Halloween Story Break…

There was a time not so very, very long ago that I wasn’t sure.

Oh, I suspected! That was, after all, easy to do. How could a child not? Though we live in what we believe to be an age of reason and technology, the less than subtle hints from popular culture, invade our lives from every turn.

Ghosts.

Haunts,

Those whom should be gone…

…but are not.

Growing up, I was a pretty jumpy child. Skulls in particular scared the Hell out of me. There was something in those black, empty eyes and the malicious grin that made me want to scamper straight up a tree. I can remember a book I had of popular ghost stories which unsettlingly had a large, white and slightly befanged skull on its front and though I was drawn to reading the “true accounts” that were written in its pages, the cover so unsettled me that I kept it under, rather than in my bookshelf. Like most young people, I was deeply curious about the notion of ghosts, but had to hang on to my skepticism in an effort to also hand on to my cool and well as some impartiality. I had been taught by my parents not to simply swallow what was handed to me, but to think about and experience things for my self. To make up my own mind rather than have it made up for me.

Good advice.

The problem with all things spooky though, is that it’s a very nebulous thing. What can very much unsettle one person might not even appear on the radar of another. Take graveyards. Personally, I love them and find them quiet and contemplative places. I have long said that my dream job would be Cemetery Keeper, and I whole-heartedly stick by it. No, cemeteries don’t bother me. At least, most don’t.

When I had gone away to college, I didn’t know my own thoughts on ghosts. I had been scared before, but never seen anything. There were places that I didn’t like for no good reason, but there was nothing conclusive in that. I had had some bad experiences which I could not adequately explain, but haven’t we all? I was neutral. I neither scoffed, nor bought in.

Then I moved into room 201.

My school was a small liberal arts college located in the old mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire. In the valley, a strong river flows and here, at one time, the largest textile mills the world has ever seen ran nonstop, their productive noise ringing through the city. It was an icon of the industrial revolution and on the hilltops, high above the clamor, were the houses of the mill owners and managers. My freshman year dormitory was located in one such house.

Long since converted to student living, it had once been a very nice, three storey Victorian and my own room was located in what was called, the “Florida Porch.” Essentially, a south facing room with large windows to let in as much light as possible, a welcome place in any house, it would have been especially refreshing back in the days predating electric light. It was here, that my roommate and I lived for several months and it was here, where my opinion about the supernatural was solidified. There was no other opinion to take.

Mike, my roommate, was set heavily in the “No” camp when it came to ghosts. To him, the idea was foolishness and when stories would come up among the group of us in the dorm, he could be counted on to scoff, point an incredulous finger and laugh. He didn’t buy it. It was all foolishness. I disagreed.

Over the course of my year in this old, creaky house-come-student housing, I had had my own experiences, which had become progressively stranger and more overt. Things that defied easy explanation or even, the more complex. Some were simple if not baffling. The light switch which would turn its self off. Not merely the light, mind you, but the actual switch. “Click!” You could hear it snap down and you were left in the dark room to fumble across it in the effort of getting it back on. Or my bed, which, all joking of nocturnal dalliances aside, had a tendency to shake, sometimes violently and for minutes at a time with me, bug eyed, in it. Oddly enough, other than to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it never really freaked me out. There was nothing to see after all. Nothing to hear. It was more odd than frightening and besides, living with a bunch of other young guys, the practical jokes flew fast and thick and you had to be on your guard. It was however… curious.

Late in the year, long after the initial newness of school and uneasiness of fresh friendships had faded into routine, Mike and I had settled into our own. Though roommates, we were not friends and though not adversaries either, we simply didn’t click. The room was ours though and we got along well enough to live amicably and eventually, settled on a layout that included bunk beds to maximize space: he on top, I on the bottom. Oddly enough, for what ever reason, this arrangement stopped the bed shaking I had previously lived with on a nearly nightly basis.

It was late. Very late actually, and the house was quiet. The actual time I can’t recall but in the small hours, advanced enough that even unsupervised eighteen year olds had turned in. I was asleep and deeply so.

Then… I wasn’t.

