Growing Up Culliton
Peas flying out children’s noses… skunks in the garage… hunting for Christmas trees in a blizzard… rubber bats in windows… spitting cherry pits in passing car windows… Is it episodes from a sitcom? No, it is real and it happened to us. Growing up Culliton captures a small percentage of the memories we have from growing up and beyond. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they are sentimental and sometimes they are just plain weird but they are always insightful and fondly kept alive by Ed and Mary Lou’s progeny.
Tim Russert’s book, “Wisdom of Our Fathers”, is letters from sons and daughters on what they learned from their fathers. It is a good book with many poignant stories. It even has a page up front so you can write in your own brief story and this got us thinking. Russert is pretty smart and he can scour the country for good stories, but frankly, Big Ed supplies a fair amount of material all by himself. And our mom, as quiet and unassuming as she may be, is good for a few chapters too.
As a family, we aren’t prone to long, gushing, sappy stories about how much we love each other or how important our parents are to us. As Bill the Cat would say to that thought, “Ack!” We also don’t have deep introspective angst over our relationships with our parents and family. That’s a two part issue; first, as is often noted, a life unexamined is right up our alley. Second, our parents and our family are such constants that you don’t need to ponder it any more than you would ponder the ground you stand on. But you don’t need to thank dirt for being solid; we do need to thank our parents for being our foundation. It is not to say we are ungrateful children. On the contrary, we all call, send cards, fire off emails, give them birthday, anniversary, and Christmas gifts, visit until we outlast our welcome, have them stay with us until they outlast their welcome, and show them our gratitude in the way our family always does, by making them an ongoing part of our life. Still, Russert got us thinking, talking and emailing that it is time that we do something more.
Russert’s book is insightful and touching which is all well and good but as a family, that’s not really our style. So we looked to one of the other big icons our life, the Brady Bunch. Okay, admitting that we watched the Bradys a lot is more than a little embarrassing and merging the ideas of Tim Russert and the Brady Bunch may seem a bit, um, strange? bizarre? freaky? but stick with us here. Combining Russert’s classy and poignant montage “Wisdom of Our Fathers” with the cheesy, goofball made-for-TV retrospective “Growing Up Brady” we came up with, “Growing Up Culliton; Wisdom, Laughter and Life Lessons given by Ed and Mary Lou to their Brood.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, the title needs some work, but don’t get hung up on that. We decided to compile a book for Mom and Dad telling them how important they are to us. Not by saying, “Mom, Dad, you are important to us” but instead by documenting the memories we have of growing up. Those shared memories, whether it is Mom and Dad clapping when our names were read at graduation or the family laughing at something during dinner, are much more telling then any trite platitudes.
We decided to surprise them with this gift over Thanksgiving 2006. Our memories, stories, and thoughts are sometimes long tales and sometimes just random snippets. When one of us didn’t have the whole story, we worked together to fill in the details.
Creating this book has been as much a gift to us as to Mom and Dad. So many memories leapt to mind and were captured. But it was frustrating too. For all that we have written we have just scratched the surface. After all, there is literally a life time of cherished memories to draw on. So we accept that this book is not complete. How could it ever be when the story and the impact our parents have on our lives transcends the days at 10 Genesee Parkway and continue today.
Mom and Dad, we dedicate this meandering compilation of stories to you. They are humble tales, written with more love than professional polish. Your children picked up your knack for telling a good tale but none of us are winning a Pulitzer any time soon. We hope this book brings you the same laughs and joys that we experienced growing up and relived through writing it.
From all your family, with all our love,
Fire and Ice
Dad is big in every way. At six foot six inches, two hundred-thirty pounds, his body is big. His size 13 – 14 extra-wide feet are big. His booming voice, with its occasional Irish whisper, is big. Paul Kirchgraber does his “Big Ed” imitation by just standing up and yelling at the top of his lungs “B – E – A – R ! ! !”. His likes and dislikes are big. He does not equivocate nor is he ambivalent. If he likes it, he loves it, if he doesn’t, he hates it. His stories are never small. They involve big events, big times and big fish. His emotions are equally big. Sometimes he erupts. At weddings and graduations, he is the one who gets misty. He wasn’t nick-named “Cuddles” Culliton for nothing. Bigness fits Dad. He is larger than life and he would not be right any other way (whether Dad is “quite right” is a conversation we can have at another time or in another chapter)
Mom on the other hand is ice to Dad’s fire. That not to say she is cold, she is not. Perhaps a better metaphor is that she is the safe harbor to Big Ed’s wild ocean. She is quiet where Dad is loud. She is even keeled where Dad is volatile. She dealt with the surprises five children served up with calm and grace. She did occasionally lose her cool. The five of us could have gotten Mother Theresa’s goat. Still for the most part, she reacted calmly to the situations life threw her way. She was always there, day in and day out, feeding us, keeping us in clean clothes, healing our scrapes, tending us when we were sick and in general setting a standard that TV mom June Allison would never hope to match. Even the stories Mom told were understated. She didn’t exaggerate, on the contrary, if Mom ever said “… and then it got a bit crazy” you could safely assume all hell broke loose, the ice caps melted, the four horseman of the apocalypse appeared and cats were sleeping with dogs.
We were lucky to grow up with the adventure and security Dad and Mom brought to our lives. Sometimes it was tense, sometimes it was explosive but it was always home and it was the ultimate gift any parent could give a child. This chapter is about the extremes of Mom and Dad.
From Brian: Mom gets hit by the truck.
When I went to college, I got in the habit of calling Mom and Dad every Sunday. It let me catch up on the family happenings and let them know that I was still alive. From the Culliton frame of reference, this was frequent communication almost boarding on odd. I’m still in that habit and almost every Sunday I call home. One Sunday, either late 1987 or early 1988, Mom picked up the phone. We chatted for a while about miscellaneous stuff until Mom said, “Wait, hold on a sec, I’ve got to switch ears because my neck is a bit sore.”
Not thinking much of it I asked, “Oh really, what’s the matter.”
“I tripped when I was crossing Main Street last week. I’m a little sore but I’m okay.”
I’m still not thinking much about it (… a life unexamined is right up my alley, remember?) but I’m getting curious, “What happened Mom?”
“Oh nothing, I just tripped, spun around and fell. They tell me the truck hit me but I don’t think so. I just fell trying to hurry out of the way. I just shouldn’t rush like that.” I could almost see her hand waving dismissively across the phone line as if to convey what a trivial annoyance this was and what nonsense it was for anyone to think that the truck actually hit her.
Even as an oblivious twenty-something, I began to suspect something was up. “Wait, wait a second, what, WHAT!?! What truck!?! What do you mean they think you got hit by a truck?!?”
“Oh, now it really is nothing (more virtual dismissive hand waving). The truck was moving slowly and I really did just trip. If anything it just tapped my heel and spun me around. I’m just embarrassed to have tripped. I can be such a klutz sometimes. Jean La Barber saw me trip and helped me up and I was just fine and only a little sore.” Later, I found out Curtis Cleghorn witnessed it too and one of the regular St. James patrons help wave down the truck.
Between her words and her tone, you could have come away with the impression she tripped over a Tonka truck carelessly left by one of the kids. It was just part of the normal bumps and bangs of life. I was twenty-something, Mom said everything was okay so everything was okay. After all, if Mom had REALLY been hit by a truck, someone would have called me instead of waiting until I did my weekly Sunday call, right?
Uh, okay, maybe I was wrong in that assumption.
Next time I was home, I found out that little, slow moving truck was a semi and it definitely clipped her. Again, my response was roughly, “Wait, wait a second, what, WHAT!?! A semi!?! What do you mean you got hit by a SEMI?!?” To which Mom just reiterated it was no big deal and I got to see the real version of the hand wave dismissing the whole issue. I also got to see Mom using the home traction device. It couldn’t have been comfortable. It was essentially a bag of water for the counter weight, attached to a rope. The rope was strung through a pulley hooked over the door leading to the second floor porch. The rope was then attached to a harness wrapped around Mom’s head and under her chin. For months, she would sit in her bedroom every day for some prescribed time with a book on her lap saying it gave her a chance to catch up on her reading.
Even then I didn’t get the full story. It wasn’t until I started writing this down and asking for input that Tim said, “Dad was out of town and I had to call him from Olean General. (“Wait, wait a second, what, WHAT!?! A HOSPITAL!?! What do you mean they took Mom to the hospital?!?”) I don’t remember if I rode in the ambulance (WHAT?!? …An ambulance!?!?) or if I just drove there from home. Mom stayed in the hospital overnight. It was sort of a surreal experience that had a ‘happy’ ending. The driver who did it was pretty shook up I wouldn’t be surprised if the police didn’t take his statement inside the St. James.”
This really is quintessential Mom. She doesn’t make a big fuss about anything and she especially never wanted to worry the kids. As a result, this quite caring woman gave us a pretty sheltered, worry free life by. I try to do the same for my boys. Perhaps I tell them a bit more but I’m Big Ed’s son too so I can’t keep everything under my hat.
From Ellyn: More on the truck
Brian’s version and experience with this insane family memory are similar to mine. I believe that Brian was already in Texas or Michigan, Tim had graduated and was in limbo and I was still in college. Mom heard much less frequently from me in college than Brian but I did call to catch up at least twice a month. As I recall Tim called me at school and gave me the quick “…you better talk to Mom…” pass off. I asked Mom, “What’s going on?” Mom said, “Oh nothing I just had an accident with a truck.” I misheard her and thought she said with the truck (at the time we had that gray GM Blazer) and I assumed her accident was in that. I said “Oh no, was there much damage to the truck? Good thing you were in the truck and not the car.” Mom patiently explained “No Ellyn, I wasn’t in the truck, I was crossing the street and hit by a truck.” Silly me, but I am still confused. “You mean you crossed the street and were hit by a pickup? Oh my gosh! Were you crossing the street for work? Is anything broken? Are you okay?” Mom interrupted my blubbering again, “It wasn’t a pickup truck it was a MAC truck. I’m okay, just a little shaken up and bruised.” The Dad in me shouted, “BRUISED? You mean you didn’t break anything? No cuts, stitches? Were you in the hospital?” Again Mom pulled out her “oh Edward” voice. “Really, I am fine. They gave me something for the discomfort (I think that translates into agony in Mom lingo) and I am restricted from activity. They think that my arm is just bruised, (turned out she had a hairline fracture) and they gave me a brace for it. My back is sore from the fall. They think I have some compressed vertebrae. I was lucky the truck was going slow.” From there my story doesn’t differ much from Brian’s. Mom’s telling of it was the understatement of the century! Just imagine if that had been Dad! The only good thing that came out of this incident for Mom was that she finally got a cleaning lady. Too bad it was at a time when most of us were already out of the house and no longer messing up the old homestead like we used to.
From Tim: Holes in One (Shirt)
Anyone who has picked up a golf club and played a few rounds of golf realizes very quickly that practice and skill are only two thirds of the golf equation. The third is not a measurable quality. To use a clique, there is a Zen of golf. Some call it luck, but that term is too small to describe the confluence of events that may cause a ball to ricochet perfectly onto the fairway after hitting a tree deep in the woods. It is this enigmatic force that also causes the perfectly hit ball to hit a tree root on the fairway and bounce horribly into a water hazard. It is hard to capture this force adequately on paper. Steven Pressfield made an attempt in the book The Legend of Bagger Vance but he got a little hokey at the end linking the universal time/space continuum to golf. Yes, we all get the whole timeless “man verses himself is the ultimate struggle being played out through the ages” but golf is after all just a game and my belief it is that golf is a game defined by individual moments. I am not talking about the mundane moments of strolling the fairway on a sunny day or the average shot that does roughly what you intended it to do but the extreme moments that occur in golf. The sunny day and the decent shot are nice but they blur together. It is the awful and the awe-inspiring events that live on in legend. Who can deny this reality while witnessing Tiger Woods’ tearful walk off the eighteenth green at the 2006 British Open or Ed Culliton’s moment of wonder on July 31, 2006 on the twelfth hole at Terry Hills Golf Course. It is in these moments when the connection to that inscrutable cosmic force is almost tangible that you are drawn inescapably into the frustration called golf. This story is my attempt to capture one such moment, an awesome moment, an uniquely Culliton moment, when I personally witnessed that cosmic force conspire to give Dad several holes in one on a warm summer night at the Rushford Golf Course.
