My Son’s Beard

 

I saw him being born. Later on, I saw peach fuzz on his adolescent chin.

A few years later, when he moved in with us, in New York City, I think he borrowed my razor.

Yesterday, I stood next to him at The Beacon Bar. I sipped a beer, he had something I never heard of.

I was close to him, as I always like to be. He’s a big guy and he’s 31 years old ( Oh, God, how time flies !)

I studied his face, thinking how much I love him. Then I saw them!

I  Counted three. My boy had three gray whiskers on his cheek !

I don’t know what his thoughts were, but I felt ten years older.  Some would say “that’s life”. That’s not what my words would be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Father’s Books

The 1950’s & 1960’s

On Sunday nights, in the house at 420 Front Street in Owego, NY, there was usually an empty chair in our living room. My mother and three older brothers would gather around an oversized wooden console that housed a Black & White TV. The Ed Sullivan Show was about to come on the air. The diagonal screen measurement was probably about 20″, but I wouldn’t swear by that. Some memories dim with time…others stay fresh. It’s odd though. I sat and stared at this TV for years and couldn’t tell you what color the cabinet was.

But, the empty chair? Who was missing?

It was my father. Only on rare occasions did he join us for a TV show ( think he was present when Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show). So where was he? The answer was simple. He was upstairs. He was reading. This was not just a Sunday night activity for him…he was always upstairs (in whatever bedroom he had chosen that year for his ‘study’)…reading.

Our house was full of books. Upstairs and down, there were bookcases lined with a wide assortment of fiction and non-fiction. And almost all of it belonged to my father.

Today

We have a wonderful barrister bookcase that I brought from my family home after it was sold in 2005. It has glass windows. One sleepless night a few weeks ago, I went on the prowl for something to read. I decided to look into the bookcase at the books that we brought from my father’s library. Now I began to understand what his favorite reads were…back in the days while the rest of the family watched TV and he would retire to his comfy chair in one of the upstairs bedrooms. I began to piece together his changing tastes in literature. I determined that the oldest books dated to the 1940’s. (He bought 420 Front St. in 1945). I discovered a veritable treasure trove of pulp crime novels, early one’s written by Raymond Carver and John Dickinson Carr. There was Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene. It was next to Double Indemnity by James Cain. There were scores of these fine old pulps (even more in our bookcase downstairs).

I pulled out a copy of 5 Murderers by Raymond Chandler. I checked out the back cover. The book cost an astounding twenty-five cents! The highest price I saw on these books was fifty cents. Now, when I lived in Manhattan in the 1990’s, I used to see book vendors on the sidewalk in front of Zabar’s on Broadway. They would sell these very pulps, sealed nicely in a zip-lock baggie, for $5.00 or more. Quick math calculation: that’s a 2,000% increase. I am sitting on a goldmine!

I moved to hardcovers. There was E.M. Forester, Jack London, Robert Lewis Stevenson and so many more. Most of these were inexpensive book club editions, many had notices on the back cover to purchase war bonds.

In the upper right corner of the bookcase was a small collection of my own Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books that gave me so much joy in my pre-teen years

As my father aged, his taste in books changed. I used to see him sitting next to a stack of six or seven novels from the new releases section of the Coburn Free Library. The titles of these books, I can not recall, but I remember thinking at the time (1960’s) that this is what adults read. I wonder who the authors were. This was the days before Stephen King and John Grisham. I don’t think he’d like that genre.

My father passed away before I published my own novel. He never got to see his son’s modest success, but I’m sure he’d be proud. He tried to write a family history, but never got very far. He admitted that writing a long piece was a task beyond him.

But he sure could devour the writer’s he loved.

And he passed down his love of reading and books to all of his sons. He never pushed anything. He taught by example. I have done the same for my children. Erin and Brian are both avid readers. (Brian has been working on The Guns of August for a few years now. He has it on his Kindle. He told me once that there are about 900+ pages using the normal font. When he changes the font to a larger size, he is suddenly facing a 13,000 page book about the origins of WWI).

An indelible memory, a central, strong and clear memory of my dad is of him sitting and reading…until it was his bedtime.

He passed away at the age of 90. I’m sure he was reading when he was five or six. That’s 85 years of books. A lot of books, a lot of words and a lot of worlds to explore…for anyone.

Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]

 

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.

 

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]