man I had seen earlier. His hand was in his right pocket of his jacket. He looked nervous. I decided to lean against the rails of an apartment building. I looked up at the old place I had called home. I counted three floors from the 29th and two from the left. I saw two figures standing in the window. One person was pointing downtown.

[My apartment was three floors down and one in from the left]

It was a cozy L-shaped studio. I had a nice table from IKEA and an old desk from my family’s house. Early on, I scored a visit from my father, my son Brian and my older brother, Chris. I remember one night when we sat by my window and looked to the south, the view was quite spectacular. Chris, who always noticed things before I did, pointed to the lights in the sky: “Planes approaching JFK or LaGuardia,” he said. I looked and saw a half dozen lights following the Hudson River to the north. He found his spare mattress and prepared for bed. I stared at the slowly approaching lights.

I made it around the block but felt restless. I walked into a Sushi restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam and 93rd. I went in and ordered a mug of Sapporo. It was after my first sip that I noticed the same young man I had seen earlier. He was sitting next to me. I looked at the mirror behind the liquor bottles. I looked into his eyes. They displayed an eagerness…an energy that was unusual. Should I say something to him? I sat and thought about what I would say. In the end, I watched him close the door behind him as he headed toward 92nd St. What could I possibly say to the young man that I already didn’t know.

[Once my home for over two decades]

Somehow I felt like I knew this young man, as well as I knew myself. Yet I let him walk out of the restaurant. I yelled after him, in my mind:

“My friend,” I would have said aloud. “I have a very strong feeling that a great many experiences are going to happen to you. Some of them will be happy and bring tears of joy and some will be heartbreaking and difficult and bring tears of sadness…but embrace them all, all of them. It’ll be an awesome ride and you only have one ticket…for one ride.

The Peanut

[Source: Wikipedia]
[source: Photo is mine]

Georgia, Georgia

The whole day through (The whole day through)

Just an old sweet song

Keeps Georgia on my mind.

—Hoagy Carmichael (1930) (Source: LyricFind)

Yes, we’ve left Florida and are now trying to survive in the oppressive heat of Macon, Georgia. For the last 100 miles or so I’ve had peanuts on my mind. I happen to enjoy a good peanut now and then. And who doesn’t like the taste of some organic peanut butter, spread unevenly on a piece of miniature pancake from Costco?

[Source: Wikipedia]

The simple legume, the peanut (Arachis hypogaea), has a complex nature. It can be very good for you (as a source of proteins) and at the same time be the death of you (high saturated fat). It took George Washington Carver (1864-1943), (the first African-American to earn a B.S.) to discover the varieties of products that can be derived from a peanut.

[Source: Wikipedia]

It all reminds me of a song we used to sing at Camp Barton, near Ithaca, when I was a Boy Scout:

“Found a peanut, found a peanut…

It was bad, it was bad…

Ate it anyway, ate it anyway…

I died.

Those Boy Scout leaders sure knew how to get an adolescent male’s juices flowing. But the song does highlight the fact there is a shelf-life for peanuts (1 month at room temperature).

The peanut goes by several different names: Groundnut, Goober, Pindar and Monkey Nut. I prefer the simple moniker of peanut. I know some places in New York City where if you asked the person behind the counter for some Monkey’s Nuts, you’ll get a small bag of something…I’d rather not go there.

As we made our way north on I-75 from Fort Meyers, Florida, I had my mind set on buying a small quantity of boiled peanuts, but all the billboards kept pushing were Pecans. I’m reminded of the time when I went to college in Louisiana in the 1960’s. I was talking to my roommate about how much I liked Pecan Pie. I was a Yank and I pronounced the word: pee-can. My room mate lost no time in correcting me: ”It’s pick-on”, he said. He went on describe what a pee-can was. I’ll leave it at that.

