Incomplete memoir (Part 10)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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10.

The Hagyard Building was also the site of my first serious injury.

We were having a big family dinner, and my Irish Catholic family was coloring outside the culinary lines and having spaghetti. My grandmother had a tall pot of sauce simmering on the stove, and she picked it up to pour it into a serving container.

At that exact moment, I was running through the kitchen. I can’t remember why – maybe chasing one of my cousins? In any case, my grandmother tripped over me and up-ended the pot of sauce onto me. I was probably four years old. My mom and my adoptive father were on the scene, and they said my flesh just peeled off me where the sauce hit. My dad had the presence of mind to yank off my clothes and throw me into a cold bath to help stop the burning. Then they rushed me to the emergency room, where my second-degree burns were bandaged up and I was sent home.

Incomplete memoir (Part 9)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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9.

On one trip to Lenox, I went to the Hagyard Building with a mission. My cousin Denise (whom I refer to as my Aunt Denise) told me that the front door of the Hagyard Building still bore the doorbell nameplates of Bernard Flanders and John Coughlin, my grandfather and great-uncle, respectively. She asked whether I would try to get them off the building, and of course I agreed.

There was a problem, though. My grandparents were forced to leave the Hagyard Building by the landlord, Eddie Darrin, who’d taken over Mole & Mole Real Estate after marrying the boss’s daughter. Darrin was a money-hungry real estate agent who raised my grandparents’ rent an enormous amount and told them to take it or leave it. So they left it with great regret, and moved to Plymouth, Massachussetts to be nearer to my Aunt Linda.

The Mole & Mole offices now occupy the ground floor of the Hagyard Building, and my path to the nameplates must certainly involve a favor from Eddie Darrin, unless I was prepared to return to the building late at night with a crowbar and a ski mask. That kind of thing would probably be noticed on Main Street in Lenox.

So I walked into Mole & Mole, strode up to Eddie Darrin, told him who I was, and asked for the nameplates. He got a hammer from his desk drawer – an interesting thing to have in your desk drawer, come to think of it – and outside we went. On the way, Eddie related to me that my grandparents had whined when their rent was raised, and that they complained about everything. I smiled and kept silent as I watched him pry the nameplates off the doorjamb. With my loot safely in hand, I thanked him and walked away.

Incomplete memoir (Part 8)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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8.

My grandparents lived in an apartment building on the corner of Main Street and Housatonic Street in Lenox. The building was known as the Hagyard Building, because Hagyard’s Pharmacy was on the first floor. My grandparents had the second floor of the building, and my great-uncle Jack and his second wife lived on the third floor. (As did a solitary elderly woman who lived in the back room of the third floor until they discovered her dead one day.)

If my life has a Mecca, the Hagyard Building is it. This yellow-brick monument to our family’s past was the central point of gatherings, celebrations, dinners, and stories. My cousin-hero Todd and I ran through its rooms playing Incredible Hulk. I’d put my Dallas Cowboys pajama top (Todd’s favorite team) over my shoulders, and the transformation into the Hulk consisted of me yanking the pajama top off my shoulders and throwing it to the floor like Lou Ferrigno.

One day I was standing in my granparents’ bedroom. My grandmother was in there, wearing a purple silk nightgown with white polka dots. I loved to rub the material between my fingers. She eventually gave it to me, and my “silky” was born. That nightgown stayed with me until my fingers transformed it into a frayed fragment measuring two square inches.

Down the corridor from the bedroom was the den, back in the day when people still had dens. The den was the room with the couch you could relax on, and the TV set. One night, my great-uncle’s apartment upstairs flooded. My grandfather climbed onto a chair and removed one of the panels in the drop ceiling to investigate the pipes above, and a gush of water drenched him. In my memory, he’s wearing tan pajamas.

The focal point of the house was the kitchen. White with yellow highlights. A long rectangular table took up most of the kitchen, and the counter, sink and stove ran along one of the long walls. On the opposite wall were cabinets, and in these cabinets there was a cheese slicer. The slicer consisted of a small cutting board with a hinged wire blade on one end. You placed the cheese on the board, lifted the cutter, and voila! – Velveeta slices at your fingertips. And it was Velveeta, believe me. The cheese of the future. In fact, the two foods I remember most from my grandparents’ apartment are Velveeta and Ring Dings. Not at the exact same time, but certainly in the same day. And it was somewhere around this time that I developed my lifelong passion for Freihoffer’s Chocolate Chip Cookies. (Original Recipe, thank you very much.)

