Dear Grandpa

George Hotchko

Dear Grandpa,

I thought I’d write to you today.  It’s been such a long time since we had a chance to sit and talk about things.  I have so many memories of you, I don’t know where to begin.  It was so long ago.

Remember when I was a little boy?  You lived with Grandma in a big white house beside a lake in Pennsylvania.  In all the time I was growing up, you never had to go off to work in a factory or a coal mine.  You did all those things before I was born.  You spent your time tending a little garden behind the big house.  Once you showed me how to graft two different apple trees together.  I was amazed when, a year later, I could go out to the tree and have a choice of different apples on one tree!  Your garden had several fruit trees and I remember at the far end of your rows of plants was a steep bank that led up to an old railroad bed.  There was a short path up the hill.  In the far corner of your garden, you had a little white shed.  I think it was once an outhouse, but I was never sure.  There were so many hoes and shovels and rakes, sacks of seeds and old bottles, that I could never see whether there was a potty hole or not.

When my family would drive down to visit you from our house in Owego, NY, we’d almost always find you on an old chair beside your shed, sitting in the shade.  Or, under the big apple tree in the yard…always sitting in the shade.  Every time we saw you, there was a pipe either in your mouth or in your vest pocket.  I remember that you had a strange pipe lighter, not like a Zippo or Bic.  It was silver and round.  It was the size of my thumb.  And, you’d push it together somehow and there’d be a flame to light your pipe.

I would always run up to you and hug you and say: “Hi, Grandpa!”  When I was a little boy.

You’d always say: “Well, if it isn’t little Paddy.  You’re so big now.”

Once my brother and I found you on the front porch…in the old rocking chair.  We begged you to tell us a ghost story.  But you said you didn’t want to scare us.  You said that sometimes when you think about those things you couldn’t sleep.  You gave in one time and told us how you were walking home from a day in the mines and you saw a friend sitting on the stonewall of a cemetery.

“Hey, George,” the guy said to you.  “How about a plug?”

You reached in your back pocket and broke off a plug of chewing tobacco and gave it to him.  You talked with him for a few minutes and then you walked on down the street.  A few blocks away, you stopped in your tracks.  You remembered that the guy had died three months earlier.  You said you’re not supposed to look back over your shoulder when you see a ghost so you ran the rest of the way home.

That story did scare me.  When I was a little boy.

I remember that you always planted potatoes in your garden.  My brothers and I giggled when you told us that for good luck, whoever planted the potatoes, had to pee on the first mound.  And, you always did, but it was never when we were around.  I wondered for years how you managed to pee on the correct potato mound in the dark of night.  Did you hold your flashlight under your arm?

Whenever one of us tried to talk to you, you always leaned over and said to talk louder into one of your ears, saying you were hard of hearing.  But, sometimes you heard us just fine.  My father thought you were “deaf” only when my grandma was trying to tell you to do something.  I still wonder about that.

Well, Grandpa, have I got news for you!  I have a grandson now!  That makes me a grandpa, just like you.  When I was a little boy.

His name is Elias and he is your Great, Great, Grandson!  He’s very adorable. (Did you think I was adorable when I was little?)

Well, I better say good-bye for now.  I’ll be seeing you sometime…someday.  We’ll have so much to talk about.  Maybe, if I’m lucky, you can tell me more ghost stories.  I don’t think I’ll be afraid to hear them when we talk again.

We’ll sit under a tree and I’ll watch you light your pipe again.  I’ll make sure we’ll be in the shade.

I think I’ll go and poke through some boxes for those old 8mm home movies my dad took of you.  I saw them a few years ago.  You didn’t seem to change much over the years.  But, I have.  A few weeks ago, I was visiting my grandson and someone took a short video.  Someday, maybe Elias will look at it and see himself as a child.  And, next to him will be an old gray-haired man.

In the old jerky, flickering films, you were holding me…when I was just a baby.  There is another one when you and I are walking, hand in hand, down the old railroad bed.

I was just a little boy.

Good-bye for now.  See you soon, Grandpa!

Love,   Paddy

P.S. Here’s a picture of your Great, Great, Grandson, Elias:

Elias Tractor February 2015

[Photo: Bob Goldstein]

P.S.S. Here’s a picture of your Great Grandson, Brian:

brianboy

Let It Be

mirror

I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, theres someone there, other times its only me…

                                                        –Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”

Parents, send your children to bed (or the media room).  Men, if your wives are of a delicate nature, take them away from your laptop.

