Fall bursts with bright colors, Oktoberfests and beer, memories from my childhood and the man with the handlebar mustache.
Memories are a curious thing. They come in the form of a person’s personal perspective. Each situation, event or conversation, means something different to all those involved, and also to those not involved. We give different meanings, according to our belief systems, and how we are affected by the event. In Other words, we don’t see things as they are necessarily; we see things as we are. (http://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/perspectives.htm)
The following is my perception and memories of a man who I am truly grateful to have had in my life.
The sun had set and I remember watching the glow of the red sky slowly fade to black. It had been a long day, a great day of blueberry picking but it was late now and clearly we were lost. It felt like hours since we’d left my parents. Maybe it was. Somehow, we missed where they turned. The back roads of the Catskill Mountains are endless, nameless and windy. There were no maps or street lights to guide you on these less traveled roads. I can’t recall everyone who was in that pale blue Volkswagen bus with me that evening, I think my brother was, maybe my sister too but I remember the mood perfectly: content and tired, despite being lost. I think I was seven or eight-years old. Another thing I remember for sure; I wasn’t scared. I felt safe. It was another adventure. Finally, we came upon a tavern and stopped for directions. We followed him inside the small watering hole and waited patiently, spinning ourselves on bar stools as he drank from a frosty mug, no doubt making new friends while he inquired about our whereabouts and how to get back to the Parkway.
This remains one of my earliest memories of the man with the handlebar mustache.
He wasn’t a “blood” relative but we were close like family and called him Uncle anyway. Uncle Jacob (pronounced Yahck-up) lived with his family, his wife and three sons in an affluent part of Westchester, NY, a short walk from Rye Beach and Playland Amusement Park where their famous boardwalk was featured at the end of the movie “Big”, when the “Zoltar the Magnificent” fortune teller machine returned the adult Tom Hanks to his original childhood age/state of being. As a kid I roamed that boardwalk with my siblings a million times over. My family spent lots of weekend time at the house in Rye. Uncle Jacob and my Dad were very good friends. Shortly after my Dad immigrated to this country from Germany, Uncle Jacob gave him a job as a painter’s apprentice and a place to live. That was over 50-years ago. Back then, an immigrant coming to the United Sates had to have a job and a place to live so as not to be a burden on society.
Uncle Jacob’s wife, Tante Theresa, was an amazing cook and made the best Sunday dinners and chocolate chip cookies you ever had. For real. The three boys were older than me and my siblings. I can’t say I had a relationship with any one of them in particular but I do believe that a life-long bond that exists among family members was created between us during those years and beyond. They knew my Dad before he got married, before we were born. They were patient with us when we came over. I remember watching them and my Dad play with this huge train or racing car track that Uncle Jacob built for them. It was on a wooden board as big as a bed, in fact it retracted onto the wall just like a Murphy Bed. It was a fun, comfortable place to be in, like home and even though the neighborhood was a quiet and reserved one, Uncle Jacob’s house was anything but quiet and reserved.
Looking back I realize Uncle Jacob was the most progressive man I’ve ever known.
To. This. Day.
Everything I experienced at that house was unique and unusual although it all seemed quite normal at the time. As a child, I loved Uncle Jacob but it’s only now as an adult that I truly appreciate the happy, wonderful, exciting things he introduced and exposed me to.
I think of him with the same kind of respect I have for Jean Piaget, John Dewey and Ralph Waldo Emerson and realize how amazingly lucky I was to have had this man’s influences infiltrate my childhood. My schooling occurred behind the stone cold walls of a small, strict catholic school but much of my learning occurred under the indirect tutelage of the man with the handlebar mustache. He was a natural teacher demonstrating a hands-on approach to living and learning. He was a modern day Dr. Doolittle only instead of having an English accent; his was German occasionally slurred by a happy consumption of wine or beer. Like the Pied Piper too, children and adults were drawn to him and his charismatic ways.
Let me explain.
In addition to being a house painter by trade, he was a musician and a singer. Actually, he was a party on two feet, a walking Oktoberfest, all-year-round. He played the accordion. Always and everywhere.
