Unexpected Memories

DennyinOwego with Camera

Seventeen years ago today, my older brother Denny, passed away.  It was not a sudden unexpected death but a slow decline with cancer.  His family misses him terribly.  My brother, Dan and I miss him.  I think about him a great deal.

We were a family of four boys.  Denny was the second oldest, born in 1942, he was a five-year-old when my mother brought me home, wrapped in blankets…a few days old.  The 1990’s were a bad year for our family.  I lost Chris, the eldest in ’95 and then Denny in ’98.  Now, only Dan, the third born and I are all that remains of that interesting family that lived on the corner in Owego.

Everyone who has siblings is aware that each child has a distinct personality of his or her own.  That was certainly true of the Egans.  Chris was always the science guy.  Too many pens in his pocket.  Too many rocks or fossils filling his pockets.  He went on into academia.  Dan, as a teenager, was into cars and model rockets.  I spent most of my energy in a world of dreams and fantasies of writing while struggling to keep up with being like Chris.

Denny was different.  He was the quiet one.  He didn’t like to be the center of attention, but when you spoke with him, he had a sharp wit and sensitivity that most people lacked.  To my knowledge, he never got into a fight or did anything destructive.  As an older teenager, he befriended a guy named Bob.  We all knew that Bob was gay (or queer as we would have put it then).  Denny knew it.  But my brother was probably the only friend Bob ever had.

There was an introspective nature about Denny that set him apart from the rest of us.  He loved baseball and he followed the Mets from New York to Houston when he was transferred by his company, Shell Oil.  He named his son after Tom Seaver.  He would spend hours in his room playing a board game that involved shaking dice in a can to determine the way a play would go.  I recall the game was called APBA baseball.  There’s probably a video version of it around now.  But I can still hear the rattle of those dice in the can to this day.  In fact, every time dice are thrown, I think of Denny.

It’s an unexpected memory.

He kept meticulous records of players and teams in a smart neat notebook.  He wrote the stats in a perfect format.

It’s no wonder he went on to become an accountant.

Denny never made a big deal of being a Catholic as I recall.  He was an altar boy, as we all were.  But he kept his God to himself.  He was like me in one way, however.  He seemed always conscious of death; it held a morbid and fearful power over him.  There was a story that one of his childhood friends died as a young teen.  The funeral was held at the family’s house.  I think I remember Denny telling me that the boy’s mother pushed him forward to the casket and made him kiss the boy’s forehead.

Maybe this event didn’t really happen.  In later years, my mother always denied such a thing happened, but I still wonder…

Maybe it was an unexpected memory.

Denny was also the only one of our family who saw two ghosts in our house.  The details aren’t important here.  But, over the years, I asked him about those sightings and he never wavered in his description of what he saw.  He believed it.

When Denny got sick, he was fully aware of what his situation was.  On the phone, a few months after his diagnosis, I asked him how he felt about things.  He answered:

“I know things don’t look good for me.”

I was amazed at his calm attitude.  Me, I was in tears nearly every day until I got the dreaded phone call on that dreaded day in June of 1998.

Just yesterday I picked up a sachet of balsam that is a common tourist item in the Adirondacks.  I put it to my nose and the balsam scent filled my mind of memories of camping as a family here in the Park…in the long ago days of the 1950’s.  I never think of Denny as a camper, but as a child, he loved the sand and the swimming and that balsam odor that permeated the summer forest of Golden Beach and Eighth Lake Campgrounds.

I have that sack of balsam beside me now.  I can smell the 1950’s, my cot, our tent, Chris’ canoe, and the sand on my feet.

Oddly enough, I smell a memory of Denny…the demons he carried around inside himself for decades…and I think he would love to sit with me on a beach once again.  We would tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.

Strange how powerful an unexpected memory can be.

Rest in Peace, Denny, God knows you deserve it.

1stBirchtree

 

 

On a Night Like This

sparks

‘I remember it was on a night very much like this…’

—Words spoken around 10,000 campfires by a billion storytellers for a million years.

I found myself staring at the clouds drifting slowly past the quarter moon.  In these early days of autumn, it should be  a little cooler, but it was a mild evening.  The fire wasn’t needed for warmth…the fire was needed for the mood.

An almost imperceptible breeze blew in from the lake.  I watched the clouds and the moon.  The wind was from the northwest…the weather was going to get cooler.

I poked at the fire and a flurry of sparks rose up into the darkness.  Suddenly, a story came into my mind.

It was a time for tales and legends.

