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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Field Stones

The drive up to my in-laws for Thanksgiving was not too hard. Though the way up was prematurely darkened by changing seasons and daylight savings, it was nice to get out of the house and then farther away from the city where we spend much of our time when out and about. A few years ago, Jack and Ellen decided it was time for them to look for a new place to call home. Back in the Last sixties, they were fleeing New York and Jersey City and landed for many years in a valley of central Vermont. Having raised their children there, they had grown accustomed to country living and even after the kids had all moved away to other New England states, they stayed in their valley for many more years. As grand kids entered the scene, they took to driving long distances to see recitals and ball games, baby sit and gather for holidays. As the years went by, they decided that it was time for a change of geography.

Unlike many their age, they elected to move north, rather than join the conga line to the southern golf courses and bridge tournaments. That’s not their style, at any rate. They’d go crazy in two weeks. With two out of their three children living in Maine, they sold their house of thirty or so years and moved to the Pine Tree State. They live about an hour and a half away and though in a pleasant location, it’s not what I’d call picturesque. It’s farm country, plain and simple. Slowly rolling hills and young tree forests where vast fields used to cover the landscape. The old, colonial style farmhouses still perch on the hillsides, looking down on their slowly shrinking and mostly unused fields.

Even so, there’s still a good deal of farmland being used, mostly for hay and corn. One of these small “gentleman’s” farms sits next door to my wife’s folks. Being outgoing people and good of heart, they immediately became friends with the old bachelor farmer who lives in the old, white farmhouse nestled in a dip on the way up a hill, leading out of town. Short Stack loves visiting there too. There are chickens!

The morning after we arrived, a heavy fog was sitting over the land, giving things a softened quality that one would usually associate with snow. Snow had, in fact, already arrived just a few days before but didn’t have cooperating temperatures to keep its foothold. The five or so inches that had covered everything was gone with the warm front and had found new life as the fog and a heavy rime-ice dew that gave what would otherwise be smooth surfaces, a spiky shell of minute crystal. The grass, though wet looking, would crunch under each footfall. After getting the various children fed, visiting with rarely seen relatives and topping up my internal coffee tank, I decided to take a walk in the foggy fields.

farm-equipmet

One of the things that I love about New England is the stone. More accurately, I should say, the stonewalls. This area of North America was covered in a massive ice sheet over a mile thick during the last ice age. The action of that weight and motion ground down our mountains to their roots and left us with few imposing peaks. Where all that stone till went was directly into the soil. This makes for a difficult soil to plow since it’s full of beautifully smoothed, rounded rocks ranging in size from a small orange to a plush living room chair.

Years ago, I went for a walk with a friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska. As we strolled along path through a deep wood, he stopped at a pile of boulders and exclaimed, “Will you just LOOK at these rocks!” When I replied with something witty like, “Um. Yup. Those sure are… rocks” he set me straight. He explained to me that where he was from, a rock was about the size of an unshelled almond, and that was it. To him, the stones that had vexed New England farmers long enough to turn most of them into Nebraska farmers, we amazing to see littering the ground.

With all these massive balls of granite filling your fields and cows that were none too clear on where they were supposed to graze and where they were not, it was natural that stonewalls would quickly crisscross the landscape, and indeed, they do. If you go out for a walk in any New England wood and head off in just about any direction, I will guarantee that you will eventually find a stonewall. Eighty percent of the state of New Hampshire, to give you an idea, was open farmland just a hundred and fifty years ago. Now it’s eighty percent forest. The trees here grow quickly. When the leaves have fallen but the snow has yet to obscure things, you can fly around in a small plane and get a clear picture of the way things once looked. The arrow-straight walls run off to the horizons, transforming the rolling geography into the ghost of a quilt, long since nibbled away by nature as she reclaims what was always hers.

As I crunched out through the field across the road from the house, I was lamenting the use of a modern electric fence to keep livestock in place, rather then the traditional wall. So many traditional, if labor intensive fixtures of life have disappeared from our culture. The modern solution, though simpler and faster, will simply not stand up to the test of time. That’s for sure.

I walked a bit farther on in the mist and could, in the silence of the countryside, just make out the sound of a brook somewhere. What my eyes I couldn’t see through the fog, I found by ear. As I got closer, the sound was beautiful and entrancing.

