A Farewell Letter To Jimmy

merrillandmeburlington

Hey, Jimmy…I can’t bring myself to call you James.  For most of my life you’ve been Jimmy, so there it is.  Mariam and I were in Burlington just this past weekend.  As I wandered up and down Church Street I kept wondering where the restaurant was that we met for the first time in over 50 years.  Mariam said she remembered which block it was on.  I wondered how you were doing…

I was remembering the old days in Owego.  Craig Phelps was probably the nearest neighbor (he lived across the street from me, remember?). But you were the next closest.  Your house was just across the RR tracks and hard by the Brick Pond.  Boy, did we have fun exploring the Pond in those days when only  a handful of kids knew about it?  You and I spent endless hours in our backyards playing “cowboys & indians” and army games with my brother and ‘Doc’ Phelps.  That was quite a time.  It was the time of our lives when few troubling things touched us.

Innocent children.  Innocent young boys playing in fields near the Susquehanna.  Fields of fair games and fair play.  Fields of Youth.

We were rarely ever apart in our years at St. Patrick’s School.  It was in OFA…high school…that we drifted apart.  We hung in different circles of friends.

Then one day (was it 1964? 1963?) you brought over an album for me to listen to.  We sat on our sofa at 420 Front Street and I heard the voice of Bob Dylan for the first time.  I was a Dion fan.  I didn’t get Bob at all.  I said: “This guy can’t sing”.  It was about a year later when I heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on a radio station when I was driving back from working at Carroll’s Hamburgers in Vestal.

I got it.  You gave it to me.

Later, we sat on the steps of my house and you talked about this thing happening in Viet Nam.  I was too wrapped up in my girlfriend and plans for college to fully understand…in 1965…what was happening.

You enlisted and you served with honor and I heard you got a medal of some kind for bravery.

Jimmy, you fell below the radar after high school and I did not hear anything about you until I was asked to try to locate you for the 50th Reunion in September of 2015.  Things happened and I was able to find your phone number.  I called and we met for lunch in Burlington.  Such a great time we had…remember?  We recalled the old days and caught up on how “not well” you were.

I wrote a blog about our lunch.  It was quite popular among our Owego friends.

Then, this morning, I get some news on Facebook about you.  News that made me weep for a time as I reflected on our history.

We’ll never explore the Brick Pond again, Jimmy.  We’ll never play war games in our backyards.  Ever again.

Wait, that’s not true…I’ll always remember the times we had and the growing up we did together.  I’ll recall those childhood games again and again to keep your memory alive.  I’ll walk around the Brick Pond again…in your honor.

RIP, my good, gentle and great old buddy.  I’m gonna miss you…….You are the friend I’ve known the longest…in my life.

pat-and-jimmie

 

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It Was 28 Years Ago Today: Changing Views

BrianB&WwithNancy

I saw him when he was born.  I watched and began to wonder…even back then.  I thought about what I had seen.  I went to the Delivery Room window, looked out over the parking lot… and wept.

Taken in the long view of human life, I had just witnessed something most men have been kept from seeing…an actual birth.  But, there he was, wet and gooey.  When he could focus, it was on his mom’s face…her eyes…her expressions.  Soon he discovered there was another person in his field of view, his father.

He would look at me, straight into my eyes.

Then as he got older his view still was on his mother and me, but he was seeing other things, other people come and go into his field of vision.

I had already raised a daughter, Erin, and I was fully aware of the passage of time.  As an old song goes: “Turn around, and she one…turn around and she’s two…turn around and she a young woman going out of the door…”

I was determined to have these early memories of him cling to me like pollen in May, like sap on a pine.  I wanted to have it all just slow down or stop or encase it like an insect in Miocene amber.

But there are rules of nature you cannot alter: The flow of time is Rule #1 Nothing to be done here…just enjoy the moment as it is.  You can’t stop the flow of a river by pushing your hands against the current.  You can’t stop the rain by pushing back at the raindrops.

Soon the moments became months and then the years began to add up.  Rites of passage occurred…he turned eighteen and began driving.  He turned twenty-one without major mishaps. (That I know of).

He wasn’t running to his daddy with a broken tail reflector from his bike anymore.  He was discussing fine wines with his girlfriend, Kristin.