He was a butcher. One time he and my dad bought a pig and among other things, made sausage in his basement, letting me hold the clear, thin casing while he cranked out the ground up sausage meat into it. Another time they bought a calf. We ate veal every day in every way for about a year. I don’t eat veal as an adult.
And yet another time when my younger brother wandered into the basement and as he puts it,
One minute there was a chicken running around and the next minute Uncle Jacob laid it on the butcher block and chopped it’s head off.
He was a farmer, growing tomatoes and other vegetables, and berries along the perimeter of the square shaped fence that surrounded the patch of grass that was his back yard.
He raised rabbits. I remembering playing house with them in their living room, dressing them up and rocking them in my arms like I would a baby doll.
He was a Bee Keeper and for some time, kept his bees in boxes on the roof of his quiet little house in the affluent city of Rye. One summer, when I was 10 or 11, he gave me and my friend a job building bee hive frames. He showed us how to hammer and wire them. He treated us like we were capable. At the end of the day he paid us with jars of honey. Soon after, a neighbor complained and called the police. Uncle Jacob called the newspaper and had me come back and go up on the roof where the bees were to show them how safe it was. Eventually, they made him move the bees.
We had freedom to explore in and out and around his house. There was a small concrete swimming pool that was enclosed by a gate on the property that we swam in often, amongst the huge green lily pads and giant orange gold fish that he kept in it.
He made my brother his first fishing pole out of a stick and some twine and helped him catch his first fish with it.
He was a swimmer and swam in the Long Island Sound, probably every night. He would walk to a small alcove with his flippers in hand and his best friend, Horste, by his side. Horste was his dog, I think he was a coonhound. Sometimes we would go and watch him and Horste swim together.
Uncle Jacob and my Dad would lay in the living room on a Sunday afternoon reading the German newspaper or watching soccer, my Dad on the couch and Uncle Jacob on the floor. Uncle Jacob would call us over one by one and tell us to walk on his back to massage his weary muscles.
As I grew older and became more preoccupied with my own life and living, going to college and working, my personal contact lessened and at some point Uncle Jacob left his house in Rye to go live where his heart was, in the back woods of the Catskill Mountains. I never got to see his place there but my mom used to refer to it as Jacob’s Chutzpah! I imagined it to be a place where animals and people could dwell in an uncomplicated way. Tante Theresa remained for the most part in the house in Rye and I was told that when Uncle Jacob would come down from the mountains to visit his grandchildren he’d bring a baby chick or a bunny rabbit in his coat pocket on the train for them to see and hold and play with.
Needless to say, not everyone he came in contact with appreciated his carefree nature and unfortunately, or fortunately, a neighbor who didn’t enjoy his unconventional ways of living (or German music maybe?) had him arrested on a DUI one night after playing at a local party. He was put in a small-town, back woods jail for a few months, to teach him a lesson. Needless to say, sitting idle in a cell didn’t sit well with Uncle Jacob. He asked for a can of paint and a paint brush. By the time his sentence was served, his cell and the whole jailhouse for that matter was left with a fresh coat of paint on its walls, compliments of the man with the handlebar mustache.
Is there someone in your life that had a huge, positive impact on you as a child?
I’d love to hear about them.
They say there are six degrees of separation.
“Everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth,..” ~ Wikipedia
I believe this to be true. One way or another, we’re all connected; especially when it comes to what happened on 9/11. Looking back, I’m certain that so many of us, knew somebody or knows somebody who knew somebody.
I knew somebody.
So many years later I still can’t talk about that day without becoming overwhelmed with emotion. I know I’m not alone.
Writing about it is almost as difficult.
I tried to think of something else to write about this week but the memories of that day are at the forefront of my mind and heart right now. I wouldn’t attempt to try to write about the profound loss of our sons and daughters, fathers and husbands, mothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, colleagues and friends.
All week long there’s been articles, photos, video, reports and documentaries reliving those events. I didn’t watch them.
I still can’t.
The point of contact between the planes and all three buildings is indelibly embedded in my mind.
I don’t want to see it again — ever.
There were however, a few poignant moments when I was alone that day that will linger in my mind’s eye forever; moments that caused me to pause and take notice; moments that changed my life.