Download Running Brook 2.WAV

stones

The farmer had dug a huge drainage ditch to allow a stream to pass through this place with a minimum of flooding come spring. It measured easily ten feet wide and was roughly five feet deep in a smooth half pipe curve. The entire bed of it, he had lined in beautiful round stones, doubtless from his fields. Beneath the layer of rocks came the sound of a hidden run or water, showing its self only briefly here and there before once again vanishing under the bits and pieces of broken and smoothed mountain tops. This, the traditional building material of the northeastern farmer, will endure, and that makes me smile.

Our Oldest Fear

As I sit on the couch in our living room, I can just make out a faint, sweet, tuneless singing floating down from Short Stack’s room. It’s past bed time. Actually, it’s WAY past bed time but the tune, though incomprehensible to my adult ears makes me smile and I’m deeply happy to hear it percolate throughout our small house. This did not start out as a good night.

The day was normal enough. It’s the weekend and that means that my folks are here. They don’t live near by, nor even in the same state, but about three years ago they bought a small vacation home very close to us and for our kids, it has meant that Grandma and Grandpa are never out of the picture for long. This has been a boon to all parties involved.

Though Lulu Belle is pretty new on the scene, she has already spent a few nights over there with us. Short Stack, on the other hand, has slept over sans Mon and Dad, quite a lot. In fact, he spends almost every Friday night there and sometimes Saturday night too. This gives us a chance to go back to taking care of one child for a change and though we always talk about how we don’t want to leave him there as we drive the short distance back to our own house, there’s no denying that it makes life way easier and provides us with a little respite from juggling two small children. It also give my Mom and Dad a chance to spend some magical time with It’s a good deal all the way around.

This time though, my folks are here for an extended stay. They will be around for a whole week including weekends. Short Stack had spent the last two nights there and my parents, fully embracing the grandparent life and the chance to keep a beloved child who now sleeps through the night, had offered to keep him sunday night as well. Action Girl and I had hemmed and hawed about this. She works late on Sunday night and eventually fobbed the decision of his slumber party off on me. I finally decided to fob the decision off on Short Stack. If he wanted to stay, then he could.

He did.

Like every other little kid, Short Stack likes routine. There’s not a lot of his life that he has direct control over and having an expected way for things to unfold day after day provided him with a sense of safety. At Grandma’s and Grandpa’s, he has a ritual bed time routine and they stick to it. Normally, all goes well. Normally.

Tonight, all went according to plan as usual and it looked like he’d be asleep in no time. I had stuck around while my Father put him to bed and chatted with Mom. So far, so good. My Dad went off to shower and our conversation dropped in volume to allow little kiddos to drift off to sleep. Then, after ten minutes, there was a strange cry. Mom and I looked at each other and she went up to investigate. Finding nothing the matter, she returned and we continued to talk. Another few minutes and then another strange cry, this time kind of panicky. I bolted up the stairs and went into the room. There he was, standing on his bed with arms out, practically leaping into my arms.

“What’s dat?” He pointed at the wall with an accusatory finger.

I looked and say nothing but wall. “What do you mean, buddy? What do you see?” I learned a long time ago to listen to him when he says he sees something. The kid has the eyes of an eagle and misses nothing.

“Up dare. What’s dat over the bed?!”

I looked again and it slowly came into view. A faint, odd shaped stripe went up the wall just above his bed. It was being thrown by the meager wattage of his night light. I tapped my finger on the spot and asked, “Is this what you mean? This stripe on the wall?”
“Yah. What is dat?”

I did my best to explain, but Short Stack was having none of it. When I pit him back in bed, he burst into tears. I did my best to talk him down from the edge and once things seemed to get back to normal, I headed back down. Almost immediately, the crying started again. This time, he made clear his wishes to be brought home. So, an hour after bedtime, he was buckled in, PJ’s and all, and we were heading towards his own bed.

All I can figure is that he got scared of the dark. All the way, as we drove home, he talked about it being dark out. As I listened, I thought that the dark was the most basic thing to fear. It’s the one thing that at some time in all our lives, has unnerved us. It had peen a part of man kind from the very beginning.