Given how uncooperative Western New York weather can be, Mom and Dad rarely stayed home on nice summer nights. So going for a late nine holes was a common event for them, often accompanied by one or more of their children. I was home from college and working my summer job but free after dinner to join them as long as they were paying. At the time it never occurred to me to be embarrassed that a twenty year old did not have anything better to do than play golf with his Mom and Dad. I am glad I went because this afforded me a front row seat on one of those extreme moments that makes golf such a magical game. Not to mention that it allowed me to spend time with my parents as human beings, not just Mom and Dad. You know, the tongue half out in the corner of his mouth as he concentrates on the putt was a not uncommon sight and, the light hearted growl of disappointment Dad makes whenever he misses a close putt. Mom is a little less flamboyant but occasionally you would catch a little yelp of excitement after she would sneak in a thirty foot put, or an ear blistering swear word when she missed a short one the next time. I should explain she did not actually swear but Mother has the ability to say sugar and you really know she meant to say sh#*. I have tried desperately to hide this side of my Mother from my children but fear they are too smart and will see though this word game some day soon… It was on just such a night that this tale begins on the first tee.
As often happens on a golf course, you do not just walk up to the first tee and smack the ball to the hole. There are a few housekeeping pleasantries required of any group of golfers. First and foremost is to wait for the last group to clear the fairway so they do not feel they are under aerial attack… not a pretty scene. In fact, I believe there are some historians who contend the last Scottish uprising has its roots in a group of British lards that failed to observe this courtesy when playing behind a group of Highlander clans’ men. A long bloody war ensued, but the long and the short of it, the term fore was invented to allow future disputes to be settled with a face saving way of disinheriting either an excellent shot or a bad shot without the threat of blood shed. However, much like the shameless Mulligan, fore can only be used honestly only once per round of golf. So as Dad, Mom and I were engaged in the usual banter at the first tee deciding who would go first after the slow foursome before us cleared out, we found ourselves at a loss for an activity. I decided that my only shot at a clean hit was to literally use a clean ball so off to the ball cleaner I went with the old X-ed out Titlest. Mom was waiting patiently with the cart for her opportunity to hit off the women’s tees. I was elected to go first because Big Ed’s swing would surely play into our version of the Scottish Clans’ men and, as we established already, this would not be a good thing. As I was setting up I took little notice of my Dad swatting at an insect. Swatting is not a simple or graceful feat for a man with a six foot six inch frame filled with so many things that God found little room to add coordination and grace. Besides this was the Rushford Golf Course, Insectville, carved out of the rich Alleghany County farm lands, and not but a few years prior to this adventure all the golfers were in black and white and milked twice daily. This coincidentally was the golf course’s founding motto until it led to several very uncomfortable situations that need not be repeated in this venue. All was quiet again and I was ready to absorb the Zen of golf so I could unleash a three hundred yard drive or perhaps a hole in one. But the universe bypassed my request and instead extended its ethereal finger towards Dad. So instead of the sight of my shot rocketing towards destiny, it was the sight of Dad pounding at his chest, stripping off his shirt, throwing it to the ground and stomping on it with both his old size 13 metal golf cleats half a dozen times. With very little grace and coordination, this modern day English lard was none other than Lord Greystroke incarnate signaling his dominance, nay, contempt for the whole golfing establishment… But alas, it was only the aforementioned bee that he had some how swatted into his shirt pocket. The poor little bastard apparently was stunned for a short time and, as the universe would have it, awoke unharmed, that is until Lord Greystroke landed his two hundred plus pound body on its tiny frame six times or more. With over a half a ton of force applied to a less than half an ounce body, there was not much left of it to shake out of the pocket. With the hand of the universe fully apparent, Dad put his shirt back on with several holes in one (spot that is) How was he able to concentrate that half ton force in to the area of his pocket the world may never know…
Looking back I guess the most amazing thing about this event was that neither Mom nor I was shocked that he did this in public. Any family member reading this is assuredly nodding their heads saying … I’m surprised he didn’t dunk the shirt in the ball cleaner to drown the bee just in case…
Since then I have played golf many times with my parents, but this was the only time I witnessed several holes in one, performed by the same golfer on the first tee without ever striking the ball…
From Ellyn: A Lesson
There are many things we can say about our Mother. Despite her claims to the contrary, she is not forgettable. What comes to mind most prominently is she is unflappable. Mom often quotes Grandpa K saying, “Like my father always said, you might not remember your mother but you’ll always remember your father.” For many of our family’s craziest moments that is true enough. We certainly do have far greater “fish tales” to tell about Dad than Mom. However, Mom’s rather quiet, unassuming personality kept us all grounded (yes, even Dad) over the years. Her stoic approach to whatever life throws her way is such a predominant trait that whenever each of us describes her we always highlight that point.
While we were growing up I would have to say that most of Mom’s frustration (grey hairs, battles, arguments, grief, pick your favorite cliché) came from me (mostly in my pubescent years). Although the boys were forever bringing home salamanders, toads, skunks, animal hides, etc., they were very rarely in direct conflict with Mom. Mom did not tolerate questioning of her authority. Even when Tom was a six foot plus belligerent young adult, Mom still stood her ground and was in his face about cursing in “her home”.
This story isn’t really all that funny but it in my opinion illustrates Mom’s quiet and strong nature. Mom’s no’s always meant no and her answers were always final. Still, I forever tempted fate, attempted to be more stubborn than Mom and tried her patience with continued argument. Paired with Mom’s expectation that her word was final was that Mom did not tolerate holding a grudge. You got angry, you said your piece and it was OVER. The decision had been made, now move on. No sulking was allowed. Of course that doesn’t mean I didn’t try (have I mentioned that I was perhaps a bit contrary at that age?) but it certainly wasn’t tolerated in Mom’s presence.
On this particular summer day Mom and I disagreed about something (it was most likely that I wasn’t allowed to go somewhere I wanted to go with friends) and I was really mad at her. Like any teen, when denied what I thought I so justly deserved, it seemed like the end of the world to me. I went up to my room to pout and Mom’s internal clock started ticking. She gave me about thirty minutes to get over it and then called me down to help her wash the car. With all the indignation and defiance a grumpy teenager could muster, I told her that I didn’t want to. She curtly told me “I didn’t ask you, I told you that I needed help.” Well, there was that final answer thing, so I reluctantly went outside with her to help wash the car.
Her biggest mistake (or was there some wisdom in this?) was to turn over the hose to me. We started washing the car and Mom was making small talk. I really didn’t care to partake but was conditioned to be respectful and reply, albeit briefly. I am sure she knew that I was still pouting (I wasn’t being very subtle) but chose to ignore it. My rebellion started out small. A couple times I would spray the car and “accidentally” mist Mom with the hose. She didn’t react to it and it really irked me that I wasn’t getting her goat. So I raised the ante. I decided that when the opportunity arose I would blast her full on and make it look like an accident. When she bent down to wash the side of the car I saw my chance. I would wait patiently for her to stand up and then I would pretend to be rinsing my soap suds off the top of the car. Well she stood up and I blasted her full on. Of course I put on my best OOPS face and dripping sincerity said “I am so sorry I couldn’t see you over there.” She didn’t get angry or yell or anything. Dripping water, she just said, “OOO, that actually felt good. I was really starting to get hot out here. Well, now that the car is washed what do you say we go for a swim at the lake?” And just like that I knew that she really won. The argument was over she felt I had enough time to recover and that was that. It was a bitter battle of the wills but Mom had won and wasn’t interested in ceding any ground so she chose to ignore my attempts which were honestly weak and feeble. Mom, as was the norm, was clearly in charge that day. Although this event left an impression on me, Mom has forgotten it altogether. I mentioned it to her one time recently and she did not remember it at all.
What I try to take away from this when it comes to my own girls is that you get angry, you deal with the situation and you let the rest go. The picking that follows a disagreement is a waste of energy and should be ignored. Generally this philosophy works for me but there are times when I resort to the Ed Culliton philosophy of turning red in the face, jumping up and down, screaming insanely and glaring wildly around the room to make sure that everyone has gotten the gist of my current mood followed with a good tension releasing rant that leaves me spent for the rest of the evening. Funny, both methods have their virtue and both, I am certain, leave an impression. The mixed genetics of Mom and Dad have made me a confused creation that will always keep my kids on their toes.
From Kathleen: Growing Up (Some More) McIntyre – Culliton
Since I didn’t enter the family until some number of years beyond the sesquicentennial, the camping trips, cherry pit spitting incidents and other hi-jinks episodes involving young kids and parents, I can’t contribute in the same vein as my adored brothers-in-law, Tom, Michael, and Tim, and equally as adored sister-in-law, Ellyn.
However, after seventeen years as an official member of the tribe, I felt both obligated and personally compelled to contribute to this amazing book. Although I didn’t officially grow-up as a Culliton, I think it is fair to say that I have done some additional growing up in the years since the name “Culliton” became appended to “McIntyre.”
Here are a few of my favorite Culliton snippets:
The scene: Grandma and Grandpa are visiting one weekend when David is about three years old.
Grandpa was having cell phone problems, I can’t recall exactly the nature of the problems but there were several heated (and fairly loud) calls from Grandpa to customer service. After the last call, Grandpa was completely exasperated. He hung up the phone and exclaimed (not noticing that David was within earshot), “These people are giving me the run around – what a bunch of stupid bull!@#!” David hearing this marched up to Grandpa, hands on hips, and said, “Grandpa we don’t talk that way in this house, ‘stupid’ is a bad word and we don’t say it.”
The scene: Brian and I are spending a weekend with Grandma and Grandpa (I believe this sometime after we had David, the original baby 4-names, but before we had Patrick).
Brian and I were sharing with Grandpa and Grandma several sets of names we would consider for a second baby (all of them containing four names). Grandma said “You don’t have to use all of the best names on one baby.” Grandma to her credit, never again mentioned her views on babies having four names.
The scene: The Cuba house, Thanksgiving evening, we are all in the kitchen / dining room busy cleaning up after the big turkey dinner.
Grandpa had stationed himself at the counter near the sink and he was rinsing dishes, loading the dishwasher and washing pots and pans. He decided that he will tackle the greasy, turkey roaster pan next. Without noticing that it is three-quarters full of soapy (and greasy) water Grandpa reached out and grabs it sharply by one handle, causing most of the soapy, greasy water to come sloshing out of the pan all over Grandpa, the counter and the floor. It immediately became clear who was to blame for this mishap when Grandpa yelled, testily, “MARY LOU!!!” (This has become a favorite line with which to tease Grandpa: whenever he spills or drops something I will give a mock “MARY LOU!” yell.)
The scene: Toyfest Carnival 2006 at Hamlin Park in East Aurora.
Grandma Lou, Brian, David, Patrick and I ventured over to the carnival’s opening night despite the very ominous clouds and predictions of imminent storms. (Grandpa, much to his “disappointment” had to miss the Carnival outing due to a prior Knights’ commitment.) Since Toyfest – and the carnival – are one of the highlights of the boys’ summer, the threat of severe weather was not a deterrent to their plans to hit the midway. Sure enough after we rode only one ride, the heavens opened. The rain was torrential and accompanied by much thunder and lightening. As soon as the Carnival folks spotted lightening, the midway was immediately shut down. We were lucky to find refuge under one of the food tents – and being careful to stay clear of the tent poles, we waited out the storms. We passed the time with some very sticky cotton candy and a somewhat soggy funnel cake. It took about forty-five minutes for the storms to pass and for the Carnival people to declare it safe to reopen the midway. By this time we were all pretty wet and a bit chilly. I couldn’t imagine that Grandma was interested in sticking around the sodden midway for very long, but the boys – of course – were clamoring for at least one more ride. I said to Grandma, “I know it is wet and chilly, but would you mind if we stayed long enough for the boys to go on one more ride?” Grandma responded cheerily and sincerely, “We can stay as long as they want to, I am certainly not going to melt.” Once again Grandma had demonstrated why she is known as the quintessential Get-Along- Girl. (I am not by nature a Get-Along-Girl, the seventeen years under the influence of the Head-Get-Along-Girl, Grandma, and her Get-Along posse, Aunt Diane, Aunt Jean and Ellyn, have helped me – on occasion – behave more like a Get-Along-Girl and less like a Something-doesn’t-suit-me-and-the-world-is-ending-girl. I am hopeful that over the coming years I can continue to benefit from the excellent example set by Grandma and her Get-Along-Gang.)
These vignettes recall only a few of the wonderful, fun, warm, love and laughter-filled moments I have been fortunate enough to experience over the past seventeen years. I remember what Uncle Peter said to me on my wedding day, “We have no excuse, we weren’t born into this crazy family, we chose it!” I have loved (almost) every crazy minute with this amazing clan. Despite the long-standing jokes about “outlaws” and their second class status, I could not feel more a part of the legendary Culliton love and lore (with equal parts mayhem and humor) if I had been to the Manor born. I feel so lucky that David and Patrick have this legacy of love and family to guide them through their lives.
Sometimes They Surprise You
Even though Mom is the calm one and Dad is the excitable one, sometimes they surprise you.
From Ellyn: Lead Foot Lou
Our mother projects a quiet, unassuming nature. She was a patient and firm parent; a sweet, dear and, when necessary, firm grandparent. She has the grace and style of a true lady. She is June Cleaver, Carol Brady and Aunt Bea all rolled into one. Still, scratch the surface and you may find a little Pinky Tuscadero in there too.
