Hashtag throwback Thursday. Remember that Joni Mitchell song with its melancholy opening lines of “it’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees, they’re putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace” well we’re living it now. It’s funny isn’t it, how sometimes the melancholy creeps in to the most beautiful time of year. Winter with its peaceful cold, that makes you curl up beneath blankets or makes you stir soups in scratched pots. Christmas always seem to come to me with all of its ghosts. It is as though I am looking through a window heavy with condensation to see it again. I try to take the time in between the shopping, to praise those moments of the past and all of the loved ones who are no more but surround us. Yesterday, my niece posted a photograph on her Instagram of my mother’s old nut grinder. Clearly the praise runs in my family. She and my sister were making Christmas cookies and all at once, in the photograph of a vintage nut grinder was my mother again. All at once, there was the set table, the candles, the tree. There was the flour and walnuts. My mother let me turn the little handle to break them up just as she did my sister and brothers and just as she did with my niece and nephews. There is the plate of Italian snowball cookies. Here is the ornament she picked out on my tree. In the quiet of morning, there is my mother and grandmother. There are my aunts. There is the bottle of wine and the Lucky Strikes. I still have a set of Charles Dickens books she gave me one Christmas, and I still have a sweater she gave me, but the gifts are the least of it, it was the hand that picked up the books and thought I might like them and now is no more. In the quiet I praise her ordinary life which was to me extraordinary. There is the food on the table and here always surrounding me is my family.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Last night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series ending a 108-year drought. That is generations of time. I watched it, old man that I am, and was brought back again and again as the game got late. This is what old men do while watching baseball. They go back into their memory and remember the past. They remember their own dirt lot pickup games. The shuffling around in the dust waiting to get picked, and then picked punching their glove, spitting into it to make the leather supple and shine. They remember the lot itself. The scrubby parcel of unused land transformed by the possibilities of youth into a World Series stadium. Always game seven, bottom of the ninth, two out. Then to the glove itself, the one that sits in my father’s closet and has a story all its own, and then to my father who I imagined already asleep on his chair in the bottom of the sixth. Himself, I’m sure having thought about games of catch with his son on a black tar driveway. But back again, to the lineups. To the bartender’s son and mechanics sons and postal worker’s son. To the girls who watched at a distance, knowing the sides to be uneven because they could count and who waited to be called, and then when called mimicked the kick and spit and scratch of us before the seriousness of the game began. The loudest one, the most beautiful one, is the girl I secretly liked. All at once then, in the rain delay, there she is again on the field before the game hitting grounders to us. Calling to us and hitting pop-flies that we caught and caught and caught. The loudest and funniest. The unafraid. She slid into second in shorts and scraped her knee and threw dirt on it, clapping the dust off of her. When I watch the World Series, I go back to when I was in it, on a patch of garbage lot on the east side of Buffalo, New York. I see my mother and father. My brothers and my sister. My red-haired friend and our associates. I see my secret crush. I see them all. I imagine them not as they are now, in the midst of divorce, or checking their bank accounts, or eating dinner with their aged parents, I see them as they were. I feel the leather and spit. The choking of the dust. The yelling and jeering. I see them in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs. We are down by two. The count is full and our team’s girl is up. My not so secret crush. We all cheer her on, and that cheer echoes over time from Buffalo to Dallas to North Carolina and Cleveland and Chicago. It’s the cheer that whispers you got this, and you can do it, and we all believe in you. This is what comes to the old men watching the World Series and it doesn’t matter if their team wins or loses, it’s the moment of reflection on time and its connection to all of the most beautiful things in your life that counts.