Sleep And The Birch Tree Clock

[Our Limelight Hydrangea.]

I look at the clock. It’s 4:35 am. I can’t sleep.

I begin another chapter in the book I’m reading. I go into the kitchen and eat a cracker. I sip some Tonic Water (it helps my leg cramps). I go back to bed. I can’t sleep. I take a little pill. Sleep isn’t coming to me tonight.

Sleep evades me almost every night. It’s been that way since I was a child. “What do you think your missing?” my mother would say. I had no answer.

I look out of our bedroom window and see our Limelight Hydrangea plant. In the pre-dawn light, it looks unearthly bright…like I left the car lights on. Or that small moons have dipped into our front yard. Or is it possible that I had indeed fallen asleep, slept through the rest of the summer…through fall and now I’m waking up to a new and substantial snowfall?

It’s dawn now and I still can’t sleep. Then I remember something. Two days ago, Mariam got me to open the door to the attic. Not so easy in this house. She wanted to do some gleaning of our stuff. We are trying to “de-thing” ourselves. She said she found a box of NYC books. I told her I didn’t want to go through those books right now. Who knows, we may move back to the City in the not-so-distant future. I might want those books then.

When she got back down from the pull-down ladder, she said there was plenty of my “stuff” up there in boxes.

I asked her what she saw. She said there was the tree clock. I asked her to repeat. She said: “You know, the clock that your father made from the tree”.

I’m still awake and now thinking about the clock that my father made…for me.

I grew up in Owego, New York. We were blessed with a large back-yard. There were enormous evergreen trees just beyond the lawn where my swing set was located. In between those two tall coniferous trees was a small Birch. Its trunk was only a few inches in diameter. One day, my father rounded up his four sons. He had us sit in front of the Birch tree. I’m on the right and look impish. Is that a sling-shot in my back pocket?

[The first of four Birch Tree photos. Early 1950’s]

Over the years, my brothers and I recreated our positions in front of the growing Birch. We were all growing up. The final posed photograph was taken on a lovely spring day in 1992. We were holding a wake for my mother who had passed away on Easter Sunday morning.

[The 1992 photo is the last one.]

Soon after that, the Birch caught a tree infection. It died. My father was left with no choice. It had to be chain-sawed down. I was in Owego that weekend. I asked him for a small section of the tree. He cut it down. He cut it up into sections. I wonder how he felt when he touched the chainsaw to the tree. It must have broken his heart. It breaks mine just contemplating it. He loved his sons so very much. Did he cry? He never would have shown it. But I would have been in tears hoping that my watery eyes could still keep the saw on track. I left for my own home without the tree section.

Six months later, my father presented me with the piece of the tree.  He had cut open one side and inserted a clock mechanism. On the other side, he attached the hands of a clock. He glued the hour numbers and attached a hook.

Since then I’ve moved many times. The clock always came with me, but over time, the numerals fell off.

That afternoon, after my sleepless night, I retrieved the clock from the attic.

I wondered what thoughts my father had when he cut the tree into pieces. So many decades have passed since he had his four boys take up a pose in front of the tree. I hold the clock in my hands. It’s all I have left of those four photo sessions. I run my fingers over the varnished clock face. I count the rings and calculate the ring that grew the year of the first photo.

Two of my brothers are gone now, as is my father.

I hold the Birch Clock in my hands.

These memories make me sad. I pray that I will sleep a dreamless sleep tonight.

 

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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]

Of Time and Distance: A Departing

[Corfe Castle]

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat on unmowed grass leaning against a stone wall. I was on the grounds of Corfe Castle in south Dorset. The mason who built my backrest had fitted the stones into their places over 1,000 years ago. There was still a strong sun in the west and the sky was about as blue as any sky can get. The cool breeze, however, forced me to zip up my fleece vest.

I was thinking of our journey that is nearly over.

Tonight, I’m sitting in front of a MacBook laptop in room 412 of the Doubletree Hotel in Southampton struggling to find the words to describe our travels.

I am thinking about our journey that is nearly over.

Tomorrow, at this time, I’ll be standing on the deck of the Queen Mary 2 as it plows its way through the waters of the Atlantic ocean heading for New York City.

I’m pretty sure I will be thinking of our journey that will soon be over…July 1 to be precise…barring any major nautical distractions.

Five weeks ago, I sat at Gate 42 of the American Airlines terminal waiting to board our flight to Paris.

Where did the time go?

Paris~~We stayed in a tiny room of the Hotel Atlantis a few steps from the Church of St. Suplice. Days seemed to fly by as we walked through Pere Lachaise cemetery, saw a performance at the Paris Lido, visited the Louvre and stood in the sun at the front door of Notre Dame. We found a shady bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I felt like an artist as I opened my watercolor pencil set and made two drawings. I looked at my work…I’m no artist…just a traveler.

[Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris]

Onto…

Brussels~~Only a brief stop to catch a train to Bruges, which is to me, one of the most sublimely beautiful and melancholy cities I’ve ever visited. After a touristy canal boat ride, we sat in a small waterside bar. We conversed with the waitress. I asked her if she was married.

“No,” she said looking at the water. “No one wants to marry me.”

[Bruges, Belgium]

Back to…

Brussels~~This time we stayed for four days. We befriended a bartender named Aurora. She was from France and was completing an internship at the Marriott. We became Facebook friends. After one failed attempt to locate the Market Place, we found it down one cobblestone lane. Once in the Square, you can turn 360 degrees and see nothing but ornate buildings highlighted in gold gilt. Outside the City Hall, I watched a middle-aged man get out of a car and straighten his tie. He was on his way to be married. I caught and held his gaze as he walked to the large oak doors. I gave him a two finger salute from my right eyebrow. He smiled, nodded and went inside…proud, happy, in love and full of hope.

Onto…

London~~A few hours after boarding the Eurostar, we got off the train at St. Pancras Station. Our hotel was the best one yet in our travels. It was just steps from the frenzy of Trafalgar Square. We visited the National Gallery and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub near our hotel. Next evening, we got tickets to The Play That Went Wrong. Madcap misadventures and very funny.

[The Sherlock Holmes]

Onto…

Edinburgh~~Here we climbed the hill to see part of the Castle. In the evening we saw Wicked at a theater two doors away. Trust me, it was a great show for a far less ticket cost than New York City. At night, we took in a sort of haunted Edinburgh walking tour.

It was time to begin our driving part of the trip. Got a rental at the Hertz less than 100 yards from our hotel. It was a perky KIA with a GPS. After a short drive to Durham to visit the Cathedral (massive, awesome but NO PHOTOS ALLOWED) we spent the night in a small hotel.

Onto…

Litchfield~~Again another Cathedral city. This prize was one of the best of all the cathedrals I’ve visited in the UK.

 

[Lichfield Cathedral]

Onto…

Grassington~~We’re in the “Switzerland of England”, but the time had come to test my back and right foot on a footpath. Things didn’t feel right. Lower back pain and pain in my foot despite doses of Alleve. Our main goal for us was to explore the Yorkshire Dales, but all we managed was a few miles one day, a few the next and 3.5 miles on the third day. We never unpacked our hiking boots!

[Part of the Grassington walk]

Onto…

Gillingham, in North Dorset~~I felt like I had arrived home. Most of you know that I lived and taught in Dorset in the mid-1980’s. I walked the footpaths every weekend that I wasn’t visiting a cathedral. My housemate was a young teacher named Tim. Now, Tim is semi-retired and does some consulting work with schools. He, and his wife Jo have put us up several times in their spare apartment. They have three children. George is working in London. Thomas is going to university and 11 year-old Anna, who is being looked at by the Royal Ballet. She’s very good.

[Tim, Anna & Jo.]

We spent six nights at Tim’s house, helping him one evening to celebrate England’s win over Tunisia in the World Cup. We spent our days driving around Dorset and revisiting places I knew and loved. Of all the Counties in England, I feel that Dorset is the most beautiful. The land of Thomas Hardy.

After a lovely farewell dinner, it was

Onto…

Corfe Castle~~We stayed at an old manor house. The first night we drove a few miles to Wareham and had a dinner with another friend from the 1980’s. Marion was the art teacher when I first met her. A most remarkable woman.

Onto…

Southampton~~And this is where I now sit, writing, thinking and remembering. Where did those 33 years go when I was so young and healthy that 9 mile walks were mere afternoon strolls.

At the front end of a six-week holiday, it seemed like such a very long time. But it passed like two blinks of my itchy right eye.

I wonder. I wonder about the stone mason who built the wall I sat against yesterday? If he walked out of the past and sat beside me to watch the afternoon sun descend on south Dorset, would he have the same questions I’ve been asking?

Would he ask what happened to that 1,000 years? Where did it all go?

[All photos belong to me and are copyrighted]

BREAKING NEWS: Cartoon “bad boy” Goes Berserk–Pictures At Eleven

[Source: Google search. Copyright:North American Syndicate]

So, this will likely be the last story I will file in my so-called stellar career as a reporter.  I pulled the night shift of all things…at my age!  I’m standing in the drizzle on the safe side of the police crime scene tape.  It’s yellow, just like in all those crimes shows on TV (which is where I get most of my action these days).  As I approached the back-end of the small neighborhood crowd, I noticed my left shoe was having problems of its own in making a smooth step a reality.  I leaned against a dead elm tree, actually the only tree left on the block, and hiked my foot up to see my sole.  Just as I suspected.  I had stepped on a well done wad of Bazooka chewing gum.  I scraped my shoe against the broken cement of the sidewalk but it just made the situation worse.  I gave up and turned my attention to the modest white single family house at 2251 Pine Street.  This section of Wichita had seen better days, even for Kansas.