So, I see the temperature has dropped into the upper 80’s. I can bear going to our car to get something. In a few minutes I intend to venture out and retrieve a heating pad. All those hours in the car has made my back feel as though Ethel Merman just spent an hour dancing on my L2 and L3 region of my lower back while singing ”Everything’s Coming Up Roses”.

I’ll sit with the heating pad and watch another episode of The Blacklist on Netflix. I will rest assured that all is well in the world (it really isn’t) because in nearby Atlanta is the location of the National Peanut Board.

[Source: Photo taken by Mariam at 73 miles per hour]

The Migratory Habits of Cockle Shells, Birds & Yankees

[Recent snow storm near Owego, NY. Photo courtesy of my friend Mark Mendelson]

[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this humble blog to my friends and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, were caught up in a Late-Spring Snowstorm. No wonder many of my classmates from high school moved to the south or mid-south after graduation. After a winter in Fort Myers, Florida, I totally get it.] Now the blog:

All Things Must Pass–A George Harrison album name.

[A palm frond. Down and out at winter’s end. Photo is mine]

We are taking our late afternoon walk down Cuarto Lane. One must wait until after 6:30 pm for such a stroll. Otherwise, it’s so barking hot the sun will melt your polyester toupee, it’ll bleach your already grey hair and sear your retina unless your wearing Ray Bans. I’m not wearing Ray Bans. I’m wearing cheap Walgreen’s sunglasses. I can feel the plastic rims get soft. That’s why 6:30 is our cut-off time.

But I digress.

On our walk yesterday I snapped a photo of a palm frond, on the grass, beside the Lane waiting to be picked up by the Resort maintenance crew. I saw it as a symbol of a season’s completion. Just like the leaves in Autumn in the mountains of the Adirondacks or all of New England. The frond spoke to me. It was lamenting the fact that it was done with contributing any and all Oxygen to the atmosphere. No more photosynthesis, it said. I stopped to answer back but my wife, Mariam tugged at my arm.

“Don’t! The neighbors are watching.”

But I got the point. All things must pass, even palm fronds. And even Snowbirds like us. Soon we leave this little bit of paradise and go north. Back to our home on Rainbow Lake and the very real possibility of a freak mid-June snowstorm. Think I’m kidding? We once sat at the bar of Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. It was May 31, my birthday, and we were have a quick glass of wine before a lovely steak dinner at the Adirondack Steak & Seafood. I spun around in my bar stool to look out at Mirror Lake, but it was snowing…no, it was blizzarding. I saw the fronds as a metaphor for our eventual departure. But, there’s more:

This blog is about travel, migration and departing. Here is something of interest:

[A Bar-tailed godwit (L. lapponica. Photo: Google search]

The bird shown above happens to hold the record for longest migratory flight yet discovered. The Godwit has been found to have the ability to fly 6,800 miles without any layovers. (Think of it as Jet Blue with feathers). Now, I don’t know what impresses you, my reader, but 6,800 miles is one badass flight. In doing the research necessary to bring you this post I also found out that some long-term migratory birds can do awesome things on their journey. One species has the ability to eat, fly, sleep and mate while on the wing. My brain short circuits when I think of humans doing these sorts of things. Myself? I can barely drive along a country road for a country mile while eating a cheeseburger.

Well, so much for the avians. Time to discuss Cockle shells.

[This is a Cockle shell. I found it and a zillion others on the beach this very afternoon. Photo is mine]

The Cockle shells litter the edges of the beach…where the waves wash up and then back into the sea. Whole shells, bits of shells…shells of all kinds are found in the sands of Sanibel Island. I find pleasure in picking one from the knee deep water and holding it for the iPhone camera. But, like everything else along a shoreline, the waves and currents are constantly moving the shells along only to replace them with newer ones. If I were to stand at the exact same spot on the exact same beach at the exact same time next year, I will reach into the sand beneath my feet and find another Cockle shell…exactly like the one I found today. I’m not sure what the point is about all this, but it does remind one of moving along, going away, traveling and replacing one environment (the beach) with another (the Adirondack lake shores). Some of my readers will say:

