Daily Archives: December 27, 2002

One birthday remembered

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I’m not good with birthdays. Beyond my immediate family, I’m pretty hopeless. Even if I remember what day they fall on, I’m unlikely to think of them around that time. But for some reason I have always remembered my great grandmother’s birthday, which is today. It would be Grandma Hazel Smith’s 108th birthday. As it happens, she made it to 102. In Hazel’s last 10 years her health was strong but Alzheimer’s had taken her, unfortunately, and she spent most of her days waiting for her husband Ernie to come and get her. Ernie, who had been dead since 1963. She was a sweet woman who baked a great apple pie. She stayed tight with her sisters, most of them, all her life, though there was some kind of a feud with her sister Mamie that rose to the level of being mentioned in Mamie’s will. (My mother thinks Hazel stole Ernie away from Mamie. I guess we’ll never know.) Ruth and Helen and Hazel spent the summers up at their houses in West Glenville, and Margaret was down in Scotia, and they saw each other all the time.
They were an interesting group. They didn’t come from any money — their father was the town tinker and the town drunk. Helen, who took care of me and my sister when we were young, had a flamboyant affair with a married insurance agent who gave her some property that helped her get by. In the midst of the depression, she was able to lend a considerable sum of money to Hazel and Ernie, which they secured with everything they had, including farm equipment, an old car and 60 chickens. In addition to a rooming house in Schenectady, Helen somehow managed to get a summer house in West Glenville, just up the road from where she’d grown up. Margaret, similarly, had a lifelong boyfriend, and she worked at the Wallace’s Department Store downtown and had a two-family house in Scotia, where she rented out the upper floor. I know that Ruth had worked and somehow she had the family house on Waters Road in West Glenville, but what she got by on is a mystery. Hazel was the traditionalist of those four, in the sense that she married a man who supported her. Ernie had various ventures in his life, but mostly it centered on subsistence farming and carpentry. He died from an accidental overdose of blood-thinning medication, and after that Hazel went to live with her daughter, Thelma, but spent her summers mostly up at Helen’s house in West Glenville.
All these labors and intrigues, ways of living and relationships, arguments so important they lasted a lifetime — all viewed dimly through second-hand memories and some papers found in a wooden box — all the rest is lost to us now.

Armagideon time for Joe Strummer

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Lost somewhere in the news over the weekend was the word that Joe Strummer of The Clash had died of a heart attack. He was 50 — or, for those who keep track of such things, eight years older than I am. Okay, John Entwistle was no surprise, really, though one would think the boys would slow down after a few decades of drugs. Joey Ramone was hard to take, but he had been sick for a while. DeeDee, again, was no surprise, except perhaps that he had lasted this long. But now, Joe Strummer? Who’s going to be left?
At a time when I was very ambivalent about New Wave, hated the music of the ’70s, and was still focused on some of the music of the ’60s, The Clash were like a flash of lightning. I already knew and loved The Ramones, but they did what they did and that was it. It was brilliant and exciting and took people back to the roots and a little bit beyond. The Clash then took that and went all over the map with it — since The Beatles there hadn’t been a more musically inventive band, and I think they surpassed The Beatles in some ways. They combined ska and dub into rock ‘n’ roll and made it all make sense. They did hard-driving rock and deep, slow-tempo dubs. Nearly every song sounded different, and there was always something interesting going on. The big, triple-disc mess that was Sandinista goes through more musical ideas in one album than most bands do in their entire careers.
Like all the good ones, The Clash were a band. They captured the restless, unsettled Thatcher years for England, and a lot of that spoke to the Reagan years here. (“A lot of people won’t get no justice tonight” — “Coke adds life / where there isn’t any”) Once they were done, they were done. After they came apart, Big Audio Dynamite had some success and was certainly fun to listen to; Joe’s Mescaleros didn’t make much of a ripple. It was the band, the time, the energy.
Remember . . . to kick it over . . . no one will guide you . . . it’s Armagideon time. . . .

The holidays

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If I were being honest, I’d have to say that I haven’t really felt the same about the holidays since my father died, which was a long time ago. At some point in the very early ’70s, Christmas eve became a gathering at our house to which all sorts of family, extended family, former family, etc. were all invited, and over the course of an evening 30 to 40 people might come and go. I’m not sure just when lasagna became part of it, but it is, and I remember a disastrous year when my mother decided she was not making 5 or 6 trays of lasagna and substituted something else — grown men were practically in tears. My mom’s sister started making creampuffs, and somehow they got there every year whether she did or not. So Christmas eve always meant family, lasagna and creampuffs. Individual faces changed, people came and went, but the core families were always there. It was a very informal gathering, though on occasion my father was moved to say a word or two. It was a chance to stay up late and listen to the grownups talk (my cousins were all much younger than I was), and to me it was as important as Christmas day; maybe moreso. The year my father died (he died in September 1985) was the first year I ever missed it — Christmas fell on a Wednesday that year (like this year), and I was backed up at work and really couldn’t take extra time, and it just didn’t seem worth making the trip, so my mother and sister came out to Syracuse the weekend before and they went on and had Christmas eve without me, which was fine with me because the truth was that I couldn’t face Christmas eve without my father that year.
But the tradition went on, and the other men who had been important to me growing up were still there, and it was a chance to see them again, but I felt my father’s absence acutely. We all started having kids, which brought some spark back to the thing, but there was more loss — Hank died, then Jimmy. Duane moved away. Both my grandparents and my great grandmother died. Two years ago, my mother did something only slightly less unthinkable than not making lasagna — she moved. Not far, but still, when someone shifts from a house she’s been in for 40 years, it’s surprising. Now Christmas eve is almost entirely made up of folks from my mom’s side of the family, my cousins and their kids (though not all of them, depending on who has custody over the holidays. Modern life).
And it is joyous. The girls dress up and scurry around, passing out little presents, getting each other all wound up, chasing their cousins up and down the stairs and staying up too late. There’s lasagna and creampuffs (I abstain from the latter, but not the former). But running through it is the ones we’ve lost, the ones I miss, especially my father. I wish he were here to see these little wonders we’re rearing, that he could have been some piece of their lives. I wish there had been more time for us together.
But this is the way of things, meetings and partings, and we can’t let the ghosts of the past prevent us from being in the present, hard as that may be sometimes.