The Birch Tree Clock: An Update

After I posted the blog about a clock that my father made from a birch tree in our backyard in Owego, NY., I got some responses.

Several people said that it would be a tribute to my father to restore the clock. Refurbish it. Make it come alive again. So, I did it. A friend, straightened out the hands. I found a AA battery. In a few minutes it was silently ticking away the time.

I put the clock on the top shelf of my Adirondack/Mountaineering bookcase.

It’s there for a good reason. On the shelf below are my pitons, carabiners and climbing slings. I was once a fair rock climber. Now these items only remind me of who I once was. I can’t climb 5.4 rated climbs in the “Gunks” anymore. I put the clock in a corner. You will notice that there are no numerals to mark the hours. I thought of going to Michael’s craft store in Plattsburgh (I won’t go to a Hobby Lobby because of their discrimination policy) and buying small foil numerals for the clock.

I decided that I wanted the clock to be free of numbers. I have a fairly good sense of how a clock is set up. I don’t need reference points to mark the passage of time.

I can sit on the sofa and look at my rock-climbing paraphernalia and remember my life when I was in my thirties. I was fit and I was strong and I was fearless. Now, I look up at the clock with moving hands but no numerals. Do I care if it’s 5:15 or 6:15?

Not really. Time is relative. My memories are flood waters in my mind. I think about the past more than most people and probably more than I should.

But, when I look up at the clock that ticks silently and without the hours marked…I don’t feel that time is ticking away in my life.

It’s just a piece of wood, full of memories, full of my father’s love for his sons and now, a new-found love for my dad, who took time to put the timepiece together.

When I look at it, I don’t wonder what time it is.

It is what it is.

Where Are The Castles In The Sky?


When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”


The Child and the Sea


Children are attracted to the sea.  Perhaps it’s the thundering waves, or the endless ways that sand can be used.  The waves are constant, soothing and steady, like a lullaby.  The castles that can be built in the sand can be as humble or regal as the wildest imagination.

Perhaps, the attraction is in the depths of the sea–which doesn’t threaten when one stands on a beach.  But, from the deck of a ship, when down you gaze into the oily green waters, the journey to the sea floor is certainly long and full of mystery.  And, what creatures dwell in those Stygian depths?

Only Neptune can say.

But, from the sandy shore, those frightful beasts really pose no threat.  The threat is the water itself.  In most places, the tides rise twice a day–and with their recession, they take the flotsam and jetsam back to the open water.

A little girl plays quietly on a tiny sandbar.  She watches the lapping water wash away the prints of her bare feet.  She is dressed in green satin.  She is dressed like Guinevere waiting for Arthur on the shores of Avalon, dressed like Heloise on the shore of endless love for Abelard.  She is dressed like the princess she wants to be.

“Careful, Bridget!” calls her mother from her chair beside the sea wall.

“I’m fine, Mums”, replies the girl, Bridget.

This is the beach of Teignmouth on the Devonshire coast.  It is a tiny resort town, shadowed by nearby Torquay.  It is dwarfed by Brighton, Bournemouth and Southampton, seaside towns built for the pale British flesh and providing a sun-filled (or cloudy and misty) holiday–the English Riviera.

The little girl slowly walks in ever decreasing circles, until the incoming tide is splashing against her ankles.

“Time to come in”, says Mums.


Twenty years later, a woman named Bridget sits with her husband against the sea wall in Teignmouth.  They sip from a bottle of Riesling. They face away from each other at a slight angle–unlike the days just after they were married.

“We should move inland,” says the husband.  “I’ve a job offer in Bath.  I’m beginning to hate the sea.  Why do we always have to live by the sea?”

“Should we try for another?” says Bridget.  “Just once more?”

“No.  I want to leave.”

“I’m waiting.”

“She’s gone, Brid.”

“No, the sea will return her.  The sea always will.”

She spoke, faintly and without conviction as she gazed out at a tiny sand bar, watching the water wash away tiny foot prints.



The Girls of the Corn

The scene was something like the photographs of Dust Bowl Oklahoma.  But there was so much current reality around me, it made a jarring juxtaposition.  Fifty feet behind me the SUVs, the pick-ups and the Greyhound size RVs roared past on the paved road.  A few feet in front of me was a nearly extinct image from long ago days.  It was a farmer’s corn stand.

I sat at one of these when I was about ten years old.  My grandmother lived on a small working farm in upstate New York.  One afternoon, my parents, brothers and grandmother had someplace to go so they left me in charge of the vegetable stand.  It was a plank held up by two barrels.  I had baskets of fresh tomatoes, peaches, peas and corn.  It was unbearably hot in the nearby fields, but I was comfortable in the shade of an ancient elm tree (it died during the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the 1960s).  I didn’t want my folks to return and take command of my little retail world.  The ’49 Fords would pull up and men with white tee-shirts and suspenders would get out and buy my  grandmother’s goods.  Once in a while a cute young girl would get out and ask for five tomatoes and a dozen ears of corn.  I would impress her with my ability to quickly make change.  I got to take a dozen ears home that night.  Lord, that corn of yesterday was good.  It wasn’t even the same species of what one buys at the local supermarket.  The kernels popped in your mouth and the butter ran down your cheeks.  I loved it with salt and pepper.