It was an odd sort of awakening. I wasn’t startled. I wasn’t groggy. I was simply… awake. My eyes opened and I there I was, in bed. If anything, I was confused. Then, my eyes shifted to the open wall opposite our end of the room. Though covered with the normal layers of posters and whatnot that you find in college rooms, what I noticed, noticed right away in fact, was the shadow.

It wasn’t human. It wasn’t animal. It didn’t seem to have any real shape at all. What it was doing though, was moving… and changing.

All across the wall, an amoeba like thing seemed to flow, parting into pieces, only to rejoin again. A rolling sort of blob moving almost aimlessly, but still, looking a bit like it was hunting for something. Reaching out to feel every nook and edge of the room. It was not a shadow cast from leaves out side. They had long since fallen. It was not from the streetlight across the way. That had been blocked by a pulled shade. If the shadow I saw was cast by something, it was something that broke apart, moved in pieces and reformed like oil on a hot skillet. I watched transfixed, silent, and scared.

Honestly scared.

Then I heard a voice, thin and from above me. It belonged to Mike.

“Do… you see…?”

I clipped in quickly before he could name it.

“No, Mike. Go to sleep.”

Nothing more was said.

Some how, at some point, we both did just that. I don’t know when.

The next morning, as was our normal way, the two of us roused, dressed, completed our bathroom ablutions and walked wordlessly across the road to the cafeteria for breakfast. Neither of us were morning people and preferred not to speak until coffee was had in hand. There we sat, facing each other over scrambled eggs in the light of the morning sun and our eyes met.

Mike arched his eyebrows.

“I had the strangest… dream.”

The hair on my arms prickled. “No…” I bit my lip in remembering it. “I don’t think so.”

His eyes widened with the understanding and I knew that he would not be laughing at the stories we recounted late at night any more.

“That happened, didn’t it?”

“Yah. It did.”

Over breakfast we compared experiences and they were pretty much identical. He had woken in the exact same way and somehow had managed to speak to me, assuming that I would be watching the form on the wall as well. He couldn’t have known I was watching too. Being in bunk beds after all, he couldn’t see me. He said that he just assumed I was awake as well. We tried to figure it out, what could cast such a shape, and come up with nothing. There was no explanation that passed muster that we could find. It was simply there and was unnerving as Hell.

In the end, it wasn’t the skull or the hand or the cloaked shape fear of my childhood imagination that had convinced me, but something shapeless and hunting. Something, which seemed to pay little heed to us but moved with its own concerns, its own destination in mind. It moved. We saw it. My mind has been made up since that day, and Mike’s was changed 180 degrees.

Though we were fine after that night and never saw it again, it also solidified two things in my mind. First: There is something out there which we do not understand and to be in its presence is one of the most deeply unsettling things a person can do. Second: Ghost hunters, people who actively seek out the supernatural, are fools who have yet to experience this. Once they do, if they do, they will not look for it again.

At least, if they have any common sense at all.

Happy Halloween!

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Sun Dreaming – 4/11/05

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

Sun Dreaming – 04/11/05

The winter has been long and I turn my heart towards travel.
Soft banks of snow have been transformed by the late winter rains
and now bear none of their earlier powdered beauty.

The icy mud sucks at my feet as the brown grass shows
greasily through on cold, dead patches of earth.

It is grey and cold,
Too cold to hope yet for flowers.
Too cold to see the ice banks retreat into the ground.
The wet and sharp winds bite exposed ears
and makes red cheeks sting.

Drizzling rain freezes as it hits,
making a walk to the mailbox a treacherous affair.

It is cold.
Grey.
Wet.
My shoes are soaked.

Then I smile.

For a moment, I am not here,
and I fly away in my mind.

For me, Southern France is always sunny,
and I close my eyes,
remember…

and walk along the terraced hillsides,
amongst the ancient almond trees once more.

Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part III

A trick of the light, a moment of distraction, what ever it was, I did something wrong.

In a heart stopping, bug-eyed, “Oh CRAP” moment, I was cutting the wrong way; not down to the next flag, but into the dark woods. Back then, no one wore a helmet when they skied. It simply didn’t happen. We didn’t even think of is as being “wimpy” or less manly or any of that, because you just never saw it. You would have been just as likely to think, “Hey, no one here in the swimming pool is wearing shoulder pads” as you were to think, “Wow, no one on the slopes is wearing any head protection.” It simply wasn’t on our collective radar. The only time I ever saw a helmet on the slopes was during an actual competition, and even then, it was for only for competitive jumping, not slalom. We would have been as surprised to see a unicycle going down the trail as a person in a helmet. It goes without saying that my knit hat wasn’t going to do me much help in this situation except maybe keep the smaller skull fragments from flying loose on what was looking like a highly likely impact. For that split second, I was truly terrified.