I sidled up to a guy I used to work with at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans back in the day.

“So, wudda we got here, Sid?”

“Hey Clyde,” he said, “nice to see you in these parts.  Way too hot in the Big Easy, don’t you think?”

“August in Kansas is no Spring-time in England,” I replied wearily.  “So, wudda we got?”

“You got lucky tonight, Clyde.  That’s him inside.  He just came to the window and yelled something like: “I can’t take it anymore…it’s too crazy a world for a kid like me.”

“Whose ‘him’? I asked yawningly.

“It’s Dennis ‘the menace’ Mitchell in there.  He’s holding his parents hostage.  Apparently he has a jazzed up sling-shot.  He’s sixty-eight now.  His poor parents are in their nineties.”

[The only known photo of the Mitchell family. (ca. The Good Old Days). Source: Google search & Wikipedia]

“THE Dennis ‘the menace’? Bad boy of our youth?  I used to follow his antics every day in the whatever paper I was working.  This is the kid with the yellow hair, right?”

“There’s only one Dennis The Menace, Clyde.  You know that.”

Sid looked back at the house that was now flooded with police lights.  It looked like a movie site in Levittown.

I noticed some action behind one of the patrol cars.  A slightly heavy-set man with gray hair was being handed a bullhorn.  He pulled the trigger like the cop told him and he spoke into the back-end of the handheld megaphone.

“Dennis! It’s Mr. Wilson, your old neighbor.  Please end this now and come out.  Nobody will hurt you.  You won’t be made to sit in the corner any more.  Come out!  Put the sling-shot down and step away from the window.  They have sharpshooters out here.  I don’t want you to get hurt.  You can call me lazy as much as you’d like.  Just come out.  It’ll be like the old days, all over again.”

Mr. Wilson seemed out of breath when he lowered the speaker.

“It’ll never be like the old days…again.  It’s been too long.”

I turned to the voice behind me.  In the glare of the floodlights I saw a middle-aged woman wearing a clear plastic raincoat and a tattered babushka over her gray hair.  She was lighting a new Marlboro from the fading glowing ash of an old Marlboro that had been smoked to within 2 mm’s of the filter.  I turned away from Sid and approached the woman.  She leaned against the dead elm and blew a perfect smoke ring through the rain.

“Hey, I know you,” I said as I got so close to her I felt like I was back on the Marlboro wagon again, except I preferred Lucky’s myself.  “Yeah, I know you.  You’re Margaret.  Margaret Wade.  You and the kid in there used to be childhood friends.  He thought you were a bit too ‘uppity’ for him but you always told him you two would be married when you grew up.”

She looked me over like an odds maker at Aqueduct and I was the underdog.  (Guess I still am but that’s another story).

[Artists rendering of Dennis in the corner.  Source: Google & Wikipedia]

“Yeah, we was gonna be together one of these years but things just didn’t work out.  After I got knocked-up in high school and had to drop out things went down hill faster than a Buick going over the edge of El Cap in Yosemite.  Ever see Thelma and Louise?”

I shrugged.  “Who were they? A vaudeville act?” I asked.

“Forget it,” she said resigningly.  “Besides, he preferred the Mediterranean type.  He got serious with Gina Gillotti but she called off the engagement when she met a guy who owned an auto upholstery dealership in Fresno.”

She looked toward the house.

“I shudda waited, played for time, waited for his hurt to heal.  Then maybe we could have made some kind of life together.  But, no.  I had to be me.  I had to have the biggest sedans and the best Chianti any kind of money could buy.  Now, it’s too late.  They’ll talk him into coming out.  Then they’ll send him to an institution where he can play with his invisible dog, Ruff and that strange cat, Hot Dog.  They’ll let him eat all the cookies and drink all the Root Beer he wants.  They won’t force him to choke down any carrots or even take any baths.  That’s the way it’ll be.”

I kept the eye contact.

“Was he really that bad?  I mean he was just being a little kid full of mischief, right?”

“You got it, stranger.  Nobody really understood him…except me.  And now he’ll never know that.”

She took a long drag on the Marlboro.  I noticed a bit of moisture on her eyelid.  It wasn’t the rain.

“You know, he meant well, he really did.  I felt sorry for the trouble he caused his folks.  Henry, his dad, was forced out of the aerospace engineering work he did when his company outsourced all that talent.  His poor mother, Alice left Henry once.  Nobody knows that.  She went back to the farm she was raised on to take care of her father.  She stayed after his funeral.  She had a mini-breakdown when she thought of going back to that rascal boy of hers…and this ‘hood.”