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. You wouldn’t know it from this photograph of my brothers and sister on the east side of Buffalo, New York, but my mother loved Halloween. I’m not sure what it was exactly. Maybe it was the scores of kids that ran along the lawns and hopped bushes to get to the next house to yell trick or treat. It could have been the jostling kids standing before her in their handmade or cheaply bought costumes with their plastic masks on the top of their sweaty heads so they could breathe again, bags outstretched and eyes looking. The community of it. The way the neighborhood transformed itself and forgot its problems for a moment. Maybe it was our own excitement at the prospect of candy and freedom of the night that she saw in us. Maybe it was the way she saw us concentrate on cutting up our masks, helping us with the details. Or maybe it was the idea that for one night you could become someone else. You could be unhurried, less tired, financially secure, and young again. Innocent again. Seven years ago today, my mother passed away. The Halloween decorations were in all the windows and on the 31st on a grey morning, we said our last goodbye to her. Here is something to remember, no matter how much you want the world to pause when someone you love leaves, it doesn’t. Halloween doesn’t stop when your mother dies, and so that night, my brothers and I, took our children out trick or treating. We told them to walk, but they ran. They joined the throngs of Batman’s and Spiderman’s, the Harry Potters, chefs, Princesses, and the skeletons. My daughter was a bedsheet ghost with eyes cut out that got turned the wrong way and she stumbled along behind the group until we righted her again and restored her vision. Her eyes were huge and longing and she ran to the next house and we stood on the sidewalk in the distance watching. The monster’s and robots and superhero’s racing from house to house or comparing the weight of their bags. For a moment I forgot my grief. Everything went away as a white ghost skipped down the sidewalk and I saw what I knew my mother must have seen on Halloween.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. I am throwing it back in honor of the beginning of the school year. Here I am on the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is the first day of school. I have not yet mastered the art of tying my shoes or buttoning my coat, but that is no matter. The day is monumental in my mind. Up to this point in my life, I was relegated to watching my brothers and sister from the front window as they walked to school. I observed them closely as they ate their breakfast in their little uniforms. When the door closed, I hurried to the couch that ran along the front windows, bent over the back, and pulled the curtain. There they went, beneath the red maple tree to school. School. It was a mystery. In my mind I imagined it a place of properness. Of books and learning. Of transformation. I wanted to know the names of the things in my life to give them definition and bring them into focus and make them clear. I was a serious child. I studied the words in the books my brothers and my sister brought back trying to make sense of them and my brothers saw this and used it to their advantage. Taunting me with words I didn’t know until I cried, which buoyed them and allowed them to continue their torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the end of the torment. Here is a photograph of the beginning of the definitions to the words I didn’t know. My mother is in my buttons and hat. She tells me to look at the camera and in that instant summer is washed away on an autumn wind, and with it, the mystery of school, the mystery of the world. I have taken flight. I walk on my stick legs two blocks to the mayhem of the schoolyard. I follow my sister who walks with purpose while my brothers lag behind, kicking at stones. At the corner I hear the shouts and yells from the yard and it becomes an orchestra warming up. We turn to the red brick of the building that seems to hold the blood of generations. I stand in awe and my brother pushes me forward into the undulating mass of school children who stop at a bell and get into line yammering until that too is silenced by a nun and we are ushered in quietly to the learning and becoming.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me circa 1984. The milk-fat of my baby years has disappeared in games of street hockey, bicycle riding, and general mischievousness. I am lengthening into awkwardness but haven’t noticed that about myself yet. Instead, I am sure of myself. Confident in the newfound freedom that library books secretly impart. Certain with the insights gleaned from careful observations of both the successes and failures of my brothers and my sister. I am a summer tan and beat sneakers and when I come to this photograph again and see myself, it is as though I am seeing myself for the first time. Joyce wrote "we walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves." This is what this photograph does for me. I see myself both stretching backwards and forwards in time. What is there to say about this photograph? There is nothing to say about this photograph. I am my mother and my father. I am my grandmother. I am my brothers and my sister. I am borrowed library books. I am my best friends. I am the backyard parties of my parents. The cigarette smoke and stories. I am the past and the future without knowing it. I am the precious moment between. Between youth and adult. Between then and now. Between confidence and doubt. Between new and rust. Between here and gone. In a click of a Kodak camera and the advance advance of the film I am stopped. This is what there is to say