Looking into the trees, I knew one thing. If I went in, I wasn’t coming out. Not breathing, at any rate. I was going perhaps thirty miles per hour or better, could barely make out the trunks in the dark and shadows and it was all unbroken, deep snow. Somehow, at the very edge of the trail, I managed to pull my skis up and redirect myself back onto the course and into tree free territory. I missed a bunch of flags, botching my high speed run, barely missed the coach as she rolled out of the way when I whipped by her at the finish line and came to a stop a short down the slope, completely freaked out.

It took me a while to calm down and let the adrenalin subside. Somehow, I screwed up enough courage to hike back up and make the other two required passes, but this time, my speed was horrible. I practically coasted down and I remember the coach being ticked off at my obvious lack of effort. I don’t think she understood how I, at age sixteen, had come face to face with my own mortality that night and the very powerful effect it held over me.

I didn’t make the A list.

I stayed on the team for a while longer but I decided that there just was no way I was going to get near that situation again, and the coach new it. I only actually raced once and, surprise, surprise, didn’t win. Honestly, I don’t remember if I finished the year out with them or not. If I did, it would have only been as a bench warmer.

One of the unforeseen side effects of my skiing this hard and pushing my self to achieve more and more ability was that skiing with my father had changed for me too. Skiing now, even at what I considered sedate speeds, I was far faster than Dad and outstripped him quickly, often loosing each other for an hour or so and cooling my feet at the lift line while scanning the crowds for his familiar hat or coat. The other problem was a classic catch-22. I didn’t want to ski at full throttle, on the outer envelope of my abilities any more, so I didn’t. But now, the slower pace and wide, meandering trails that I had enjoyed before, now bored me.


Image from Skiernet.com

Skiing had lost its allure. Other than the good company and the spectacular views, I just didn’t find it much fun any longer. I’d still go with Dad, but we went less and less as I found excuses not to go. I knew he still enjoyed it, so I’d go from time to time but honestly, I would have been just as happy to spend the time with him doing just about anything else.

When I went away to college, I mostly stopped all together. There were a few times here and there, but they were pretty few and far between. When I moved to Maine, I stopped entirely. When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, there was fantastic skiing to be had about forty minutes away and a half-day ticket was eleven bucks. Today, we’re more than a two hour drive from anything that could be called a real mountain and once you add in having to get off the island into the mix, you are talking about one serious time commitment. That, on top of a lift ticket fee that will make your heart stop and your wallet try and scurry down your pant leg and into your boot, and I just haven’t even been tempted.

I had been spoiled by proximity,cheap lift tickets and abilities that ruined me for anything slower than ludicrous speed.

Short Stack, on the other hand, hasn’t. This was being brought up to me again, first by my own mother a few weeks ago and now separately by Action Girl.

“I was talking to a friend of mine who’s taught ski school and he says that Short Stack is old enough to learn. We should give it a try!”

By “we” she means “me.” Action Girl knows how to do a lot of outdoorsy things, but alpine skiing isn’t one of them. I’m sure she could do it, but she has none of the equipment and, regardless of how rusty and neglected it is, I do. I’m starting to think about it in a positive light. I love spending one-on-one time with my kids and this would be a unique thing I could do with my son, at least until Lulu Belle gets old enough to want to give it a try. We wouldn’t have to go to the big mountains for him to learn, but rather the small, old fashioned, groomed hill near Action Girl’s folks house. We could even spend the night there and thus have plenty of time to recover before heading home.

Against my initial reaction to the idea, I’m warming to it now.

It’s been almost fifteen years since I’ve gone skiing and I’m willing to bet that my abilities have eroded quite a bit, along with the edges on my once cutting edge, racing skis. Perhaps too, my memory of what it was like to be able to fly along like a fighter jet down the face of a ridiculously steep, ice covered slope has faded enough to let me again enjoy a leisurely, weaving ski down a broad, open trail.

