May 26, 2016

The Bottom Line

The Bottom Line
By John R.Greenwood

A prized possession, a writer's box from my sister Joanne
Whenever I'm writing and I struggle for words I always lower the bucket to the bottom of the well and pull up whatever's there. It's been that way since my first blog post. In fact, I have this thing I like to do. When I stumble across a blog I like I often dig my way to the beginning and read the very first post the person wrote. Many times I will leave a comment wishing them well. I know they will get an alert letting them know someone was at the door and left a message on it. I am always curious about what initiated that first post and what made the person finally share it with the world. Was it a life changing event? Was it therapy, or to vent? Was it to teach or to tickle? In my case it was all of the above but the final nudge came when my father passed away. For some reason I never felt I was myself when my parents were alive. I was always the son, which meant I needed to behave the right way. In no way am I saying that was a bad thing. Parents want their children to do good things. They want them to be polite and respectful. They want them to be successful and happy. The problem for me was everything I did had that notation at the bottom. What will my mother and father think? It's not as though anything I would write or share would hurt or embarrass them its the simple fact that it would always be my first thought. The first thought would need to go through customs first to be sure it didn't have any contraband stuffed between the words. It's similar when it's a spouse, relative or friend but it's never exactly the same as when it's your parents. They are the reason you're here and for many the power they hold over us lasts a lifetime and beyond. What I write and what I do with is now just me(mostly?). 

This post, "The Bottom Line" was written more as a suggestion for others who are just beginning to share stories or thoughts on a blog or anywhere else. I'm not telling you you shouldn't worry about who's affected by things you write or how they will interpret it, I'm telling you to be yourself. In my case I run from confrontation like a kid from a spider. The most nail biting controversy on this blog probably involves a sarcastic remark in a retail setting. But that's me. I'm not James Dean, I'm Garrison Keillor. I'm not Meet The Press, I'm American Pickers. I'm not oil and vinegar, I'm milk and cookies. I don't care to push boundaries but I do want to explore them. 

A friend of mine who is an excellent writer and loves political debate once asked if I would be interested in writing articles for an online periodical he was looking to launch. He said he didn't like what was out there. He said everyone's afraid of saying what's really on their mind. He said nobody wants to do any real reporting these days, everyone's afraid to speak up. He wanted Erin Brockovich, I was Mr. Rogers. He said I don't want something filled with fluff. I said I'm sorry, fluff is what I do. I want to entertain with a smile or a tear not a fist pound or a finger point. That's who I am and it took me a half a dozen decades to say it to the person in the mirror. I'm that person who doesn't care that you took my parking space. I'll find another one and I'll sleep like a rock tonight. I don't have any fight left in me because there was never much there to begin with. 

Don't get me wrong, I admire my alter egos. I love the Mike Wallace's, Roseanne's and Jon Stewart's of the world. I don't do good taking sides unless it involves injustice or abuse. Then I can get ugly. My biggest problem is I don't have too many problems. You do your thing, I'll do mine. 

When it comes to writing, dig to the bottom, don't over think it because self doubt will kick in and the next thing you know you're sitting there with your head in your hands going, "Why do I do this?". Right now I'm beginning to question this piece and whether it makes any sense. I wonder what triggered it and if it's even worth sharing, or should I just hit delete. I have things I've written that never see the light of day because I stall in traffic and don't know what to do with them. These are roadblocks we all face, only with different names on different days. 

Write from the inside out. When the words come slow remember to peel away the heavy layers of doubt. In the end it doesn't much matter what you say, what matters most is not to remain silent. Whether you speak on paper, with a guitar, or with a paint brush remember to speak. There's always someone listening somewhere. 

May 19, 2016

Henry's Birthplace

Henry’s Birthplace
By John R. Greenwood

I received a call recently from my cousin Henry. Henry’s retired now and lives in Florida. He was in Saratoga visiting his mother. He'd spent one day with his younger brother on a successful Lake Ontario fishing trip. Henry didn't call to tell me about his fishing trip, he called to ask a favor. You see, Henry was born on our grandmother and grandfather Kubish's farm. He'd read my recent story about my visit with the present owners of the farm, Ray and Carolyn Bouchard, and wondered if I could arrange for him to see the place. Like me, Henry hadn't been back there in over 50 years. Henry spent the first years of his life on the farm. His mother stayed with her parents while her husband was away in the Army. Because of that Henry had more history there than all of the cousins. He told me on the phone that his fondest memories were made on the old farm. Like me, Henry had spent years wanting to go back to see how it had changed. He had no idea just how much of our grandparents still remained on the property. Although I'd visited a few months earlier, there were still a few surprises that alluded me on my first visit. 