“Well, it’s been nice talking to you, Mr. Whatever.  I gotta make it over to the Pink Slipper before happy hour is over.  Happy Hour. What a laugh.  The Good Old Days.  Real funny.  I need some me-time right now.  Like I haven’t had enough of me all these years.  Yeah, I gotta go and have a chat with some ghosts I know.”

She tossed the butt to the broken cement that passed for a sidewalk and twisted it out with the ball of her red stilettos.

“Hey, you don’t have too much gray hair, care to join me for a high-ball?”

I looked at her and then back at the floodlit house.

I let her slide her arm through mine.  We felt brave and walked through a puddle without going all the way around.  I guess that’s my life…going around the long way and never being brave.

Behind me I heard cheering and applause.

“He’s coming out.  Stand down everyone!” shouted the Captain.  “He’s not going to be any trouble to anyone anymore.”

From somewhere, far away and faint, I would swear to this day that I heard a small boy cry out.  I heard:

“Maggie! Come back!”

But, I knew Maggie wasn’t going back.  There’s no going back for any of us.  All those years…all those calendars are  gone now.

[The sketch that may have started the hostage incident. Source: Google & Wikipedia]

 

 

 

 

Love at the Beacon Bar

mariamchristmas

I spend most of my time alone…here in New York City, a city of 8.4 million people.  Sometimes I get very lonely and sometimes I feel forgotten.  None of this is Mariam’s fault.  She works very hard at Mount Sinai…slowly but steadily toward total retirement which should happen sometime after the middle of May.  Sometime around my birthday.  The birthday when I will turn 70!

Mariam and I have a routine of sorts.  We often meet at the Beacon Bar which is a four minutes walk for me, if the lights are in my favor.  I will have glass or two of Greenpoint IPA and Mariam will have a Chardonnay…all this before Happy Hour is over at 6 pm.

Last evening, just as the prices were about to rise and after we had spoken to a few of our new friends, Mariam turned to me and said something that was unexpected…and desperately needed.

Okay, it’s a few days after Valentine’s Day.  And this year we agreed not to exchange Hallmark cards (and she doesn’t really care for chocolates).  We knew how we felt about one another…we’ve been through a lot.  She saved my life when I was diagnosed with leukemia in 2003 by finding the best hematologist in the City.

So, what did she say to me?  What did she say that still rings in my ears and especially in my heart?

She turned to me and said:

“I love you, you know.  My heart is full of you.”  I looked at her somewhat mute.  I mumbled that I loved her as well, but I didn’t have that special phrasing that makes a special moment so endearing…and so lasting.

I had never heard it said quite like that before.  There is no Hallmark card that could take the place of that short statement.  No $30.00 dozen of red roses from the corner deli (the heads will sag in two days) that could have smelled better that the scent of words of love…like the ones Mariam said to me…yesterday afternoon, the day after Valentines Day.

Some sentiments don’t need a day on the calendar to guide you.  The special ones come from the moment.  The heart is the only guide you will ever need.

rodeoyuma

Two Trees

2 trees

A man and woman have four children–two boys and two girls.  The same seed…the same egg.

One boy grows up, attends college and eventually becomes a doctor and later joins Doctors Without Borders.  His brother sits in a small cell at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY.  He did something unspeakable to an eleven year old girl.  He has tats that identify him as a member of a gang based in Albany.  Many of his friends sit in similar cells–in similar jails–in three different states.

One of girls grows up and after sampling life in an New England college decides to join a cloistered convent and eventually will take a vow of silence and chastity.  Her sister walks the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  Anyone can buy her love and affection for $50.  She has several dozen needle marks on her arms and thighs.

The same seed…the same egg.

Two trees started life in a forgotten corner of the Adirondack forest.  They are rooted only nine inches apart.  Perhaps both from the same white pine that dropped its seed-laden cone seven years ago.

Now, one tree has added three inches of new growth to its needles in the Spring of 2016.  The other tree, a brother?…a sister? has turned completely brown.  It will not be utilizing photosynthesis again, ever.  It is the only dead tree in this small part of the forest.

Why does one living entity flourish and the other, linked by a genetic code, lose the spark of life?

Didn’t the alluring Cinderella have several despicable sisters?  Jeffery Dahmer had a sibling.  Cain and Abel were brothers.

Nature or Nurture?

Or, is it just an inexplicable aspect of life in general?  A question that has no answer–a riddle that has no solution–a prayer that has gone unheard…

boyandgirlholdinghands

[Source: Google search]

 

Gathering Dust

IceAxe

I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.

AlpineBooks

So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?