Harry’s Summer Cottage

In the sixties, we may have been the only Findlays living in Canada, but we weren’t the only Tompsons.  My mother’s Uncle Harry lived near Toronto, a two hour drive west.  Along with his older brother Jack and his mother Kate, Harry had immigrated to Canada in the years between the world wars.  He was a short quiet man with an infectious though infrequent laugh.  In his late forties, his hair grayed around his temples. Harry smelled of dark leathery Cavendish tobacco, a scent warm and comfortable and as part of him as the dark briar pipe perched constantly at the edge of his mouth.

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Harry’s hands and arms were calico from some mysterious childhood scalding. In his twenties he had gone off to war in Europe and spent two years in a German POW camp, though he never talked of it.

“You be polite and don’t ask a lot of silly questions.” my parents warned us. And though I managed to stifle my curiosity, I could not resist the temptation to run my hands along his mottled skin. The bleached white hairless patches on his hands and arms gave him the impression of a pencil portrait half drawn.  A black and white composition partially erased. Harry was different, interesting, kind but guarded, a man full of histories we were forbidden to uncover.

In addition to his home in Toronto, Harry and Jack owned a cottage a few hours to the north, near the town of Barrie on Lake Simcoe. On at least two occasions we vacationed there during the summer with Harry, Jack and sometimes Kate joining us on the weekends. The place wasn’t actually on the lake shore, but a short walk down a hedge lined gravel road would find us on the pebbled beach of one of the largest lakes in southern Ontario.  The cottage is one of my favorite summer memories, safe and secluded and appointed with old and quirky furnishings.

Water in the kitchen was drawn by a hand pump over the sink.  In the bathroom, the water tank hung on the wall above the toilet and was flushed by pulling on a wooden handled chain.  Outside the bathroom door, secured to the wall, a cartoon plaque with a rotating arrow could be pointed to a description of the activity of the occupant.  Takin’ a nap, soaking the laundry, sitting and thinking, were but a few of the humorous possibilities.  On a side table in the living room stood a party-line candle-stick telephone that rang in patterned staccato to indicate to which party the call belonged.  But for me, the most fascinating feature of Harry’s cottage was a 1930’s floor model RCA Victor dial-tube radio. It was a thing of beauty.

Harry found humor in my fascination. The radio stood nearly four feet tall, towering over me as I knelt before it, inspecting its knobs, buttons and toggles.  I admiringly ran my fingers along the ornate carving of the wooden panels. The handcrafted oak encasing the mysterious internal electronics shone with the well-polished pride of a prized possession.  Harry had kept it in perfect condition. His amusement and pleasure were evident as I asked with excitement if I could turn it on.

“Sure, give her a go.” He said.

My hand grasped the large brown knob on the face of the radio and turned. It offered surprising resistance. I applied more pressure. Was I turning it the right way?  And then…Click!  But there was nothing. Silence!

Instinctively I crawled around the base to make sure the device it was plugged into the wall socket.  Yes, all was in order.  I looked to Harry, afraid perhaps I had done something wrong, or God forbid, broken the electronic wonder. But Harry just stood there, looking down at me, bemused.

I looked to the dial face.  A warm yellow-white light dawned in the numbered glass. A slight hum emanated from within the frame accompanied by the low familiar “shhhh” of the white noise between radio frequencies.  Harry’s expression warmed, matching the glow of the vacuum tubes slowly coaxing the old radio to life.

“There she goes. She’s getting a bit long in the tooth now,” he added. Bending down slightly he pointed with his milky white finger.  “That’s the tuner.”

The tuning knob felt large and cumbersome in my small hand but turned with surprising ease and fluidity. The red transit line passed across the numbers on the display face.  Fractional, static smeared snippets of popular songs, commercials, and news, crackled from a large speaker concealed behind brown fabric and slotted wood.

I was thrilled, yet unexpectedly disappointed.  My unsophisticated brain had imagined the old radio would play only old broadcasts, “The Shadow” or “Little Orphan Annie”.  Or perhaps the music would be same as the 78 records we had played on my grandmother’s old wind up Gramophone.  Song’s like Gene Austin’s “Love letters in the Sand” or Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy”.  It was strange, a warp in the fabric of time, like watching Bing Crosby sing The Rolling Stones.