I was at home with my two children; my daughter who was 6-months and my son who was 2 ½ years-old. I had the TV on, although I don’t remember what I was watching. It was interrupted by “live coverage” of the first Tower, just after it was hit by the first plane.
It seemed unlikely, odd. I couldn’t fathom the possibility of it. I was trying to make sense of what I was hearing when something surreal and horrific happened.
I watched the second plane hit the second Tower.
I remember being very confused and thinking…
“What are they doing? How are they showing something that just happened a few minutes ago?
How could somebody get this video?”
And as quickly as the thoughts passed through my mind, it hit me.
This couldn’t be video tape from the first plane because I could still see the black smoke coming from first Tower. This was live coverage. This plane was hitting the second Tower. It was a second plane crashing into the second tower and it was happening, right now!
My eyes could see the events unfolding but my mind couldn’t comprehend their reality. I could hear the reporter in the background saying with disbelief, that this was happening right now but I didn’t understand.
There were so many surreal moments that day.
Later, as I sat on our porch smoking a cigarette trying to process what I had just seen on television, I had the realization that my life, our lives as we knew them would never be the same. An overwhelming feeling of sadness slowly began to overtake the initial feelings of horror and fear that I had. Understanding of what I saw, found its way to my brain. Now, when I recall that slow, creeping feeling of sadness, I think about how Ron Weasley described the presence of the Dementors on the Hogwarts Train;
“I felt weird, like I’d never be cheerful again”.
That’s what it was like for me. I couldn’t imagine being cheerful again.
While I sobbed uncontrollably for what happened, for what I saw and for what I felt, the deafening sound of silence surrounded itself around me. The quiet in the skies was unsettling. The more I noticed it, the louder it became. You don’t notice or really pay attention to the activity in the skies until it ceases. It gave me a sense of isolation which created a fear in me, I’ve never experienced before. I will never forget that haunting, echoing sound of nothing when no plane was allowed to fly in our otherwise free, blue skies.
On the porch that day, while my babies napped peacefully, I smoked a cigarette and mourned for the feeling of security I didn’t realize I had until I lost it, a feeling I knew my children would never know.
For weeks afterward, the winds carried the smell of death up the Hudson River. It was a smoldering, horrific stench that sat, heavy in the air. Unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before, or since, it was a foul and constant reminder of the devastation and loss our nation suffered.
There are six degrees of separation, they say. Six people between you and I, as strangers before an introduction. The world we live in is a small one. One way or another, we’re all connected.
I knew Somebody.
We all knew somebody.
Photo Credit #1: Six Degrees of Separation
Photo Credit #2: World Trade Center
Photo Credit #3: Connected
People wear masks all the time, covering up all kinds of situations and emotions.
Halloween is one of my favorite celebrations. In disguise, you get to openly be whatever you want to be and get a bag full of free candy to boot! My memories of Halloween as a child are filled with endless hours of trick-or-treating (mostly treating) first through the 5-stories of our apartment building and then, all over town until our legs could take us no further. After that, my Dad would put us in the back of his shiny, red, Volkswagen bus and drive us to friends’ houses until our bags were stuffed and our eyes were bleary.
I don’t cut my Dad a lot of slack when it comes to my childhood. I can’t sugar-coat fear or disappointment. No one ever wanted to be on the receiving end of his wrath. You never knew what kind of mood he would come home in, if, or when he came home. Every day was unpredictable. He enjoyed holidays and parties though and could really get into the “spirit” of things– when he wanted to. Despite his ominous nature, he was big on costuming and we could pretty much count on his help for a clever idea and creative way of making it happen. He had an impressive repertoire of costumes himself. I remember him spending weeks working on them before the annual masquerade ball he and my mom attended every February at the German Club they belonged to. (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my Dad is from Germany.) Every winter, the German Club celebrated Fasching which is a German holiday that resembles our Mardi Gras and is similar to Halloween in that parades are held and “clubs” host costume balls.
My Dad’s costumes always won awards, if not First Place.
These are a few of my favorites.
My Dad, the mummy.
This “old man” was only in his late 20s.
A group shot of my “old man” and his date who, of course, is my mom.
The Godfather (4th man in)– is my father.