When she was a little girl her brothers Dick and Bob used to call her the “Battle-ax”. She was used as a threat when her brothers were facing down tougher and meaner boys than themselves. She was the tough, scab on her knees kind of kid. As a young girl she was athletic and lithe and didn’t have much trouble keeping up with her brothers or keeping them in line.
Over the years the old “battle-ax” nickname and scabby knees where left behind as time turned the wild child into a cute teenager and the teenager into a pretty woman and then a beautiful bride. And as time and responsibilities are wont to do, they calmed and mellowed the wild child turning her into a graceful and tempered wife and mother. Yet, she was still the child of “Stormin’ Norman” and just as time could never fully tame him, Mom still has a wild streak that came out as “Lead Foot Lou”.
When behind the wheel of a car speed limits had only meaning for Lead Foot Lou when Dad was in the car (Okay so I am exaggerating just a teensy bit here). Seriously though, did you ever notice that Dad almost always drove when we went on family trips? Did you ever notice that when he wasn’t driving he spent a lot of time putting his foot on his imaginary break on the passenger side of the car and sucking in air like there was going to be a shortage of oxygen soon? Granted, “Big Ed” is notorious for his histrionics in the passenger seat but he does save his best for Mom. Dad hates when Mom drives because she feels that although speed limits have their use, sometimes it was necessary to bend them a bit.
Mike recounted a “Mom behind the wheel” tale that made me laugh and thankful that seatbelts and car seats are now required by law. On a trip back home from 1037 Lovejoy Mike recalls that he, Tom and baby Brian were all jumping around the back of the car like lunatics. Remember there were no seat belts required in those days, there may have been a harness on Brian but that was the only fixation device in the car besides the two front seat belts. Dad was not with them and the car was a zoo. Brian was crying and Tom and Mike were crawling back and forth over the front seat trying to shuttle something back to the whimpering Bear. Dear Thomas in his usual astute manner noticed the flashing lights approaching fast as Mom stopped at a light. Mike remembered it being a Motorcycle cop. The policeman gave of his glasses a lift while saying “License”. Mom did the innocent thing “What is the matter officer?” “You ran a stop light.” He replied. I believe Mike and Tom in chorus from the back seat said “Ooooooh” and continued to jump about wildly. Mom tried “I guess I was distracted by the Baby” and Brian cried as if on cue. “I can see how that could happen ma’am” the officer replied without much compassion. “Oh good then I can go?” said a hopeful Mom. The officer just shook his head and said “I have followed you for six blocks and four stoplights, you only managed to stop for this one light and that was only because of my siren. Drive more carefully and here is your ticket”. Mike said he never saw Mom more furious in her life. She just kept saying “I can’t believe he would give me a ticket, usually they won’t bother a mother with children, and they have always listened to my excuses before.” and on and on…
Tim and Brian recall the “Momtra”, as they affectionately called it, of “Go car, GO!” I was too young to remember this in much detail so I am filling in from Tim and Brian’s memories. The legend began on a return trip from one of our many adventures with Mom. We were on a two lane road in Mom’s old red Chevy and traffic was getting backed up. Mom was running out of patience with the slow poke in front of us (okay probably a car full of screaming kids). When she had an opening she decided to pass. She started too far back and misjudged how fast the oncoming traffic was moving. She started to feel a little nervous when she realized that it was going to be awfully close so she started to chant “Go car, go.” The kids pick up on it thinking it was funny (I suspect Mom was scared and it was more a prayer than a chant). Mom floored the old V8. The oncoming traffic – sensing a collision – most likely slowed down allowing Mom to cut over in time without knocking anyone into the ditch. For awhile after that, when ever Mom passed someone, the kids would chant “Go car, GO!”
Mark Twain once quipped that juries were made up of people too slow to make up a reasonable excuse. Well old Mark Twain would have been proud of Mary Lou because even though I recall Mom being pulled over on several occasions she rarely got a ticket. Calm under pressure, she was ready to explain why she didn’t notice she was going forty-five in a thirty-five mile per hour zone and that a firm warning was all that was needed. For example, Mom and I were in Olean to see the doctor because I was sick. Mom was moving “briskly” down Main Street after we left the doctor and didn’t see the police officer until his lights were flashing in her rear view mirror. She earnestly explained how upset she was about her sick daughter and that she didn’t notice how fast she was going. I of course obliged by a fit of “barking dog” coughs while looking at the nice man with sad puppy eyes. I felt a little like Bonnie and Clyde – partners in crime. It worked, and he let Mom go with a warning. Mom gave me the “don’t say a word about this to your father” speech making me a further accessory to her “crime”. I guess she thought Dad had enough on his mind and she didn’t want to bother him with such trivialities. After all, if the officer didn’t give her a ticket, it couldn’t be that bad.
The only time I witnessed Mom’s luck fail her was when Mom and I were driving home from Cuba Lake. Mom was speeding along the lake road and was pulled over at the Lonestar Bar corner. If you will remember during the summer months there was always a farm stand there. This particular summer day Mom slowed down because I asked her about the peaches that were there. The problem was she was distracted and never actually stopped and just rolled around the corner onto Route 305. She was consequently too distracted to notice the police officer sitting in the bar parking lot. Soon after we rounded the corner the lights began flashing. Prior to the stop sign, Mom had been moving a “tad” over the speed limit but as the daughter of a prosecuting attorney, she knew better than to offer anything up. When the officer approached the window, Mom innocently inquired “What is the problem officer?” He told her that she didn’t stop at the corner. Mom disagreed with him arguing that she did in fact stop because she looked at the peaches and read the prices to her daughter and she even quoted some numbers from the signs. He wasn’t buying any of it. He ticketed her without further ado. On the way home Mom again gave me the Bonnie and Clyde speech. I am not sure if that meant she wasn’t going to tell Dad or if she just preferred to tell him herself. Either way her luck hadn’t completely run out because it was after all just a failure to stop and didn’t get her any points on her license.
To this day Mom tells me that Dad doesn’t like it when she drives because he thinks she goes too fast. He gets annoyed by her clean driving record despite her need for speed. I know that as Mom reads this she is going to say… “You are all exaggerating I never really got pulled over that much.” As always, she is understated but we know what we know.
There is a lesson here. It is easy to pigeon hole our parents. After all, we spent a whole chapter doing just that. Still, they weren’t always our parents. Once they where scabby kneed, grimy-faced kids, like we were and like are children are. Even when we were living at home, even then they weren’t just Mom and Dad. They were Mr. and Mrs. Culliton. They were Ed and Lou. They were the Justice of the Peace and the teacher’s aid. They were even “Cuddles” Culliton and “Lead Foot” Lou. And they were a dozen personas that as children we never thought about, the personas every adult needs to be to feed their families, maintain their homes, earn a living and pursue their ambitions and dreams. So, even after knowing them for a lifetime, they continue to surprise us which is a hopeful sign because I always hope I can stay far enough ahead of my children that I can surprise them every now and then. I may not be “Lead Foot” Ellyn (hey, no snide comments about my college driving record, follies of youth and all). After all, with time I have mellowed into a graceful and tempered wife and mother. But I am also a proud child of Big Ed and Lead Foot Lou and just as time could never fully tame them, I still have a wild streak…
From Brian: Mom and the Ant
Mom told me a joke once that still makes me laugh not just because it was funny but because the way Mom told it seemed so out of character. Mom said, “I had an ant in my hand and he looked troubled so I asked (in Mom’s sweet voice that she uses on little children), ‘Are you okay?’” Mom then plays the ant and gives a little dejected shake of the head no. (in the same sweet voice) ‘What’s the matter, are you sad because nobody loves you?’ Mom nods her sad little ant head yes. ‘It’s okay, Jesus loves you.’ Mom puts on a hopeful expression and looks up. ‘Would you like to meet Jesus?’ Emphatically, Mom shakes her ant head yes! ‘Okay.’ Then, with the imaginary ant in the palm of her hand, Mom takes her thumb and squishes it!
The joke is as old as the hills and I don’t know if it is the fact that when Mom talks about Jesus you don’t expect her to follow it up with squishing things or whether it is Mom being theatrical but thinking about it cracks me up. It reminds me that our steady, even keeled, salt of the earth Mom always had and always will have a few surprises for us.
From Kelly: Mother vs. Grandmother
I cannot think of many full stories but instead of many small moments regarding Dad’s larger than life responses to everything. Katie has it right. Whenever she or anyone brings up Grandpa Culliton, she says “He’s a giant; not a real giant but a Giant!” Well, here’s a story about the quieter Culliton. This one makes me smile.
When you get married you get not only the husband but a whole new family. Every time I go out with my girlfriends I am reminded how lucky I am. One girlfriend is single, one has in-laws she can take only in very small doses and one avoids all contact with her in-laws. I love my visits to Buffalo. I love staying at my in-law’s home. I especially love watching the cousins play together. My in-laws make me feel like one of their own children. And they raised a son who the Snyders totally adore. Whenever I would watch my favorite TV Show, “Everyone Loves Raymond”, Tim always joked that I could have a mother-in-law like Marie Barone. Mom is far from Marie Barone. She has helped me so much with the kids and has never made me feel like this job of raising kids is an easy one. That said, here is one of her rare Marie Barone moments.
A year or two ago, Mom and Dad were visiting. We had all gone to church. Dad, Katie and Tim took one car home while Mom, Andy and I took the other car after Andy’s Sunday school class. Andy and I had a routine of buying a donut on the way home from Sunday school. I was pretty positive Tim stopped to buy donuts on his way home. Regardless, Andy wanted to stop to get a donut NOW. I told him that he could have a donut when he got home. He did not want to wait for the seven minutes it would take to get home and he really pitched a fit! I stuck to my guns while trying to keep my cool in front of my mother-in-law. Andy was five or six and this fit was more like a three year old’s full blown tantrum (not enough sleep perhaps!). We finally got home (seven minutes in child tantrum time is an eternity in parent stress time) and Andy was crying hysterically probably because he was embarrassed about his behavior. He refused to get out of the car. Mom and I got out of the car and I ran into the kitchen to make sure that there were donuts at home otherwise I was in big trouble! Tim wanted to know why Andy was still in the car so I filled him in on our story. Tim left the room. Under her breath (sort of) Mom said “I would have stopped and bought him a donut.” Excuse me! What did she just say!? Now, in my earlier parenting days, Tim would have paid big time for that comment in the form of my long, drawn out self-recrimination about how I was a horrible mother and how his mother was always right. But I was a mother of two now and while I have the normal angst about being a good mother I do know when I am asking for something reasonable. Besides, I have heard enough stories of Tim’s youth to know that Mary Lou Culliton would not tolerate her children whining and complaining about a seven minute wait for a donut! She was the ‘Get Over It’ Mother as Tim and I joke. So I spoke up, which is very uncharacteristic for me. I said, “Tim, Dad, you are not going to believe what this lady just said!” And I told them what she had said ‘under her breath’. They laughed and verified that there was no way she would have given into that tantrum! She had such a great smirk on her face! It was the ‘I was caught being a Grandma’ look!
From Tim: Tricky Mother
It is well established that our father is a character; you can not talk to him for more than ten minutes without drawing that conclusion. However, the casual observer would never draw that conclusion from a conversation with Mother. She holds her cards too tightly to her vest. In fact, it took many years before my wife was able to shake the image of Donna Reid as she would describe her mother-in-law to our friends. I, on the other hand, would often describe her using the “3 Ts”, Tender, Tough and Tricky.
The first descriptor Kelly had no problem with, but tough and tricky, she would not believe me until we had children. As we struggled with sleep deprivation in the first couple years with Andy, Kelly would often ask how our mother did this with five kids? My answer as always was, “Because she is tough…” At first she took this as a slight to her abilities and I often got the “Evil Eye” for saying it. After a while she realized it was really just a statement of fact. Mom raised five kids with no Sesame Street, no videos, no DVDs, not a single luxury we enjoy as parents in the 1990s and 2000s. Essentially it was Gilligan Island parenting. We were all Gilligans, Dad was the Skipper and Mom was the Professor and Marianne rolled into one character (Alas, we did not have a Mr. and Mrs. Howell nor the often wished for Ginger-esque babysitter). It’s that same gumption that allowed her to handle any kid in stride while teaching at the reading center. How else can you explain the ability to sit next to a kid after he spent the night sleeping in the sty to prevent the mother sow from rolling on the little piggies. Oh yeah, here is were the tricky lady presents herself, a little Vicks Vapor rub on the upper lip and she was back teaching the frequently fragrant kids of Cuba.
Kelly, after many years of witnessing Mom in action, is now on board with the “3 Ts.” Before she was, I was pleading my case using several of these childhood stories.