about this photograph. I am with my friend Doug. We have borrowed his mother’s car. We are parked near the Niagara River. I take a short path to a rock that I can jump off of and into a current that will pull me swiftly towards the falls. I am the cold water and the pulling of the current. I am summer and sunshine. I am the fish and the seagulls. I am the rocks that have traveled from Lake Superior to here which tumble on the river bed below and then drop from the height on their way to Lake Ontario. I am the river bank and the cool air. I am all of this and have no understanding that in some distant place I will forget this sometimes. You do. You forget that it is all here for you sometimes. You forget that the ordinary is extraordinary and you forget that it all disappears, or maybe you try not to remember that it does. It comes back to you though, in bits and pieces. In the way a song starts. In the way a river runs. In the way the light rises and then slips away. In a letter, or text. or post. In a jog of memory that the laugh of the person you love most brings back to you, and in a photograph of the you you were and the you you are and continue to be.
Hashtag Throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of the interior of Bob’s Galley circa 1981. Bob’s Galley was a little restaurant that made submarine sandwiches, hot dogs, and hamburgers. It was two blocks from our house. It was a little building with a big sloping carport like roof that jutted out over the pavement away from the building and towards the sidewalk. It had a foosball table and some arcade games, so naturally it was the main hangout for the children of the neighborhood, and naturally the older children of the neighborhood brought their menace to the younger children there because the younger children inevitably ruined their “cool” with members of the opposite sex. What I am trying to say is that it was just as normal for an older girl to mock and threaten a younger kid with her words and fists as it was for an older boy to do the same. Also there were cigarettes. They were stolen from the pocketbooks of mothers and the plastic cigarette holders of grandmothers. There was a perpetual cloud around the place, and that, coupled with threatening remarks from jean jacketed older kids was enough to imbue the place with the sort of dangerous hipness that we all wanted to belong in. I don’t have much to say about the place. It was a sort of free zone where the kids could hang out for hours nursing pop in paper cups and telling lies. It was a space outside of the eyes of the peering adults, where we tried at imitating them, in their angers, and sorrows, but also, and most importantly in their loves, in their big, big loves. Hands were placed in the back pockets of Levi’s. Cigarettes shared. Foosball games became competitions of masculine skill, both athletic and verbal. The girls dared and flirted. The high score of the Donkey Kong game lent itself to cryptic messages of love spelled out in three letters and displayed over and over again in between games. I watched it all, careful not to get beat up, or ridiculed. I was taking it all in, but Bob’s Galley had closed before I got to older kid status. I heard that the Italian guy who owned it, closed it to start a light bulb business supplying bulbs and electric supplies to retail business. He went into the light business. I remember Bob’s was replaced by a short-lived bicycle shop where I rebuilt a BMX bicycle. After that, it was nothing. I recently Google street viewed the building, because that it was what we do when we are old. We look back to make sense of the past and to bring it into the present so that it may live in the future. I clicked through the street view to the block on Bailey and Delavan where Bob’s stood. It sits abandoned in a cracked parking lot with grass sticking out in tufts. It is whitewashed and boarded up tight against the weather. I stopped and looked at it there on the screen. I could see the long hair and denim. I could hear the clack and rap of the foosball on the boards. I could feel the setting sun on my face and hear the swears and slurs and slaps. I could see the young loves loving to love that big love. The Orange Crush in a paper cup like a sun. It occurs to me, staring at the abandoned, dilapidated building, that Bob’s wasn’t so different from the light bulb place the old Italian guy started after it closed. That little place with the greasy burgers and submarine sandwiches and Donkey Kong and Foosball table that was populated by the bold and brash and beautiful kids trying at adulthood was pure golden light. I could feel it shining still, a bright, bright light against the currency of darkness.