I go back to Lenox and look at the Hagyard Buiding every chance I get. The pharmacy is long gone, that space occupied now by a real estate office to sell the outrageously priced homes that are now the norm in Lenox. I no longer know anyone who lives in the building. I’d met the trio of elderly women who moved into my grandparents’ apartment in the 80’s, but they’re long gone – maybe from life itself. In spite of all that, though, just being in the presence of the building gives me a sense of calm, coupled with a painful yet pleasurable longing for a time gone by, for a childhood not to be regained, for roots in a town.

Incomplete memoir (Part 7)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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7.

One memory I have is of a small round Dairy Queen with those frosted block windows around the bottom half. I can see my mom and I walking to this Dairy Queen, although we don’t go inside. In my hazy recollection, there’s a window on the side of the stand, and it’s propped open. I can just make out someone through the window as we get closer. The memory stops before we order anything. I have no idea where we are, although somewhere in Berkshire County would make sense, given my age at the time. To be honest, I’m not even sure it’s my mother that I’m walking with.

I also remember a small child – I’m not sure if it’s a boy or a girl. This child has tightly woven curls, and is riding a Big Wheel. The child may be African-American.

And then there’s the old couple who lived across the street from us on … some street. The old man is missing part of his index finger, and he uses the stump to point out a daddy-long-legs spider on the wall of his cream-colored house. His curly-haired wife stands nearby wearing an apron and eyeglasses. Their house is at the top of a steep hill, as is ours, of course. I can also remember people sledding in winter down this steep hill. Or at least down some steep hill in a residential neighborhood. And I can remember walking down the hill because we couldn’t get our car all the way up.

One of the many houses my mom and I lived in flooded, and the firemen came to pump it out. I wore a fireman’s helmet – either borrowed or plastic, I can’t remember which – and rode my Big Wheel around the flooded cellar as the men worked. The cellar is lit by exposed bulbs in the ceiling, and the walls are made of cinder blocks. My mom has told me and others this story so many times that I’m not sure if I remember it or if I’m recreating it from her memories.

My biological grandmother, Evelyn Borders, is standing in a kitchen, holding me in her arms as the sun streams in. In one version, we’re standing in front of a horizontal rectangular window that fills much of the wall. In front of the window is a restaurant-style booth, although I’m sure this is someone’s home. The walls have brown paneling, and my grandmother is rocking slowly back and forth. In another version, she’s standing in front of a closed door, in the top of which is a window divided into nine small panes. Again, the sun fills the room.

I used to have a recurring nightmare that was set in the last house my mother and Art lived in together. My bedroom was down a narrow hall from the living room, and my bed was in the far left corner as you walk into the room. I’m three years old, lying in bed wearing footie pajamas with some sort of cartoon pictures on them. I hear heavy footsteps come down the hall, and a head like Frankenstein’s monster peers around the corner of the open door. In fact, there is no door, just a doorway. The monster has glowing yellow eyes. He makes no sound. That’s where I would always wake up.

In another dream, my cousins Tammy and Todd and I are in the basement of an old castle. You can see into the castle – and see us – because the walls are cut away as if the castle were a model. We climb up the dusty stairs, climbing and climbing until we reach a high parapet. Tammy falls over the side. Maybe Todd does, too. And then I go over, hurtling toward to ground, awakening just before impact.

And then there’s the first tactile dream I can remember. I’m lying in bed in one of the bedrooms in my grandparents’ apartment in Lenox. The bed is pushed up against the wall, and I’m on my side facing the wall. Although sometimes I’m on my back. I can’t recall much of the dream, except that it involves pinching a very small hard round object, like a pebble, between the thumb and index finger of one hand. The pebble shrinks, and this is terrifying.

Incomplete memoir (Part 6)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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6.

Jen and the boys and I went for a walk the other day in Corbett’s Glen, a secluded bit of woodland paradise about 100 yards from two of Rochester’s three major expressways. On the walk with us were two friends and their young daughter.