At the summer cottage, my brothers and I would fill our days swimming in the lake or playing croquet in the yard.  Some days were taken up with marathon monopoly sessions, making up our own special rules, building and going bankrupt around the kitchen table.  Mother would make us lunch of cucumber sandwiches, potato chips and pickles eaten outside at the picnic table or sitting with our Kool-Aid balanced on the arms of the brightly painted Adirondack Chairs.

In the evenings we played crazy eights or other card games. But many nights I would just lie on the rug-covered hardwood floor listening to the music playing low on the old radio. My parent’s and uncles sitting around me, their laughter and voices murmuring, I was surrounded by the furnishings of an old movie and accompanied by the soundtrack of the sixties. I would listen until the music and the voices faded and I would fall asleep and dream radio dreams of The Lone Ranger and Superman.

Breakfast Junkies

Often, a Sunday morning will find my wife and me going out for breakfast. We have a few places we favor and occasionally we choose the retro store with the restaurant attached, Cracker Barrel.  Without fail, the place is packed.

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This morning was no different. At least 40 people were playing checkers and sitting in rocking chairs ahead of us, a twenty minute wait the greeter informed us. And sure enough, before our demeanor slipped into “hangry”, we were at a table with a menu, a cup of coffee, and a glass of tea.

So how do they do it?  I mean there’s only a couple of ways you can order an egg for breakfast. You fry them, scramble them, or fold them into an omelet. Yet, every weekend there’s a line out the door of breakfast junkies looking to get their Old Timer fix. I just don’t get it.

Sure, there’s the allure of shopping for everything your Granma ever wanted, but is that enough to explain it?  I don’t think so. There’s got to be something else.  And then it occurred to me.  It came to me like a side of grits with biscuits and saw-mill gravy. There’s something in the eggs. Let’s break it down.

CRACKer Barrel. Huh? Yeah? You feel it?  Makes sense now, right?  You can’t see it, smell it, or even taste it, but it’s gotta be in there, Crack!  I’m surprised they haven’t been caught out on the street corner offering the first egg for free… or haven’t they?  I’ve never been in the kitchen, but I wouldn’t be amazed to discover the eggs over-easy being handed to the server through a slot in a heavy steel door. I mean if they aren’t all jacked up on something, how do you explain how they churn tables like a Ford assembly line?  I had to prove this theory.

So I snuck out a portion of scrambled eggs in a napkin, and made my way through the parking lot full of cars and Fedora’d chickens in pale gray trench-coats, to a small pharmacy run by a guy I know.  In a matter of hours I had the answer, Omega 3’s, my friend.  Omega 3’s! That’s right!  Alpha – Omega!  The beginning and the end!  It was crystal clear to me and I looked at my wife, who had faithfully remained by my side, and recognized the knowing look in her eyes.

I looked at her.  She looked at me. And she spoke the words we had both suspected.

“Hey, perhaps twelve cups of coffee is not such a good thing for you!”

Sam

My dog, a lab, is mostly manic

With only occasional bouts of panic

At thunderstorms and fireworks

Set off at night by thoughtless jerks.

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By nature she is always happy

And even when I’m feeling crappy,

At the door, my ass a draggin’

She greets me with her tail a waggin’.

 

She seems to find no imposition,

My sometimes surly disposition

And meets me still with love and gratitude,

Despite my curt and sour attitude.

 

Those times when I’m not glad to be me,

She is never sad to see me

Reminding me when this occurs,

To be less like me, and more like her.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Find and Lose your First Love in 24 Hours or Less

At ten years old my social circle extended no further than my immediate family, a few classmates, and the small group of kids sharing the same path on the way to and from school. This tiny band of side-walk travelers included my younger brother John, my best friend Jamie Thompson, Beverly Watts (the tallest girl in the class) and Cathy O’Neil.  Cathy O’Neil was the most perfect combination of blonde curls, ribbons, ankle socks and black patent leather shoes.

dejectedI had met her the previous year in the fifth grade and we had hung out a few times during summer camp. By the time we were half way through the sixth grade, I was completely smitten.  Running to catch up with her on the way to school, lingering until she appeared at the top of the street, I had it bad.