Hashtag throwback Thursday to the Buffalo, New York of my youth. The light in every captured moment in the square of a photograph is something to be celebrated. I pulled out the shoebox of old photographs this morning. The ones that remind me of the long story of my life and contain the ordinary moments that I thought I had forgotten or maybe misremembered. This is the significance of the shoebox of old photographs. This is the significance of the family albums. It brings you back to yourself. It brings the people and moments that are gone back to you. Here is one that stopped me. It is a photograph of me with my mother, we are in Canada at the cottage my parents rented every year in the summer. We are in Lake Erie and it is a plate of glass. My brother is in the photograph too, and though you can’t see him, my father is in the photograph because he is the one who captured this moment. What was it that made him get off the blanket and pick up his camera? It was my mother. The way she loved the water and the beach. The way she loved the way it made us smile. We were fish, my brothers, my sister, and me, and my mother loved that, she could sit on the blanket with a book, or look out at us, or look out at the lake and remember herself. Every summer we went to the lake and we swam and we ate peaches and we fell asleep in the sun, and my mother made a tent out of towels over us so that we wouldn't burn. There are so few photographs of my mother at the cottage. But here she is again. She is standing in the water and I am looking up at her. I am forever frozen looking up to her. She is in the water. She is in the sky. She is blurred just a bit, but there she is again. She is Lake Erie and she is the light that my father saw and stopped what he was doing to stop her there. To hold her in that light with the knowledge that she would never disappear.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph of me from late last week. The lyrics Old man don't lay so still you're not yet young, there's time to teach, point to point, point observation, children carry reservations are in my mind. I am wearing my favorite yellow sweater. I have had it for over 25 years. It’s amazing to think about isn’t it? It is amazing to think about the everyday objects in our lives. The quiet meanings they impart. I don’t know what I am saying other than these are the things that move with us through life and carry us forward while whispering about where we have been. The way the sunlight doesn’t come this morning brings me back and illuminates the bent chain link fence of my youth where the bottom of my sweater snagged on the sharp top link and tore. I am thrust again to the east side of the Buffalo, New York of my beginnings. There again is the Archie Bunker of my neighborhood sitting on his porch. The gardens are brown and bent. There is Edith carrying a bag of groceries gingerly over the wet leaves stuck to the sidewalk. Meathead is on the corner in a cloud, smoking cigarettes by the boarded up bakery. Gloria is jumping rope. This throughout the day, day after day. The way the past comes over you in the most mundane of moments. When sleep has overcome the house, I check to make sure the door is locked and sit down, alone, in the lull. I listen to the song, King of Birds from the album Document and then listen to it again. Over and again. It is on the lowest of volume so that you have to really pay attention. In the instant, my brother is in his leather jacket again, leafing through his albums. Tells me I should listen to this one. All at once, it is autumn and I am the loneliness of the long distance runner. I am coming up the hill by the statue of Michelangelo’s David in Delaware Park, and there is my brother halfway up the hill dressed in black saying, looking good, looking good. The album cover is on my table and it becomes a portrait of him clapping on that slope. The house is quiet but for the thin strands of guitar that transport me some long way back to the edge of Lake Erie where I am running. The kitchen cupboard is quiet with the bowls of my mother and grandmother. When I use them, I put my hands where their hands once were. They are gone again. I leave myself on that hill, run my hand over the album cover. The song is a thin ghost playing on the quietest of volumes. The strum of the guitar over the wires and through the speakers fills the room with all of this, the television sets and leaves, the brown grocery bag, the stolen cigarettes, old crockery, leather jackets, hands that once held, Michelangelo and the narrow path of the cross-country course. It contains all of this and more and it grows and grows, and it gets so loud on the lowest of volumes.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. Here is a photograph from 1978. In the old days, photographs were printed and kept in books, or shoeboxes. They were pulled out and looked at and looked at and looked at until they bent and creased, and then they were unbent and smoothed back with the palm of a hand and looked at again. The smartest people wrote descriptions on the back of them, but the smartest people were usually the elderly, and by the time they thought to write on the backs they had forgotten many of the details associated with the photograph. Luckily, on the back of this photograph is written, “Doug, David, and Heather, 1978. USA.” USA here did not mean the country, it meant a skating rink just past the east side of Buffalo, New York. It is gone now. It was scraped away to make room for a big box store. A Home Depot. This is what they do now, they knock down the uniqueness and put in its place the sameness. USA. But on the back of this photograph USA stood for United Skates of America and the youth of our