Exhibit A – Loose teeth: As a child the concept of losing a body part, no mater how small, was a little unnerving especially when there was blood and certain pain involved. I dreaded telling Mom or having her find out that I had a loose tooth. She would ask to check it but would let you go for a little while until she judged it to be very loose. Then she would get to work on your resolve… “let me look a it…” she would say. Of course not to be tricked I would say “no, you will just yank it out…” She would then throw the ace in and say’ “I promise I won’t…” We all know how this story ends, one tooth pulled and one screaming child. Mom’s only defense when asked today is “I was afraid you would swallow it so I had to do something…” then she laughs (kind of like the cartoon villain would laugh, “ya-ha-ha!”). Well as fate would have it my own child recently swallowed his previously very loose tooth. I am obviously not as tough or tricky as Mom. The Tooth Fairy still visited and the kid lived, hmmm…
Exhibit B – Band-Aids: Mom took a similar approach with Band-Aids. Once the older adhesives got a hold of your skin, it would never let go. Before it became permanent Mom would ask to check it out. “Don’t pull it off!” “I’m just looking; see, there, an edge is already sticking up.” “Well, just look, don’t pull it – OUCH!” and the Band-Aid was off.
Exhibit C – Tennis: Mom is also a tricky competitor. In tennis she never hit the ball hard or dove for a save or anything flashy. She would just constantly win by dropping it in front of you, or behind you or to your left when you ran right and to your right when you were foolish enough to run left.
As I said, Tender, Tough and Tricky. Case closed.
Stormin’ Norman and Big Ed
Stoimin’ Norman was another larger than life character in our midst as we grew up. He and Big Ed had numerous run-ins typically with Norman taking some offense, real or imagined and turning into the biggest slight in history. There was more or less always something going on between Norm and Dad, and the relationship varied constantly from warm to chilly. I think the root of it lies in their high regard for each other which meant the perceived slights from careless comments actually mattered instead of being dismissed. Here are a few examples of their colorful history.
From Tom: The Wild Turkey Incident
Dorothy and Norman stayed with us in Cuba for a few days while Mom and Dad took a short and well-earned break from the kids. There was some Wild Turkey in the liquor cabinet that Norman polished off in the normal course of events. Where most people would see an empty bottle, Norman saw an opportunity. While he sipped that last of the golden whiskey, he devised an answer to the question that always seemed to float near the surface of his fertile (and sometimes distilled and demented) mind, “How can I yank Ebbie’s chain today?”
He put a cup or two of tea into the empty bottle and brought me in on the plot. When Dad got home Norm had me fetch him the bottle and asked Big Ed to pour him a glass. Dad started to pour but Norm snatched the bottle from his hand declaring, “You’re too damn slow!” He put the bottle to his lips and drained it. As Norman set the empty bottle down on the table, Dad’s jaw worked and his lips moved but no words came out. As usual, Norman had his laugh.
From Various: Dear What’s-his-name
The actual origin of the longest and most storied spat between Norman and Dad is uncertain. Some think that it started at the kitchen table in Cuba. Norm and Dorothy had gone to the Castle restaurant for lunch and stopped by our house afterwards for coffee. Norm and Dorothy loved the Castle. This was the third or fourth time in a week they had driven the 70 miles from Buffalo to Olean for lunch and the fifteen more miles to our house for their after lunch coffee. Dad came home from work and said in a casual voice, “Well look who’s here again.”
Without uttering a word, Norman and Dorothy got up from the table, stomped out of the house, got in their car and drove away. This was fall so they did not visit again before flying south with the rest of the snowy birds. It was Grandpa’s habit to always write letters or send postcards when he was in Florida. He made a special effort that winter to write very frequently, carefully addressing each missive with “Dear Mary Lou, Tom, Mike, Brian, Timmy, Ellyn, Major, Tigger and what’s-his-name.” As winter wore on, it just ground on Dad. He would grab the letters, shake them and rail at Norman’s peevishness. Mom would say, “Now Edward, he’s just trying to get your goat. If you ignore him it will take the fun out of it and he’ll stop.” Unfortunately, as Norman always counted on, letting go was not Dad’s long suit. No one can remember how long this lasted or how it ended. I suspect Norman figured out a new way to harass Dad that involved talking to him so he let the silent treatment go. The ending doesn’t really matter any more than the beginning. They were just bookends on Grandpa’s quest to constantly agitate Dad.
Adventures in Back Pain
Dad’s back is a recurring theme in our life. I don’t know the origin of his back problems. It could be he was just made that way. It could be from raising five children. It could be the bumps and bangs of boot camp and the National Guard. It could be the rough and tumble of his pick-up basketball games with future All-Americans while growing up. It could be from racing across and falling into the elephant manure piles at the Buffalo Zoo. Or perhaps it was the little girl that knocked him down and broke his legs when he was racing to school. Whether nurture or nature, his back is a fact of life and the inspiration for this chapter.
From Ellyn: Midnight Back Spasms
Memories are a funny thing, sometimes even painful. This one will be a little of both depending on your role in the situation. We will have to rely solely on my memory because this event transpired when everyone but me (Ellyn) was away either in college, med-school or gainfully employed.
Well hear goes… This moment in Culliton family history took place around 1984 – 85. It was a night as any other night during my teen years. I probably spent half of it on the telephone and the other half on preening, snacking, reading, homework or TV. What a wistful existence. Pity you can’t appreciate it for what it is when it is happening. Anyway, I digressed. The purpose of this story is to share a somewhat painful but funny event in our parents’ and my lives. After our very average evening we all retired to bed. Dad, as usual, took a middle of the night potty break and this is where this story truly begins. I was asleep until some cursing and mild oaths roused me. The light profanity was nothing unusual to hear as our father bumped and stubbed his way through the dark house at night. I would have started to roll over to go back to sleep if the stumbling and crashing had not continued, but it in fact did. At this point Dad also let loose an ear splitting “M A R Y L O U ! ! !” that was loud enough to rouse the all the neighbors on the block from their beds as well.
Of course he really didn’t need to holler “Mary Lou” because the first real crash had Mom and me racing from our bedrooms. From our doorways we witnessed Dad careening his way from the bathroom door to the hall window, tearing down the curtains, upending all the plants from the chest below the window, scattering books, scissors, spools and clothes as he tumbled into the hall table before finally sprawling across the chair at Mom’s sewing table. (Visualization aid: What you should be picturing is Dad on his knees with is stomach across the seat of the chair, head down and arms out in front)
As Mom surveyed the carnage of strewn sewing supplies, trampled African Violets, ripped curtains and a husband obviously in pain draped over a chair, her legendary equanimity was in the fore. After all, she had faced down pet skunks and a basement taxidermy shop with muskrat carcasses in various states of preparation. She did not gasp or cry out, but in her rather matter-of-fact way she asked “Edward, can you get up?” Dad, whose equanimity was not legendary, answered with a few choice words and a resounding “No, my back went out.” Well, now we were in a bit of a pickle because neither Mom nor I were capable of picking up Dad and he was in a bit of an awkward position hanging over the chair. Mom decided that despite the late (or early depending upon how you looked at it) hour, she would call the doctor. Momma called the doctor and the doctor said… “no more Big Ed lying across that chair!” (so I read too many children’s stories but somehow it seemed fitting) Seriously, the doctor suspected it would be temporary and that if we could get Dad on his back for a few hours sleep then he would be fine by morning. I attempted to help him up to no avail. The doctor then suggested we just pull the chair out from under him. No matter how you slice it, pulling a chair out from under our father was not going to end well. But without any other options and being younger, stronger and a whole lot more foolish it was decided that I would be the one to pull the chair out from under Dad. One, two, three – pull. “Ouch!” Okay, he said a few more things than that but this is a family story after all.
Mom and I set Dad up with a pillow and a blanket, cleaned up the mess and retired to our beds for the night. By morning Dad’s back had not improved. Dad was unable to get up on his own and Mom and I were incapable of doing much more. After calling the doctor Mom decided to transport Dad to St. Francis hospital. When the ambulance arrived Mom and I stood there wondering if the transport thing was going to work. We had no doubt about the ambulance crew chief, “Haus”, being able to carry his share of Dad’s six foot, six inch, two hundred-thirty pound frame. This man-mountain was a local farmer and aptly nick-named. There are rumors, that I don’t doubt, of him lifting a car to rescue someone. His partner, Doug Rettig, was as small as Haus was big. Doug wasn’t even as tall as Mom and he was lucky to tip the scales at one hundred thirty pounds when wearing his heavy boots. Doug and Haus brought the stretcher in and by some small miracle got Dad strapped on without too much trouble. As I recall it involved some rolling of Dad around on the ground to get him onto something they could lift. It was no easy task and Mom and I stood well out of the way almost with our eyes shut. Mom later told me she had visions of Doug sprawled on the floor under Dad at the bottom of the stairs, crushed to death. As it turned out the worry wasn’t necessary because the story ends well. Doug survived and Dad was safely transported to the hospital. He spent a few days at St. Francis and was discharged armed with muscle relaxants, stretching exercises and instructions to take it easy (which he took full advantage of).
Mom and I still reminisce about this event. We can laugh about it now but somehow at the time there wasn’t much humor. I would suspect that Dad doesn’t laugh about it but maybe he will now.
Holidays growing up were special times. It was a chance to see so many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Sometimes people would be stacked like cordwood in the Cuba house for the fabled “Day After” party, sleeping under the dining room table to keep from being stepped on. Or we could get two feet of snow overnight and have a “just us” holiday. Summer holidays always had big cookouts alternating between ours, the Bradley’s and the Rinker’s house. No matter the holiday, no matter the season, no matter whether we had forty guests or just the seven of us, they were always loud, raucous, joyous feasts that left us happy, full and spent. Here are a few tales about our holidays
From Brian: Oh Christmas Tree
The Griswolds and their Christmas Vacation movie are American icons to Christmas gone awry. We never experienced their dysfunction, nor their gluttony for lights. Where the Griswolds had ten extra people for dinner with disastrous results, we merely thought of that as a nice start. Having thirty to forty dinner guests with twenty sleeping over, now THAT was Christmas. But before all comparisons are brushed aside, think trees. It is the Christmas trees of our past that bring back shivers and put the Griswold’s antics to shame. Lose control of the station wagon and go off the road? Been there. Bring back a tree that overflows the living room? Done that. Only rank amateurs are intimidated by these trivial issues. Here are memories of Christmas trees past that will send chills down a real man’s spine.
This story starts with a snow storm. This is typical. Every year our Christmas tree hunt took place in a blizzard. We didn’t seek them out, in fact we actively avoided them but that didn’t matter. Just as surely as summer follows spring, day follows night and rain follows a car wash, snow would follow us as soon as we left the house to go Christmas tree hunting. This year’s storm was stronger than most. Still, Dad single-mindedly headed out with a wagon full of kids and visibility dropping to almost zero. The rarely plowed back-country roads quickly added a couple inches of fresh powder on top of the existing layer of packed ice and snow.
Skidding along of the nominally plowed back roads that radiated off of Cuba Lake, we eventually slid to a halt at the tree lot owned by one of Dad’s friends (Joe Hupp, maybe). This was not your holiday tree lot of today. There were no “helpers” dressed like elves willing to wrap your tree to-go or stands that provided hot cocoa to help warm you. This was in the truest sense a tree lot. The trees ranged in size from two to thirty-plus feet. They may have been maintained at sometime but by then were overgrown or slightly askew in appearance. There was no parking lot so Dad just pulled off to the drifts that line the road which was every bit as tricky as driving. First, there was no shoulder. You could distinguish the edge of the road because the snow was higher and the tire tracks fewer. The trick was to go as deep into the snow drift as possible so you wouldn’t be rear ended by some drunk, inbred, redneck hillbilly (not that there is anything wrong with that) doing doughnuts in his beater pickup. The risk was that you would go too far and end up in the road’s drainage ditch. Dad erred on the side of caution so we were never whacked by a pickup but we did have to dig out of the ditch more than once.
On this occasion we avoided the hillbillies and successfully embedded the Chevy wagon securely into the snow bank. Dad and the five kids spilled out of the car and began trudging through the snow in quest of the Griswold – er, ah, I mean Culliton family Christmas tree. With easily a foot of snow on the ground and Ellyn’s snow boots maybe rising six inches up her leg, snow quickly flowed over the top and packed in around her toes. Ellyn did not suffer quietly (an inherited trait perhaps?). “I’ve got snow in my boots… my feet are cold… the wind is hurting my face… I wanna go home!!” and on and on. This grumbling began about five minutes in and continued non-stop. To be fair, Ellyn was between five and eight years old. We certainly cut our own children much more slack than we did our little sister on that day. “Don’t be a cry baby… shut up… quit whining… jeesh, be quiet!” Dad’s nerves were a bit stretched after wrestling the wagon in a snow storm along the ice rink that passed itself off for a rural upstate New York road so he didn’t have much patience for Ellyn’s frozen feet or the boys’ continual carping. The rapidly accumulating snow didn’t help either. Between frozen feet, foul moods and foul weather all fanning Dad’s flames, a boil over was inevitable.