“A place in the Adirondacks? You have waterfront? Kayaks? Canoes? A screened-in porch? A quiet place in the playground of New York State? And you’re not satisfied? Are you playing with a full hand?” The truth is that I enjoy the Adirondacks very much, but not like I used to. As a little boy I played in sands of many of the most popular beaches in the ‘dacks. But I’m not a boy. I’m not a healthy fit young teenager who would climb any peak at the mere suggestion of doing it. Two of my three brothers were Adirondack oriented men. Both are no longer with us. I have found that around every bend in a trail, every curve in the road and every paddle stroke I make to round an island, I see the ghosts of my brothers. I’m tired of seeing ghosts, both figurative and real.

I love the night sky and the Adirondack air is fairly free of light pollution. The stars tumble out in numbers that are not humanly countable. I’ve slept on mountain peaks and counted the stars. I gave up after reaching 3,000 points of light. But our house is surrounded by trees and my patch of sky above our house can be covered with one open hand.

I want to see for miles while standing at sea level.

Which brings us to Yankees. Sorry, but this is not about the Bronx Bombers. This is about snowbirds who flock to Florida for the winter. I’m one of them. A yankee? In one sense, that is the definition of anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But what about my one-time sailing partner here in Fort Myers? He was from Toronto. Well he’s a yankee too, by my definition.

I’m lonely and I’m restless. How many years do I have left to see the world? Only a seer can answer that kind of question.

[This not my car. Mine is cobalt blue. Photo: Google search]

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

–Bob Dylan “Boots of Spanish Leather”

Just Like Riding A Bicycle

[Source: Veritas health]

I’m standing at the window of our hotel in New York City watching the snow blow upwards. Fifty-two floors below, whatever snow survives melts quickly on Fifty- fifth street or perhaps Broadway. Winters in Manhattan are infamous for the wicked winds that gust in from the Hudson and clash with the bluster through the cross streets. The top floors of the high rise office buildings are invisible in the low clouds. Heavy coats do nothing to lessen the biting slashing winds that can cut through your outer layer like a sharp scalpel, like a razor or a saber honed to the width of several microns. These winds can turn your Burberry umbrella into fodder for a trash can. February in the City can be deadly to The Little Match Girl.

But I digress.

About 11:45 am on Tuesday, February 15 I will be lying on a table in the Operating Room of Mount Sinai Hospital. Most of you, my followers and curious readers, are well aware of my history living with and dealing with my lower back pain. It’s not a secret. I’m open to this revelation because I’ve discovered one thing that set me on my journey to Upper Manhattan. Simply put, I have a very hard time walking. I lean on Mariam as if she were a well-grounded oak tree. (This is not a good thing because she has a very painful right shoulder…but that’s another story or another blog. When I walk I shuffle like someone who just finished a bowl of gluten free Quaaludes for brunch.) But the most surprising aspect of my story is that I found out that I cannot ride a bicycle. Back in Rainbow Lake I tried to get on my bike only to find that I can’t raise my leg high enough to get seated. I would up with a mouthful of Adirondack sand. This was not a small inconvenience because I love to ride a bike. Every street in my hometown of Owego, NY has been peddled by me.

So on Tuesday I will lie on the surgical table. Doctors and nurses will check on me. I will get an Oxygen tube down my throat, an IV and a blood pressure cuff. The anesthesiologist, I’m told, will insert a catheter. Upon hearing this I will make an attempt to reach the door. The very thought of the catheter sends fear, horror and apprehension to my…. .

But by that time, it will be too late.

“I’ll be gentle” he whispered. “And besides you will be totally under.” I, hopefully will be wandering in the world of general anesthesia. What most amazes me about surgery this serious is the speed at which the anesthesia works. I’ve tried before to experience the drifting away thing and even counting down from 100 like it’s done in the movies. I stare at the clock on the wall. I stare at an entirely different clock in a room I don’t recognize. Who are these people dressed in green? Where am I?