BrianKristen

His view points were changing, not about politics but about how he chose to spend time and places he travelled.  I found out he was in Jacksonville, Florida about a year ago when I first saw a photo of him dancing on a table at the local Hooters!

“Dad, can I go to Hooter’s and dance on the table?” never once left his lips.

So, a young man slowly turns from the comfortable and familiar and begins to find his way in the strange and unknown world.  I would have not have it any other way.  This is life.  This is growth.  This is maturity.  This is growing up.

He joins Mariam and I for a brief trip to Ireland.  It’s his first European stamp on his passport.  We’re driving the Burren, a place of desolate and austere limestone landscapes in the west country.  We pause to take some pictures.  He wanders toward the cliff edge.

I snap a photo of him gazing out over Galway Bay.  I don’t know what he’s thinking about.

But he’s looking away from me and into a future that belongs only to him.

I would have it no other way.  I hope as he grows older, he stands by uncountable cliffs over unnamed bays and thinks of life from the viewpoint of his own eyes and ears and imagination.

BrianGalwayBay

 

The Empty Bedroom

MyChildhoodBedroom

This was once my bedroom.

There was a time when this room was packed full of the stuff of life…

From a crib made in the mid-1940’s, I would look out at the flowered wallpaper.  Maybe a mobile hung just out of my reach, and moved about when a breeze caught it from a partly opened window.  Maybe I held onto a teddy bear, tightly…oh, so tightly…to keep my young boy dreams from turning into night terrors.

In the early 1950’s, my crib found a new home in the attic where it stayed until my mother sold it to a neighbor.  I had a small single bed…a “Hollywood” bed, my mother would call it.  It remained in that room until someone bought it and dismantled it and walked away with it when my wife, my brother and I had the tag sale a year after my father died.  I could never fall asleep on that bed.  My mother tried everything.  She put in a little white AM radio and I would listen to Doris Day singing “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” so often, I thought it was the only song that existed.  I would crawl from that bed and creep to the top of the stairs.  Below me, in a dark living room, the black and white TV flickered.  I would call quietly to my mother and tell her I couldn’t sleep.  She’d have me come down to the sofa and together we’d eat chives and cheese on saltines.

Eventually she’d send me to bed again.  There was a landing halfway up the stairs.  I would almost always linger and ask her whether the war was ever going to come to Owego.

“No,” she would say.  “Korea is a long way off.”

I would linger still.  I was fearful of something.  I knew there were no monsters under my bed…but I was afraid.

“Promise me you won’t die before me,” I would ask her every night.

“I promise,” she would replied.  She never kept her word on that.

In high school, I would lay on the bed, see it?  Below the sconce.  I read Macbeth during the summer (I wasn’t even required to do so).  It put me into a dark mood of evil and murder.  I should have been reading Romeo and Juliet instead.

I spent my final night in that bed the day before I went away to college.  A few months later, I sat on the same bed with my father during the Christmas holiday and cried.  I cried because my childhood girlfriend had broken up with me.  He sat and watched.  He didn’t know what to say to me.

He was like that.

Years later, the bed was against the left wall. The empty left wall. I was living at home because my marriage had fallen apart.  I was not a teacher in Connecticut anymore…I was working as a temp in IBM and living at my parent’s house.  It was the worst humiliation you can imagine.  But it was the same old bed in the same old room that had seen me grow up and become a man.

Just around the corner, there by the radiator, a doorway led into the hallway.  On the molding of the door sill, there were many pencil marks and dates.  I had kept track of my son’s growth.  How fast it all happens.  How fast they grow.  It’s all painted over now.

In 1992, I came to the bed at 8:00 am to try to sleep.  I had been up all night watching The Robe on TV.  It was Easter Sunday morning…what else would they be showing?  Behind me, on a hospice bed, my mother was dying.

I came to that bed and closed my eyes.  Not thirty minutes passed when my sister-in-law came and knocked.

“Pat, I think you should come downstairs.  Your mother is gone.”

Now, the bedroom is empty.  The family that bought the house, sold it not too many years later.

The photograph above was taken by a real estate agent.