I knew I liked her. I really, really liked her.  But the word love never occurred to me.  I loved Batman and Lost in Space, I mean who didn’t.  I loved my Mom, but that was different, using the same word to describe with my feelings towards Cathy would just be creepy.  No, I needed another word. I wanted to tell Cathy how I felt about her and I needed to express myself in such a way she would understand the depth of my passion. I was determined to let her know how I felt before the end of the school year.  Seventh grade meant changing schools and perhaps, well who could tell what might happen during the long months of summer vacation.

The days of spring were coming to a close. I was running out of time so I finally decided to tell Cathy just how I felt.  We were walking home as usual, and as we approached the corner where our paths diverged, she turned to raise her hand in a parting wave.  I gathered my courage and hurrying to her I leaned in and said in a quiet voice the words sure to send quivers through the spine of any female. She stood there looking at me.  Her eyes widened as my heart raced with anticipation.  Her face blushed. She turned quickly and ran away.

Well, clearly I had made an impression.  Of course she was embarrassed. She’d probably never experienced such a sophisticated suitor.  I was proud of myself. I walked the rest of the way home confident tomorrow she would be more composed and ready to share similar feelings towards me.

The next day Cathy O’Neil was not in school.  How disappointing.  I hoped she wasn’t ill.  But I’d see her tomorrow or the next day.  Class dragged on like the day before Christmas, but at last the final bell rang.  We all grabbed our books and stuffed them into our desks and tumbled out of our seats in the mad dash for the door.  Our teacher, Miss Richards, called me back.  “Robert, I need to have a word with you!” I was in such good spirits, being held after school couldn’t darken my mood.

She sat at her desk considering how to proceed. “Do you know what the word rape means?”

I don’t recall the exact circumstances as to when I first heard the term “statutory rape”, probably an over-heard adult conversation quickly terminated upon my entering the room.  Or maybe I heard a sound bite from a T.V. news broadcast. But regardless of the method of my exposure, the extent of my comprehension extended only to a vague idea that rape had something to do with sex, and all I knew about sex was first there was kissing, moaning possibly, and a few minutes later, a cigarette. What statues had to do with it all was clearly beyond me.  I certainly didn’t understand rape is to sex what strangulation is to having a sore throat.  All I really knew was I had stumbled upon a shiny new word to place in the treasure chest of my lexicon until there arose an inappropriate time to use it.

So to the amazement of us both, I had no satisfactory response to her straight forward question. She followed with another.

Did you tell Cathy O’Neil that you would like to rape her?” she insisted.  I felt my face begin to redden.  I was speechless and I stood there staring at her.  My look of shock and embarrassment at the revelation my affection toward Cathy O’Neil gave her all the answer she required.  She sighed; relieved to know she was dealing with a mere idiot and not a sexual deviant.

At her instruction, I read the definition of rape in the dictionary.  I mouthed the words slowly and in silence. I still didn’t quite understand it all, and it didn’t seem like the right time to be asking questions but, Oh my God.  Why hadn’t I thought to look up the word before?  I felt small and insignificant and horrified at what I had said to the prettiest girl in the world.

“But I really like Cathy.” I finally managed.

She gave me a “You poor dumb bastard?” kind of look.

My world was shattered.  The day before I had been a boy enthralled by an innocent affection towards a girl I truly cared for.  I had hopes of a great summer spent in each other’s company. I’d rape her, she’d rape me back. And, after a respectable period of time, perhaps a week or two, we may even hold hands and kiss.

I think you should probably stay away from Cathy for a while.” she said at last.  “I’ll let her know that it was a mistake and that you didn’t mean what you said.” 

I walked home under a cloud of shame and disappointment over my failed attempt to win the affection of the fairer sex.  Cathy O’Neil never spoke to me again.  Over the summer she moved away, her father transferred to New Brunswick with the Canadian Air-Force.  Though saddened, I was still aware of how lucky I had been. Miss Richards hadn’t mentioned talking to my parents or the Royal Canadian Mounties for that matter.