I ask the first nurse that appears and ask her when the operation will begin.

“It’s all over, hon,” she said. “You’ve been asleep for about three hours.”

God bless modern medicine.

I’ll end this narrative now. There’s not much more to say. If it all goes well, I shall be able to feel like a normal human once again. If, for some reason the results are not too successful, I have a back-up plan:

[Source: Google search]

Avocados And Men

There he is, leaning against his Electric Blue 2017 Honda Fit. He is confident and casual. This is a man of many talents. You should get to know him. Along with his many talents he is a 3-card Monte champion and well known in Monte Carlo, certified 747 pilot, world renown diesel mechanic, first human to descend to the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, presently of the Stephen Hawking Chair in Astrophysics at Cambridge, discoverer of the J/psi meson, Master Sommelier at Ricardos Restaurant in El Paso, TX., author of over 75 novels that follow Chief Inspector Olaf Gorhagan of Oslo, Head negotiator of all mid-East conflicts, Chief Resident at Mass General Hospital (headed up a landmark study of STD’s in former science teachers), All-star QB for the Seattle Seahawks leading them to twenty-five Super Bowls, Author of JAMA articles that are following the breast implant surgery on 429 starlets from Van Nuys, California. Please note that this only a partial listing.

But I digress.

Now I know what it’s like being a woman. It’s a well-known fact that women are more conscience of what they wear than men. Several evenings ago we went out to dinner. Earlier in the day I got one compliment about my shirt. It’s green and sports about fifty images of avocados. At our favorite restaurant a bunch of young women went crazy about my shirt.

Avocados. Who would have thought that a tiny fruit can be such a chick-magnet.

I know better now. It isn’t Corvettes or horses with manly cowboys. It isn’t likenesses of James Dean or Sean Connery. It isn’t stylized wrenches and hammers.

It’s a lonely little Avocado. Who needs a Track & Field Trophy when there’s a great produce section at Walmarts.

Coal For Christmas

[My regular readers will recognize this story. I republish it every holiday season with a tweak here and there. This story is true and I am passing it down to new readers and my two children. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great and meaningful holiday.]

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor]

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventy-fourth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now, the last of the Egans.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something, get a name wrong or a date incorrect.  Or, forget the event entirely. This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever my parents lived  during any particular winter.  There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays.  The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind.  It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story.  It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago. 

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile.  It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words. 

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys, Paul and Jack and two girls, Jane and Nelda comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were five sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was nearly out. My father managed to find three lumps of fist size coal hidden or forgotten behind the bin. The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the tracks.  A pale moon helped light the way.  The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all. A nearly full moon shining off the snow gave the landscape a light that helped him keep on the trail of the four footprints.

In his anxiety my father had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the eight feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking various-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after that midnight trip to the coal pit, my family moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor.]

The Angels of Midnight

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

~~Maya Angelou

I

You’re trying to sleep in the ER of the Albany Medical Center. It’s sometime between the hour of midnight and dawn. You know things are going bad for you when all your dreams and desires are for a red paper cup of ice chips.

Even the night shift nurses with $1,000 worth of tats were of little distraction. And the finger nail polish that glowed (only the tips) were heavenly pink and emitted a beam of ethereal light that was almost supernatural in nature, did little to distract me from my greatest need…ICE!

On one level I was in the middle of an older man’s fantasy. On the other level I was positive I had yet to pay my moral dues. I felt caught in a special kind of medically induced purgatory. My entire right side was in a kind of agony that one only begins to imagine. I’d rather have triplets.

On the other side was a cadre of highly trained nurses, nurse practitioners and medical staff. They wanted to hold off on the water in case there was a test in my future that demanded nothing by mouth.

II

One of the midnight angels gave me a powerful pain killer. I was asleep in minutes. I dreamt about drowning in ice cold lemonade.

