It Just Isn’t That Simple

I am waging a war here in the North Country. I am waging a war against spiders. I am the General and I am losing. Look, we bought the house in 2000, but the spiders think they are the real owners. That’s eighteen years of warfare. The two World Wars didn’t last that long. Okay, you can talk about the Hundred Year War in Europe, but I’m not a historian and I’m sure it wasn’t about spiders.

I could stop the small weapon action with the whisk broom and rent a power washer. I could blast every shutter and every cornice and every eave. But I would lose. Seven minutes after I drive off to return the power washer, there would be a new spider web being spun, like a never-ending fairy tale. Sometimes I feel like we are living in something like the Addams Family house…or Castle Dracula in Transylvania.

Spiders. Living in the woods. Where is Stephen King when we need him?

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

I spotted a cluster of Indian Pipes (Monotrope uniflora) on the path down to our dock. I always thought they were Saprophytes…living wholly off the decayed detritus of the forest floor. But no. I glimpsed something in the New York Times the other day that alluded to the fact that scientists are finding that the way the Pipes get nutrients is more complicated.

I guess it just isn’t that simple.

The other day, my wife, Mariam (this happened on her birthday) was thinking about particle accelerators. She asked me a question about String Theory and it’s relationship to Quantum Physics. (She knew I was a science teacher for 34+ years). I thought about the question for a minute. Then I told her:

“Honey, it just isn’t that simple.”

So, on a recent night, Mariam and I went to a concert.

The second part of the concert featured a world acclaimed pianist. Before she came on stage I looked up at the piano she was going to play. It was one large piano, a concert Steinway Grand…about the size of a ’49 Cadillac. If it wasn’t for its odd shape (like a piano) it reminded me of the coffin that Andre The Giant was buried in.

[Full disclosure: My son, Brian, lives not very far from the Steinway & Sons factory (when they built them in Queens). He has no connection with the Steinway company so I’m not sure why I’m disclosing this].

We were in the second row. Great seats except you couldn’t see the pianists hands working the keyboard (music terms)…but then again you couldn’t see anything on that stage because of the size of that piano.

She played the piece with total abandon and gusto. It was breath taking…except I couldn’t take my eyes off the collar of the guy in the front row. It was not straight. He was there with his wife (she sat in front of me) and two children.

My first thought was what kind of wife was she? She let her husband go out into public with a messed up collar. Then she leaned forward. A tag on her blouse (shirt, top…whatever) was sticking up. I thought what kind of husband was he, letting his wife go out in public with a tag showing in her mid back.

I considered making a deal with Mariam (she admitted being distracted by his collar after I brought it to her attention), that she could lean forward and straighten out his collar while I tucked the tag inside her top.

We were conflicted. Mariam rejected the idea.

I took another sip of Chardonnay from the ‘sippy-cup’ and settled back to listen to the last movement of a piano concerto.

But I couldn’t take my eyes off the couple in front of us. He was clearly in love with his wife. He kept looking at her and even stroked her arm. She paid little attention to his attention…she chewed gun during the concert.

Was this a dysfunctional family?  Did she really love him?

Then I looked at the two children they made together. The daughter was a pretty 18-year-old with freshly washed auburn hair. The boy was a well-behaved ten-year-old who sat patiently through a concert that he probably didn’t really want to attend. But this couple, with his collar and her tag, were responsible for their very existence.

I guess some things are just not that simple.

 

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Why Can’t We Stay Forever Young?

[Brian looks out over Galway Bay, Ireland (2015]

As I type this post (3:00 pm Saturday, July 14), I’m thinking of my son, Brian, who, 31 years ago would be about seven hours old. When the OB-GYN turned from his mother, Nancy and asked me what I thought of watching my son being born, all I could do was look out over the parking lot of the Stamford Hospital parking lot and cry.

It was an awesome and overwhelming experience to be the second person to see him enter the world.

In 2015, he joined Mariam and me in Ireland for a quick tour and to meet some “real” Egans. He says he loved the trip…and I believe him.

Father and son are now 31 years older than we were that hot July day in 1987. He lives and works in New York City now and Mariam and I sit and listen to the loons in the middle of the North Country.

He is entering the prime of his life. I’m a ‘senior’ citizen and have more gray hair than I did yesterday.

From a father who loves his son…more than words can describe, I’m wishing him a very Happy Birthday.

Brian, you’ve grown up to be an amazing man.

Try to stay “forever young.”

[Brian bids me good-bye at Shannon Airport, Ireland 2015]

It’s A Girl!

There is this girl who  my heart and she calls me Daddy.

–Anon.

[My Little Cowgirl]

I got the call when I was assembling computer components at a bench in Building 18, IBM Endicott, NY.

Actually, the manager took the call.  He came over to my work place and said that there was a message for me from Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton.

It was June 9, 1972.  I was expecting the call.  I was about to become a father.

When I arrived at the hospital, the nurse took me to the waiting room.  In those days, fathers were not allowed in the delivery room.  Expectant fathers are usually depicted on TV and in movies as nervous, bumbling jangled fools.  Not me.  I calmly read the out dated magazines.  I do believe I even read an entire article in the Reader’s Digest.

How long did I wait?  I simply don’t recall, but I was approaching that boring stage, when a doctor entered the room.  He asked my name and extended a hand.

“Mr. Egan, Bernadette is here.”