My call to the Bouchard’s was predictable. They opened their hearts once again and invited the two of us back without hesitation. We set a date for the following Monday afternoon and I called Henry to give him the good news. He reacted like a kid being told the family was going to Disney. I was equally excited about spending a few hours with a cousin I hadn’t seen in years. 

The weather hit the mark with a cool breeze and sunshine. I left work at noon and met Henry at my Aunt Jennie's house. This was another bonus, as I hadn’t seen her in quite some time. She closely resembles my mother so it always makes seeing her extra special. She doesn't get around like she used to but she’s sharp as a tack and always a pleasure to visit with. It was the highlight of my week. My cousin Tom was there too. He was mowing his mother's block deep backyard. We asked him to join us but he quietly declined. I think he knew this was his older brother’s moment and he didn’t want to disrupt it. I could see the anticipation growing in Henry’s eyes, it was time to head to Greenfield. Out to the old farm. 

Henry photographing our grandparent's headstone
On the way to the farm we passed the cemetery where our mothers parents were buried. We stopped for a minute so Henry and I could pay our respects. We both had our cameras with us and we simultaneously took a picture of the headstone of Joseph and Johanna Kubish. They’d both been gone since the 1960’s but I could see them standing there as clear as day. They were strong hardworking people and even though I was a young boy when they passed, I took from them a lifetime of memories and life-lessons--Henry and I both did. We didn’t say much at the cemetery, we didn’t need to. We each had our own favorite stories of Baba and Zeddo. I think we were both rewinding the reel for one more look back. It was all we’d wanted out of the day. We quietly got back in the truck and as we headed toward the road we began reading familiar names off the headstones. Each one brought a flashcard memory.

We turned back onto Wilton Road and headed east. 

A few minutes later as I turned into the Bouchard's driveway I could sense Henry's excitement. His eyes were glued on the old house in the distance. The leaves hadn't come out yet so it was slightly visible through the trees. “The driveway seemed much longer back then,” he said with surprise. 

Ray warned me on the phone he was working on the driveway near the house and that he had it all dug up. He has a large farm size tractor with all the trimmings to go with it. It's one of those big boy toys that’s the envy of any grown man. 

I parked at the bottom of the hill in front of the house. Henry unbuckled his seatbelt and was out of the truck before I could shut the key off. I understood, I'd felt the same way when I pulled in a few months before. 

Ray Bouchard and Henry Ebert 
Ray was on the tractor in front of the garage and spotted us right away. He jumped down and headed toward us. Ray may be short in stature but to Henry and I that day he was ten feet tall with the swagger of John Wayne. Henry stuck his hand out while Ray was still twenty feet away saying, “Thank you! Thank you for letting me see the place.” I think Ray knew instantly he'd given Henry a great gift. Two seconds later a smiling Henry had his arm around a smiling Ray and I snapped a picture. It was a Hallmark moment if ever I’ve seen one. 

While we stood there talking, Henry’s head was turning from side to side absorbing the scene like a video camera on a tripod. Ray’s wife Carolyn came out and invited us in. Henry was in Nostalgia Heaven. It got even better real fast. Ray had a collection of farm-finds spread out like a museum display. There were antique door handles a horseshoe, mason jar, and a hatchet.

There in the middle of the collection was the old hatch to the chicken coop. The hatch I spotted a few months earlier when I visited the farm. The same hatch my sister and my cousins used to crawl through as kids. The hatch to a 1960’s playhouse full of scabby kneed kids with splinters in their hands and cobwebs in their hair. Kids who would file those moments deep within their pockets to use a half century later for a nostalgia fix. 

There was another surprise in the collection that both Henry and I dialed in on. It was a small metal shovel made for scooping ashes out of a wood stove. It was handmade and familiar to both of us. We were certain it was crafted by our grandfather and used to clean the ashes from the stove. 

Another reel of memories rolled by. 

Ray and Carolyn provided a full tour of their home once again. This time there were four of us weaving from room to room smiling as the recollections we each had brought back voices, smells, and faces. The Bouchard’s raised a large family of their own there and had done many renovations with small children racing around underfoot. Now, those children brought more grandchildren back to begin their own mind based photo album. How lucky we all were to have that opportunity. I’m forever grateful for the hospitality of two generous people. 

I remembered the post and beam wall on the back porch that Ray exposed and rehabilitated. I didn’t want to be pushy but I knew Henry, the retired carpenter, would appreciate the work Ray had done. I wanted to be sure he got a chance to see it. My request had us on the porch in seconds and my hunch was right. Henry just stood there admiring the craftsmanship put into reviving the vintage structure that unknowingly lay beneath the siding of the house where he was born. For us, it was like standing before the Mona Lisa. 

Carolyn took a moment to describe many of the items they'd found in the cellar. One of them was this ceramic jug. It was a treasure all on it’s own. I would have paid a lot of money to leave there with that jug, but it wasn't for sale and it was right where it belonged. 