“CEASE AND DISIST!!” Like the hand of doom he pointed his finger and decreed, “That tree right there. We are cutting it down and going home!” In fairness to Dad, even though it looked a little on the short side, covered in snow as it was and with blizzard winds making our eyes water, it didn’t look too bad. Mike and Tom took turns with the bow saw and quickly cut the tree down. We dragged it back to the road and stuffed it into the wagon.
My memory clashes a bit with packaging here. The old Chevy wagon was big but with three kids in the back seat I can not imagine how a tree ever fit. We never tied the tree to the roof, the tree was not bound or wrapped in any way and sometimes the trees were over nine feet tall. We always stuffed them in the cargo section of the wagon (maybe four feet long) and made it home without incident.
This particular tree fit a little too easily and with most of the snow shaken off it looked a tad sparse. That didn’t really matter because Dad had reached the point of no return. His helpers (stretching the term to its maximum limits) were cold and surly and the weather was continuing to deteriorate. With the tree loaded and the kids locked in, we slipped and skidded down the hill, off the side roads and onto the relative safety of the main thoroughfares.
At home with the last of the snow melted away, the tree went from sparse to “oh my gawd, even Charlie Brown would have passed on this tree!” Mom gave it a failing grade and declared we needed another. Dad grumbled, more out of emotion, stress and time invested rather than disagreement. The next day Dad took Tom and Mike back to the tree lot. By some aberration or divine intervention, there was no blizzard that day and they were able to bring back a new tree. To ensure there would be no need for a third trip, Dad chose a tree of a size to put the Griswold’s (or Mr. Willowby’s depending upon your literary preference) version to shame. Thus we embarked upon stage two of the annual Christmas tree trauma, the set up.
Set up problems came in three flavors, width, height and balance. The tree was always wider than the front door so it had to be wrangled through, invariably knocking something over or gouging Dad’s hands. Once it was dragged across the carpet and bounced off the furniture Dad would attempt to stand it up in the corner. Like the Griswold’s tree it would easily exceed the room’s nine foot ceiling. Depending on the trimming required Dad would either chop a little off the top or drag it back outside for more extensive surgery. Surgery completed, the tree would be wrestled back into position for the last and most daunting challenge, balance. This wasn’t a fair fight. The tree stand, with its shallow red reservoir and uneven green legs was a classic failure of both form and function. After driving though a storm to get it, wrestling it into the house, and trimming it to fit, Dad’s patience was gone and the tree stand would push him over the edge. The tree would wobble, the tree would fall and when he finally stabilized it, it was the Yuletide Tower of Pisa. Add six people giving “helpful” advice and you had a combustible (and vocabulary-expanding) situation. In the end, Dad would resort to putting an eye screw into the crown molding and securing the tree with fishing line.
The nice part about the struggles was that they would eventually end and everyone felt as if they had really accomplished something – man versus tree and man was ultimately victorious. We drank celebratory hot chocolate, or wine or martini as dictated by age and mood while decorating the tree with lights, ornaments and tinsel, relieved that we had a whole year before we would have to do that again.
From Ellyn: Poisoned Turkey
It seems to me that the holidays for the Culliton family, as well as many other of our fellow Americans, means family and feasting to excess. It is common place to hear about people putting on weight around the holidays because of all the goodies, treats, calorie laden drinks and limited activity that comes with the winter months. Our family was no exception. We loved to party, and holidays were simply another excuse to do so.
Mom would put together a spread that would look like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. A big beautiful turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, veggies, pies and more pies. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it. We would also have beer, eggnog, martinis (Dad’s favorite), wines (both store bought and hand-crafted by the Comte de Cuba) and Crème de Mint (Mom’s favorite). We drank enough to be silly, but as these were family events, people were not sloppy drunk. As it has already been mentioned, no holiday was complete without our extended family. If it wasn’t on the holiday it was the day after. We always had a crowd and it just seemed natural to us all.
Mom always said “the more the merrier” and I for one certainly believed that to be our family motto. I can remember about mid-week any given week of the year saying to Mom “who is coming down this weekend?” and rarely being disappointed with a “nobody”. Our house was the family retreat. There were very few weekends that we flew solo and I loved every moment of it. Knowing now how much work it is to host visitors, I realize what a trooper Mom was to open our house so graciously to the never ending parade of family but I also know that in some ways she lived for it because it brought together the most important element in Mom’s life – family.
It just seemed natural to me that even after I moved out holidays still meant all of us piling into Mom and Dad’s house with our “prospective” partners to share in the holiday fun. It never once crossed my mind that such and event to an outsider would be overwhelming and a touch odd. I am sure all of the spouses can agree that their first family holiday was memorable to say the least. Poor Ed went home to Pennsylvania after his first Thanksgiving with the Cullitons and relayed to his family the escapades with wonderment (perhaps a little fear about what he was getting himself into – insert circus music here).
I can still picture this Thanksgiving meal like it was yesterday (like many a survivor of traumatic events Ed attempts to block it from his memory – he claims only to remember it because Tim and I always bring it up). As usual Mom made a spectacular meal and we all enjoyed it with great zeal. I am sure that we started noshing soon after eating lunch and we probably had our fill of goodies and beer before we even sat down to the dinner table. Despite our already full bellies we all managed to cram in another meal and a few more drinks. I would suspect this would cause gastric distress to anyone. Each of us just sat back popped the first button and enjoyed the company of those around us. Dad on the other hand was less inclined to suffer his overeating silently. If it hasn’t been mentioned yet, stoicism isn’t Dad’s strongest trait.
He could not admit that perhaps he had just simply overdone everything, or that maybe the pie sampler after an enormous dinner was not a good choice. Like the Alka-Seltzer commercial of old, he couldn’t believe he ate the whole thing. Regardless, he was suffering and he didn’t need treatment, he needed a scapegoat. Mom was the unfortunate and most likely target.
Soon after we ate Dad started moaning (head ache, stomach ache I can’t remember). Then he had a brain storm, his distress was because the turkey was poisoned! He ranted on about how the turkey must have had MSG in it, shot up with artificial juices, Mom had cooked it wrong or maybe even Mom poisoned the turkey. Okay now most people would read this and think, he is just trying to be funny, but sadly, he wasn’t. He was serious and he began to really carry on about the poisoned turkey. Mom’s reply was her standard “Oh Edward!” I guess she couldn’t possibly say much else because it was a family day, but you could almost see the cartoon thought bubble over her head “You know gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins and it is not my fault you ate too much. Go lie down and stop ranting. You are making a scene.” Mom went so far as to dig the turkey wrapper out of the trash and prove it was the same type of turkey she always got and it wasn’t shot up with a bunch of chemicals. An interesting side bar her is that nobody else at the table experienced any ill effects from the so called “poisoned turkey”.
To an outsider, the craziest part about all of this meal is that none of us really even thought much about the poison turkey episode. We just chuckled and chalked it up to another day in the life of Big Ed. It was normal for us. However, when we got back to Pennsylvania Ed and I visited with his parents and his Mom asked us about Thanksgiving dinner and what we had, how many people were there, etc. Ed told his Mom everything was excellent, who was there and then he starts talking about Dad and the “poisoned turkey” and I began to realize how insane it must have all seemed. Ed’s Mom said things like “REALLY?!” and “YOUR KIDDING?!” and “HE WASN’T SERIOUS WAS HE?!” and suddenly I am seeing it through their eyes. Our family dinner was much different from anything Ed had ever experienced and it most likely seemed a bit insane. The beautiful thing about that it is that I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. Our family dinners have a special place in my memories. They were a source of many of my family stories, whether it was milk and peas shooting from noses or poisoned turkeys or “the wringer” or whatever. They have provided me with many lasting memories and tons of stories to tell over and over to my children. I am sure they grow with each telling too but that is just part of the fun.
From Peter: Cuba Easter
One year, when Neilie was in the hospital, Paul and I spent Easter in Cuba. I remember vividly Tom’s consternation when I pointed out the location of his Easter basket, not understanding that they were supposed to be hunted up by each kid in turn. This was new to me. The Easter bunny was considerably less inventive by the time he got to Wardman Road, and usually just left them under the Easter tree – or something… Once I found my basket, I ate my fill. Ellyn claims I ate all of it before church though that is not what I remember. Whether some or all, I don’t remember getting sick from the candy, and I probably didn’t – I’ve always had a hollow leg where sweets are concerned, having been plied with huge quantities of cookies, cakes, chocolates, and ice cream sodas on a regular basis by the O’Neil sisters.
What I most remember was pissing off Tom – don’t tell him I told you, but I think his basket was hidden on the shelf in the hallway next to the stairs. . .
I remember that as a great Easter – it was very cool to come and hang out with my cousins. I’m wondering if this also was the trip during sugaring season, when you were boiling down the sap inside the house, and maple-scented steam was everywhere.
I also remember, pretty vividly, sitting upstairs (in the choir loft, possibly?) of the church, as the endless pageantry of a Holy Week service dragged on for what seemed like hours, when all I really wanted was to get out and enjoy my time in Cuba. It might not have been Easter that year, but I have a general recollection of being lulled into homiletic narcosis by one of Father Meegan’s stem-winders, delivered in an affectless drawl by his animatronics double, while he, no doubt, was on the back nine at Allegheny Hills…
From Ellyn: Southern Travels
I have been told that when it comes to memories those associated with smell are retained the longest. I have to tell you that I know first hand this is true. From the time I was about 4 or 5 our family took Easter vacations in the South. Whether it was Myrtle Beach, Durham or various locations in Florida they all have a common memory link for me and that is the smell of the spring air on our first stop, usually somewhere in Pennsylvania. Since I now live in Pennsylvania when I walk outside many spring mornings and take a deep breath I can picture our family packed in whatever vehicle we had at the time headed south. The memory floods over me so quickly that for a moment I can forget where I am. It is an odd sensation that I am not sure I will ever overcome. Mom was recently reminiscing about an accident her parents had when she was about the same age heading to Florida. She remembered that there was a bottle of bleach in the Packard and when it rolled it must have broken open and the smell filled the air. Mom told me that whenever she smells bleach the memories of that accident still come rushing back. Since Mom’s memory has lasted so long I suspect mine will always remain as well and honestly as crazy as some of the experiences were the memories all have a good feel to them.
It was my intention to tell a specific story relating to our southern journeys but I discovered I could not pull apart any one trip with enough detail. It was that smell that stuck with me. Try as I might for a cohesive tale, I could only come up with random thoughts about our misadventures so here goes nothing…..
Does anyone remember that state of agitation that Dad would get into about two days before any family trip? He would begin to rumble like a volcano threatening to erupt that “we aren’t going.” On the actual day of departure, usually before dawn, when the car was being loaded the volcano would finally overflow. Dad would be tearing suitcases out of the trunk and hollering that we were staying home. He would jump up and down and holler about all the crap we kids were bringing, too much clothing, too many bags, and etcetera. At this point he would storm off into the house and remove himself from the packing job. Mom and one of the older kids would calmly repack the trunk neatly with room to spare. Mom would then back the car out of the barn and wait patiently for Dad to get in. Nothing further would be said about it and off we would drive down Route 17 into the sunrise.
How about Dad’s rule of stopping only at state borders for potty breaks? It seems to me that some states were far harder to survive than others. Take Pennsylvania for example. We drove across Pennsylvania at a diagonal. Whoa Nellie do I remember having to go something awful by the time we reached the border. Generally Dad waited until all of us went then he would make his deposit. Dad says I am making this part up, but I remember a few times Dad would run out of the gas station bathroom and holler “everyone in the car” and we would all quickly pile in and he would tear out of the station. Anyone who knows Dad knows that clogging up toilets is one of his specialties so I suspect that was the motivation. He was a “potty outlaw”, running from the overflow most likely.
I think the older siblings would remember this better than me. I suspect my memory is from hearing it retold countless times. One year Mom and Dad decided to rent a pop up camper for our first trip to Myrtle Beach. We hauled it south with the green wagon. The hauling of the trailer was challenging enough because those things can be tough to maneuver but that wasn’t challenge enough for Dad. In our early days of travel the back roads we took were often treacherous but in this case it was probably being on one of these crazy back roads that saved our necks. The axel on the trailer snapped and the tire rolled down an embankment. God must have been with us that day because this happened right in front of a group of construction workers who were fortunately able to help us resolve our problem. The construction worker said we were lucky we were not on a highway at top speed because it could have had disastrous results. When we pulled over Mom sent the older boys down the embankment to retrieve the tire while the construction worker fixed the axel. If you would believe this my most lasting memory of this event was Mom taking me to the bathroom and me sitting on the toilet crying because I had just woken up and I couldn’t go. I probably sat there for a good while because when I came back with Mom the trailer was good to go. And thus Mom’s hard fought vacation began. It must have ended up well enough because we went to Myrtle Beach for a few Easter vacations.
