What I do believe is an adage that has grown trite with wear: Everybody has a story. Manners were expected in my childhood, but not so much the patient peeling back of other people’s layers to understand behavior and find compassion. Continue reading
What Time Feels Like in Its Passing
Nothing has changed. Not much anyway. So why did a recent email from my brother throw me off stride?
“We finally decided to sell our condo,” Ed writes. “Now that Delta [Airlines] has pulled out of Erie, the convenience is outweighed by the cost. We have to fly into Buffalo anyways, and that just happens to be where Andrea and the boys are.”
Ed and wife Debby have retired to Las Vegas. No use paying taxes and condominium fees for a perch in our hometown when Buffalo, 90 minutes away, is where they want to be.
But Ed’s real estate transaction means that I’m the last Coleman left in Erie. My sisters both live in North Carolina. Mom died in 1998, Dad in 2012. Wife Kathy and I have two adult children and three grandsons in Erie, so our calendars overfloweth with blessings. Still, now that nobody from my birth family lives within an easy drive, one ventricle of my heart is pumping sighs.
This season’s emotional valley has been a long time coming. The Coleman family’s migration into glory and geographical retreat from Pennsylvania is of a piece with my past slipping away.
In the old neighborhood, Twin Kiss is a vacant lot. Joe Ettwein no longer survives to repair my cars. Gary’s Variety is a parking lot. I learned to make change there from the best boss ever. Russ’ Diner recently died of COVID-19, as did my beloved Jack Frost Donuts. Armand’s Pizzeria was actually the first to go, leveled for a convenience store. “OK, bout 10-12 minutes,” the muscular, mustachioed proprietor said in staccato when I ordered a large with cheese and pepperoni. The crust was thin, the sauce sweet.
Passing the dusty ghost of my alma mater, Erie East High, I can see German teacher Miss McMahon’s high ceiling and hardwood floor protected by layers of lacquer against the soles of spirited, randy teenagers. What apartments those classrooms would have made.
OK, uncle, the razing of East and Armand’s and the rest must be tolerated, but I’ll let myself wallow over Wagner Avenue, where I was raised.
The closer I get to 60—11 days away now, but who’s counting—the more often I turn right at the intersection I crossed for a 25-cent chocolate and vanilla “twin kiss” cone. Three blocks to the south stands home, surrounded by Farnsworths, Clarks, Newcamps and Snells.
Mr. and Mrs. Andrews lived next door. The wiry mister, a foundry worker, came home filthy, his cheeks whiskery, his lip bulging with Copenhagen. The missus’ frizzy hair gave her the countenance of a startled cartoon woman. But their house and garden were just so.
On my last Wagner run I was floored to see that fire had blown through the Andrews’ windows. The edifice remains. The picture I pulled over to take doesn’t capture my sensation in the moment that Mickey and Marcella went up in smoke with their home. In fact, they died two days apart in 2005 and shared an obituary.
My home was untouched, but with the two shade maples out on the tree lawn chopped down, the place was damaged in the eyes of the boy who came and went with a slam of the screen door.
I couldn’t help myself. Starting at our driveway, I paced off the yards to the corner. Almost 50 years ago, a handsome kid used the hollow of his mother’s hairspray cap as a tee. He sent the football over the telephone wire, jogged after it and kicked again. Again. And another as dusk turned to night.
But just how long was his furthest kick? I faced the wire, guessed 20-25 yards, and breathed. My treeless house looked like a man who had shaved off a beard he’d worn forever.
Presiding over the avenue of my personal best, this grandfather realized he could never match that 14-year-old who was so painfully awkward with the girls. I cracked open. Wind swirled in the hollow of my chest. I’ll never taste another Armand’s pizza. My brother has a buyer. One Coleman is left standing in Erie.
I’m as happy now as ever, honest, but what I wouldn’t give to kick that football one more time, to fetch it for another try. Let a chilly rain sting my face. Let the ball disappear into the darkness. I don’t need light to know that it’s good.