neighborhood and adjoining neighborhoods met there on Thursday and Friday and Saturday nights, ostensibly to skate, but more than likely to smoke, drink, and kiss. We were in the becoming stage. We were becoming ourselves and we were sampling it all. Fistfights were not uncommon, because what is becoming without a fight. It was always some squabble over a girl that was settled swiftly in the back lot where glass bottles lay empty. But enough of that. The music poured out of the speakers and into our ears and we moved, swirling in and around each other. The best skaters, of which group my oldest brother belonged, would look as though they were floating from blank space to blank space. Gliding between the slower skaters, moving in perfect sympathy with the music and in an instant becoming the music, becoming the physical embodiment of the music so that if you watched you were seeing the music in long arcs that weaved around and between the slower skaters who themselves, if you took the time to look, were lost in the music too. They were moving at their own speed while around them everything whirled and turned. Looking at this photograph and turning it over and reading the cursive, it occurred to me that many years later, after I am gone, this photograph will be found and the finder will have no reference to what the USA on the back stands for, they will think it is the country, and so this throwback. I throw it back so that the hallowed wooden floor of United Skates of America is not forgotten. So that the freedom of that floor is not lost. So that the beat up rental wall of skates still stands silent like a sculpture and like a sculpture carries with it the essence of that time and place. The essence was in the rusting cars and the factories where our fathers once worked. It was in the way we drank and smoked and worked at becoming adults. We lied and laughed and joshed and joked. We dressed in our best jeans and terry cloth shirts. What was it within me that stammered and halted as I went up to the girl with the eyes that shone like two wet stones and calmly asked her to skate? What was it within her that said yes? This is what we did. At the start of the slow songs, the lights went down and the rink thinned and the boys and girls of America asked each other to skate. Remarkably, I asked, and remarkably she took my hand and dragged me to the floor and we skated in a circle slowly. We talked and smiled and she took her hand, when it got sweaty, and wiped it on her jeans and then took my hand again, and wasn’t that something, I thought, the way she took it away and wiped it off and then reached for my hand again. In an instant it was over and the lights went back on and we were engulfed in the throng again. In the smell of alcohol and smoke. There was a cherry red skate box emblazoned with hot rod stickers advertising Moroso and STP under a bench. There was a paper plate with a cigarette bent into the center on a sticky table. Socks and paper cups crumpled on dirty rugs, but the music swept it all up into something beautiful and true. We found a place to be alone in that sea of becoming. We sat with our backs against a wall, our knees touching each other, everything new and pressing. The moments ripping away towards the unknown tomorrows but we leaned in closer against it, certain of each other, certain that nothing would hold us back, that we would be propelled cleanly into the America of our golden future, whirling and turning through the obstacles and defeats smoothly. We would be hooting and hollering and turning and slashing and slowing to take it all in, to hold tight to the freedom of that moment for all of our moments. Looking at us again stopped on that thin sheet of photo paper I remember the details; I turn the photograph over, smooth it out with the palm of my hand and beneath the USA write United Skates of America. The rest of the words are on the front. In the image on the front if you look close enough you can make out the words USA, and freedom, and youth, and yearning, and innocence, and truth, and hope.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. When I last visited Buffalo I came across some old notes in a box in my father’s basement. Old handwritten grade school notes that were surely passed to me through intermediaries in a snowy parking lot at recess or stealthily, from hand to hand, while a teacher wrote in loops on a chalkboard, until it reached me. That former me, the eight-year-old me in a navy shirt and navy pants. My hair blonde and new. I was full of love and curiosity and imagination. I was Wayne Gretzky and Gilbert Perreault. While my brothers poured gasoline on Big Wheels on the train tracks by my grandmother’s house, I read old books from the library and leafed through the old photographs of my parents. Of that time before me. There they were strong in the sunlight of the Alleghany Mountains. I am getting ahead of myself, I should slow down so as not to forget any of it. A statue of the Virgin Mary stood in a corner of our classroom with her palms outturned in mute appeal. The note folded and then folded again and then passed to me and unfolded and saved and forgotten until now. It occurs to me, all these years later, in light