Corbett’s Glen started out as a Native American trail; evolved into a train track that carried the body of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln as he moved toward his final resting place; and ended up as a very naturalistic town park with a creek and the odd bit of private land. As you pass through a long tunnel under the road and enter the glen, you’re greeted by an expanse of lawn leading to a lovely home that’s for sale as I write this. Ringing the lawn is a model train track, although our friends said the train stopped running years ago.

Toward the end of the walk, we were standing around watching the kids play and talking about how they probably won’t remember any of this day. Which is strange to think about, because the day will be much more solidly imprinted for us adults. For the kids, though, it will be at best a misty and brief memory.

That got me thinking about my own childhood. If I assembled all the footage in my brain from the first, say, 10 years of my life, I’d have a film about 20 minutes long. I can barely remember anything.

That’s always seemed strange to me. Wrong, somehow. My wife can recount stories of afternoons spent listening to the radio with her friends and choreographing dances to the soundtrack of Grease or the latest hit from Diane Summer. My cousin Lynne can remember minute details about dozens of play dates we spent together. My mom seems to remember who lived in every house in Lenox, and she has a story about all of them.

Not me, though. My childhood memories could fit comfortably on a DVD.

Over the years, I’ve developed and discarded and reused quite a few explanations for why I can’t recall very much at all. For example, maybe it was because I moved so many times as a kid, and never really developed a static background image in front of which to set my childhood memories. Or maybe it was that I was always the new kid, and had so few friends throughout the majority of my school life. Or maybe I was a fairly miserable child, and I’m trying to block that out. Or maybe I just didn’t do very much, so there’s not much to remember. I don’t know which, if any, of these theories to believe. Maybe I’m just like everybody else, but they’re better at making up the childhoods they believe they should have lived.

Incomplete memoir (Part 5)

About five years ago I started writing a memoir. I kept at it for a little while, writing about 1,000 words a day for a few weeks. I hadn’t yet been to therapy and there were many things I didn’t really understand about my life, but I still find the unfinished memoir to be a fascinating look into my own past. I’ve decided to post it in installments here, with only a few redactions. You can find the other sections by clicking the Memoir category.

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Watercolor by Marguerite Bride. My grandparents lived in the building on the left.

5.

I cling to Lenox, Massachusetts, like a shipwrecked sailor to the last buoyant plank.

After 25 moves in seven states and two countries, I feel a need to have some place to call home. Lenox is that place, even though I only lived there until I was five years old. Returning home to Lenox gives me a feeling of rootedness that I don’t get anywhere else, and my family’s long history in the town offers a connection to the past that’s nearly impossible to replicate. (Although I did recently discover that Buffalo, New York, is home to some similar family history, if not a similar emotional surge.)

Lenox is the quintessential New England town – at the least the New England that’s not near the ocean. A lovely Main Street bordered by stately homes. Few enough streets that you can explore them all in an afternoon. Locals who dislike the New Yorkers who take over on summer weekends or during big concerts at Tanglewood. And lots and lots of rich people.

That last part may not be quintessentially New England, but it’s certainly a hallmark of Lenox. The town was the summer playground of wealthy industrialists in the late 1800’s and throughout the first half of the 20th century, and it now caters to the BMW-driving, sweater-tied-around-the-shoulders set that I spend most of my working life fighting against. But I still love it.

Every year, Jen and the boys and I go to Tanglewood with my cousins to see James Taylor, who lives in the next town over. This is the highlight of the summer music season at Tanglewood. The concert sells out every year, and has attracted so many visitors that the event organizers had to impose a strict ticket limit of 18,000 a few years back, after the 2002 show drew more than 24,000 fans and effectively shut down Berkshire County for hours.

Tanglewood consists of a large, open-sided performance space known as the Shed, fronted by an enormous expanse of lawn bordered on all sides by elderly pine trees. Each year, the throng fills the seats in the shed, but the real party is on the lawn, as people bring everything but their refridgerator to feast and imbibe before, during and after the performance. It’s no surprise to see a dozen aging yuppies gathered around a portable table, complete with candles, wine and the hosts’ best china from the hutch at home.

But you know what? I love it. And although I hate to admit it, these are my people. Not my class, certainly, but they’re the inheritors of the same general genetic material as I. My grandfather’s family has been in the United States since the 1630’s, and only a series of poor career choices and the fickle hand of fate have kept me and my family from the patrician lifestyle enjoyed by so many in my hometown.