When I remember the Upstate New York landscapes of my childhood, I recall images of dairy farms and apple orchards and headless horsemen. But when I look around the region today, I see housing tracts and shopping centers and self storage facilities. I also see a lot of eagles, which—thanks to DDT—nobody ever saw around here when I was a kid. Also, the air nowadays seems cleaner.
One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the graveyards. They’re still here, albeit a bit more crowded. It appears that even the Marchers of Progress fear to tread across a burial ground, though sometimes they cut it pretty close. Consider, for instance, the final resting place of one of my relations. When we buried her, all those years ago, the gravesite bordered on a swamp of cattails and redwing song. Today it abuts the back wall of a big box store called Bed Bath & Beyond.
My father spent his last years in a series of nursing homes and hospitals. We visited him every day. This went on for years. The road to one of those hospitals crossed a certain creek that had a ghost story connected to it. In the Hudson Valley pretty much every creek and patch of woods and abandoned factory has such a tale. This one goes like this.
The ghost of an old woman is said to haunt the entire length of the creek. She can appear anywhere along its course, from the headwaters to its confluence with the river. Once, long ago, a young boy ran into the ghost while walking along the shaded banks. He ran away as fast as he could. When he got home he told his parents about the encounter. His concerned mother said: “Promise me, my boy, that you will never go down there again. Nobody can explain it very well, but hiding in our thoughts are all kinds of things we know aren’t good. The reason is not always clear. We only know it is not good there.”
One time, during a move from one city to another, we hired a moving company to transfer a few thousand pounds of my stuff—mostly books and assorted “memorabilia.” It had all been packed away in storage in the former city. Now it was all going into another storage unit in another city. As the movers unloaded my dusty effects from their big truck, my wife got a good look at just what kind of baggage I had been hauling around all these years.
“You know,” she said, “I didn’t realize just how much of a sentimentalist you are, till I saw that you still have your dead dog’s dish. The dog you had when you were a kid!”
I was forty-six years old at the time. Now, ten years and a few moves later, we’re back in my family home in the Catskills. Here to stay. I still have that dog dish. It’s in the barn with a whole bunch of other stuff. In situ storage, I like to call it.
In ancient Greece, the statues of Daedalus were much admired for their life-like qualities. Too life-like, some might say, as these statues were known to hop off from their pedestals and gad about the neighborhood—unless they were tied down. Despite the flight risk, these wondrous statues were in great demand among the garden set of the day. Unfortunately, the caretakers seldom secured the statues properly, so they were always running off. Indeed, they were notoriously difficult to retrieve once they had hoofed it. Most of them just disappeared into oblivion.
The garden of anybody’s memory is just the same, appointed with all manner of statues fashioned by Daedalus. Some of those mental figures may be tethered securely, but most are cavorting about fantastically on the lawn until sooner or later they draw near the garden edge and vanish into dark woods.
Some years ago, a writing project required that I conduct a little research on Roy Rogers. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the man. But I did know that Roy was a popular cowboy celebrity back in the day and he had a favorite horse named Trigger. When Trigger died, Roy had him stuffed by a taxidermist and put on display in the Roy Rogers – Dale Evans Museum. I went to the museum’s webpage and discovered that the operation had just moved from Victorville in the Mojave Desert of California to the more lush precincts of Branson, Missouri, “Live Entertainment Capital of the World.” A note from Roy himself was pinned to the top of the webpage.
“Welcome to The Roy Rogers – Dale Evans Museum. We’ve had a lifetime of Happy Trails full of love, laughter, and sometimes sorrow. Everything we’ve ever done is right here for everyone to see. For nearly as long as I can remember, I thought about having a museum. I’ve always liked to save things. No matter what came my way, whether it was a letter from a boy or girl movie fan or from a President, or a nice shotgun or an old-time telephone, I stuck it in the basement, or the garage, or in drawers at home. Dale would say,‘Honey, when are you going to empty those drawers?’ Then I’d put everything in a box and call the van & storage company to come pick it up and keep it for me. Then came a day we had enough for a museum. Dale and I like to think that it will be a place for people to come have fun and learn about our lives, and also to remember what America was like so many years ago.”
Today, on a whim, I went back to that webpage and was saddened to read this: “The Roy Rogers – Dale Evans Museum is now closed. Disregard all info below.” The webpage content is still there, but its signification has collapsed in upon itself like a sunken grave. Elsewhere on the internet I learned that the museum had gone belly-up and the contents were auctioned off by Christie’s in 2010. The sale brought in almost three million dollars. When the auction ended, the audience spontaneously broke out into a rendition of “Happy Trails.” Trigger himself fetched more than a quarter million bucks. He now stands in the lobby of a cable TV network headquarters in Nebraska.
Over the years, I drove past many self storage facilities on the way to visit my father in the nursing home or hospital. For some reason places like that grab my attention. I jotted down some of their names: Accessible Self Storage, Reliable Self Storage, Custom Self Storage, Secure Self Storage, Rip’s Self Storage (in the Catskills), Convenient Self Storage, Guardian Self Storage, Your Self Storage, Spray-and-Shine Carwash and Self Storage, Pack-Rat Self Storage, and Out-of-Site Self Storage. There was also the Paradise Space Center (had a rocket out front), Old McDonald’s Storage Farm (everybody got a mini-barn for their stuff), and Jake’s Lock-Up (near the prison).