In the age before Title Nine, social and political correctness, such a grievous error committed by a clueless twit, could still be resolved without a court hearing or mandated sexual counseling.  Writing 300 times on five sheets of paper, front and back was sufficient.

I will not rape Cathy O’Neil.

I will not rape Cathy O’Neil.

I will not rape Cathy O’Neil.

The Bones on the Wall

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A few years back, my wife and I took a trip to Scotland with my brothers and their spouses.  We travelled back to the land of our birth to scatter the ashes of my mother and father over the waters of their beloved homeland.  After fulfilling our parent’s wishes, my younger brother and his wife drove north to explore the ruins of castles, while my older sibling and his wife joined and me and mine heading south for a cruise of the Mediterranean.  We ported in Niece, Monte Carlo, Sicily and my favorite destination Rome.

I had long been fascinated by the eternal city, the history of the empire, the accomplishments, conquests and abuses of the emperors, the rise and fall of one of the greatest civilizations in the history of the world.  Upon arrival in Rome, through the brilliant foresight of my sister-in-law, we were not limited to a crowded ship sponsored excursion.  She had arranged for our party to be picked up dockside by our own personal driver who escorted us for the entire day on a private tour of the city and its many sights.

Instead of just one or two locations, we visited all the places most favored by tourists, The Colosseum, Circus Maximus, The Trevy Fountain, The Pantheon and Vatican City to name but a few.  But for me by far, the most fascinating stop in our long day was not to be found on any cruise line brochure.

The Capuchin Crypt is a collection of six small chapels beneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto.  The walls of the chapels are adorned with the skeletal remains of friars who have been buried in and exhumed from the holy soil (carted by the friars from Jerusalem) beneath the church. Macabre does not begin to describe it.

Despite what has been written about the place, both by the Catholic Church and its detractors, I find it still to be a curiosity, not only historically, but for what it reveals about human nature and our desire for immortality.

On average, a friar could expect to rest for thirty years or so before being dug up to make room for the next newly departed. I recall in amazement the dark bones decorating the walls in each of the small rooms, and it occurs to me how much like memories are the remains of those holy men, buried, almost forgotten, then dug up and exposed by some unforeseen event.  Those bones speak to me as I write.

I rediscovered writing in a Life Story class at my local library.  I always regretted not having recorded the remembrances of my parents.  After their passing, I had only the shadows of the stories they imparted to me as a child.  At first I thought writing my story was about sparing my own children the same sense of disappointment, but I came to realize it was more about telling my own journey in my own voice.  It was about telling it for me, more than anyone else.  I want to write down what I recall, while I still recall it.  My father died of complications of Alzheimer’s and the ghost of his infliction haunts me still.

And so I started digging up the bones.  Like the Capuchin friars, I sift the sacred ground of my memories, unsure of what I might discover, recovering pieces buried for decades, one fragment leading to another.  I pull them out and arrange them on the wall, the pages of my journal.  It’s not a popular tourist stop, just an obscure little place stumbled upon occasionally by people looking for something else entirely, known perhaps only by the locals or a few invited guests.

So far I have only dug in familiar ground, focusing in one or two rooms where the light is good and the floor soft and shallow.  But I know there are other rooms where greater force will be required to break the surface, where the shadows cling not so closely to the corners.  But whatever I uncover in those dark places, the bones on the walls will be my own.

A Walk With My Father

old-man-and-young-man-walkingOne evening in the summer of 1999, I was walking with my father. We were returning home from The Swan, a local pub in the coastal town of Stranraer, Scotland.  My brother and I had come with our families to visit my parents.  It was the first time we had seen them in the three  years since they had returned to Scotland from the United States.  

A chill air surrounded us as we walked through the close streets of the town.  It was June, but the weather was still cool and damp, and as we made our way past darkened store fronts I told him of my impending divorce and my concerns about moving out of my home and setting up a new household. I was worried about my ability to care for my children on a diminished income and how to provide stability, despite their changing environment?   We walked for a few moments in silence and then he uttered the words that haunt me still.  

In his thick Scottish brogue he said, “My father died when I was 14.  He never gave me anything but the back of his hand!  And I was happy to have it.”