Maybe it will be fun again.

I think Short Stack and I will go and see. He’ll need boots, skis, poles and naturally, a helmet, but I’m kind of getting excited to try. There will be a lot to show him. How to snow plow, how to turn, the right way to fall down and then, how to get back up again. I anticipate a very long day with lots of snow filled jackets and pants. I think it will be worth it though, in the end.

And later on, when we are sitting in the lodge, enjoying our twenty dollar cup of American chop suey, I’ll tell him the story of Dad versus the T-Bar. If you happen to come looking for us on the mountain though, we’ll be in line at the high speed quad.

Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part I

As the snow falls in quiet, blanketing quantity on the already buried yard and roof, Action Girl and I scurry around in the kitchen in an effort to get food on the table for the kids before blood sugar levels start to droop and turn the light hearted laughing in the living room into maniacal cackles followed by periods of lavish crying. It’s always a challenging race.

“You know,” My wife paused as she got the various drinks ready. “We really ought to look into getting Short Stack into skiing. Reflexively, I grimaced a bit but then quickly conceded the point. She continued, “ There’s a place right up by my folk’s where he could give it a try and see if he likes it. It’d be good for him.” I tried to be noncommittal, but upon being pressed to define my neutral sounding mumbling, I agreed out loud with the idea. It’s not that I don’t approve of skiing or anything. It’s more insidious than that.

I’m spoiled. Poisonously so.

When I was not much older than Short Stack is now, my father decided to initiate me into a great New England tradition and take me alpine skiing. Skiing was introduced to American here in the northeast and has been enthusiastically embraced ever since. My Dad was really excited and partly due to his own enthusiasm, I was pretty revved up as well. I got to have new, never seen by me before, equipment and a day out with Dad. What could be better?

I actually remember the day quite well. After a short drive early one wintry morning, we arrived at the base of the mountain. Cars lined up in a snowy lot as kids wearing orange safety vests waved small flags directed us to our spot amongst all the others. I clambered into my red snow suit, was wedged into the most uncomfortable boots I had ever experienced in my short life and then tromped off like a miniature Frankenstein’s monster, following Dad to the lifts.

The lifts were, to be frank, imposing as hell. At the age of four, I felt that I had pretty much mastered the art of sitting down with out assistance, but this was a totally different situation. The chairs and benches I was used to didn’t move of their own accord on an endless loop and I rarely worked with a live audience waiting to see how I managed. We stood there and watched it for a while and then, just as I was getting used to the idea, Dad redirected me to something totally different.

The T-Bar.

Nowadays, we are firmly in the era of high speed quads and even fully enclosed gondolas. They might as well have mini bars and wait staff in comparison to the T-Bar. A T-Bar, and its slightly eviler cousin, the J-Bar, are simply a bit of pipe with a backless, armless seat, all hanging from a moving cable that zings along at a speed that seems way, WAY too fast. The biggest difference between a regular chair lift and one of these monstrosities is that there is no “lift” aspect to the ride. It’s all “chair.” Your skis never leave the ground but instead are used to “steer” you up the side of the trail, or in my case, to certain doom. They do build in a spring mechanism into it up where the pipe attaches to the cable, and this is intended to make your transition from zero to “Oh my GOD!” a little bit easier to take. For me, all it did was prolong the moment of impending faceplant so I could savor my terror a bit longer. My first attempt did not go well.

Neither did my second.

On my third, I hardly screamed at all. I was making progress!

At some point, with my snow suit having been forcibly crammed with roughly eight pounds of slushy-snow mixture from all the mechanically induced white washes, I managed to get up high enough on the hill to try out the skis. It was “go” time!

As it turned out, all I could go was about six or seven feet until my brain would take over and yell, “What the hell are you doing?!? You’re gonna DIE! Fall over now before you get going too fast!” and obediently, over I’d go.

WHAP!

I got terrifically good at this as my Father did his very best to dredge up every ounce of patience he had available to him. To his extreme credit, I can not recall him at any time speaking through clenched teeth during the day as I listened to his instructions, lined up on the bunny slope and then promptly fell over for no readily apparent reason. The good part about collapsing in a heap mere moments after starting a run was that I didn’t have to take my chances with the T-Bar all that often. One ride to the top of the slope was good for at least eight or nine falls!

