Sunday, November 16, 2014

Virtual tour

Dinner was over, the kids had scattered, but we adults sat silently in place with our hands protecting the remaining swallows of our stemware. In every dinner party there usually comes a lull in the conversation.

The door opened and a cold wind entered carrying my father and one of my re-sealable containers with a half gallon of homemade soup.

“Why, I'll take a glass of wine, seeing as how you're offering.”

I'm happy to see him. Happy to take the container and stow it in the fridge. Happier still when he sits down and sweeps away the silence.

He's the kind of guy who has a smile in his voice. It makes you smile, too.

In no time we are making connections, meandering around in our childhoods, which are separated by geography and at least one generation.

“Do you remember Montgomery Ward?” my father asks, painting a picture of the trips he made there as a child. How he had taken a bus from Troy to spend the money he made from his paper route on model trains. Money that burned a hole in his pockets. He went on to describe how he bought his first lawn mower there as well. A machine to expand his after-school earnings.

“I loved going to Monkey Wards,” I said, remembering only the toy department and a catalog that rivaled Sears' Christmas Wish Book.

I remembered my mother taking me there in person to see the doll I'd pined for in the printed pages.

If it was going to disappoint, she thought, better it do so before Santa set in under our tree.

“It's all offices now,” said our guest, who had worked there for a time.

Small world.

While we sat and chatted, I image we all were probably looking at the dishes on the table in front of us, but seeing the white, art deco behemoth in Menands with a million square-feet.

“Where is that again?” ask my husband.

“He grew up in Maine. He can't help it,” I whisper to my friends.

He shrugs his shoulders. His connections to this place are older than ours, even if the lines didn't stay tied.

His grandfather once told us a branch of that family tree was named Covenhoven.

Small world. Smaller world that our friends' parents may have traveled in the same circles. Probably know all the same people.

It's funny how a conversation that doesn't have much weight can still feel like a warm blanket.

For an evening, we travel around my dad's 1940s neighborhood. We meet his neighbors. We go with him over the train tracks and into the cemetery that was his playground.

As his story continues, I'm revisiting all the people who have faded from my life. Our guests are meeting them for the first time. … The stable hand who taught him how to hand-feed a horse. The train engineer who took him for a ride. The man at the Oakwood, who invited him to witness a cremation.

We hold our breath as he tells us about how he once stopped to tie his shoes and looked up to see a freight train 60 feet upwind.

“All I could hear was my mother's voice telling me never to play around the tracks.”

And just like that time reversed.

I saw my grandfather again as my dad introduced him. A postal carrier, whose only vice once paid off the mortgage.

“It was the late '40s and he'd gone to Saratoga with his postal pals. He won the daily double, it paid out at the highest amount at the time: $1,900.

“Of course, he didn't want to have that much money on him over the weekend, so they wrote him out an IOU on a brown paper lunch sack and a check arrived in the mail the following Monday.”

The room filled with a sense of awe, not only at the idea of being able to pay for an entire house after a day at the track, but to pay it off for under two grand.

For more than an hour, a steady stream of people – many we've never met in person – paraded past that table in a strangely woven tale of colorful, albeit minor, history.

Small world. I bet they all had their own fond memories of Monkey Ward.

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