The story came quickly into my head.  It was about a young teenage boy who had to say good-bye to the girl he loved. She was going to travel to a distant land…a place where the people were different and the language was hard to follow.  I saw storm clouds.  I saw lightning.  I heard thunder.  Not in real life, mind you, just in my mind.  The boy was going to worry about his love.

“There was a boy,” I began.  “He had a girlfriend he used to play with.  He always used to love to walk her home on nights like this…on nights very much like this…and they would kick leaves and kiss when the moon went behind a cloud.  But someone came to tell the girl that she had to come home right away…the time to catch the train was near.”

“Wait a minute!” my wife said with a sudden movement.  She got up and leaned over to me.  “Come here…closer,” she said.

I did.

She brushed something out of my hair.

“You had a tiny red spark from the fire caught in your hair.  Gone now.”

“Thanks,” I said, and prepared to continue my story…but there was nothing to say…no words to speak.  No story to tell.  I had forgotten what the tale was about.  I stared at the fire.  I was frustrated.  I knew it was a good story…I just had no idea what it was about.

~~~

All this, the fire, the story and the forgetting happened  many years ago.  But I know now what occurred.  That’s because I’m older and presumably wiser.

The spark, I found out, was my idea.  My idea became my story I began to tell.  Without the spark, I had nothing.

Throughout my lifetime, on mountain tops, ancient forests, deserts, glaciers, beaches, islands or backyards…I had countless sparks fall on me.  Most of the time, I just took the story that came with them and put it away…somewhere in my mind…where no one could find it or where I could get it when I needed it.  Some of the time, I would have the spark fall on me and I would tell a fable or a legend.  There were even times when I didn’t need a fire…the sparks fell on me while I sat at my laptop, or with my notebook while I drifted in my kayak, or when I would let the others on a hike go on ahead…so I could be alone.  Or, when I would sit by a tree and rest and think.

I’m sitting here on the dock.  The lake water has become like glass.  The western sky is red.  I’m remembering a place called the Brick Pond, in Owego, NY.  A place in my hometown where magical things happened.  But, right now I can feel the chill of winter approaching.  My summers are over…my springs are a memory and my autumns…well, its autumn now…but it will soon be over.  But, my memory keeps returning to the Brick Pond…in the winter, the dead-cold middle of winter…when my friends and I would build a bonfire.  Oh God, the sparks flew from those huge blazes!  And they fell down on the snow and made tiny black holes before they died.  And they fell down on the snow-covered tree limbs, and for a brief moment, the leafless oak was like a Christmas tree with tiny red lights.  And they fell down on the heads of my friends…all my friends (yes, even my little girlfriend).  I believe with all my heart that they were filled with stories and memories and fables at that moment.

But, today, the bonfire site at the Brick Pond is a small patch of blackened charcoal.  The furry trim of my friends’ hoods, the knit caps and the scarves have been given away and resold countless times.  The black and brown hair of all my childhood companions is most likely gray now…mine is.

A French poet once asked: “Where are the snows of yesterday?”

But, I’m wondering where are the sparks, the lighter-than-air embers that gave us all dreams and hopes and fears?

I’m sitting on the dock.  It’s dark now…the skies are filled with a zillion points of light…like white sparks.  I pray that my friends see these stars and feel the memories fall down on them like rain, like snow or like sparks from the bonfires of yesterday.

~~~

I’m ready to make the climb the hill to our cottage.  I walk away from the dock and something hits me in the face.  It’s a maple leaf.  I think of the autumn again and something occurs to me.  Our memories, our personal legends, don’t have to be hot sparks…they can be a falling leaf, a falling snowflake, a raindrop, a photograph or a cloud.  It can be anything that once happened to us…or anything we’ve seen in our past.  These can bring on the memories of our lives.  My childhood friends can watch the Susquehanna flow under a bridge, see something in a window of an antique store, a book, a poem, a song…any relic of our past and the days can be relived, in detail, for even a moment.  The real beauty of all this opportunity to connect with a fable or a story is that it can happen anywhere.  My friends are scattered around the world.  A girl (woman now) lives on a farm in Oregon.  Someone else in Florida.  Someone in  Texas, Maine or Paris.

But, for me, it’s a campfire just steps from our house that opens those dusty doors.