We did this all morning and by lunch, we were starved, wet to the skin and both feeling pretty frustrated and we decided to let the cafeteria’s American Chop Suey and hot chocolate do it’s best to cheer us up. As we munched away on our lavishly expensive ziti in cheeze and meat sauce, I kept thinking about all those times spent flat in the snow and what I needed to do differently to remedy that. Dad, I’m guessing, was focusing on the idea that at least he was out for the day with his son and that was all that mattered. The skiing was unimportant. I’m betting that he thought about this looooong and hard, possibly repeating it like a mantra.

“Hey, Buddy. What do you say? Want to just go home?” His comment caught me off guard. Dad didn’t give up on anything easily and the offer, though I knew it to be sincere, was out of character for him. I actually found it a bit unsettling. Yes, I did, but that wasn’t the point.

“Let’s try just one more time.” Was the only answer I had. I wanted to go home, but it just didn’t seem right to throw in the towel now, no matter how snowy and ice encrusted it was.

We suited back up into our damp outerwear and after another pitched bout with the infernal T-Bar, I found myself looking back down the slope that I had grown to know intimately at toe level. Dad gave me one last pep talk and asked if I wanted to hold onto his poles as he went down backwards. “Nope. I’ll try by my self.” And with that, down the slope I went… all the way, and most importantly, on my skis rather than under them. The rest of the day, the two of us skied happily together and other than a few more flops in the snow followed by quick recoveries, I had it nailed.

As the years went on, Dad and I went skiing quite a lot. It was our winter “father/son” thing to do and we both enjoyed it immensely. I wasn’t too bad, and gravitated toward the wide open intermediate trails the most. Mostly free of moguls and as wide as a football field in places, they allowed me to get into a tuck and fly like the wind. I’d smile all the way down, hooting like a lunatic where appropriate. We were fairly evenly matched in skill, though I always seemed to have more of a need for speed than Dad did, but it worked our well. I’d bomb ahead at crazy speed, almost wipe out and then come to a semi-elegant stop blasting up a tidal wave of snow in the process. There, I’d wait for my father to come into view and once visual was established, bomb off to the next logical place to stop and wait. The system worked fine.

Anyone who knows me at all knows one thing for sure: sports don’t interest me in the least. I never played Little League, never tried out for track and field and simply never wanted to. It wasn’t my idea of fun. When I got to high school, as a non-sports player, I stood out; especially since my uncle was the head coach of the highly acclaimed school football team. In a moment of weakness I bowed to pressure and signed up for the only sport that held any appeal to me at all: alpine skiing.

Big mistake.

More later…

3/7/05 – The Old Trott Cemetery

Monday Poem – A Year and a Day

The Old Trott Cemetery – 3/7/05

The stones of the old plot are deep in winter’s snow.
Who lies beneath is a mystery though.
They have lived their lives.
They have seen good days
and watched the tides and the sunlight fade.

Their homes, built with no aid of power.
Their hands grew callous and their gardens did flower
with the same small blooms that will open this May.
But their names are lost.

Time scrubbed them away.

Traveling Together

“Hi Mom. Yes, I just got on board a few minutes ago… Oop, looks like were starting to move. Yah, I’m excited to go too but I’m missing the kids already.” I was trying to keep my voice down as I spoke into the phone, aware that the rest of the train car was nearly silent.

This is going to be a special couple of days. Not only am I taking off to go play all by my self, just like other adults do, I was getting there by rail. The “there” part is Boston, and the “all by my self” bit doesn’t mean “alone” as much as “not having to referee small children bent on annoying each other and cleaning up my living room which has been turned into a multicolored mine field of easily crunchable toys.” Action Girl is at the helm of the house for the next forty-eight hours and I’m getting a chance to reconnect with my inner adulthood and an old friend from High School, Ioseph.

I’ve spent some really wonderful time on trains over the years. I like the sway of the cars, the muffled rumble and the view of the back sides of cities and towns that the you get no other way unless you spend a lot of quality time with hobos and drifters. As I type these words right now, my coffee is at hand, my legs are crossed and I’m bumping along at fifty or so miles per hour, watching the trees go whipping by just past the lightly grimy windows. My train departed right on time and, for me, the unusual thing is that I’m doing this in my own country.