Not much has scared Short Stack yet. Thunder barely gets his notice. People, are just people to him and animals of all types are to be studies and puzzled over. In his scope of experience, there just isn’t much to be afraid of. That makes this night rather poignant. It marks the beginning of the fear of the unknown.

I knew it was coming since at some point, it comes to us all. I can remember being huddled under the covers in my own bed, sure that I wasn’t completely safe, though I could hear my parents breathing not more than a few dozen feet away, in their room. I think of all the times I walked home after dark and watched an approaching black hole in the string of street lights with trepidation. We tend to fear what we can’t see and darkness is our ultimate place of uncertainty.

I tucked him in his familiar bed and did my best to reassure him that he was home and safe. As an added comfort, I switched on his little planetarium, and happy little stars appeared all over the walls and celling, casting a friendly glow. A kiss on his head and down stairs I went to deal with getting Lulu Belle ready for her night as well. His singing has stopped now and at this point, his planetarium had clicked off of it’s own accord. It’s dark in the house and other than the glow of the computer screen, his night light is all that makes navigation around the various toys possible. I feel sorry that he get so scared tonight as inevitable as it eventually was. At least we can all understand why. It’s somewhere we’ve all been before.

You’ll shoot your eye out, Kid. Part II

I figured that since I seemed to have the trust of my folks, this wouldn’t be an impossible sell. Hard, I was sure, but not impossible. I scoped out the toy store and found what I wanted. I gathered all the particulars: price, availability, safety goggles, specs and formed my case for getting it in my mind. I waited for the right moment to make my plea. A few months before my next birthday was perfect. Not to late, so that they would have already bought presents but not too early either, so that they might forget.

I would be turning 10 and I thought that I was ready for such an item. The moment was finally ripe and ready to pick and I walked up to my parents like a lawyer before the Supreme Court and stated my case. I laid it all out as matter-of-factly as possible. To my horror, my dad (who had just recently finished out his time in the military and attained the rank of platoon sergeant) barely looked up from his news paper and stated flatly, “No way. Not a chance.”

I was dumbfounded. I figured that it would be Mom that would throw up road blocks, not Dad! I knew that he had grown up shooting real guns on the farm when he was younger than I was. He had been IN the military, for Pete’s sake! I was astonished that he would not even take the subject up for debate.

My father is a very good man. He can be goofy and playful. He’s always honest and will do what ever he can to help when ever possible, but… BUT, when he says “no”, that was the end of the discussion. Zero room to wiggle was given and I learned early on that to push it was a fruitless move that only brought trouble. All I was left with was to ask why in the most non-whiny way possible. He looked me in the eye and said, “It’s too much like a toy, but it’s not a toy. It’s almost a gun, but not quite. People treat them too lightly and I don’t want you to have the temptation and underestimate what it can do. You can’t have one. I’m sorry. End of story.”

Crushed, I went on with my plastic cap guns and tried not to linger too much in front of the BB gun display at the toy store. I wanted one so bad that it hurt. I can still remember the longing and I will forever feel a special kinship with Ralphie from “A Christmas Story”. The only difference was that he GOT his Red Rider BB Gun. I never would. I could bank on that.

The next few months rolled by and my birthday came and went. I’m sure I got some neat stuff, but I honestly don’t recall what. A week or so later, Dad and I went on a road trip to visit his folks, my Grandma and Grandpa. They lived about two hours away and since they didn’t drive too much and both my folks worked, we didn’t see them all that often. Visits were always special and I remember them fondly, filled to the brim with cigarette smoke, coffee mugs and a huge german shepherd named King, who, though friendly, scared the hell out of me.

We came in and gave out hugs and had some lunch. After the plates were cleared, my Grandfather stood up and told me to follow him to living room. When we got there, he reached behind a warn chair and pulled out… a rifle. A .22, single shot, bolt action rifle, to be specific. He opened the bolt to make sure it was empty and handed it to me, telling me to keep it pointed at the ceiling. Never having seen a real gun other than those carried by policemen, I was in awe and held it like it was made of glass and diamonds.

A REAL rifle! “That’s really neat”, I said, or something approximately goofy.

“It’s for you.”, he replied.

My eyes must have been the size of dinner plates.

*Last bit tomorrow*

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