I am going to expose myself, my soul, fears and hopes in this, my 200th blog post on WordPress.  Yet again, I will fall into the bitter pit of memories—some bad and some good.  That has become my blog “theme”, I guess; trading in on old dusty thoughts, lovers long gone and the cracks in my heart.  Here I am again, standing in the rain at the corner of Bittersweet and Nostalgia.  It always rains here.  There’s no atmosphere without some discomfort.  It could be rain, snow or tears.  Doesn’t really matter, though.  I turn my collar against the wind and go back to the Hi-Ho Motel to wait for the next train for El Paso.  Then I remember.  There’s probably no more trains to anywhere anymore except some open-pit coal mine providing good clean green energy for us all.  No more whistles that broke the heart of Hank Williams or Box Car Willie.  Now, it’s the next Short Line coach to Toledo.

Last year, on the RV trip to Orting, Washington, I did hear the occasional train whistle.  But the long line of flat-cars never stopped.  They only slowed down to obey the speed limit as the tracks crossed empty streets and country roads.

Yes, there’s no authentic atmosphere without some discomfort.  No one lives in a world of warmth and protection (except, hopefully, children) without living through periods of self-doubt and a tablespoon of dread.  I once had a great deal of faith that got me through the night terrors, but after heart-breaking losses, deaths and illnesses, I often feel like I live in a city populated by millions…alone.

I fall in love quickly and easily and that is a serious fault.  That has led to too many broken hearts in my chest cavity.  When a very close friend died in my arms (he had lived all of twenty-three years), I realized that there really isn’t a lot of time for us, on the earth, to wait for the most perfect choices.  So, I made decisions based on the old trusty phrase: Carpe diem.

But, as usual, I digress.

It’s change that obsesses me now.  Yes, our house could burn down tonight…that’s a big change.  But, it’s the slow insidious change that happens to you during life that frightens me.  I was born on May 31, 1947.  That is 67 years and 6 months ago.  I never was a victim of amnesia.  I was never abducted by aliens (that I recall).  But, I look at a childhood photograph of myself and then quickly stare into a mirror.  I have changed.  But I haven’t gone anywhere to undergo this change.  I can’t say it happened when I wasn’t looking, because I always looked.  I look different and I think different (I used to be a Conservative, for God’s sake).  And, all this happened without a break in the flow of my life!  All the changes I see happened during a day to night to day flow that was never broken.  The lines on my face came slowly, never overnight.

There are years I lived and yet somehow missed.  Students I loved, taught and counseled…I can see their 6th grade faces but do not remember their names.  Women I have slept with are memories now…not out of disrespect…just the passage of time.  I was numb with shock when I heard that one of my long-ago lovers is now dead.  I know that this is trivial and self-serving to many of you, my friends, who have lost a spouse or future partner.  I can only speak to my own experiences.

Somehow, it would make more sense to me if all these changes happened one night.  I’d wake up and be middle-aged.  But, it didn’t.  It happened as I was looking—but I never noticed a thing until one day…

“Hey, that’s life.”  This is what is going through the minds of many of you who are reading this.

I taught with someone many years ago.  Her husband died part way into the school year.  She was the Head of the Middle School and it fell on her to give the graduation speech that would send the 8th grade girls onto the high school.  One sentence will remain with me forever.  She said: “Change is inevitable.  Growth is optional.”

I stood there with the other faculty members.  I cried.  I knew what she had been through even though I had not lost anyone in my life…yet.

What she said was absolutely true.  I knew that then, but I was into my early 40’s and had no idea what was in store for me in a few short years.

I guess I catch on slowly—just like when your hair starts to turn gray.

It’s never overnight.

ME AND MY BROTHERS—AGING SLOWLY

birch tree 1

[Circa 1954]

birch tree 2

[Circa 1970’s]

birch tree 3

[Circa late 1970’s]

Birch tree 4

[Circa early 1990’s]

A Watercolor Found

My father never said much about his life.  He did have his favorite stories that he would tell us when his four boys were…little boys.  Some of the tales were family jokes, like this one: “We were so poor, one Christmas we got a pair of roller skates.  We had to wait until the next Christmas to get the key.”  We knew he wasn’t serious…we didn’t think so, anyway.  Other stories were about the neighborhood bully who would wait at the end of the street…the street that my dad had to walk along to get to school.  This bully would then shake him down for his lunch, which usually included an apple from a tree in my father’s backyard.