of Paris and San Bernardino, in light of cancer, and old age, how quickly we are here and then gone. How we try and try to hold on to the moments which keep slipping away. The edges of those memories blurring like old photographs. We live and then we disappear, we come from somewhere and then we go somewhere. In that parking lot youth of our hockey games, our sticks scraped in chops along the snow, our yells and shouts echoed off of the red wall of the school and faded as we rushed back and forth beneath a gray sky that to us was golden. The school itself, where our brothers and sisters went, and where our parents went, is closed for good now. What was the first to go? The hardware store? The bakery? The grocery store? Which building was the first to be boarded up? In those moments, the note, that had been passed to me, carried with it a monumental significance. It carried with it, not only the love of the girl who lived on Roebling Avenue, but of her existence and in turn mine too. I kept them all in a shoebox and hid them from my brothers who surely would have used them to burn bonfires on the tracks against the snow that fell and would continue to fall. I stowed them away, carefully, and then forgot about them. And then the children of that time scattered to New York, and Charlotte, and Dallas. They are in New Orleans, and Boulder, and Seattle. They are holding the hands of their mother in a hospital. They are visiting with their father in a room in Buffalo on an unseasonably warm and bright day before a holiday. In the photographs in our family albums, with notes and dates written by my mother on the back, I find my brothers again. I find my sister again. There they are as they used to be, and I can smell the gasoline on them. There is the school with the Fallout Shelter sign above the door that recessed back into the building, a perfect spot where my brothers bent to kiss the girls of their youth. Where they passed bottles of Genesee Cream Ale stolen from the refrigerators of their friends fathers, and here I am holding a cup of pop in the sunlight, and here again in the folded note of a girl whose eyes shone like wet stones. In the sweetness of a note I am reminded again of myself and that time. Of skating parties and holding the sweaty hand of a girl who wrote a note and passed it to that former me. I am reminded of that period where everything was opening and nothing was closing. Before I realized that after everything is gone, the photographs remain, the writing remains, the words remain and with them, in some small way, we remain.
Hashtag throwback Thursday. This past weekend driving through my neighborhood I saw three little girls chasing each other with spray bottles on a square of green in their front lawn, squirting each other with water and laughing in the sun. Is this what old age is? The noticing of the tiniest of moments that surround you and then send you hurtling backwards in time and space. Here is a photograph of me and my sister. It is summer on the east side of Buffalo, New York. We are at our grandmother’s house on Dorris. Everything is overgrown and there is the roaring quiet of the heat. My sister is ten years older than me. This is before we became aware of ourselves. This is before the world set its fangs in us. Before disappointments and heartache and death would take away the people who loved us most. I was reminded of this photograph by the three little girls playing on a lawn a thousand miles and many years away from the time it was taken. My sister has children older than we were then. They are making lives of their own now with their own memories of my sister. Her oldest might remember our grandmother. There is a photograph of her with my mother, my grandmother, and my sister that is framed in my sister’s house. But this. She has never seen this photograph. She has never seen her mother in this moment. When my sister was buoyant and unbothered and sunny. This is not to say that she isn’t still all of these things, she is, but as you all know life sometimes wipes away the idealism of youth and replaces it with a pragmatism that in comparison might seem dull. This is what I want to say to my nieces and nephew. This is what I want to say to you. That in our youth we were thirsty for the spectacle of it all. For the smell of the earth after a rain, for the way the winter succumbed to a soggy April which turned chartreuse then filled in and became the plump and overgrown summer. We shouted at the awe of the drawn world. We raced through the sheets flapping on the line. We drew white lines on the pavement with rocks. We filled our bellies with the water from the garden hose. You can see the girl stopped in this photograph in my sisters eyes now if you look close enough. If you pay attention and listen you can see the airy girl in the photograph rising up, you can see that she never disappeared, but I want to add something to the photograph. I want to add to it the moment that wasn’t captured. The moment so obvious it didn’t need to be captured. The moment just before we went outside in anticipation of the beautiful mysteries that the world had in store for us, before we knew what all of those mysteries might be, and drank it in.