The vast majority of my rail experience comes from time spent over seas. The U.S. woefully underutilizes rail as a form of domestic travel and if you can find a train going from a place you live to a place you want to go to, it’s a noteworthy event. Europe and much of Asia is exactly the opposite. If there isn’t a train to whatever little podunk village you want to get to, it makes you stop and think, “Really?!?” Naturally, if there’s no train, there’s nearly always a bus.

I love that.

Here, in the land of the automobile, things are very different. Once, rail crisscrossed our country, taking goods and people just about everywhere they wanted to go. I’m aware that there was never the sort of rail coverage here that there is overseas, but still, it was pretty darned good. Then, for reasons totally inexplicable to me, they started to tear up the tracks. Literally. I remember this happening in my hometown when I was a kid. As a child, I can clearly recall running full tilt out of the cobbler’s shop where my mother was valiantly trying to get me crammed into a new pair of very nice and highly uncomfortable back-to-school shoes. I ran not because an escape was in order, but because the train was coming through. The tracks used to run right through downtown and bisect Main Street bringing all traffic to a halt bringing every kid within jogging distance out onto the sidewalks. It was great. Then one day, the tracks were gone and sold as scrap. I couldn’t believe it.

I didn’t get a chance to ride on an actual passenger train until years after I managed to finally get rid of those shoes. True, I did take a “scenic rail” trip with my Grandparents aboard a steam locomotive, but we didn’t really GO anywhere. It was really just a gigantic carnival ride and though I did manage to get a cinder stuck in my eye by hanging out the window like a dog in a station wagon, it was at least fun. But it was only part of the equation. I’m lumping the Disney monorail into this category as well. Though not steam powered, it was still essentially a “ride.” Come to think of it, steam would make the monorail far, far more cool and awesome. Can you imagine that one? Ohhh!

Once I started traveling abroad, I got my chance to do the train thing for real and I instantly fell in love. This was the way to travel. Leg room, sleeping compartments, the ability to ride them all night and wake up in not merely a totally different country, but a different region or even continent, and all at eye level. I loved to fly, but trains offer you a human touch that you just can’t get at thirty thousand feet.

Sometimes that human touch can be a bit powerful and hit pretty high on the Irony-O-Meter.

As I boarded my train, I looked down the empty car to pick my seat. Now, I’m not an overly tall individual, nor am short. I like to think of my self as stunningly average. I measure in at almost exactly six feet tall and though the seats on the train are far more generous in the leg room department that just about anything with wings theses days, I nevertheless eyed the four vacant front row seats, boasting easily six feet of open space in front of them, with envy. I couldn’t take one for the simple reason that I had also noticed the sign overhead mentioning that these super convenient, leg friendly seats were intended for individuals who might have legs that weren’t so friendly to their owners. They were reserved for the disabled.

No problem. I had a whole car to pick from and quickly sat in down in the next row. It was about this time that my Mom had called to see if I was already on my way. We chatted while I watched the freight yards disappear and give way to trees and fields. It was a wonderful way to spend the morning. When the conductor came though and took my ticket, I was taken a bit by surprise by something you don’t see much any more, but recovered quickly and don’t think I showed my reaction outwardly. After he left, I thought no more about it and went back to my window view.

At the next stop just a few minutes away, new passengers piled in and shuffled past my seat hauling bags like unruly children with travel plans of their own. The car was still only about twenty percent full, but this seemed to be all the excuse that was needed for the woman who plunked herself down in the reserved section and then, sitting just a bit sidewise, take up both seats. She was sixtyish, very well dressed and had no baggage to be seen outside of an expensive looking purse. The aura she projected was of a woman who did what she pleased. I don’t know where her sense of entitlement originated from, but I do know that she was ill prepared for what happened next.

Guilt, is an amazing thing. Some folks are impervious to it; some simply have a very high tolerance. People like me, crumble at the notion that someone, somewhere might be disappointed in my actions in some way. I’ve learned to live with it. This lady, looked like she had some pretty good guilt armor. She appeared unflappable. Then the ticket agent returned.