It shows a bare room, a radiator, a sconce and two windows.  You can hardly see the trees that are bending over the front porch.

And, you can not see the stuff that used to be in that room.

Not unless you close your eyes and try to imagine a baby sleeping there and then, quick as blowing out a candle, you may be able to see the stuff that belongs to the ages of a man’s life.

 

 

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]

Two-Tree Island (How Do I Live Without You?)

The physical geography of the place can be hard to describe.  One has to see it from the air…from the height of a soaring hawk or eagle, or, better yet, from the seat of a kayak or canoe.  But one can get lost in the words…just as easily as one can get lost in the miles of wilderness, mountains, bogs and small ponds.

There is a large lake in the northern portion of the Adirondack Park.  It’s linear, like a fat river.  Along its long axis is an esker, a glacial leftover of sand and gravel and topped with second-growth pines.  A notch in the esker leads to a long and ever-narrowing arm of the larger lake.  Another esker appears.  There is another lake…another esker and then the main lake.

Like I said, it’s hard to paint the scene in nouns and adjectives.

If you walked the crest of one of these eskers, you would come to a gap.  To cross the water and continue, you would need to wade, knee-deep in crystal-clear water to continue on your walk.  But this gap has a stone structure on either side.  It’s been reinforced…tampered with by humans.

And, this is where the story begins.  Decades ago, there was a house built on the “bridge” over the water.  It was a camp…but not one of tents and sleeping bags.  In the Adirondacks, “camps” were cottages or cabins.  Some of the “Great Camps” still exist, places like Sagamore and White Pine and Topridge.  Many more fell victim to fires and unthinkable and purposeful destruction.  They are wonders of the Rustic Style of architecture .

This particular camp that I’m thinking about was of an average size.  It sat over the short connecting flow of two lakes for decades.

Many families would come to the camp and stay in the guest rooms and out buildings.  Adults would hunt or fish or smoke and read.  The children would swim and then when they were dried and fed…would swim again.  A great campfire would blaze in the evening and stories would be told.  Songs.  Quiet.  Laughter.  Then all would retire to their beds…the children still moving their flannel covered legs and arms as they swam away to sleep.

A young girl came with her family one summer.  A boy, a few years older, came with his family that same summer.  The children became shy friends…then inseparable companions.  They hiked the narrow esker.  They climbed the sticky pines.  They swam the chilly waters.

They watched the roaring flames of the evening fire at night.

There was a small island about fifty yards from the main camp.  The boy and the girl would swim there everyday when the weather allowed.  They usually swam together.  She was a much better swimmer than he; one time he struggled to make the distance, short as it was.  He gasped for breath.  She turned around and pulled him along to the island.  After he caught his breath, he turned to her and said: “I don’t know how I could have made it without you.”

It was on this island with several rocks and enough soil to support shrubs of blueberries, they would sit and talk for hours…or they would lay back and watch the sky and the clouds.

Two small saplings grew on either end of the island.  Only a few yards apart.

The children returned to the camp by the lake for many years.  They grew up.  They watched each other grow up in their own special way.

The saplings grew rapidly in the sun and abundant water.

The island was a special place for the two young adults.  They named it Two-Tree Island.  The saplings outgrew the couple.

The boy and girl…now a young man and woman…found the pleasure and excitement of a first kiss on the island.  The couple found that as they grew older, they could sneak off and swim out in the night and hold each other.

She would often say: “I don’t know what I would do without you.”

The parents of the man and woman died.  The owner of the camp grew very old and soon moved to a nursing home.  The house was abandoned.

The young couple married.  They enjoyed a modest wealth.  They bought the camp and refurbished it with modern plumbing and electricity.  They spent many summers at the old place…and every day they would swim out to the island, circle it several times and then swim back.  This went on for many years.

“What would we do without this tiny island of ours?”  They said this often. The trees grew very tall and stately.

The couple grew old and missed more than a few summers at the camp.  They often spent summers with their children and grandchildren in Myrtle Beach.

Then one day at their home in Saratoga Springs, the man felt a lump in his testicle.  He had it checked.

They knew they had one more summer left together, so they decided to send their son and son-in-law to open and clean out the camp.  They arrived late one afternoon in July.  He was feeble but still able to wade in the chilly waters of the lake.