“Give us an apple, Egan,” he would say.  My father usually gave it to him.  After all, what small boy would, in his right mind, resist a guy who had something wrong with his neck, and so, he had to turn around with his entire body, like Frankenstein’s monster?  All the while pounding an iron fence railing into the palm of his hand as a way to reinforce his toughness.

To make matters worse, the boy’s street name was “Stiffy Stefanko.”

That was my father’s childhood.  How much of it was true?  I certainly don’t know, but being Irish, my father knew a good story and how to tell it.

I’ve already written about that Christmas Eve episode and the coal.  It was one of my last blog posts.  I’m fairly sure there was a great deal of truth in that story.

My dad went through a rough time in the 1960’s when he felt he was about to be pushed out of IBM because he didn’t have a college degree in Engineering.  He told me once his manager had spoken to him about how much time he spent in the bathroom.  My guess is that the manager was about 28 years old.  My father had joined IBM in 1936.  How humiliating that talk about time in the bathroom must have been for a middle-aged man who had made bombsights for the U.S. military during WWII?  He had bought a house that people thought was expensive because it was on Front Street in Owego, NY.  It wasn’t expensive.  He worked for years on repairs and improvements.  I remember when my parents burned the mortgage sometime in the 1960’s.

My dad never talked about religion.  He only once said that he was not prepared for First Communion, only that he was waiting for a friend in a church and the nun grabbed him and told him to get into line.

As the boys went away to college, my father began to have some time to breathe.  He took masonry classes at TCCC.  He took night classes in Mechanical Drawing.  (He even moon-lighted for a time to make ends meet.)

He was interested in many things.  And, I found out too late that he was something of an artist.

While he spent his last months at Robert Packer in Sayre, he told me he was having nightmares.  In these terrible dreams, men were trying to break in the up stairs window and shouted at him: “We’re taking this house, Egan, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That was probably my father’s greatest fear…to lose the house he had worked so hard for so many decades.

After he died, in February, 2004, it came to my wife, my only living brother, Dan and myself to clean out our family home, 420 Front St. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.  To throw away the objects of your childhood was a heart-breaking thing for me.  I grow attached to things.  It’s a long story.

But, in all those letters, medical bills, post cards, and IBM pay stubs from 1956, I found a small drawing glued onto a bit of cardboard.  It was a winter scene.  My father drew it with a fair hand probably as a gift to my mother, perhaps as a wedding present or a homemade holiday card.

My father always wanted a cabin…somewhere.  It could have been a cottage in Ireland, a cabin in the wood lot he owned off Gaskill Hill Road.  Or, a farm scene he remembered from his childhood when he lived in the Pennsylvania country near Scranton.

But, it was not the house that ran short of coal that Christmas Eve.  I can see the smoke rising from the chimney.  It was not a poor farm house…rather it was a cute little place set on a hill and surrounded by snow.

This was probably the house of my father’s dreams.  No bully waiting at the corner.  No black-faced father just home from the mines.  No coal-pit beyond the hill.  No cold bedrooms, only warmth inside.

I am connected to that picture somehow,  even though it was sketched out 15 or 20 years before I was born.  It’s my drawing now.  But I’ll never own the scene he painted.  That is his dream…and always will be.  I’ll have possession of a piece of paper but the inspiration and the dream that created the little sketch will never truly be my own.

On the back it says: MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR…all in caps and heartfelt.

And, a name in black ink in the lower right corner:

Paul

Paul Egan #2  copy

 

 

 

These Haunted Mountains That I Love

Many of my blog posts tend toward the melancholy.  The themes have often been about loss, grief, aloneness and death.  That’s the way my mind works.  I stare at the rain.  I walk through the fog.  I wander old and forgotten cemeteries, reading the names, dates and wondering about lives lived a century ago.  It’s not depression (I’ve done that), it’s a sense of what was here once and is now gone forever.  The following post follows the rules my mind sets for me when I sit down at my MAC.

I live in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.  We moved here over a year ago after buying a house on a lake in 2000.  I’m living a dream…a lifelong dream to be here full-time.  I climbed my first mountain when I was five years old.  That was followed by years of family camping at the State campsites like Golden Beach.  When my family dynamics changed and my three brothers began to grow up and go our separate ways, I headed for the High Peaks and began to summit the Forty-Six.  When my backpacking friends began to lose interest I moved onto wilderness canoeing.  I travelled onto Alaska and worked for the USGS.  I lived on glaciers thousands of years old, but the Adirondacks always called me back.  The smell of the balsam, the sand beaches and the blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.  No other place was like it.