Dutifully, he examined and punched her ticket while the woman did her best to not pay him any but the most cursory attention. Then he pointed out the sign.

“You might not have noticed,” he said in a quiet but firm tone, “but these seats are reserved for disabled riders.” As he said this, he tapped the very obvious sign hovering a few inches over her head. The tapping, he did not with the hand holding his paper punch, but his other one.

The hook hand.

You don’t see many hook hands these days. Most amputees use more realistic prosthetics, but this, I feel, did a far superior job of pointing out her error. The effect it had on the able bodied woman in the disabled seating was obvious. She turned a shade of red that matched her silk scarf beautifully and after a mumbled apology and rapid gathering of personal effects she said something about how it was no problem to move to another seat which she did, eyes averted from the rest of the car passengers.

The rest of the trip down is uneventful from my perspective. The towns roll by and soon, Boston will loom ahead. I’ll be down just for an overnight and I’m staying with my friend Ioseph, so who knows what’s planned. The ride on the train though is something that I have already found a lot of joy in. It gets people all together in one place with a common goal. We’re all on the same track, literally and figuratively.

A smile shared here.
Something interesting, overheard there.

It’s all good. It gets us closer to each other, even if we’re not actually engaged in conversation. You loose that in a car. We learn how to be around other people and to respect them a bit better; something the red scarf lady got a refresher in today. Hopefully it will stick with her better than before.

I’m almost at my destination now and I expect to have a lot of fun while I’m here. I have to confess though, I’m already looking forward to riding the rails again, back home.

All aboard!

Familiar Faces

And so, we bring to a close the winter holiday season, and I must say, I’m sad to see it pass. What’s been unusual and wonderful this year is that we’ve seen a lot of my parents over the last week and a half. They had come up on Christmas Eve and only departed for home today on the fifth. Making it even better, they didn’t have to stay with us in out dollhouse-esque abode. We can do visitors for a day or two, but anything more than that and things get decidedly cramped. I know families used to all live on top of each other just a few generations ago and I’m sure it provided good warmth in beds, but personally, I’ll happily let that aspect of the past go in favor of being able to live with some privacy.

Mom and Dad have a weekend place they stay at on the island, and though originally intended as a summer cottage when it was first purchased, I believe they have closed it down for the season only once. That was the year before Short Stack was born. Since then, my folks have sort of dragged their feet when it comes to draining the plumbing and removing all the freezables in preparation of letting the house go dark for the winter. Last year they talked about it a lot, but in the end, they put off the decision so long that it made no sense to finally go through with it. Personally, I blame adorable grandchildren, but then, I might be biased.

Even when they are not coming up for extended stays, they are, more often than not, here on the weekends. That means Short Stack and Lulu Belle get to spend a lot of time playing with my parents and that, for obvious reasons, makes me very happy. I have a very strong and good relationship with my folks and to see my son and daughter get to forge their own memorable relationship with them, well… that’s hard to beat. It’s a boon for my parents as well since I’m it as far as offspring go. My kids are their only grandchildren and they dote on them to a ridiculous level.

From Short Stack’s point of view, the best thing about visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house is the sleepover. As a child, for whatever reason, I had a very hard time sleeping anywhere but my own bed. I just didn’t want to. I’m not sure if I was actually afraid or simply very uncomfortable, but the effect was the same. When it came to spending the night at a cousin’s or grandparent’s, the answer was always, “No, thank you.”

Not so, with Short Stack.

When he stays over, it’s with a huge smile plastered over his tiny, round face and if it is my unfortunate duty to tell him, “Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow.” I can just about bank on carrying a very sad and confused little boy up the stairs to his bedroom in our own house. I’ll also be peppered with questions right up until I tuck him in as to why he couldn’t stay at Gram and Gramp’s tonight and could he PLEASE stay tomorrow as well as promises of being a good boy. Personally, I’d rather get a stab in the arm rather than run this guilt gauntlet, as thrown down by a little red haired, blue eyed three year old.

Kid guilt to parents is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West.

“I’m meeeelllll-ting!”

This last week, I think Short Stack has spent more nights away than he has as home. It’s tough as a parent, but heaven for the other parties involved.