The two made plans to paddle over to the island, but when they had the canoe brought down to the water they saw the island through the morning mist.  They looked in sadness at the two trees.  One had died…but still stood tall and proud.

“What are we going to do without those two trees?”  They asked each other, without speaking, using their eyes to convey the question.

A year later, the old woman, returned to the camp.  She knew it was going to be her last visit.  Not that she was in ill-health…she just didn’t have any desire to stay more than a few days alone.  Her once slender and beautiful legs were now white and streaked with purple veins.  She slipped on her water shoes and waded toward Two-Tree Island until the water was over her knees.  Oh, how he loved my knees, she said to herself.

She looked at the island.  One tree stood alive and firm and unbending.  The other stood mute as a column of stone.

She thought of her first kiss, his hand on her back, his hand on her breast, his hand in her hair.  A thousand memories flew over and through her head like the clouds she and her husband used to watch…from Two-Tree Island.

“Oh, how can I live without you?”

She waded toward the island, the water came to her thighs and then covered her hips.  She kept walking, toward the island with two trees.  Only one of was living.  Then she saw the saplings growing from the base of both trees!

Her thoughts raced forward a hundred years.  She thought of her Great-great-great grandchildren.  She knew then that two trees will always grow on Two-Tree Island.  The tiny island where she held a young boy’s hand and kissed his young lips.

TwoTreeIslandRainbow

 

Where are the Corn Girls of Summer?

GirlsInTheCornField

In northern New York State, in late summer, hot sunny days are not uncommon.  It was the height of the corn season.

I practically left skid marks on Rte. 37 when I saw the corn stand to my right.  I had once been scolded by the robotic female voice on my GPS about making illegal U-turns, so I drove another quarter of a mile before there was a safe place to pull over and head north…north to the corn stand.

My father always told me: “Knee high by the Fourth of July,” when we were kids and awaiting the first crop of corn-on-the-cob.  My three brothers all had their own ways to attack an ear of freshly boiled corn.  Me? I usually went for the “Remington” style.  Approach the cob like it was the roller on a typewriter.  Chew non-stop from one end to the other and then drop the carriage and continue in the opposite direction.

Every once in a while I would stop to chew and swallow.

I had a deep hankering for fresh corn that day in late summer of ’13.  When a man knows what he wants…well, he has to turn around sometimes and go backward to get it.

And, that’s what I did.  I pulled into the dusty parking lot.  The little white stand was hard by the cross-roads (and we all know how magical cross-roads can be).  The small white shack sat at the edge of the cornfields.  The stalks seemed ten feet tall.  There was a faded red pick-up truck nearby…it’s engine idling.  A ruddy-faced farm boy of perhaps seventeen was unloading giant sacks of corn, freshly picked, and putting them on the ground in front of the wooden troughs where buyers could paw through them.

Two teenage girls, probably juniors or seniors in high school were working the stand that day.  An old cap and a bandana hid their hair.  The tee-shirts were plain, one green and one pink.  One wore cut-off shorts and flip-flops revealed dusty and sweaty legs.  The other wore unseasonable black pants.  As fast as the corn was unloaded by the boy, they would package them in bundles of a dozen…for those who wanted the corn quickly and didn’t care to peel a bit of the husk and peek at the kernels.  Cars came and cars drove off.  The dust made me sneeze.  I bought a dozen ears.  The girls took a rest.  They stood together in the doorway, safely out of the blazing sun.  I asked if I could take their picture.  They looked at each other and giggled.  Sure, they said, wondering why I was so interested in them.  I took a photo and posted it in a short blog about the “corn girls”.  Another middle-aged man with fantasies, they were probably thinking.

I thanked them and drove off.  The corn was memorable.

So, why was I driving north on All Souls’ Day in 2014…when the first dusting of snow had appeared on my lawn a few hours earlier?  I was going to look for a tree.  I had heard about a tree that held onto its golden leaves well into the early weeks of winter.  I wanted to see the tree.  I wanted to see the gold against the brown and grey of the already naked trees that covered the hillside.

I sat in the parking lot and looked at the shack.  The price of corn for the summer of ’14 was painted on the wall.