For many years we visited Uncle Dick and Aunt Diane in Durham which had many benefits. One was free lodging, two was playmates for the kids and three was a playmate for Dad and four was warm southern weather. Then the Smith family had to go and move to Rockville, Illinois and ruin a perfectly good arrangement so we had to find an alternate family vacation site.
Mom set her sights on Florida. It was the playground of her youth and she had many fond memories of Lake Worth with her family. Apparently Dad had some sour memories of a trip to Florida so Mom had to fight hard to win this battle. Myrtle Beach was the furthest south Mom had ever been able to maneuver for a many years but finally Mom convinced Dad that Florida was the place to go. I think that the great golfing in Florida was a major draw for Dad. My first Florida memory was Disney World. We stayed in an efficiency style hotel outside of the park. After this first trip Dad was convinced that Florida was no longer the savage wilderness he remembered and we continued our treks annually to Florida for many Easters to come. In many cases our trips to Florida were coupled with packing up Grandpa and Grandma K to come back north for the summer. Their snowbird status earned many of us several off season trips to Florida.
Aside from the smell of spring, the words “family vacation” brings back memories that make me laugh, sigh and long for those days again. So much so that I have many times attempted to recreate some of those fond memories with my own family. We have been to Williamsburg and North Carolina. We haven’t made it to the beaches of Florida but I can see that in our future too.
Culliton dinner holds a special place in our hearts (and stomachs). It was the scene of laughter and a few arguments. Just the seven of us lent it a loud and raucous time. We would eat big meals, tell big tales, and laugh big laughs. Add in the frequent visits of friends and family and they grew from meals to fetes. Any given weekend, we could have fourteen or twenty or forty people sharing our meals. Whether forty or just our seven, these memories are treasures we will always have.
From Brian: The Family Legend
Some stories can never capture the energy, emotion or humor of the real event. In high school I liked to scan Readers Digest during study hall, especially the joke pages (Laughter is the Best Medicine, Humor in Uniform, etc.). Readers Digest would pay $100 if they published one of your stories so I wrote up a “can’t miss”. I showed it to a friend assuming he would laugh and urge me to send it in. Instead, he (kindly) said, “Well, I don’t know, the stories in Readers Digest are funny.”
I’m not sure you should take literary advice from someone nicknamed “Fid” but in this case he was right. It was a family story, in fact a family legend. But this classic, like some fine wines, just would not travel well. Still, I’ll try again and hopefully do a better job writing it now than I did when I was sixteen.
Like so many Sundays we had our big meal at noon. And like so many other Sundays, we had extended family there to share the meal. This time the guests were from the Culliton side. Mom always made big meals, whether on Sunday or any other day of the week. The meals had to be big when feeding a family of seven, with four growing boys and one fully grown boy. Notice I mention only the boys? Food, played a special role in our lives, but Ellyn ate only enough dinner to be permitted dessert. Mom was lucky to sit down before the boys were asking for seconds. Mom didn’t just need enough for dinner; but also for the night time grazing the boys did about an hour after dinner was done. Leftovers sometimes didn’t make it past eight PM let alone to the next meal. We all ate very well and the kids (leaving Mike out for the time being) still looked like third world refugees. We were rail thin, boney with bloated stomachs. I suspect the bloating was because our stomachs were distended with food stuffed in whole without chewing instead of swollen from lack nutrition but the resulting look was the same. Tim was the worst of all. He was so thin that when playing hide and seek, he used to slip under the living room couch. I’m not talking about some fashionable, high off the floor Victorian love seat but a standard, inches-off-the-carpet, all-American family room sofa. Watching him crawl under was a bit unnerving, like watching a character from the Twilight Zone or the X-files but it was real and it was weird. I swear to God, he would just ooze under it and it made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. If your children have ever read the Flat Stanley books, you know Tim was the inspiration.
Despite our overall skinniness, we ate very well Monday through Saturday. Sunday was still a special meat and potatoes extravaganza. It was typically pot roast or pork roast or steak or some other big juicy hunk if dead animal (if vegans were fair game, we might have eaten one or two of them too!). This was accompanied by potatoes (mashed or baked) or egg noodles (personal favorite!) and some vegetable, hopefully not burned. Mom and vegetables will be saved for another story. Desert was pie, cake or cobbler. I love pies with blueberry holding top honors although I would never turn down a cherry cobbler or cake or the Cool Whip that was always plopped on top. Sometimes lasagna or stroganoff or some similarly exotic “foreign” food would be substituted for meat and potatoes but since it did not include anything remotely vegetarian or tofu-like, it was gladly eaten.
This Sunday was typical. I can’t remember the menu but suffice to say by the time we waddled into desert, we were well on our way to a happy food-induced coma. This is when Tim, scrawny Timmy, Flat Stanley Timmy, Third-world, count my ribs, poke my bloated belly Timmy looked over at Uncle David and squeaked, “I wish we could have company more often so we could eat this good all the time.” It was like Tinny Tim from the Christmas Carol was recreated in our midst and this scrawny malnourished soul had just accused Scrooge Mom of only feeding us when there were guests. Or perhaps it was Oliver Twist with his gruel bowl scraped empty asking the Headmaster for more. Beverages were spewed and chucks of food flew as people choked and laughed. Tom even shot peas out his nose. Now Tom was always shooting peas or milk or something out his nose. It was his special gift and seems worth mentioning. It hurt, our ribs ached, and we laughed so hard there were tears going down our cheeks. People couldn’t breath, we couldn’t talk and every time we looked at Tim we laughed even harder. It is a good thing our family does not have a history of heart problems because we would have lost some brave souls that day. As it was, our laughing only slowed because our brains and bodies were too deprived of oxygen to keep it up, until… Until Uncle David, eyes still closed, cheeks still streaked with tears, arms still clutching his sides, somehow managed to gasp out the words, “I haven’t laughed this hard since Aunt Jo caught her tits in the ringer.” The laughter started all over again and a family legend was born.
From Brian: Setting the table
It seems like such a simple activity. Get the flatware out of the drawer, the glasses out of the cabinet and the milk and condiments out of the fridge. What’s so memorable about that? Well, for starters…
I remember the little three by five card Mom put together instructing us on how to set the table. It was a drawing of a proper setting along with glasses for milk, cups for tea and a tea pot. It was a trivial thing but I remember using it.
Even knowing what pieces to put on the table, it seemed we could never get the right number of place settings, especially on Sundays. We would either set six places (forgetting to set Dad’s place) or set eight. Setting eight was immortalized one Sunday when we sat down and Dad noticed the extra set. He quipped, “We must have guests coming tonight. I wonder who it could be.” The doorbell rang and it was Dick Szemenowski. Mom invited him in and asked him to stay for dinner. There after, when ever an extra place was set, we said, “I guess Dick Szemenowski is coming to dinner.” Oddly, Dick did show up a few times after that just to make it eerie.
The everyday flatware was a hodgepodge. Five kids do a marvelous job at bending, mangling and losing virtually anything in their path. The flatware was no exception. When enough was lost or damaged and our ability to set the table was threatened, Mom would make the economically prudent move of buying a set of four place settings to fill the gaps. Mom didn’t worry that the new four didn’t match what was in the drawer. She focused on the filler pieces being decent and serviceable.
The kids focused on the “newness” and used that as an excuse to fight. Whoever set the table would make sure that their place would have a complete setting using the newest flatware and that everyone else would have mix and match sets. Between the setting of the table and people sitting down for dinner, various kids would race through the kitchen and re-arrange the place settings so that THEY would have the newest silverware. The bigger kids would enforce the changes with a punch in the shoulder. Being the smallest boy, Tim would lick the silverware in plain view so no one else would want to touch it (perhaps a trick he picked up from Immature Auntie Jean). Gross, but effective, we all started to take up that approach. Mom chose to ignore this since she was a big picture gal and was more worried about getting the task at hand completed so she just rolled her eyes and walked away. When Dad witnessed this, it offended his dinner rules (i.e., no undershirts at the table, etc.). His response was roughly, “Uhg! That’s disgusting! We do NOT lick silverware in this house ANYMORE!!” The standard “but Dad” defenses came out. Redirect… “but Dad, he hit me!” Logical… “but Dad, we lick them when we eat” Appeal for justice… “but Dad, it’s not fair” and on and on until Dad could take it no more. “Cease and desist!” (a Dad standard) and that was the end of silverware licking, at least in his presence.
In the end, we fought over, re-arranged and licked the flatware less frequently. Even we had to mature eventually. Heck, last Thanksgiving I hardly notice any licking at all. But then again, Mike wasn’t there otherwise all bets would be off.
From Tim: Dill Dough
At the dinner table…
Ellyn, who was ten or eleven at the time, begins randomly discussing how there are so many types of dough. She begins to list those doughs that she has heard of. “There’s Rye dough, sour dough, dill dough…”
To which dad shouts excitedly (probably only half listening to the conversation), “DILDO… DILDO??? DILDO!!! Who taught you that!?” Mom says, “Edward, calm down…” To that Dad exclaims, “Don’t you know what a DILDO is???” Mom gives Dad an innocent look and says, ”No.” (Hoping the pit bull would, please forgive the pun, drop the bone.) To which Dad replies,”It’s a device a woman uses to pleasure herself!” If ever there was a time for Tom to shoot a pea or milk out his nose, this was one of them, but I am sure the stunned silence of everyone kept him from discussing it.
Of course the only one who did not know dill dough had a homonym dildo was Ellyn, but thanks to Dad she’ll never miss that one on the Times crossword puzzle. I wonder what would have happened if she said pumpernickel?
Dad over reacting at the dinner table, how odd…
Fishing with Dad was a constant of growing up in Cuba. Most weekends in the spring and summer, Dad would get up early and take some or all of the boys with him fishing. This was not only fun for the boys but I am sure it gave Mom a break not to have us around the house for a few hours. This chapter is dedicated to stories about fishing. I am certain none of them are exaggerated…
From Brian: Trout Season
What is it that makes a scent so powerful? I stepped out the front door the other morning just after the rain stopped. It was in the mid forties – the first “warm” morning of the year. The sky was overcast, the air was damp and this “scent” grabbed me and took me away. It was the tangy smell of freshly thawed dirt, the musty odor of decaying, mildewing leaves and a dozen other odors that lingered on the edge of recognition all mixed in with the freshness rain brings. It’s the smell that marks the end of winter and although it does not quite hearken spring, it does bring the promise that spring will come soon.
As I stood on my front porch, grabbed by this “scent”, this hint of spring, I was transported four hundred miles and thirty years to be plopped by the edge of Rush Creek, a rod in one hand, a can of worms in the other. This was the odor I would smell when we got up early to pile in the Chevy wagon to see if the trout were running at Rushford Lake. This was the odor of baiting a hook with a worm by the shore of the Ischua. This was the scent that floated in the air when I stepped over my boots while casting the Zebco or sitting on the bank of the Genesee waiting for my bobber to move. Memories kept coming, of fish caught and the cliché fish that got away, the drizzle we fished through, the hook through my finger and begging for one more cast.
Funny how one whiff of air can make the trout seasons of thirty years ago feel as though it was just a breath away.
I will not bore you with all the memories of trout seasons past. You were there and perhaps that enigmatic odor has already found you and dropped you into your own world of reverie. The only other stray thought I’ll share is my curiosity of what passing breeze thirty years hence will bring my sons David and Patrick back to today and what emotions will it bring. Perhaps if I turn a corner fast enough, I will catch David and Patrick staring back at me through all those years. I hope I see the wistful happiness in their eyes, like the look in mine as I stood on my front porch, with the scent of trout seasons past taking me back to Cuba, my Zebco, drowned worms, my smelly green waders and mostly all of you.
From Brian: The Life Saving Jacket
I loved fishing growing up. I don’t remember fishing much before moving to Cuba. Perhaps I did. I remember fishing at the pond on Cousin Bill’s Farm. My sense of time is too vague to place this event accurately. What I do remember is that Grandma Dorothy didn’t bait her hook because she didn’t have a fishing license. Ironically, she was the only one to catch a fish that day.
Once we moved to Cuba fishing became a cherished ritual in our lives. The ritual began at the Cuba Lake cottage we rented while Mom and Dad continued their search for a house. I was only six so my recall and this story are a bit disjointed. We moved a few weeks into the school year. The memories of the cottage that stick with me are mice (and the cat with the still wiggling tail sticking out its mouth), Tim riding his birthday tricycle up and down the driveway hill, the school bus (I’ll let Tom or Mike explain why I was chased by the girls on the bus every morning. I never thought I was that kissable.), and fishing off the dock. Cuba Lake had a good assortment of game fish, from various pan fish to perch, bass, and walleyed pike. While staying at the cottage, of all the varieties of fish available, the only things I caught were pumpkinseeds (which we fed to the cottage cat) and the bug for fishing. And of course, I fell in.