Action Girls folks are much loved by our kids as well and though it means a log drive to go and see them, the fun that they have is always worth the slog up north. Whether tromping off to the farm next door or simply running around the yard with my wife’s folks, the kids always look forward to the visit and hop in the car like eager riders on some unseen rollercoaster.

Short Stack and Lulu Belle love their Grandparents, both sets, but more importantly, they know them, and know them well.

It was something that occurred to me last night as I pawed through the genealogy project that my Father has been working on for some time now. It started, for me anyway, when my Father’s Mother passed away. She was the youngest in her family and as such, was the holder of the family photo albums. In her little apartment attached to my aunt and uncle’s house, resided picture albums reaching far back into our own little slice of history. Faded black and white photos of half remembered people whose faces look familiar, but only in parts.

She didn’t have much to leave behind other than the photos and after the funeral service, we all wandered into her apartment with the idea of collecting a keepsake to bring back home to remember her by. As we entered, I brought up the idea of not touching the photo albums, but scanning them instead. Once digital, we could all have copies. It was agreed to by the lot of us and after a fashion, the complete set of family faces dating back to the turn of the last century had successfully entered the computerized world. For what ever reason, I never got a copy, but Dad did. Over the intervening years, my Father has been finding out exactly who is whom and making lots and lots of notes.

While Short Stack and Lulu Belle napped one day, I took a moment to look through the old photos with Dad. Some, I had seen. Others were of aunts and uncles whom I knew and could still talk with. The ones of my deceased grandparents furrowed my brow with sadness even as I smiled broadly at the memory of their voices, still echoing in my ears.

Then I found this.

To anyone outside our immediate circle of family and friends, this picture might look mildly interesting as a snapshot in history. There isn’t much to see here, honestly. At lest to the foreign eye. The cloths are for cold weather and the shadow of the tree shows bare branches, so we know it’s winter. The house behind them is large and windowless so we can guess that it might be an apartment building. The child has many holes in his obviously worn stockings, so you could also surmise that they were poor, and you’d be right. The man and the little boy could be anyone.

But they are not.

They are my Grandfather and his Father. The Father, is a man I never knew. A man, in fact, that my Grandfather barely knew, for he died when the little boy in the picture was only about ten.

What stopped me cold were the faces. My Great-Grandfather’s face looks identical to my father’s as I remember it from my own childhood. My Dad’s face has aged and changed now, but when I was a boy, this is what my Father looked like, exactly. In his arms, the child, no more than three, looks eerily like my own son. The same build. The same round face, even the haircut. It’s a very good match, indeed. To top it all off, there has been a long succession of men in the family with one of two names. It’s alternated, actually and both of these names have seen heavy use in a family that has, for four generations, hung onto its surname by a single thread. I was the end of the line before my own son was born. He is it now.

My parents, for reasons of their own, decided to break from tradition and gave me a first name that had not been used by our family since, (so far as we know) the sixteen hundreds. I’ve always been happy with it, but when it came time to name our own son, looking down at his pink face, I knew without doubt what his name would be. The family tradition was back on track.

When I look at the picture, I see my Father and my Son, and because of my parent’s choice, the names of those two long passed figures, match the names of the living. I must admit, it sort of unnerves me, but I can’t look away.

My Dad printed me a copy of the photo and I’ve already framed it up and hung it in the living room. Whenever I walk past, I stop and glance and it makes my heart beat a little harder. It’s funny to react so to the picture of a man whom I never met and the face of a child whom I know grew up to be the old man with the ubiquitous cigarette, thick glasses and thinning hair. But that is not who I see, after all. It’s far closer to home to my eyes.

As the kids wake up and come downstairs to join my parents and me in their home, I can’t help but feel happy for them. They will remember this now. They are old enough. Lulu Belle I still a munchkin, but she’s catching on fast. Short Stack, with his elephant like memory, will clearly recall these days with his beloved Grandparents, either here or at my in-law’s and for my part, I feel like a member of the work crew, forging the moments that link lives together so that they can be relayed to future grandchildren, yet unimagined.

My Mother’s Father lives not too far from us these days. Maybe only an hour away, though there always seem to be some reason why we can’t go today or the next.

I think it’s high time we pay him a visit and work on those links some more.

We only get one family.

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