Lost but re-found

The Thinker by Rodin

The hills of upstate New York are now barren of leaves. Yet speeding down I-88 between Albany and Binghamton last Friday, I was enjoying the scenery: the many grey hills spotted with evergreens still made for an interesting and photogenic landscape. There was so much of it to enjoy in the nearly two hour drive between cities, made even nicer by the light traffic on this largely neglected interstate. An occasional shower spattered my windshield and grey clouds largely took over by the time I arrived in Binghamton but at least it was unseasonably mild. The grey clouds actually made the place feel like home, which in fact it was for me from 1963 through 1972. Starting in November and usually lasting until spring, Binghamton is generally a dark and dreary place, a combination of diminishing daylight and clouds that form over Lake Erie and thicken in the prevailing westerly winds.

This November visit was actually an improvement over my last visit in August, then for a family reunion at a nearby state park. At least it was not stifling and a bed at a four star hotel in Johnson City awaited me instead of an un-air-conditioned cabin. The overnight trip between Massachusetts (home) and Binghamton was now doable so not that big a deal: under four hours by car with the pastoral mountainous drives on I-90 and I-88 a bonus. The occasion of this return was somewhat somber. My childhood friend Tom’s father of the same name had passed. I decided to drive to the funeral and pay my respects, something that would have been out of the question before. But then I was at least seven hours away by car and I had a job. Being closer and retired, it was doable. It would give me a chance to see Tom but also to see his family again, some forty-three years in my past. (My wife hung back due to a painful slipped disk.)

His dad, a former engineer who worked at the now largely vanquished IBM Endicott made it to 87, and finally passed on November 1, a victim of congestive heart failure. I hadn’t seen much of his father when I was young. Shortly after arriving at the Allen Memorial Home in nearby Endicott and seeing so many pictures of him on poster board, my memories of Tom’s dad flooded back. He was Irish, he was passionate, he usually had a big smile on his face and he was very, very Catholic. He and his wife raised nine children including my friend Tom, and not very well by some accounts. He worked days and his wife (a nurse) worked nights. This didn’t leave much time for a relationship or for parenting. They eventually divorced, which should have estranged him from the Catholic Church. At least the priests at St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton were forgiving. Three priests and a deacon in vestments were at his funeral mass, and the deacon spoke warmly about Tom, their time together, and their shared passion for sports.

At the funeral home I saw few signs of mourning from my friend’s family. In some ways their mood felt joyous. For me this journey became something of a time warp. I had been back to Binghamton five times over the forty plus years, but I hadn’t really connected with anyone I knew from my years there. At least I had the opportunity with Tom’s family, which included three generations now. Tom was now the oldest male in the family. His older sister has had that privilege for a couple of decades; their mom passed away from cancer in the 1990s.

In fact, Tom’s extended family looked great: thin for the most part, including Tom who had dropped forty pounds. Tom Sr.’s death was long anticipated, so most had moved through the grieving process while he was declining. Tom I knew, but it was impossible to name these grown up faces after so many years. Those who were old enough usually remembered me, and shared a memory. I remembered the youngest child now in her forties in diapers in their living room. Tom’s house had a color TV and she was watching Sesame Street on it when the show was still new. I was jealous of Tom’s family because my parents thought color TVs too expensive, so we were relegated to black and white.

Whatever family trauma there was forty some years earlier seemed wholly gone. Tom’s family proved to be a lively, civilized and grounded bunch, all instantly likeable. In some ways I felt more comfortable with them than I do with my own siblings. Tom’s family may have had issues, but they were a passionate bunch. My house was more saccharine and my mother played the role of dutiful Stepford wife. No wonder I liked hanging out with Tom. His house felt real. But there was more. Tom was and remains an intensely creative person full of energy and passion. It must have been due to all that Irish blood. As I worked my way down the receiving line I felt a lot of genuine warmth flecked with humor and remembrances.

Tom is one of nine children; I am one of eight. My family scattered like the wind across the nation. Six of Tom’s siblings stayed in the Binghamton area and extended their family’s roots there. Most had dodged and parried with life pretty well in spite of a challenging childhood, but others had dealt with larger problems. An older sister spent decades fighting addictions but she told me she had been clean and sober for twenty-five years.

The sun was close to setting when I arrived, but I drove by our old house and enjoyed the fall colors still hanging on a tree on our old front lawn. The house has been extended into the backyard. Its original six bedrooms are now probably more like ten bedrooms. In fact, the house is now owned by the State of New York and it houses developmentally disabled adults.

While Tom hung with family that evening, I did a driving tour of the area (“The Triple Cities”) in the dark, following paths I knew so well from childhood, but also from exploring the area again on Google Maps. I had fond memories of my father taking us to Binghamton Airport, so I drove there in the dark along Farm to Market Road. I drove down Vestal Parkway, climbed Taft Avenue in Endicott and wandered the back streets behind our old house in the darkness. I watched the stars appear periodically from behind the clouds, so much clearer here where the city lights are more muted. The Binghamton area had often felt sad in past visits, but this time it felt fully on the mend. Dinner came from the food court at the Johnson City Wegmans. Leaving my car in the parking lot of my hotel, I noted a fox’s bright eyes looking back at me in the dark from the nearby woods.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church turned out to be an ornate church by Catholic standards with impressive stained glass windows and altarpieces that imitated Gothic spires. By any measure, Tom’s dad went out well. A huge organ in the back of the church and a cantor on the altar provided deeply spiritual music mixed with Irish melodies during the funeral mass. It’s a large church and was more than half full; clearly Tom’s father was a man beloved in the church and in the community. Tom’s family did a wonderful job of arranging a memorable and emotional service.

In the lobby after the service Tom pulled me over. He reintroduced me to a friend I knew even longer than him, Peter, who I first met in first grade and often played with after school. Age 58, Pete hadn’t changed that much but related a brush with mortality: he a heart attack a few years back. At the reception after the mass we ate food, laughed, traded memories and snapped pictures. There were no tears to note but plenty of laughter. People reconnected, and that included me. For the first time in more than forty years I felt reconnected with the area I always considered home. There were still friends here; we had just lost touch.

I was back home for supper, doing a reverse commute. The hills along I-88 and I-90 were still pretty, though barren, but the temperature had plummeted. It was cold but I felt strangely glowing. It came from the deep embers of a long ago connection thought lost but now recovered somehow.