One year my Dad went as the Statue of Liberty. Another year he was a Prize Fighter who lost to a midget. He even dressed in Blackface as a Minstrel which now-a-days of course, would be considered offensive.
The Minstrel and my mom.
Another questionable but winning costume; large, blond lady wearing a dress made from potato sacks.
My Dad loved masquerades and wore many masks.
As an adult, I realize he was a resourceful, creative man and I often wonder how different his life might have been if he had been raised and educated in this country. Like many people, he had to contend with his demons while they competed with his redeeming qualities. He loved to cook and I have happy memories of him lifting me up and setting me on top of the refrigerator so I could watch him roll out the dough on the kitchen counter to make donuts or melt sugar and butter in a pan on the stove-top to make candy. He’d dribble the hot mixture into ice-cold water to form droplets of yummy home-made caramel. He took our family camping and taught us how to play Yahtzee and Monopoly and passed along his love for puzzling. I love my Dad.
He did the best he could.
Children are resilient. Thankfully, despite the imperfections of our childhoods or the tumultuous relations we have with our parents, most of us also have unconditional love for them or at least forgiveness. I don’t deny the turmoil of my youth but I do try to have compassion for the fact that no matter how tough I believe some parts of my childhood were, my Dad’s was unimaginable; growing up in Germany during WWII. As a parent myself now, I realize we all just do the best we can and I hope that when my kids reflect on some of the mistakes I’m making, they will have compassion too.
Unlike the song in the title of this post, there is absolutely no inspiration in the following story.
Although, it is true.
My parents are immigrants. I’m first generation American. Growing up was interesting—to say the least. Our extended family were all back in Europe except for two, older, boy cousins who grew up about an hour north of where we lived in Westchester. Their house sat on 6-acres of rustic, rugged and crude land which we lovingly called the “country”. Abundant in fields, woods and streams it provided a whole host of exploratory (if not dangerous) opportunities for kids who were allowed to roam free in the wilderness, which they were. I loved it there. Complete with a full-size barn and chicken coop, I have some interesting memories of our play-time together there as I’m sure they do too, for the times they came to
terrorize visit us. Our environment was the extreme opposite. We lived on the 4th floor of a 5-floor walk-up that offered dumb-waiter service and pick-up kickball games with random neighborhood kids in the concrete parking lot behind our building. Instead of hiking through woods and streams in the summers, we walked to the local beach or tanned on tar-beach which was conveniently located on the rooftop of our apartment building and also doubled as a laundry facility for hanging clothes to dry. My cousins were a little “rough around the edges”. They had NO FEAR of anything or anyone and always left a clear and decisive impression if not ABSOLUTE FEAR in the hearts and minds of the neighborhood kids they encountered in our neck of the woods. When gone, the other kids often referred to them as “your crazy cousins” which, they were. Crazy and my cousins. Not that we couldn’t hold our own of course, but truth be told, it wasn’t the worst thing for a gal growing up across from one of New York’s many “Projects” to be able to say,
“Oh yah? You just wait til my cousins come back!” Ahh, family.
Back to Europe.
When I was eight, my mom took myself and my younger brother to Ireland to meet her family. My grandmother lived in an authentic two-room, thatched cottage that had a red front door. The living and kitchen area was dominated by a constantly burning hearth. Inside, a black iron kettle always seemed to be bubbling or brewing something. I wasn’t surprised to later learn that the townspeople often referred to my grandmother as the local witch doctor. During our visit my mom got sick one day and whatever my grandmother gave her to remedy her sickness blinded her temporarily for several hours. My six-year old brother and I were my mother’s walking guide back to the outskirts of town where we were staying with my aunt. Later during that trip, my brother took ill and whatever was given to remedy his condition caused him to have fierce hallucinations in where he saw leprechauns in his room and feared my dad would be an old man when we saw him next. Ahh, family.
Three years after that European vacation, I took a trip to Germany to meet the rest of my clan. While my other friends went to day-camp or Playland or the Jersey Shore, I
was sent went to Germany.
For six weeks.
I was eleven.
Did I mention I didn’t speak German?