The kid inches toward the horizon. Being called “Pop” is perfect, but I miss Johnny. So I wave to him. He really puts his leg into one, watches it soar, then turns toward me. What a sweet boy. If only I could put my arm around his shoulder and pull him in close, as if father to son.
This is what time feels like in its passing.
Oniontown Pastoral: Boy, Could That Kid Jump!
This was almost 50 years ago. We were playing baseball on Wagner Avenue, home plate and bases drawn onto the pavement with chalk.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I hollered.
The other boys renamed themselves until Tommy was the only one left. He reached into his back pocket, thumbed through bubble gum cards and said, “I’m Tom Seaver.”
That’s how it was. My friends and I watched sports on television until we couldn’t contain ourselves, then ran outside to the stadium of our imaginations. We were both crowd and announcer. We cheered our home runs and cried out our alter egos after touchdowns. I can hear lanky Paul’s “Billy Joe DuPree” from the end zone, marked by a great maple in front of my house. He roared “Joe,” that one syllable so rambunctious and giddy that it still gives me a shot of adrenaline.
With a pause and deep breath I run the highlight reels from hundreds of pickup games with their line drives, swishes and spirals.
When nobody else could play, I shot hoops in a neighbor’s driveway. More often I grabbed a football and the cap to one of my mother’s hairspray cans to use for a tee and booted field goals over a telephone wire. For hours, as dusk eased toward darkness or sleet stung my cheeks, my name was Jan Stenerud, the Kansas City Chief who kicked soccer style before anyone else.
“Time let me hail and climb golden in the heydays of his eyes,” Dylan Thomas wrote of childhood in the poem “Fern Hill.” Wagner Avenue was the home field of my heydays, back when “I was green and carefree.”
I loved every win and loss, every bruise and dream. I loved Stenerud and Bench, “Sudden Sam” McDowell, Erie’s own Freddie Biletnikoff, LeRoy Kelly and “Pistol Pete” Maravich. And I especially loved John Havlicek.
I say “loved” advisedly. I never met these athletes, but they sprinted and shot through my seasons constantly. Their names alone revive my spirit.
So this morning when I read that John Havlicek died, “No!” came from down deep, involuntarily, not as lusty as lanky Paul’s “Joe” but plenty loud over a first cup of coffee.
I wasn’t yet four years old when Havlicek deflected a pass with five seconds left to preserve a Boston Celtics’ playoff victory. Even fans too young to remember the play have heard announcer Johnny Most’s legendary call. “Havlicek steals the ball!” he shouted. “Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans!”
Through the miracle of the Internet you can binge watch the 36-second clip, which is what I’ve been doing for hours. My favorite part is when Most says, “Johnny Havlicek.” I’d heard “Hondo” before, but never “Johnny,” a nickname that’s sweet to my ears.
“I’m Johnny Bench,” I once claimed, and that was half true. To grown ups in the old neighborhood, I was “Johnny Coleman.” Time was easy then, with folks visiting on front porches, nobody glancing at a wristwatch or smartphone. “Johnny” could be the title for a blessed chapter in my life.
In 2019 I’m “Pastor John” at St. John’s in Oniontown and “Pop” to my grandsons in Erie, but I never gave up being Johnny. I can’t pass a football field without sizing up the goalposts and wondering if my leg is as good as I recall. And I can tell instantly whether a basketball hoop is regulation. In high school I could dunk with two hands, the generous thighs my mother passed down to me perfect for jumping if not for nice-fitting blue jeans.
Between these sentences, my chin is parked on my knuckles. Hondo is gone. His teammate Jo Jo White, whose jumper had a hiccup I copied, and Hal Greer, who served up the ball that Havlicek famously stole, both died in 2018.