And, it happens on a night just like this one…

TheLeaves

The Thing in the Claw Foot Bathtub

Go ahead, think of a childhood dream.  Make it a cuddly, warm and fuzzy dream where someone you love is with you adoring you and keeping you safe.  It’s a nice feeling, isn’t it…recalling that dream?  You awoke in the morning with pleasant thoughts that stayed with you throughout the day.  Now, think of a nightmare that drew you from sleep. You jerked, cried and maybe screamed, that someone or something was going to “get you”.  Perhaps you awoke in the pitch dark of your bedroom and no one heard you cry.  That wasn’t nice, was it?

Now, think of a memory from childhood. Something you’re sure really happened. It may have been a camping trip where spooky stories were told around a bonfire.  Or, it may have been walking through Times Square, many decades ago, and seeing the Camel billboard with the puff of smoke blowing out from between the man’s lips.  You know this was real because you can read about the famous billboard in popular culture books of New York City in the 1940s and 1950s.  But what about that memory of you standing in some unknown relative’s house, with the entire family watching you, while your father struggled to get your thick bulky snowsuit off?  And what about another distant relative your family visited one afternoon so many years ago.  Did this “uncle” really have a massive model railroad setup in his basement?  That was probably about 1954…or was it 1955?  But the question nags you; did that really happen or was it just a dream?

These dreams, good and bad, and those troubling memories can get confused in your brain. You never really know for sure.

Like the time, when I was a child and I went upstairs to take a bath.

I lived in a large old house with five bedrooms.  There were two full bathrooms upstairs and a toilet near the living room, downstairs.  My parents bought the house in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so I spent my childhood years in that big, old and drafty mansion.  It had a cellar that terrified me with its darkness.  The attic? Forget it. Up there dwelt beings that spent all their time in attics, never coming down…always staying behind the door in the hallway that led up those old wooden stairs.

To avoid confusion, we gave names to many of the rooms in the house.  Names like “The Dogs Kitchen”, the “Back Room” or the “Upstairs Back Room”.  The bathrooms were “The Blue Bathroom” which was once painted blue, but I never saw it that color, only the pink flowered wallpaper that covered the old blue paint.  The other bathroom had two names: “Dad’s Bathroom” because it was close to the room where he slept alone.  Behind a glass door at the end of the hall, he had a veritable suite to himself. The other name was the “Back Bathroom”.  It was isolated and always seemed chilly even in the summer.  It’s tiny window faced east so it lost sunlight early.  I could scrape rime ice from the inside of the window in the winter.  It also had an old “claw foot” tub.  This is where I was heading to take a bath one evening.

I pushed the door open and nearly fell backward when I glanced at the thing in the tub.  I simply could not believe what I saw. How and when it got there was beyond me.  No one had said anything.  No one prepared me.  There in the tub, was a frozen pig, sliced neatly in half from snout to tail.  It must have been there all night because it had begun to thaw. A full-size pig that had been frozen as hard as granite would take some time to go completely soft.  But it had started.  I looked at the feet, the pigs feet, and saw blood slowly run along the bottom of the tub and take a few swirls before going down the drain.

I may have run. I may have walked. But I got out of the room faster than a rat heads for its hole.

My dad took me back upstairs and explained that he had joined a food buying program at the local GLF store. If you bought things in large quantities, you’d get a hefty discount.  So he bought half a pig.

Later my brothers stood around the tub and watched the slow thaw soften the flesh. My geeky older brother, the science guy, pointed out the various organs, despite the fact that most were shown in cross-section and were represented by only 50% of the original.  I avoided looking at the head, not wanting to see the half brain.  I assume it was dead and solidly frozen when the saw began its cut. But I couldn’t help to imagine how a thought or a memory gets split like that in only a few seconds.  I knew nothing about brain hemispheres then.  Perhaps, if the half pig were alive, it could have dreamy thoughts of the sow in the other paddock, but couldn’t comprehend the swill that filled the trough in the middle of the sty.  I wondered about these things.

Months later, the body was gone.  Some of it was eaten for dinner and some of it was cut up and placed in our deep freezer…the one in “The Dogs Kitchen”  that looked like an oversized white coffin. It too was also part of the buy-in-bulk deal.

I made my father wash out the tub several times.  He assured me it was quite clean, but the tub was never the same after that.  It was years before I could take a bath in it.  Can energies of the departed occupy solid objects?  Ghosts, we all know, can walk through doors, walls and even living people.

Can a tombstone, a house, an axe, a tree, a small plot on a battlefield become “owned” by something, some kind of spirit that we cannot see or touch?

I’m middle-aged now.  One hobby is to browse antique stores for interesting objects from the past.

When I come upon a claw foot bath tub…I keep walking.

 

© 2012 Patrick Egan