The upside of that trip was that one of my boy cousin’s from America was also going to Germany later that summer with his mom. At least I could look forward to some English speaking kin after a month of speaking very slowly and loudly and using multiple hand gestures to try to communicate. Why is it that people think people who don’t speak their language can understand them if they just speak slowly and loudly? It was fun and tough and a whirlwind of meeting relatives before my aunt and 13-year old cousin got there. Sadly, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know who I was or why I was in their home. After a few weeks I began to understand the language much better than I could speak it and I could tell she was confused about the strange child staying in her house. I’d overhear my grandfather trying to explain to her over and over again that I was her son, Guenter’s daughter.
When my aunt and cousin finally arrived from the U.S., it was a welcome reunion. After a few days of re-adjusting, my grandfather took us on a tri-country tour. By car. Compact car, that is. The five of us (six if you count my Omi’s over-stuffed white handbag) drove from Germany, to Austria, to Italy and back again.
The most memorable part of my trip lies within the Austrian mountains of Tyrol near the city of Innsbruck. We stayed in a small village surrounded by mountains for a few days of sight-seeing. After a day or two of exploring the village’s architecture and taking a cable car to the snowy top of one of the mountains, my cousin and I set out for some play-time of our own. After all, he was used to roaming free in the wilderness. Why should that be any different in Austria? And why wouldn’t I follow him when he said,
Hey, let’s climb the side of this mountain.
You never really know someone until you climb a mountain with them.
Instead of taking the dirt path that wound itself upward, we — he, chose for us to rough it, climbing partly on the mountain’s side and partly on the concrete boulders that were wedged into the mountain every 50 to 100 feet or so. There were several of them, leading upwards. Their purpose was to slow the onslaught of a rock or mudslide that could come crashing down into the village below. They were several feet wide and about 5 feet high, massive to a girl of eleven and vertically challenged. As height was not an attribute of mine, it was necessary for my cousin to climb first. He’d haul himself up and then extend a hand to help me up to the somewhat smoother part of each boulder as we made our ascent. Every so often the dirt pathway appeared off to the side of one of the concrete slabs and our intention was to take the path down when we were done with all of our climbing. Soon after our adventure began, my cousin started collecting “rocks” and insisted they accompany us on our journey. As the cool morning hours turned into a warm afternoon, his rocks grew larger and heavier and by mid-day there were far more than I wanted to deal with. I was exhausted hauling them up to him one, by one before he extended his arm for me. I was thirsty and hungry and tired and finally sometime in the late afternoon, I refused.
No, I cried. I’m not carrying your stupid rocks up this mountain anymore!
Fine, he said, then I’m not helping you up the mountain, anymore.
With that, he jumped off the concrete slab and onto the side of the mountain. He climbed his way up onto the pathway and vanished. After hours and hours of climbing together, he disappeared in just a few short minutes, leaving me with his stupid rocks, stranded, atop a huge concrete boulder, on a mountain, in Austria.
I was eleven.
It was nightfall and several hours later before I heard the dogs barking and the men shouting. Flashlights blinded my eyes when the Austrian patrol finally found me and lead me safely to and down the pathway to a frantic grandfather and somewhat hysterical aunt.
Life lessons I suppose begin when life does. I’ve said it before and it’s warranted again:
If it doesn’t kill ya, it’ll make you stronger.
I am a bull, who is afraid of heights BUT not afraid of being alone in the dark.
It’s all good.
I’m not quite sure what happened when my cousin descended from the mountain without me that evening. I remember being given “medicine” when I got back to my grandfather’s room. He fished a bottle of pills out of my grandmother’s big white handbag and gave me two, to calm me when I started to cry for my dad and wanted to call home. Whatever it was gave me a similar feeling to one I had thirty-five years later when I was prescribed Valium before having a dental procedure. Only instead of lasting a few hours, it lasted the whole next day which I remember as a haze, literally. I didn’t call my dad and my fearless, crazy, rock-loving cousin was much nicer to me for the rest of our trip. Things resumed to normal. As they eventually do, with family.
These days my cousin lives far-away in another state and I don’t get to see him much but whether it’s two years or ten that pass between meetings, it always resumes to normal.
I miss and love him dearly.
“Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat…..Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive…..Forgiveness does not excuse anything…..You may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. And then one day you will pray for his wholeness…..”
~ Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
Three years, thirty-three checks and $10,544.28 later, recompense has been paid and restitution made for some of the items that were taken from my previous home over a period of several months.
I’ve “let go of his throat.”
Now that all the money is in the bank, the question is, what should we do with it? How do you spend restitution money? Do you split it two ways or in our case, four ways? Should it be put toward education or bills? Should we go on vacation? Give it to charity?
What would you do with it?
After catching this “burglar” in our home three years ago, we’ve moved on, mostly. Although the journey continues. Two of us have left that house and relocated.
My Edward still stands guard in the window where I left him, where the rest of my family lives, right next door to where this thief lives.
The sun has faded Edward some but his effect is the same. Creepy, like my former neighbor.
An Order of Protection remains in effect until June, 2015. It’s a silly piece of paper if you ask me, considering the Order prohibits our neighbor from being within 100-yards of any of the four of us, yet there’s barely ten-feet of shared grass that sits between his house and ours. Even though I’ve “let go of his throat”, truth be told, every time I drop off or pick my kids up from that address, I’m tempted to call the police. He is after all, in constant violation. He has been since the day the Order was signed, despite the pictures I provided the court. He’s also Caucasian, in his early twenties and always wears a hoody. I was suspect of him before I knew he was the one repeatedly breaking into our home and I will continue to be leary of any person, boy or girl, that chooses to hide their identity beneath a hood in public. I don’t care what color skin they have. I trust my instinct.
Two days before the last check was deposited, Diane from Probation called me.
It’s Diane, she said. I’m just checking in to see if you can speak on the 26th?
The other two woman who have sat on the panel with me since Diane started it two years ago will also be there. Twice a year this Impact Panel speaks before an audience of convicted felons. They’re required to attend as part of their sentence.
Yes, of course I will, I said.
It’s hard for me to say “no” to Diane when she was the only person in the judicial system who took the time to really listen and try to understand the impact of what happened to my family. She stood by my side when I spoke before the court the day of the sentencing.
Even though life goes on and we’ve all moved on, they need to know. They need to hear first-hand about how their actions can affect the lives, for years to come, of the people they’ve committed crimes against. In our case, months of trauma was endured while we tried to figure out who and why? My kids were only 8 and 11. Now, we’re a family that’s been torn apart and all of our lives have been changed forever.
While it’s important not to dwell on the past, it’s equally important not to forget it.
The past can not be changed. It is, what it is. Our lives today are what they are, not because of the past but because of how we chose to deal with it at the time.
Hey, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Right?
I am a bull.
Besides, restitution has been made, a debt has been paid and I’ve “let go of his throat.”
And better than ever.
Click on the blue letters below and check it out….
“….He doesn’t know what lies ahead
But he’s always willing to try,
And he hopes he’s always alert to hear
The sounds of a little child’s cry…”
~ Walter J. Hall
This weekend a local firehouse had a party and invited a few close friends.
Many came on foot but most rolled into town, all donning their Sunday Best. They were sparkling and shiny and ready to party!
Pride and dignity accompanied them.
They came to help our Hughsonville Fire Company celebrate 100-years of service. One-hundred-years. It was a sight to behold, one that stirred emotion and awe; something you may only have the opportunity to see once-in-a-life-time, at a centennial celebration.
Among the rolling revelers were The Beast, The Beast from the East, Big Mother II, Foam Boy and Always Ready…
On hand and in honor of this celebration were a few “old-timers” as well…
The trucks were impressive. The men and woman were inspirational. Are admirable. Often the first to respond to an emergency scene, Firefighters arrive ready to react. These men and women endure rigorous training and are expected to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of crisis, instantly assess a situation and make sound decisions on how to proceed. Many of them do this on a volunteer basis and do not get paid.
Who chooses such a physically demanding career that requires rock-solid resolve and the ability to summon a courage that surmounts all traces of fear in a moment’s notice?
They are the moms and dads at any given PTA meeting, the neighbor who keeps odd hours, a friend whose always working on the weekends. She might be your sister or a cousin. He could be your son or …
Whoever they are in your life, be grateful they are in your life.
One day, they may save your life.