Yes, But Why Can’t You Go Home Again?

It’s a cliché.  It’s a meme.  It’s been repeated a hundred billion times by three hundred billion people.

“You can’t go home again”

I’ve read Thomas Wolfe’s book by the same name.  It was a long time ago.  I may be wrong (correct me if I am), but I do not recall Wolfe ever saying exactly why that fact is true.  I’m sure it was part of the subtext, but it got by me when I was nineteen.

I’m writing a book (a short memoir) of my childhood memories of our family home in Owego, NY.  Perhaps that’s why this question is on my mind these days.  Or, maybe it’s because I’m looking hard into the eyes of my 68th birthday.

Nearly everyone I know has this same feeling.  There are a few people I know that continue to live in the house where they grew up.  For them, there may not be the sea-change like those that do leave.

They wait for a turn on the swing set.  They dress for a prom.  They turn around and they are telling their children where the peanut butter jar is located.  They go into the kitchen to get a cup of tea or a beer and they return to find six grandchildren.

And on it goes.

I’ve lived through my own “you can’t go home again” moment, but I’m at a loss to explain the small details.

Exactly when did that moment occur when I realized it was not my home anymore…just my parents house where I could spend the weekend?

When did that moment enter my mind?

How long do you have to be away before the comfort and magic of home become only a room to find a bed among storage boxes?

Is it a month?  Six months?  A tour of duty?  A year at college?  Getting married and buying a home of your own?

When did you cross that line?

I realize I’m speaking only to those who have (or had) a home in the first place.  I’ve never been homeless in America or lived in a shanty-town, like so many of people of the Third World.

I can’t speak to that.  I had loving parents and siblings.  I had a fireplace to warm myself in a drafty house.  I had stairs to climb, in tears when I knew I would not be able to fall asleep.  Those stairs were there when I was carried in the arms of my father when I fell asleep…exhausted from the heat of play in the heat of summer, or worn out by rolling a giant snowman in January.

Often I feel cursed by the fact that I live so deeply in the past.  Memories keep me awake at night.

I worry about whether someone I haven’t seen in fifty years, still thinks good thoughts about me.

In the end, I still don’t comprehend when the moment comes when the home fires go out, and the living room where I fell asleep on the floor (and my mother covers me with a blanket), is now empty.

The laughter has stopped, the crying had ended and the arguments are over.

The bedroom I slept in while I struggled through my teenage years is empty now and waiting for someone else.

If a child gets to use that room…someday in the distant future…they will move away and then come back to visit.

Then they too will know that you can’t come home again.

MyChildhoodBedroom

 [The bedroom where I studied and slept when I was a teenager]

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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

 

 

 

Coal For Christmas

010

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread.  Just the kind of poor that would keep his father 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.  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 the walls.

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 the 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 oversized cold shoes 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 single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling, was on.  My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale.  He called out.  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. He knew their parental concerns and he knew he and his brother and sisters were loved.

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 dozen 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.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the 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.  They stared at each other and then 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 Merry Christmas.”

 

Not Just Another Skyscraper

EmpireStateBldgNov'14

The Empire State Building has been linked to me, in one way or another, since before I was born. That may sound a bit confusing…but stay with me.

I am an American male, raised to hide emotional reactions.  But, I can say that the building has made me cry on more than one occasion.  When I was young, one of my favorite movies was King Kong.  I could quote lines…once upon a time…yes, I could.  Now I can merely paraphrase.  But as a boy, somehow I “got” the idea of why Kong did what he did to the people of this wonderful town.  He was frightened and he was in love with Faye Wray so he took her to the only place where he could save himself and, he thought, her.

It didn’t work. He died. She lived. And the hero at the end said something like: “It was beauty that killed the beast.”

So, I cried.

I cried again when Deborah Kerr was hit by a taxi on her way to meet Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember.  When he finally found out that she was paralyzed because of him, he cried.  “I didn’t see the taxi,” she said. “I was looking up at you.”

And, yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I wept when Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan finally met (thanks to his little boy) on the observation deck in Sleepless in Seattle.  It didn’t help me when Jimmy Durante sang “As Time Goes By” at the end.  And, the lights of the building became a giant red heart.

[Tonight, the building is bathed in blue in honor of the Alzheimer’s Foundation.]

I kissed more than one girl on the observation deck.  I got a parking ticket once when I left my MG on 34th Street…beneath a NO PARKING sign.  I once had to pick something up for my wife in an office of the building, so I wandered the hallways, not as a tourist!

The legends and lore of the Empire State Building are many.  Amazingly, it was built in only 10 months!  It was opened to the public on May 1, 1931. (May 1 is my wedding anniversary.)

Sixteen years and one month later, I was born.

According to Wikipedia, there were 30 attempted suicides by jumping.  It seems only four were successful.  The first occurred before it was even opened.  A worker was laid off.  He jumped to his death.  One jumper clearly was not on the “List.”  She jumped off the 86th floor deck but the wind blew her back to a ledge on the 85th floor where police brought her inside.

A slightly gentler breeze could have ruined her whole day.

On a foggy day, July 28, 1945, a B-25, flying in zero visibility flew into the side of the building between the 79th and 80th floor.  Fourteen deaths resulted.  Parts of the plane severed the elevator cable and the operator survived a 75 floor free-fall.  Look it up.  She’s in the Guinness Book of World Records.

On a clear day, in late 1930 or early 1931, a young man was walking along the streets of the west Village.  The man worked for Bell Labs on Bethune Street.  He looked up and saw the workers putting the finishing touches on the Empire State Building.

The man had come from a rather poor family who lived in northeastern Pennsylvania.  He had dropped out of school and left home to find work in the Big City.  The man lived in Bergen, NJ with a relative.  His wages were low but he sent what he could back home to help out.  After a year or two, the man returned to complete high school, court a young woman named Mary…and eventually married her in 1936.

I know this story pretty well.  The man was my father, Paul.

He told me all this when I was a little boy watching King Kong.

“No,” he told me more than once.  “I never saw a large ape climbing the building.”

As a little boy, I never could quite believe him about this.  How could he not have seen the ape falling?  How could he have missed it when beauty killed the beast?

The beast?  Well, I guess that’s where I played out my small role in my father’s contact with this great building.  Sixteen years and one month after he walked down Bethune Street, I was born.

Add two years to that…I would be entering the “Terrible Twos.”  So, my father gets the beast after all.

And, about 70 years later, I’m standing on 7th Avenue looking up at a very special building…washed in blue light…honoring those who have lost their memories.

That’s something I’ve haven’t done…lose memories.

 

John Tumbledown’s House

Brian&JohnTumbleDownHouse

I pushed the button on the camera and heard the shutter snap.  I captured my son midway through his pirouette in the field, in the field in front of the old farmhouse.

Something caught my eye just as the mirror flipped up in the camera.  Something in the farmhouse.

I lowered the Pentax slowly from my head, keeping my eyes on the house.  Whatever it was…well, it was probably nothing.

My son turned toward the high shrubs, toward the house.

“Brian,” I said. “No, don’t go over there.  It’s not our house.”

“But, Dad, nobody lives there!” he said with honesty, and he was right.

“Doesn’t matter, it’s not our property.  Come on, let’s go find some berries.”

We walked away.  After two steps, I stopped and turned to the house.  Brian was already intent on messing up a milkweed pod.  I looked at the house.  We called it “John Tumbledown’s House” when we spoke about it.  It was just at the edge of the property line of my father’s thirty acre wood lot.  The place had been abandoned for quite a few years.  There was some story about the old place, but no one I talked to could provide any details.  Something about the man we had begun calling John Tumbledown.  Something about how and when and where he died.

We found a berry patch alongside the wood lot, at the edge of an old field.  Was this John Tumbledown’s cornfield?  I sat and stared at the old wooden frame, the weathered wood, the sun-burned roof, the bleached siding, the broken steps and the pane less windows frames.  A bird flew out of an upstairs window.  A shutter banged against the outside wall when a slight breeze passed.  The season was early Autumn.  The trees were leafless.  The high clouds made the sky milky.  The air was cool…perhaps chilly.