The very first night we stayed at the lake Dad’s boss came over. With Mom and Dad distracted, I decided to go fishing. I put on my light nylon baseball jacket to ward off the evening chill while I cast from the end of the dock. I’ve been told I had an unnatural patience for a six year old, sitting for hours while waiting for the proverbial nibble. I would like to claim that a huge strike knocked me off balance but near as I remember I just leaned too far out and fell in. I did go completely underwater and it was just like one of those movie scenes where the drowning man looks up to see the distorted sunlit sky as a circle above. I never touched bottom. It seemed like it was ten feet deep. Without any volition on my part, and with fortune on my side, I shot back to the surface because the air captured by my nylon jacket acted as a floatation device. I shouted and splashed. Tom, who was standing on the dock too, grabbed onto my hand and held tight until Dad hauled me out of the water and back onto the dock. I was none the worse for wear but my beloved Zebco was lost in the inky depths. Demonstrating that I had already learned how to tell a fish tale from Big Ed, I explained that the water was way over my head (ten to twenty feet at least!) and if it wasn’t for my life saving jacket, things could have gone much worse. (Note: From then on, I wore my life saving jacket and told the story of its heroism where ever I went. My life saving jacket disappeared at some point. My assumption was that it was falling apart and Mom found a way to get rid of it while I wasn’t looking. Others believe it was handed down to one of the kids Mom taught at the reading center.) I was taken into the house and given a shower, the first one I ever had. Perhaps if the Kenmore house had a shower my lisp would have been noted and attended to sooner. Consequently, I would not have had speech therapy in Cuba and Tom would not have helped me display my progress at the Sunday dinner table by encouraging me to complete the phrase, “I do not like horse sh… .” My enunciation was perfect but it was indicated that I should find other words with which to practice. But I digress.
The next morning Dad donned his swim trunks and jumped off the dock to retrieve the rod. Instead of the veritable Mariana Trench that I described, he was lucky he didn’t break his legs when he bottomed out in waist deep water. I have no explanation as to why the water was over my six year old head and only up to Dad’s waist. Perhaps they had removed a log from the spillway over night.
The story ping-ponged about so let’s recap… didn’t catch fish, fell into water, told fantastical story exaggerating everything. I can draw but two conclusions. I am a chip off the old block and I was born to fish.
While You Were Out
When this chapter was first conceived, ideas were overflowing. When it came to actually putting them on paper, we decided that there may still be things we don’t want to admit to when our parents (or our children) might hear about it. Thus, there will be no tales about lighter fluid cannons, rolling dumbbells under the bed to flush out little brothers, putting rubber bats in Mom’s lights and windows, putting dead bats in envelops, all the things firecrackers can blow up, nearly setting houses in Rockville, IL on fire, things that will burn under a magnifying glass, skinny-dipping in Hidden Canyon… er, ah, well, you get the picture. Here is a small sampling people are willing to admit to.
From Mike: “Sneaker” bolos
Yes, the bolos were made of anything that Mom did not take away. They ended as “sneaker” bolos because four to five Keds tied in a star were not as threatening to Mom’s sensibility and, man, they worked great. We typically “hunted” in the field next to Doc Bradley’s office because it had lots of space and was out of Mom’s line of sight. That we made Brian run, giving him a head start, is an outright lie. We never gave him a head start. I remember laughing until I nearly peed my pants because Brian kept coming back, over and over, taunting us to throw the bolos at him (probably one of the effects of his 1 year old morning crib diving ritual). The only reason we had our victims run was the dramatically crushing tackles that hog tied feet affected on the fleeing prey. As I recall, “The Quiet Victim” Brian loved the game but had tendency to bang the balls with the bolos in an attempt beat my attempts to jump over certain death.
Swinging the lead rope with the retrieving dummy would attract a crowd. The slayer would stand in the middle of a circle of running idiots (like Albert and Russel Wilson) taunting and jumping and laughing. Inevitably Brian would smack someone in the “Giblonies” with it. When the victim finally went down, so would everyone else, so short of breath you could barely laugh… except the sap with crushed testies who made an attempt to run after Brian in a half squat screaming like they had just inhaled a balloon full of helium. One of Tom’s greatest sneaker flings was a thirty yarder from that folded half squat. If only Brian would not have attempted to jump he might have remembered the first grade.
From Brian: Jumping Down the Stairs
For children who were raised by two very intelligent people and who were able to handle the mental challenges of college, there were a lot of things we did that weren’t too bright. The classic was the contest to see who dared to jump down the most steps. What really added spice to the challenge was the cast iron milk vat that sat at the bottom of the stairs. Mom had salvaged it shortly after coming down to Cuba, paining it black and accenting it with country-style stencils. That type of authentic Americana would fetch big bucks in a city antique store today but back then it was just a convenient thing to butt our heads against.
We would always start at the bottom step, each taking a turn jumping to the bottom landing. We would move up one step at a time, repeating the process until all but one dropped out. Over the numerous times we held this contest, we learned the hard way that it was better to hit the front door than the milk vat, with wood having moderately more give that iron. We never learned to actually move the vat. We also learned (again, the hard way) that from the upper steps you had to remember to duck so you did not clip your head where the second floor wall and the first floor hall ceiling met. We always held back, stopping a few steps short of the second floor landing until Tim decided he would claim the supreme championship once and for all. He took a running start, launching himself from the second floor, ducking just in time, landing hard on the bottom two steps, bouncing the rest of the way down, banging his head on both the milk vat and the door. The rest decided we weren’t going to top that so Tim is still the reigning stair jumping champion. If he has a trophy for it, I bet it is dented.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
It is said that you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes. The following short stories are my accounts of the family’s nontraditional education.
From Tim: Maple Syrup
Real maple syrup, yum, and you know it’s not that hard to make. At least that’s what my brothers thought when they came up with the idea of making their own syrup. They tapped the two large maple trees in our yard. They poured gallons of sap into the turkey pan – the closest thing we had to an evaporation boiler. The collected sap then boiled, boiled, and boiled on top of the stove in the kitchen. As you would imagine on a cold spring day with all the windows closed, the steam in the room was impressive. The only thing more impressive was how the wallpaper spontaneously peeled off the walls in the kitchen over the stove. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time…
From Tim: Elderberry Wine/Red Red Wine …
Long before it was en vogue to make your own beer or wine Dad had a hobby to ferment and bottle the fruit of the vine. Usually using a concentrate base, he added water, yeast, and a few other things. He mixed it in a green plastic garbage can sitting in the first floor bathtub (the overflow left a nice stain), transferred it to a 5 gallon carbide bottle to ferment, bottled aged it, and then drank the fruits of his labor. As far as the quality of this nectar… let’s just say that Comte de Cuba never made it to a fine boutique wine status. The big problem was repetition bred boredom so Big Ed started to think outside the box. In his eureka momment Dad realized “Wild berries, yes wild berries can be used to make wine. There are a lot of elderberries in the area. Let’s just use those for wine.” So off went the amateur day laborers under the supervision of Dad and Uncle Jack to harvest the berries. It turned out the birds and animals also had their eyes (not to mention beaks and teeth) on the berries, so wild grapes were picked to supplement the harvest. With the fall harvesting mission complete, the next question was how would we extract the juice from the grapes. Why Lucille Ball style of course. Yep, all the berries were thrown in a bucket (the old baby bathtub) on the kitchen table. Ellyn was hoisted up and started a steady rhythm of Stomp, Pop, Squish, Splash… Stomp, Pop, Squish, Splash…. Stomp, Pop, Squish, Splash…. It looked like fun so I got up to try (hopefully after I washed my feet) and Stomp, Pop, Squish, Splash…. You get the picture… Thus the juices were extracted, filtered, augmented with yeast, allowed to ferment and finally bottled. The bottle, however, did not stop the rhythm it only changed the tune… Pop, Pop, splash, splash, sh*t, sh*t, MARY LOU!! Wild berries, wild results, the corks never stood a chance but… It seemed like a good idea at the time…
From Tim: R is For Race (or The Scarlet Letter)
Before SUVs there was the family station wagon. Our green bomb was a 1972 Chevy Wagon and it traversed every back country dirt road we could find in Dad’s constant search for fishing streams, abandoned apple orchards, pheasants, fire wood, Christmas trees, etcetera. On occasion the darn thing got stuck – go figure. On one such instance Brian, Dad and I got the thing stuck on some back logging road on TV Tower hill. The right rear wheel lost traction and we were on a steep incline. A little muscle would be able to push us out of the jam, but two skinny kids (about eight and ten) with a combined weight under one hundred thirty pounds just wouldn’t cut it. As luck would have it Asher Smith and one of his twenty plus siblings happened along to help push. Dad being a thinking man said, “Bear, you get behind the wheel and when we say ‘now’ put it into gear and give it some gas. Dad thought this was sufficient instruction on how to operate a motor vehicle; after all driving is fifty percent intuition/instinct. The results as you might have guessed was that Brian only got a small precentage of the task right. Dad and the Smiths braced themselves behind the car and gave Brian the word. On cue, Brian jammed the car into gear and knocked them all over as the car careened down the hill backwards until a ditch halted its progress. By some miricale, nobody was run over. A passionate explanation then followed that R did not stand for race. Now the car was stuck beyond muscle power so the Smiths fetched the family tractor (the one used for cultivating their canibus fields), Dad put the car in D for drive and the wagon was pulled clear. Brian, however, has forever been labeled with the scarlet letter of shame. R is not for race.
A little kid driving a car, well…It seemed like a good idea at the time…
From Tim: Some quick stories that need little explanation
Kidney Soup, no long story required. Dad made kidney soup once. It smelled really bad, but he convinced me to give it a try… Maybe something that previously filtered cow urine was not meant to be eaten…
Looking for a Christmas tree on the back roads in the middle of a snow storm. The Bills game was on (versus the Jets?) as Dad had to back the car down the hill at five miles per hour…
Tom and Mike bringing home a baby skunk in a brown paper bag…
Breeding 2 ½ foot tall Major to 3 ½ foot tall Candy, the other little known definition of Knock-kneed…
But they seemed like a good ideas at the time…
Life is a Bowl of Cherries
…and we are spitting out the pits. This chapter is dedicated to the times we spent picking fruits, gleaning beans, pickling and canning.
From Tom: General Thoughts
How about the time where instead of getting a couple grocery bags or even bushels worth we filled the whole back end of one of the hatchbacks with yellow and green beans? Then mother made us clean a very large portion of them… 🙁
Thinking of canning pickles, tomatoes, pears, and especially peaches still makes me shudder. Between the scalding hot water, itching from the combination of sugar, syrup and peach fuzz up past your elbows, and the smell which soaked into you skin and you couldn’t get away from. Now just the sight of peaches is enough to send me packing.
Boiling our own maple syrup in the turkey roasting pan which father always claims contributed to the wallpaper in the front bedroom on the 3rd floor coming off. I especially remember how amazingly refreshing the sap was to drink straight from the bucket.
From Ellyn: General Thoughts
I remember gleaning, picking, pickling and canning and at the time I hated having to do it. Of course you will all think that I am being a bit self-absorbed but I remember doing way more of the canning than the rest of you. I think Mom thought it was more of a “woman’s” job and let you guys off the hook more. Somehow I would be the last one sitting in the chair next to Mom and my hands would be rough and pruny. The worst were the pears (because there was something about their chemistry that turned your hands black) and the cherries, because pitting them before we had the pitter required a hairpin and was a major chore. I didn’t mind the peaches, strawberries or blueberries as much because I actually ate those and although the peaches were very tedious (sometimes painful with the scalding water) I looked forward to opening a jar in the winter for that summer peach taste. Gleaning beans was probably my least favorite of all our picking chores. I remember coming home from Olean one time with Tim and Mom. Mom spotted a freshly picked field of beans and got off the highway and made Tim and me pick. I can remember being humiliated and putting my sweatshirt hood up to make sure nobody noticed me. I also remember enjoying those beans that winter. Oh well fickle, fickle the hearts of teens. Looking back I understand the motivation – she did after all have five children/young adults to feed and a very limited budget but those things certainly don’t cross your mind when you are fifteen.
From Brian: General Thoughts
Do you remember Dad getting a sack of black walnuts and having us try to husk them? I remember our fingers being stained purple and someone even running the sack over with the station wagon trying to get the husks off those nuts…
I remember each fall going to the scattered remains of several orchards in Hanging Bog and filling up bushel baskets with apples that we would take home to make apple sauce and apple butter. The apples were a wee bit wormy for eating but were great for pies and sauces. Hanging Bog is a marshy track of old farms, lakes and swamps with numerous remnants of apple and nut orchards. The farmers have mostly moved on and the State of New York has assumed ownership, so rather than letting the bounty go to waste, we picked what we could. Stories are that the name “Hanging Bog” is not just a colorful handle but exactly what it implies. As with most Cuba legends, I remain a bit skeptical.