But, it was empty.  Where were the girls?  Where were the two teenagers that sold hundreds of ears of corn these past two summers?

I worried.  Were they well?  Did they graduate from the Malone High School and go away to college, perhaps ashamed to tell their new roommates how they earned their extra money.  Did either of them get pregnant and was pushed into a marriage they didn’t want?  Was it the boy who unloaded the sacks of corn?  Did their families move away to Rochester or Buffalo?  Did they find better paying jobs at the Kinney’s or Wal-Mart?

Most of all, I wondered if they were happy.  Did they still look forward to their lives like they did when they sold me a dozen ears in ’13?

I worried if their hearts were broken already.  Had they imagined the rest of their life while selling corn?  I wished they were still at the shack…even though it was empty of corn…I wanted to tell them that life holds more joy than sorrow…most of the time.  I wanted to tell them to look eastward (the door of the shack faced that way) and watch the sun as it rose, climbing to its noon.  I wanted to tell them not to look west where the sun set.

I got in my car and went looking for the tree that might still have its leaves.  The corn girls didn’t need to hear me telling them anything.

It’s just a fantasy of a middle-aged man.

CornGirlsStand

 

 

Two Elderly Gentlemen Walk Into A Pub

  JimMerrill&Jiff

An older man walked into a pub in Burlington, Vermont on a recent Saturday afternoon.  It was minutes away from a heavy rain.  The guy went downstairs to the men’s room.  He was there at the pub to meet an old friend and he was about two minutes late.  As he climbed the stairs, he realized he had a problem…he hadn’t seen his friend in 50 years!  He had no idea what he would look like. The man and his wife had already scanned the pub but he saw no one who might remotely look like his old pal.

And he was an old pal.  They played together as children…lived close enough to see each other’s house.  They played “cowboys & indians” in the backyard.  They played “army” in a neighbor’s backyard.  On hot summer nights, they slept on a large back porch, listening for the tire skids and crash as the cars came around “broken-arm” curve in front of one of the boy’s houses.  One of the  backyards stretched to the Susquehanna River…it was a giant playground, war zone and hiding place.  The other boy had The Brick Pond in his backyard.  Skating in the winter…turtle watching in the summer.  It was a small town called Owego, in upstate New York.  It was the 1950’s.

One of the boys brought a new vinyl album over to his friend’s house.  It was the early ’60’s.  He put the record on and said: “Listen to this guy…he’s saying something.”

The friend listened.  He didn’t like what he heard.  It wasn’t Dion.  It wasn’t Fabian.  It wasn’t Frankie Avalon.

“This guy can’t sing…he sounds weird.  I don’t understand what he’s saying.”

The boy with the album knew what was happening.  He heard the words.

The uninformed boy took another year to grasp what was being played that night.  That nasal voice and those complex lyrics.

It wasn’t: “Why must I be a teenager in love?”  It was “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Later, during their last year of high school, they sat on the front porch of one of the boy’s houses and talked about the future.  Their paths were about to diverge forever, or nearly forever.  One of them was destined for college the other for Viet Nam.  Their lives grew apart and they lost touch…not to see each other for another 50 years.

The old man climbed the stairs from the restroom.  On the deck was a man talking to his wife.  He felt as though he had never seen this guy before.  He had a cane.  He looked a bit old, like so many men do when they get to their late sixties.

The stranger talking to his wife was the old friend.  They embraced after 50 years.  Both had been through highs and lows, good times and bad.  Divorces and deaths.

They weren’t two kids with stick swords in a weedy backyard anymore.  Time had carried them to the outside deck of the pub in Burlington.  Time had given them a stoop in the shoulders.  Time had taken away their dark hair.  Time had given them illnesses and joint pains and muscle aches.

They used to fish in the Susquehanna River with a stick and a string and a cheap hook.  They each had gone through a fly-fishing stage in the middle years.  They won’t be sharing this, most likely.

Calendar pages fall to the floor.  The man had a cane…it fell to the floor.  Someone picked it up.  Things are so different.

It took half a century before Jimmy Merrill and Pat Egan met again.

It started to rain heavily.

Jim&PatSept6'14