I thought about fear.  I thought about why the house made me uncomfortable.  I thought about why the house didn’t seem to have any effect on Brian.  You hear stories that children (and dogs and cats for that matter) often exhibit a sixth sense sometimes.   Young people have less clutter, less static in their brains than we adults.   A child sees and hears things we don’t.

But that wasn’t happening here.  Brian felt totally at ease.  I, on the other hand, felt odd and off-balance.  Disturbed.  Worried.  Wary.  Protective.

Something about the house…something about John Tumbledown.

The shadows grew longer.  The air turned colder.  It was time to leave.

Only when I had the film developed did I notice something.  Was this what caught my eye when I snapped the picture?  There, on the first floor…there is something standing there…in the doorway.

Do you see it?

 

Coal For Christmas: A Holiday Story For You

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread.  Just the kind of poor that would keep his father 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.  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 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 the walls.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in the 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 kind 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 and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  The room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling was turned on.  My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale.  He called out.  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 small 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 in rural America.

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.

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.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the 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…on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then 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 hopped 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.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee.  He went up stairs to bed and fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Years later 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 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’ and then tell them to go to hell.”

 Snowman

This drawing was done by the author in the early 1950’s during art class at St. Patrick’s School, Owego, New York.

The story Coal For Christmas has been taken from my book, “In All The Wrong Places”, a collection of short stories.

HAPPY HOLIDAY!

Pacific Northwest Interlude: It’s Almost That Time Again

I’ll be waiting when you’re ready to love me…

I’ll put my hands up.

—Adele from I’ll Be Waiting.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table of my daughter Erin’s house.  I just made a Scrabble move against her.  She’s sitting at the breakfast counter making Scrabble moves against me.  It’s not that we don’t talk, we’re just squeezing moves in between other internet duties.  Besides, there’s no room for the board game on the table because I’ve taken it over with maps, books and other things pertaining to our journey.  It’s now Tuesday afternoon, October 15.  We’re planning on heading back home on Thursday.

I look over at the picture window.  Elias has learned to pull himself up to a standing position and he is now looking out of the window.

Then something very strange happens.  But then, it’s the Pacific Northwest, and a great deal of strange things happen here.  Where else would the Seattle police hand out bags of Doritos during a “Hemp Fest” with a few friendly warnings printed on the bag, such as “Don’t give weed to minors to smoke”.  And, it’s okay to listen to the Dark Side of the Moon, but only at a moderate volume.  Is there another part of the country where I can read an article in the newspaper about a woman named “Dancer Flowergrowing”?

As I said something strange happened.  I began to hear Elias’ thoughts:

“Let’s see, I just had a snack of Mum-Mums.  I shook the rattle for a few minutes.  I held onto the dog’s tail until he walked away.  I crawled around the kitchen for a while.  I pulled myself on my mom’s pant leg.  I didn’t cry this time because I know I have only a little way to fall onto my bottom.  I’ll be having a bath soon.  There’s Grandpa on his laptop.  The Boston Red Sox game just ended.  I’m confused here; dad is a Red Sox fan, so is mommy, but she likes the Yankees too.  My grandpa is a Yankee fan like my step-grandmother.  The Seahawks are a football team here in Seattle and my dad likes them, but my Grandpa is a New York Giant fan…so is my step-grandmother.  There’s also a baseball team here called the Mariners, but nobody talks about them very much.”

“Sometimes I get confused.”

“But one thing I’m not confused about is that daddy is going to be getting home soon…any minute now.  When I see his car pull in, I jump and jerk around in my mom’s arms.  Daddy means I’ll have someone new to play with me.  And give me a bath and it may be daddy’s turn to tuck me in my little crib.”

“Then I’ll dream about what tomorrow will bring.”

Wow, that was interesting to hear his thoughts.  I don’t remember being that age.  But that’s just me.

I’m sure that all my friends remember being nine months old…like it was yesterday.

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