My heydays’ players are migrating into eternity. With each obituary I settle into the truth. The maple marking our end zone has been cut down. The neighbor’s garage looks lonely without the half-moon backboard and hoop. The wire I used for goalposts is there, though Mom’s hairspray caps are nowhere to be found.
To borrow from the poet, time lets us “play and be golden,” but it never breaks stride. The good news is, visiting the old Wagner Avenue behind closed eyes is more filled with gratitude each time I do it. I was lucky.
Johnny Coleman had a great leg, after all. And, boy, could that kid jump.
A Neighbor Shows Me How to Figure Out Ireland
The site was comical. On my way to St. John’s Lutheran Church recently, I drove past a neighbor who was poking leaves with a litter stick and sliding them into a big white bucket. The odd part was, there weren’t enough leaves to rake, maybe a hundred scattered over his yard.
“Why bother?” I thought. On the other hand, what a senior citizen does on a windy morning is none of my business.
We exchanged glances, me offering a smile, he raising his eyebrows and chomping on the last inch of a stogie.
I knew instantly that the man was trying to advise me. But about what? Cigar smoking wouldn’t suit my temperamental lungs, and gnawing on a cheroot would result in wife Kathy hesitating to kiss me.
No, the counsel had to do with leaves. A few days went by before I understood that my neighbor wanted to help me figure out Ireland.
Since Kathy and I returned from the Emerald Isle a couple weeks ago, my spirit has been overflowing. Kind brother Ed and his wife Debby drove us all over southern Ireland to sites both popular and inconspicuous. I gave the Blarney stone a peck, communed with two cows at the Cliffs of Moher, knelt in prayer at St. Colman’s Cathedral, and at St. Michan’s Church let my hands hover over the keyboard Handel used to compose his “Messiah.”
Then there was the countryside, where cattle and sheep grazed within stone walls, and church and castle ruins gave the land gray benedictions, as they have for centuries.
You can’t roam Ireland without feeling the inexorable passing of time. I’m home at the moment on an afternoon with intermittent drizzle—very Irish weather—but even now time’s gentle, but calloused, hands hold my face.
Part of me is in Erie, but part remains at Kilmainham Gaol, where architects of the 1916 Easter Rising awaited the firing squad. Joseph Plunkett, who married Grace Gifford in the prison chapel hours before his execution, was not yet thirty. After the ceremony in his cell, the bride and groom were permitted to spend ten awkward minutes together in the presence of guards. According to the tour guide, they sat quietly.
Another part of me reverences miles of stone walls. The only way to farm the island’s fields was to pry the limestone rocks out and pile them into long lines. During the Potato Famine (1845-1849), starving men were fed in exchange for clearing land and building walls that led nowhere. “Famine walls,” they were called. If grassy pastures were poetry, Ireland would be sonnets, beautiful but melancholy.
My great-great grandfather, Timothy Coleman, most likely sailed from County Cork to America before the historic blight that turned the country’s main food source to smelly mush. A million to starved to death and about as many emigrated elsewhere. Ireland’s population has never recovered the loss.
A dozen times each day, as I brushed ancient cathedrals with fingertips and tried to read eroded gravestones, Timothy’s absence haunted me. He was a farm laborer. I dreamt his face and imagined his voice.
Debby, who has dug into the Coleman family history, records the following about Timothy’s son, Edward: “[He] moved his family 31 times. . . .The family lived on mashed potatoes, gravy and hamburg.”
Part of me grieves for these ancestors I’ve never met and wonders with unfeigned love about their days and decades, their toils and joys.
Ireland rests in my spirit like the fallen leaves I’m studying, just a scattering this fall in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can only gather them one at a time, like my Oniontown neighbor did.
Timothy is but one leaf. Another is his wife Helen Salsman, who bore seven children. Someday Kathy and I will drive to Norwich, New York, and pay respects at her grave (1836-1918). We don’t know where Timothy is buried, which pains me a little.