I don’t know what compelled me to record these names, but I saved the list.
A dozen or so incubators filled the neo-natal intensive care unit of the hospital where my father died. They were visible through a glass wall in the observation room. I went there one afternoon to take a break from the vigil my family was keeping in another part of the hospital. At the time, only one of the incubators was occupied. I wish I could remember what the infant looked like so I could describe it for you, but it did not register on my memory. I do remember the infant was pretty small. As far as I could tell, it did not move in the incubator.
I also remember that whenever a baby was delivered in this hospital, a Muzak version of Brahms’ Lullaby was emphatically piped into every room and hallway in the building. Blessed events were happening at the rate of once or twice a day for each of the twelve days my father was in that hospital, before he passed away.
Whenever I see a news story on the internet that catches my imagination, I print it out and put it into a cardboard box with the intention that one day I might make some use of it in my writing. That box is a storage unit for my bright ideas. Over the years I’ve filled several of these boxes and never once have I gone back and made use of anything packed away there. Till now.
In the Low Country of Georgia, police are searching for some storage unit thieves who they say stole a woman’s Santa Claus statue. Margaret Boni’s one Christmas wish is to have her beloved Santa statue back in her yard.
She speaks of this Santa Claus as if it were a family member. “I have no idea how this could happen,” Boni says.“None, whatsoever.”
It’s a Boni family tradition to illuminate the six foot tall Santa as the centerpiece of a yard filled with festive decor.
“I put him in our yard at Moss Creek for fifteen years,”Boni says.“Oh, he was the center of everything and the lighting was just, if you ever talked to anyone where we lived, it was just fabulous. You could see the lights when you were going down 278.”
On November 19 police say Boni’s storage unit was found with the lock broken and the contents gone. She got the phone call from her son, who discovered Santa missing.
“He called and he said, ‘Mom, he’s gone.” Now she’s brokenhearted at the memory of what she says is lost.“Why would anyone take Papa’s Santa Claus? You know, I just don’t understand it.”
She remembers the day she brought Santa home to her late husband fifteen years ago. She says he truly adored decorating the lawn with Santa Claus, but Papa passed away about a year and a half ago.
“You know,”she says,“to lose your husband and then to lose something that was so special to him, why’d they have to steal our Santa?”
Her only hope now is that someone will spot the Santa from the photos her family has posted on Facebook.
Soon my wife and I will be bringing home a puppy. A collie, like the one I had when I was growing up. The puppy was born a few weeks ago, and once a week we’ve been driving up to visit him. The road to the breeder’s takes us past a lot of housing tracts and shopping centers and self storage facilities. It also takes us past one of the nursing homes my father stayed in, the one where he broke his hip.
Like so many others around here, this nursing home is set in the middle of what was once a cornfield. From its courtyard there’s a fine view of the Catskill Mountains. You’d almost think you were looking at a Hudson River School painting. My father used to sit there in the courtyard in his wheelchair and look at the mountains of home and say nothing. He didn’t talk much in those later years. After he broke his hip, we moved him elsewhere.
A strange feeling now arises whenever I see that nursing home. I can’t tell if it’s nostalgia or dread. Maybe it’s nostalgic dread. Or dreadful nostalgia. In any case, when I look at that place—especially at night when everything is shrouded in sepia-toned shadows cast by the lights in the parking lot—I only know it is not good there.
“Explanations come to an end somewhere.” Some philosopher said that.
I have been keeping a journal for most of my life. I seldom go back and read anything I’ve written there, so all those volumes just become another self storage facility in my life—this one for words. And what are words themselves but storage units of a kind. Or are they statues of Daedalus? Maybe they are simply cages with wild animals in them. I don’t know. Anyhow, here’s a journal entry I composed some years ago. I printed it out at the time and tossed it into that same box the Santa story came from.
The sweet fellow Oliver, who smiles and shuffles about the Memory Care unit in the nursing home. Sweet Oliver, who sometimes helps the staff fold napkins, sometimes just sorts through the coffee cup lids left lying on the table. My father points to him and says, “My father.” Sweet Oliver, who sort of looks like my father’s father.
Today Oliver’s son comes by and sits with his father for dinner. He comes to this locked ward in the nursing home for the same reason many of us do. “Sometimes love is just showing up,” says the social worker. There’s not much else to say. Not anymore. When the son gets up to leave (he’s probably in his mid-fifties), I hear him say to Oliver, “I love you, Dad.” I can’t see Oliver’s face from where I’m sitting next to my own father. But I do see the son heading for the door, the door that will open—once he punches in the code that unlocks it—upon a warm spring evening with lingering light in the sky.
He gets the door open but pauses at the threshold. If it remains open for more than thirty seconds an alarm will sound. Fresh air enters the room. A nursing home staff member looks over to see what’s going on. The son turns around for one last glimpse of his father.