I knew Henry was anxious to get outside and walk around the property. When we did get out we both stood there imagining all the cousins running around and playing in the many outbuildings behind the house. The tour continued to the edge of the woods where Ray and Carolyn still maintain various gardens. The property has never been without gardens of some type. That made me happy. I think it made us all happy. 

Next we entered the museum of history. Ray’s refurbished shed slash workshop where Henry and I would both discover the best surprise of all; our grandparents old wood stove complete with clock and integrated salt and pepper shakers. 

Seeing that stove stopped us both in our tracks. 

It was even more thrilling to know Ray still used it to heat the shed on occasion. Every one of my cousins remember the stove and each one of us have our own favorite food that came off or out of it. 

There were classic Slovak soups with dried mushrooms my grandmother picked herself. There was Baba's homemade bread slathered with hard butter or homemade fruit jam. A flood of sights and smells filled the shed as we both stood there mesmerized by the cast iron and porcelain rock star we’d just rediscovered. 

I turned around and on the back wall of the shed was another museum like arrangement of saw blades, saws and other handmade tools the Bouchard’s had discovered on the property. It was a testament to the strength and self reliance of those who'd come before us. I was glad Ray and Carolyn had gone to such great lengths to preserve, not just some of my heritage, but the heritage of everyone who’d ever set foot on the acreage surrounding the old farm. I hope whoever follows the behind the Bouchard’s does the same.

The next step was to fulfill my promise to take Henry back to the Cronkite Cemetery. He didn’t need me to point him there, he knew exactly where to go. In fact he had a surprise of his own for me. He remembered the location of the old dump where my grandmother would send him with the trash when he was young. He assured me there would be some remnants there to prove his recollection. Carolyn headed back inside and Ray gave us full reign to explore to our hearts content. He had a driveway to attend to and headed back to his tractor. Henry and I headed in to the woods on the backside of the hill behind the house. I switched from guide to tourist and tried my best to keep up with Henry who was now zeroed in on finding an old dump filled with rusty cans and old ketchup bottles. We hadn’t gone far when Henry stopped and pointed to a pile of rusty metal in the leaves. There, just as he’d described, was the old family dump. There were bottles and other debris mixed among the leaves and rocks. It wasn’t a chest of buried treasure but it might just as well have been. We were instantly transformed into couple of boys on a backwoods adventure. The movie "Stand By Me" flashed through my head. I knew what Henry was thinking. He and I had been talking about old cellars and foundations on the way to the farm. He told me he had a professional grade metal detector at his home back in Florida. He said he wished he’d brought it with him this trip. I know he was really kicking himself now.

By now we were both beginning to tire out. We had one more stop on our tour and that was the Cronkhite Cemetery. Cronkhite's were the original homeowners in the 1800's. We walked quietly. I began to drop behind a little. I wanted Henry to discover the stone walled cemetery the same way I had months earlier. He was focused in like a hound on a rabbit. It wasn’t a seventy year old man ahead of me, it was a transformed boy looking for a memory. He was back in the 1950’s. I was right there too.

When I caught up with him we both stood there quietly. We were both focused on the centuries old iron gate. The gate  still worked like it was installed yesterday; more proof of the pride and craftsmanship our forefather's possessed.  Although the cemetery was a bit overgrown and disheveled it remained intact and peaceful---much like the two of us as we smiled at each other and headed back to the farm. 

I attended two meetings of the Greenfield Historical Society just before and after Henry and I got to visit our grandparent's old farm. The meetings take place in the community room attached to the home where my parents lived when I was born. 

The author on the front porch of what is now the
Greenfield Community Center
The home was owned by my aunt and uncle, Steve and Anne Pasek. During the meetings I was literally sitting where I'd been cradled in my mother's arms some 60 years before. I knew how lucky I was to have that historical connection. It made me feel like I belonged there, then and now. I knew that was what Henry was feeling when we were heading back to my truck that day at the farm. I knew as he broke out of the woods and was looking up at the place that held his favorite memories that he was content and a little more at peace than he was a few days earlier. I know he was as grateful to the Bouchard's as I was. I'd say they had no idea how much the visit meant to Henry and I but I don't think that's true. I think they knew exactly how important the gift they'd given us was. I think that's because they appreciate  family and that sense of place that is so important to our spirit in general. It doesn't have to be a family farm, it can be a row-house or your first apartment. It can be a town like Greenfield or a city the size of New York. It's wherever you feel most whole. For me it's right here in the center of Saratoga County. Thirty miles in any direction and I'm happy as a clam. Any further than that and I'm turning my head and looking over my shoulder at what I'm leaving behind. 

Let's just say, "I like it right where I am." 

"Henry's Birthplace"