The protagonist in this tale, you need to know at this point, was not my father as one would expect.  Rather, it was my older brother, Chris.  He showed me the canoe waterways and the routes to Marcy.  He was my mentor and my backwoods guide.  He taught me many things but one briefly spoken comment lives with me to this day and can darken the brightest shimmering sunlight.  “The Adirondacks,” he said, almost off-handedly, “was all about death.”

These days I live the life I thought I always wanted.  At last count, we have a 1920’s antique canoe, two other canoes, five kayaks, snowshoes, X-country skis and four bicycles.  What’s not to be content about?  To be here every day of the year…watch the seasons change and feel the peace.  But amidst all this, something is missing.

These lakes, mountains, streams and trails are harboring a ghost.  They are truly haunted.  I can barely walk out beyond the light of the campfire when I can feel “it” following me.  So, I sit and stare out the window at the rain and nap and lose myself in finding ways to avoid confronting the spirit that can make me weep.

Chris and I stood on many mountaintops in the fog, rain and total darkness.  Once we got lost coming off the back side of Colden and, by all rules of nature, should not have survived the sub-zero night without a flashlight.

He owned an antique guide boat that he bought in the 1950’s somewhere at a camp on the upper reaches of Raquette Lake.  He paid perhaps $50 for it.  My mother thought he was nuts to give his money away on something that was old and disused.  A person could see sunlight through the planking.  It became a family joke as we waited and watched him slowly and lovingly restore the craft at his place underwood the apple tree in our backyard.  It took about twenty-five years since he was only able to work on it during college and graduate school breaks.  The result?  I was with him as we made a slow and easy tour of Long Pond when a camper stopped washing his pans and came down to the shore to have a closer look. (This was years before the Guide Boat Renaissance).  The poor fellow, wiped the drool from his lips and jokingly (?) offered his wife in exchange for the boat.

I sat in the “swells” seat on one trip through Slang Pond when a sudden lightening storm-swept over us.  Chris calmly pulled the boat under some evergreens and held onto a branch while the violent bolts struck around us and the rain water began to deepen at the boats bottom.  All the while, he just grinned at me, enjoying every clap of thunder and drop of cold precipitation.

I was lost with him in the woods at Long Pond.  That would be bad enough but for the fact that it was pitch dark at the time.

I remember sitting at a campfire one evening when we spoke of how we’d like to die.  I said I saw myself, sitting alongside the trail with my water bottle and Kelty pack beside me.  A mountain peak, Haystack perhaps was our goal.  The path rose gently ahead of us but melted into a bright light that was golden and blinding.  It was then, I told Chris, that the legendary DEC ranger, Clint West “Keeper of Marcy’s Door” would wander out of the bright light, take his ranger hat off and wipe his brow.  I calmly watched him stride up to me.  I knew in my mind that he had passed away in 1953.   Clint stopped and said: “There’s a lot of trail work to be done up yonder, Pat.  “Come on,”  he said gently and with serene comfort, “Let’s go.”  I shouldered my pack and went off with him…into the light.  In my story, I remember looking back at Chris and waving a final good-bye.  I looked back at him again and saw a certain sadness creep into eyes.  He waved back and then turned and looked back down the trail we had just hiked.  Chris listened with a smile.  Then he said simply that he’d like to pass on by having a massive coronary while under his guide boat, on a long portage.  Interestingly, that was not how he “walked on.”  Me?  I’m still looking for that light up ahead on the trail.

I can assure you, these few bits are but the surface of a deep pool of memory.  But those stories are for another time.

So, here I am.  Owning all the accoutrements of outdoor adventure and unable to find the peace these mountains once promised me.

I can’t drive a back road, turn a corner on a trail, circle an island for a campsite or stare into the deep cold waters of the lakes without the ghost of Chris standing there, just out of reach. I have trouble looking up at a cumulus-heavy sky and not feel or see him.

Because he’s everywhere, and not just in my imagination but also in the molecules that make the raindrops and silt of the rivers. And, someday far into the future, perhaps a part of him will lodge among those blue-green crystals of the Opalescent River.

                   non semper erit aestas

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