Now, here it was in August of 2013.  Again I was in upstate New York…this time very far north; near Canada.  But there it stood and I braked made a sharp right turn and drove into the dusty parking lot.  The stand was white with hand-painted prices, in black, on the wall.  The cornfields were just feet away.  The ears that were picked that morning were still in the field worker’s sacks.  The price was very reasonable.  While my wife bought three peaches and six ears of corn, I stood in the glaring sun and heavy hot air of mid-August.  My straw hat did little to deflect the sun.  I was looking around me and absorbing all the images.  And I was watching the girls who were selling the produce.

Here were two pretty teenage girls, in flip-flops and tee-shirts.  One wore what looked like black spandex leggings.  My own legs burned as I looked at her.

Memories of my childhood, farms and corn.

Then the 2013 reality check happened.  Both girls were wearing wrap-a-round reflector sunglasses, like the kind the State Troopers wear.

I saw one cell phone but no texting went on.  No music played from the little radio I saw inside the stand.  Less than ten miles away was the County Fair, in full progress.  I felt they would rather be there at the Fair with their boyfriends and eating cotton-candy and riding the whirly rides.  But, no.  Here they spent the day, selling what was probably was their parents produce.  They sweated as they would dump the corn sacks onto the table.  One woman customer bought three dozen ears.

My wife went back to our car.  I waited for the woman to take her thirty-six ears and depart.  I stood facing the white stand and the piles of corn, stacks of peaches and the girls.  I came forward and asked if they would stand in the doorway and pose for a photo.  They looked at each other with puzzled expressions.

I stood there, a gray-haired man.  How would they know I sold corn once?  It was a smaller stand and it was over fifty-five years ago.  They could never know that about me.

“You don’t see many of these kind of corn stands anymore,” I said.  “Would you stand in the doorway?”

They did.  My wife and I drove home.

The County Fair Talent Show was set for 7:30 that night.  Surely these two girls had talent.  But I worried whether they could get home, shower and get ready to sing a country song like John Denver’s “Country Roads” or perform a jazz dance.  Yes, surely these girls possessed talents I couldn’t see in the glare of the afternoon sun.

I didn’t make it to the Talent Show.  I was too busy sharing our corn at a dinner with friends.

By God, that corn was good!


Where Are You Going, My Brown-Eyed Son?

Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

There you were, a small shadow on a monitor.  Small and washed by changing shades of black and white amid countless lines that made watching difficult. The Technician slowly moved the grey piece of equipment around the oiled skin of your mothers swollen abdomen.  There. Right there.  A  hand. Look at the fingers.  The thumb of the other hand seems to hover near your mouth.  A few months later I could make out your bent knee.  A few months later, you looked like a cherry wrapped in white as you lay in the incubator.  You wanted to get out on an early release program from the confines of the womb.  We were unprepared for how early you would be.  You drank the real milk and you waited for the mashed carrots.  And, you went through Pampers like quarters in Vegas.  That was when I began saving coupons.  Hey, a dime here and a dime there adds up.  You crawled and you would use my wooden stirring spoon to bang on over-turned pots and pans.  I rocked you to sleep singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Baby Beluga”.

Where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

We camped at beautiful sites on small ponds.  I took you to Howe’s Cavern and you said “Awesome, Dad”.  We collected leaves for your science project.  I encouraged you to play sports but you resisted me.  You wanted no part of Tai Kwan Do classes.  Soon, you learned to swim.  You joined the Little League.  We sat on an embankment while you got on first.  Next batter hits it long.  You begin to run toward right field but our shouts redirected you to second.  You went on to learn new skills.  You were a center in JV football.  We made origami animals. We rode an old train.  We snorkeled in Bermuda.  At dinner that night,  you almost met Ross Perot.

Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

I called your high school to have them find you in a class and let you know your stepmother and I were okay on Sept. 11, 2001.  I helped proof a few English papers for you.  We sit and watch you stroll across the stage to take your diploma.  A few years later, we watched you stroll across the stage to take your Associate Degree from BCCC.  Before we know it, you’ve come to New York City to stay with us in our one bedroom apartment while you studied for a B.A. at Baruch College.  Our one bedroom became a two bedroom…you slept on the pull-out sofa. My computer area became the kitchen table.  We had long talks late at night about the ethics of downloading music for free and other topics that lay buried deep in my memory bank.  The day after you graduated from Baruch, you moved to Queens to share an apartment with friends.  You landed a great job in the middle of the Recession.  Not bad, kid.

Where are you going, my brown-eyed son?

You watched as the movers packed up our belongings when we moved upstate.  You watched them wrap the piano and told us (we sat on the stairway in the hall) they did it as quickly and easily as stuffing a taco.  You said: “Have a safe trip north” when we pulled out to follow the van.  Were you happy for our new life or were you just happy to have the Big Apple to yourself without me bugging you all the time to join us for dinner?  In the eighteen months we’ve been gone, you moved on in many ways.  Promotions.  And less and less time at your shared apartment.  You have a friend.  She is a lovely woman with wit, talent and wisdom.  Be kind to my son.  I’ll be his father forever.  He and I are linked by an exquisite chain of DNA.  When he laughs, I laugh. When he’s happy, I’ll be happy.  And, if he cries, I’ll cry  too.

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                                         Oh, where are you going, my brown-eyed son?