With those words, my life changed.

Let me backtrack for a moment.  After the IBM manager told me I had a phone call I went to him and told him I had to leave for the hospital.  On my way to the door, I stopped to tell the news to a guy whose job it was to keep the assembly people (me) supplied with diodes and transistors.  He shook my hand and wished me luck.

“Oh, more thing,” he said.

I went back to his window.

“Boy or girl, doesn’t matter.  But a word of advice.  Play with them.  Love them.  Watch them because they will grow up faster than you can possibly imagine.”

“Thanks, I will,” I replied as I headed for the parking lot.  I really didn’t believe him.  How can time go faster just because one becomes a parent?

I can say now, without hesitation, that that man was absolutely correct.

There was a song I remembered:

Turn around and she’s one, turn around and she’s two…turn around and she’s a young woman going out of the door.

Erin (her middle name was fast becoming her first name) did grow up quickly.  I took her hiking in the Adirondacks, canoeing on the Susquehanna River and showed her London, Paris and Moscow.  I took her to Broadway shows.  I watched her skate on New Years Eve at Rockefeller Center.

In college, she earned a double major, English and Religious Studies.  She’s a trained Paralegal, she proofs and edits the books I’ve published and she beats me without mercy in our ongoing online Scrabble game.  Now we play chess on our iPads.  She lives in the Pacific Northwest and I live in the North Country of New York State.

Now, she is a mother of an adorable five-year-old boy, Elias.  I gave her the advice that I was given.

[Erin and Elias]

“Erin, it all goes by so fast…love him and play with him…it all goes by so fast.”

Generations come and go like water over Niagara.  Being a parent isn’t for everyone.  It’s not a requirement for life.  But the experience of holding a tiny girl baby one day and then cuddling her tiny little baby boy is a part of life that I wouldn’t trade for a brick of gold.

[Erin:Thanksgiving 2017]

[All photos are mine]

One Son

[Brian. April 24, 2018.]

No, the title of this post is not something I stole from a menu from one of the many Korean eateries on W. 35th Street.

And, if you look at the photo above…(I always use a lead-in graphic for my posts), I can tell you certain things:

It’s a profile of my son, Brian.  No, he is not dreaming of traveling to France.  No, he does not make a living balancing things on his forehead (maybe he does, maybe I missed something). And, no, he is not conjuring a suitcase.  If he had that kind of talent, I’m confident he’d be conjuring something more interesting that a valise with faded travel stickers.

We were at a restaurant just south of Macy’s and a few blocks from where he works.  During the dinner I looked at him and recalled that I didn’t have a good profile picture of him.  So I asked him to pose against a neutral wall, not considering the piece of old-time luggage that was mounted there.

Before we rejected the desert menu, I was busy thinking.  I had written many blog posts that highlighted places and people who I hardly knew.  Interesting interactions with people who I, most likely, would never meet again.

I’m proud of those posts, but it occurred to me that I had not highlighted my own children enough.  I had mentioned them in many blogs, but never were they a main subject of my encounters.

When I first moved to Manhattan in the very early 1990’s, Brian was about five years old.  I was going through a divorce.  My father brought him down to visit.  I took my dad to Bethune Street where he worked for the Bell Labs in the 1930’s.  Brian came along.  He was a tiny guy in the big city.

Later, he came down with a friend.  I have a picture of him in front of the Twin Towers.  He says he remembers the day clearly.

Even later, he came to live with us while he attended Baruch College to complete his undergraduate degree.  We had a challenging time fitting him into our one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  For me, it was good-bye Letterman while he slept on the fold-out sofa.

He graduated and before you could say “congratulations”, he had a job.

Now, he buys us dinner…we are the ‘out-of-town’ now.  He tells me which train to take to get to some obscure place in one of the boroughs.  He has a lady friend and they live in Astoria.  Ironically, he lives just blocks away from where my wife grew up.

I’m awed by how my son has grown up.  I’m amazed at his success.  I’m proud to have him as my son, my only son.  No one will carry the Egan name into the future except him.  And, I’m not pushing anything.

I love my son beyond what I thought was possible.  He is everything I tried to be in my life…funny, outgoing and charismatic.  Where I failed, he succeeded.

Look at the photo below.  It seems like just yesterday that I took the picture.  I’ll always think of him with the little stick in his right hand.  The look on his face says to me: “I’m a good boy, daddy.”

I hope the sweater is still in around somewhere.  In a trunk maybe.  Then someday, if he has a son of his own, he may be able to have him pose for a similar photo.  And, maybe he’ll write a blog about much he loves his little boy.

Oh, yes you are, my one son.  My Number One Son.

Love you Brian.

[Brian. ca.1990]

All photos are mine.

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t thing you’re getting senile…(the doctors won’t release such information)..this is perhaps the third, maybe fourth time I’ve posted it.  Hey, maybe I’m the one getting senile.  I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  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 and sadness of my sevienth 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 and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer.  It is a time 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.  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 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 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 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 six 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 burning low.  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 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 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.

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 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 ten or so 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 small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled 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.  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 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 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.

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.”

 

[Watercolor sketches by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[NOTE TO MY READERS:  Today is December 20, 2017.  If you enjoyed this post (again) please keep an eye out for a special blog that will be out just after Christmas.  You’ll know how special it is to me when you read it.  Have a happy holiday…whatever you celebrate.]

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.]

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.