In 1969, by the time I was 12 years old, I had watched nearly every episode of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Andy Griffith and My Three Sons.  With research conducted via after school re-runs and prime-time family viewing, I considered myself an expert on the structure and function of the American Nuclear Family.  Of course the head of the household was always male, a sober white-collared engineer or architect, strong but kind, firm but fair. Mothers, if there were one, for mothers could often be replaced by curmudgeonly old uncles, maids or a trusted man-servant, were always of the beautifully coiffed, perfectly appointed, stay at home, and supper on the table variety.  Children, one to three were an acceptable number, were handsome, respectful, and constantly getting into the type of problems that could be resolved within 30 minutes allowing ample time for commercials.

No childhood indiscretion was so calamitous that an appropriate solution could not be found within the bounds of a good firm talking to. There were no spankings, no angry fathers yelling, no children made to feel terrified or inadequate for their ignorance of the far-flung consequences of an un-made bed or a bad report card.  No standing stiffly with an outstretched hand in anticipation of the quick snap of a leather belt and the steel resolve not to flinch and suffer the consequence of another.

I cannot remember an incident for which my father apologized.  It wasn’t in his nature.  And how can we learn to avoid mistakes unless we learn to recognize them for what they are?  We are after all, nothing more than the sum of our experience.  We learn from what we observe and choose to imitate or ignore the example of those that hold influence over us.

My father mellowed with time, especially in his later years. I had long ago forgiven him for any perceived injustices when on that long walk home he told me of the loss of his father at such an early age and of their broken relationship.  But in 1969 without the benefit of foresight and with the dauntless indignation that is the dominion of all 12 year old boys, I thought my father had simply grown up without a T.V.

 

The Thief in the Attic

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Unnoticed and uninvited, the Thief took up residence in my father’s attic. He had infiltrated with such stealth, for years no one suspected he was there. At first,the trickster stole only little things, picked them up, moved them about. My father would search for something in one place and it would be found in another. These misplaced items were easy to ignore.

“Oh it’s not important, it’ll turn up somewhere”, he would say and sure enough, a few days later, there it was. But then it would be lost again.

But the swindler grew more daring and my father became increasingly concerned as more of his riches began to disappear and so we suggested that he consult an expert in this type of criminal activity.

“Ah yes!” said the specialist.  “There is definitely a burglar in your house.  I would say that he’s been there for quite some time now.”

“What can be done for it?” my father inquired.

“We can try barring the doors and windows.”

“Will that keep the bugger out?”

“No, no.” said the specialist,“The rascal is already in your loft, there’s nothing we can do about that.  I’m afraid you’re going to have to live with him for now.”

“Ach!  Then what bloody good will the bars do?” asked my father with much irritation.

The expert responded wryly “It will slow him down as he removes your possessions.”

My father and I agreed this was not a very satisfying answer at all.

The barriers were installed and for a time, my father’s assets seemed more secure. But after a while the thief learned how to get around the obstacles that had been set up against him and once again my father’s articles began to vanish. In a few short years he had lost most all he had acquired throughout his lifetime, his place so bare it was unrecognizable. As a last resort, my father moved into a new home but to his surprise he found that the scoundrel had preceded him, and furthermore, many of the other people who lived there had also been robbed of their holdings.

The nefarious villain pursued my father now with relentless fervor, stealing from him with increasing frequency and boldness.  With cruel audacity he began replacing my father’s dearest possessions with items completely unfamiliar to him.  “Whose picture is that?”my father would say, or “where did this come from?”

Eventually, the vile miscreant had stolen every last thing of value and with the balance of his life depleted, my father teetered, fell and broke his hip. Several days later in his single act of kindness, the Thief crept into the hospital room and stole away his suffering.

The thief has been glimpsed but twice since my father’s death.  As the last of the old man’s things were being boxed for charity, the culprit was spied skulking room to room, filling his gunny sack with the meager fortunes of those already harshly dispossessed. He was seen again at the memorial service where he was recognized as the architect of my father’s long farewell. Despite having stolen so much from so many, his appetite for plunder was insatiate and as he scrutinized the solemn gathering for any future acquisition, our eyes met and I turned quickly away.