In my man’s eye, these women were all as beautiful as Aphrodite…but with green masks they likely resembled a woman you’d pass on the street on your way to Starbucks. It was the inner beauty that I was drawn to…something to be said in favor of a veil. The more that is hidden, the more you’re imagination is free to run wild.

III

So leaving out a great many details, how did it all turn out? I was discharged late Friday morning. It was hotter than Hades so we stopped at the nearest Panera and I had the best lemonade on the planet. From there to Starbucks in the lobby of our hotel. I couldn’t face a Cold Brew which I love and tried a Kiwi Starfruit Refresher with Lemonade. It was heavenly.

IV

Settled in our room at the Hilton Garden Inn, I ate for for the first time in days, a steak salad, while Mariam had a salmon salad. I was fully awake and asked to watch Mulan, a film I wanted to see for months. I was asleep before the opening credits.

I don’t remember my dreams anymore but they must have included the kindness of the ambulance EMTs that got me to Albany, the attending staff in general and the orderlies.

And the angels of midnight who choose to dedicate their lives to alleviating the pain of shleps like me.

Adulthood Rising

I have a hard time learning languages. Some people have an ability to pick up German, Portuguese, Farsi or Russian with ease. High School French was the first of my stumbling blocks. I used to “get sick” in the morning to avoid Mrs. Lowe’s first period freshman French class. I tried…I really tried…to understand the conjugation of verbs, but found only limited success. As an adult I can order dinner in Paris and get a hotel room arranged. That’s about it. Then again that’s about all a guy really needs to know.

In the 1980’s I asked the French teacher at the school I was teaching in (I was a possible chaperone for a trip to Paris with the French Club) how to say “Hi Cupcake, can I buy you a drink?” Petite gateau is a far as her suggestion went. I never chaperoned the trip.

But I digress.

I didn’t cut all of Mrs. Lowe’s classes however. Every so often she would abandon her grammar lessons and show us a film about French culture. That was very cool because no one is as cultured as the French. One day she ran a documentary about Maurice Utrillo, the French painter (1883-1955). I was fascinated by his work. He became one of my favorite artists. There was something about his style…

An Utrillo Painting
[Source: Google Search]

Something changed in me that day. I was suddenly alert to nature in a way that was new and fresh. I had grown up a little after that film. I grew up more than I was expected. I took a renewed interest in our backyard. It was in the Spring. I would lay on my stomach in some hidden corner of our yard and would begin to believe I could watch the grass grow and the flowers bloom. All this before any Cannabis was in the picture.

The air smelled different and clouds took on meanings and shapes I never noticed before. Teenage love permeated every cell in my young body. The whole wide world had crossed the threshold of my early timid feelings of adulthood. Yes, teenage love had its grip on me. But, being me and being full of self-doubt and insecurity I was unsure of everything–even love.

I spotted a daisy. I knew the drill, that age old practice of using a daisy to find out if she loved me. I never gave much thought to the idea of raping a daisy to learn the fate of my love. I see it now as akin to a Native American killing a buffalo or a deer. You apologized to it and thanked it for giving up its life and aiding in your survival. So, there I sat in the grass and plucked the petals…one by one.

“She loves me. She loves me not.”

As I was approaching the final half-dozen petals I could see ahead. It was going to end in a resoundingly quiet “She loves me not”. I had to think fast. I feigned pulling the white petal and continued the countdown.

In the end, she loved me. Ultimately I should have continued my count if you get my subtext.

Now I sit, an old man, musing and missing my early life before I knew real pain. That’s what old men do…they sit and think. My daughter is now riding a heat wave from Hell in distant Seattle. My son will soon be married and will rely less on “Pops” as the years move on.

Yes, I sit and think. I gathered a small bunch of daisies today during a short walk and put them in a pale green vase. I thought of that daisy from my backyard.

And thanks to Mrs. Lowe, I have an abiding love of Maurice Utrillo.