Leaf by stunning leaf I’ll sort through Ireland, maybe figure out why I was so moved by the walls and ruins, cows and sheep, friendly folks and all those starving spirits who built walls that now look like random adornment, innocent alleluias stretching toward the horizon.
If you see me these days with my eyes closed, I’ll be imagining Timothy Coleman and remembering the island he left behind. And if you catch me chewing on a stogie, pray that Kathy will kiss me anyway.
At my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell
If you know me personally, prepare to wet yourself with laughter: there’s hardly a moment when I’m not aware of the clock. I was reminded of this a few days ago while deciding whether to buy a copy of the Erie Times-News.
“Come on,” I thought. “When are you going to have time to read the paper today?” And that’s when I caught myself: “Really? You don’t have time for the news? What the hell’s wrong with you?” That was my non-Zen way of saying, “Hmm. You’re a little out of balance these days, old boy.” So to make a point to myself, I bought the paper and snapped a picture of one just like it, one that I haven’t read yet.
“Seriously,” you might be thinking, “you have time to nap, pray, jog, cook, sip wine, not to mention do pastor work and write, but you can’t squeeze in the obituaries and funnies? Have you considered therapy?” Yes, actually. But I do have an explanation. All of the activities I get to have a clear purpose.
- Nap: I sleep one hour less at night and reserve an hour in the afternoon. My experience and the science are conclusive: I work and function much better in the late afternoon and early evening with a siesta under my belt.
- Pray: One hour a day for prayer is medicinal, like insulin and Zoloft.
- Jog: If I run four days a week and am still Mr. Chunky Trunks, imagine me without exercise. I’d need to get a second job just to afford enough talcum powder to keep my thighs from chaffing.
- Cook: Hey, the family has to eat.
- Sip wine: You raise your eyebrows: what’s the clear purpose here? Well, that shows how little you know. Red wine has many health benefits, as does dark chocolate. Honest. Look it up.
- Pastor work: No joking around. I can’t imagine a better bunch of people to work with and serve. I’m constantly grateful that they trust me with a flexible schedule; therefore, I watch the clock and give them a full week’s work for a week’s pay.
- Write: Out of all the activities on this list, the world would probably take the least notice if I didn’t find time to write. Regardless of my abilities, life without writing would amount to that feeling you get in your throat before you cry.
But reading the paper, that has always fallen into a forgiving category of time use—until now. As I get to know some friends who write for the Erie Times-News, what was once a guiltless omission is now selfishness. Not only do my friends’ livelihoods depend on the 285k-plus residents of our region buying and reading the paper, but as a blogger I’m becoming an auxiliary member of the local writing fraternity/sorority. Just as I take seriously keeping up with the work of my fellow WordPress bloggers, I’m now settling into reading the daily paper as a pleasant obligation.
Sadly, my personality defect remains, which you have probably figured out by now: I struggle to relax and have fun. As I mentioned, I understand the need for rest and get it, but I’m way too constipated about the whole business. I’d be much better off learning how to sit on the couch in my boxers, munch Cheetos, and curse as the Cleveland Browns give the game away after cruising for three quarters. Probably won’t happen.
I remember during my seminary studies a professor said that once you hit forty, you aren’t likely to improve more than 10% in any specific area of life. Are you generally nerved up? Don’t count on mellowing out more than 10%. I don’t necessarily believe this number, but I keep it in mind as a reality check, along with the lyrics from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:
Now the years are rolling by me
They are rockin’ evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same.
That same morning I bought the Erie Times-News and wondered about my life balance, I ran across a cluster of yard sales after picking up flea medicine at the veterinarian’s office. I breathed and walked from house to house, picking up a couple treasures and reminding myself that I’ll always be more or less the same, but once in a while I can step outside of my normal and do something for no good reason. The purchases pictured below should prove that I had a little fun.
A closing reality check: I did visit a few yard sales, but was thinking of “A Napper’s Companion” the whole time. So I had some task-oriented fun. Let’s call this progress.