From Brian: Spitting Cherry Pits
Once when visiting our Lockport cousins, Mom loaded a mix of Culliton and Kirchgraber kids into the wagon and we went picking. Fruits are big business along the Great Lakes. The bodies of vast open water are best known nationally for the snow storms they spawn. A lesser known and more beneficial effect is how they moderate temperatures and extend the growing season for fruit such as peaches, cherries and grapes. That day Mom’s target was the dark sweet cherries that grow abundantly in the Lockport area. With her own migrant work force in tow, she descended upon a cherry grove recommended by Aunt Judy.
She had us scurry up ladders and across tree branches with buckets in hand. After a few hours we filled them to overflowing. Mom paid for our harvest, loaded the car with cherries and kids and headed out. Sweet cherries were, well, sweet so we were eating them like fiends. Being the conscientious children that we were, we did not want to soil Mom’s nice, clean car. Instead, we spit the cherry pits out the window. (Was Aunt Jean in the car instigating?) We were also competitive so soon it was who could spit them the furthest, who could hit the tree as we drove past, who could hit the sign, who could hit the parked car, and finally, who could put it in the window of a moving car. I can’t remember who did it (any volunteers out there?) but someone put a cherry pit right on one driver’s lap. We all snickered, congratulating ourselves on our accuracy and cleverness… until the next stop light.
The wagon had barely rolled to a complete stop before a man in his mid twenties ran up and grabbed at the passenger door’s open window. In my memory, I was in the passenger seat so I was startled and scared. Out of breath and angry, he accused, “Someone in this car spit a cherry pit at me!” Mom, always cool under pressure turned and said sternly, “Cherries, what cherries? Does someone have cherries back there?!?” When we were growing up, Mom not only had eyes in the back of her head, she seemed to have eyes wired around the whole house and car. She knew the gist of what was happening in the back of the car, if not all the messy details, and had decided it was less dangerous than the usual hitting and wrestling so she chose to ignore it. But she was not going to admit it to someone angry and foolish enough to jump out of his car in the middle of the road just so he could scold her.
While continuing to cling to the door, the man made some demand like, “I want to deal with this RIGHT HERE AND RIGHT NOW!” Mom, still calm, said, “Look, the light is changing. I am just going to pull over to the side so we can talk this through.” He reluctantly agreed. No sooner had his grip on the door loosened than Mom slammed down on the gas and squealed out of there. By the time the hot head got back to his car, the light had changed back to red and Mom was long gone.
We all let out our collective breath and shared a nervous giggle or two. I don’t remember Mom scolding us but she gave a look to let us know that shenanigans were officially done for the day and we weren’t stupid enough to cross that line once Mom drew it. The rest of the ride was uneventful and quite except for giggles we could not suppress then and that I still cannot even today when I think about our spitting the pits.
Growing up in Cuba, it seemed to us that Cuba Lake was the epicenter of summer fun. We’d swim. We’d fish. Occasionally, we would fall in. When we were really lucky, we would go sailing on McGarvey’s Lightning. Dad learned to sail at LaSalle summer camp and enjoyed it tremendously. In Cuba, without a place to dock, with five children eating everything that wasn’t nailed down (Ellyn being the notable exception) and with annual Catholic high school bills, a sailboat was a luxury that Big Ed had to forego. But sailing on McGarvey’s Lightening gave Dad the bug so he started plotting and scheming. For their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Dad bought Mom a lovely diamond ring. He swung “a deal” on it and by a stroke of good luck, the money he saved was just enough to buy a Snipe.
The shallow-hulled, open cockpit Snipe was a fun little boat. It fit two comfortably and three if you didn’t mind being a bit cramped and going a bit slower. Dad taught all of us to sail. Sometimes it would be a wild ride and I loved it. When the wind gusted across Cuba Lake, you had to tack sharply and hike out, your heart racing as you leaned your head back inches from the water. If you did it right, the Snipe flew across the water, banging through the chop and drenching you with the bow spray. But, if you held too tightly to the main sheet or were sloppy coming about, Mother Nature would remind you pointedly that you sailed at her indulgence. So, I learned (while Ellyn “sniped” at me for getting her wet) the art of falling in and of righting a capsized boat by stepping on the dagger board. Even when stranded in the middle of the lake, windless with motor boaters taunting you as they raced by, I was in heaven. If I wanted to get somewhere in a hurry, I’d take a car. In the summers of our youth, sailing was about the journey, not the destination.
This chapter is dedicated to Dad’s Snipe, sailing and summers at Cuba Lake.
From Brian: The Ford Regatta
In so many ways, I lucked out when I got married. Kathleen is smart, pretty, and quick-witted. It also helps that she has a sharp enough tongue to fend off my brothers’ raucous, if good natured, banter. Her father Dave’s sailboat, Zip-Zap, was just gravy. Sailing a twenty-seven foot Catalina on Lake Erie was a sharp contrast to the Snipe on Cuba Lake. It didn’t give you the same adrenalin rush or the feeling that you may tip over if you are not careful (although I came awfully close once!), but when that big sail snapped ridged in the wind, you were in for a great ride.
David belonged to the Ford Yacht Club which held a Regatta every August. Dave, Dad and I sailed in the Regatta for several years. We came in third once but we were there for the event more than the competition. The first year we did it, Barb and Dave invited Mom and Dad to stay with them. They had always got along great but I admit feeling a bit of a chill going down my spine when I heard the invitation issued. Barb is an only child and she did not raise any boys. In close quarters Dad is ALL boy, so I was worried that Barb might be scandalized. The phrase kept running through my head that Mom said after Dad killed a deer with Cross’s car “…the relationship cooled a little after that.”
Kathleen and I were at Barb and Dave’s for dinner on Friday night before the Regatta. Mom and Dad made it in from Buffalo a little later while we were still there. When they came in, Barb asked if they were hungry or wanted anything to drink. Dad announced, “Uhg, no! We had dinner already and dessert was too rich. Now I have to make a deposit. Where’s the head (note: in the spirit of the weekend, he was already using nautical terms)?” Barb, God bless her, only gasped soundlessly for a minute or two while clutching her throat before pointing to the top of the stairs and saying in an almost normal voice, “ah, I-it’s up there.” Meanwhile, Mom muttered a prayer under her breath for which she would get an answer, unfortunately, not the one she had hoped for. I won’t detail this portion of the story any further. Suffice to say, follow it to its logical conclusion and you will have the gist of it.
I came over early the next morning to find Dad and Dave already up, ready to go and yucking it up. Obviously, the relationship had not cooled. Dave and Dad had hit it off from the start and Dave always got a kick out of Dad’s craziness. Dad, Dave and I headed down to the boat. Barb, Mom and Kathleen would come down later for a picnic dinner when the race was over. The Regatta was actually two separate races depending on the class of boat. Zip-Zap was on the smaller end of the spectrum so we, with dozens of other boats, sailed an hour-glass shaped course in the bay. The larger boats sailed further out in the lake. The first leg always went slowly because in coincided with a period of dead wind that occurred every morning on that stretch of the lake. Zip-Zap rocked in place with the rest of the fleet and we waited. As it always does, the wind picked up and we started to move along briskly. By the time we passed the first buoy, it was after 11:00 AM. I should mention that the name Zip-Zap was a nod to Dave’s Uncle Louis. Uncle Louie was a true character who liked his drinks, whether beer, wine, whiskey or the 97¢ cream sherry whose empty quart bottles we continue to find stashed about the Mackinac house. To him, it was all Zip-Zap. In keeping with tradition and since the sun was over the yardarm, we cracked our first beers of the race. We all took turns manning the wheel, trimming the sheets and fetching the beer and snacks.
The wind was really whipping up by this point. Dad was at the wheel, Dave was manning the sheets and I was cabin boy. The wind shifted just enough to send the boom careening about, whacking Dave on top of the head, sending his hat flying to me. Dave got a bump and a small gash. I stuff paper towel in his hat, plopped it on his head and told him to apply pressure. We all agreed that adequate medical attention had been provided so I checked that no one’s drink had spilled and the race continued. We passed some boats and were passed by others, ultimately finishing the race in the middle of the pack. The “girls” (weird turn of events when your Mom and Mother-in-Law are one of the girls) arrived shortly after we docked. The afternoon was sunny and warm with a cooling breeze blowing in from Lake Eire. We all examined Dave’s head and laughed about it like you can when nothing serious happens. We ate, we drank, we laughed and we just enjoyed that glorious summer day.
From Ed and Ellyn: Getting to Know “Big Ed” – an Outlaw’s Perspective
Ed’s first memory of Dad is probably similar to many of our friend’s first memories of Dad, colorful. Background information is important here. Ed’s family is similar to ours in many ways but the only similar trait our fathers share is their first name, Ed. Beyond that, it is difficult to draw parallels between the two. Ed’s father is a mild mannered, conservatively dressed man with a full head of dark hair. He still crawls through attics nimbly and lithely without any concern of coming through the ceiling despite his seventy-five plus years. Ed’s father has been wearing the same style jeans and oxford cloth shirt for as long as I have known him and probably for many years prior. I personally have never seen Ed’s dad in sneakers nor even shorts for that matter. Ed’s father will slip into swim trunks about once a year when the air temperature is an invigorating one hundred degrees and the pool is a refreshing eighty-nine degrees. Ed’s father has other “colorful” character traits but his are more subtle and you need to get to know him to see them. Our Dad on the other hand is far from subtle and he wears his “color” on his sleeve. Let me share some of Ed’s early and very vivid “Dad” memories.
Ed and I embarked on our journey from Bucks County, PA to Cuba on a warm summer day. Now that in and of itself is hardly remarkable but this is the first sojourn that Ed had taken to the old Cuba homestead, so it is significant for him. We arrived in Cuba to little fanfare. Mom greeted us with warm reserve because she was still sizing up Ed. I gave Ed the tour of the house inside and out before settling on the front porch to enjoy the afternoon. While we were relaxing on the glider Dad rode up on his bike so we headed back through the house to greet him. Ed has not yet figured out that this was Dad returning on his ten-speed bike but follows along for the hello.
Dad propped his bike against the fence and came into the house to give me a sweaty embrace and shake Ed’s hand. Ed smiled pleasantly but was a bit taken back. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary to me as I chatted amiably with Dad about his ride around the lake. After all, what is unusual about a sixty-two year old man wearing gray running shoes with mid-calve red stripped tube socks, skin tight black bike shorts with a neon stripe, a tight mismatched printed bike shirt, mirrored wrap-around sunglasses and a bike helmet with a mirror sticking out the side? Dad made some very loud and Dad like remark about his bottom being sore and needing to take a load off so he meandered off to do just that. I turned to see Ed standing there slack-jawed as he watched Dad walk away. Ed is usually not so easily amazed so I was a little baffled. “What is the matter?” I asked. “Nothing.” replied Ed. Trying to shake the glazed deer-in-the-headlights look, he added “Does he always dress like that?” I shrug, “Only when he goes for a bike ride, why?” Ed chose to answer “No reason” while still gazing in Dad’s direction with a befuddled expression on his face. It finally registered with me that Ed was at a loss as how to respond to Dad’s rather eclectic get-up without offending me or saying the wrong thing. I can still picture standing in the hallway with him attempting to sneak glances over my shoulder to stare at Dad a bit more. I finally said, “I guess you are a little taken aback by my Dad’s outfit (a Mary Lou-like understatement). You’ll get used to it. At least it isn’t hunting season and Dad isn’t running around in his holey long underwear.” To which Ed haltingly stammered “W-w-what?!” Of course, that is a story for another time.
On this very same trip Dad impressed Ed once more with his larger than life ways. Since Mom and Dad had rented a house at the lake for a little family fun Ed brought along one of his water “toys”, a Kawasaki stand-up jet ski. Along with our immediate family Mom had also invited some of the Kirchgraber family to join us at the lake for fun in the sun. We were all sunning, swimming, eating and enjoying ourselves thoroughly. Ed had put his jet ski in the water and we had taken a few spins. The kids (young Pete Milky and David Kirchgraber) listened intently to Ed’s very detailed instructions on jet ski operation and safety and took a short spin. The young ones were wisely cautious because they were too small to truly handle the jet ski. Dad gazed on longingly at the fun and finally decided that he was going to have a go. Ed attempted to repeat his instructions, this time for Dad. Standing about waist high in the water Ed said “This is the starter button and this is the throttle…” and that is all he got out because Dad punched it. Dad shot across the lake with his chest resting on the part of the jet ski you are supposed to stand and the lower half of his body dragging behind, slapping up and down furiously on the water. Dad managed to wrestle the jet ski back to shore, let go of the throttle and pulled his swim trunks up to a more “modest” and proper place before loudly announcing “Man, that ride nearly blasted my nuts off! I am done with that thing!” Ed stood in the water once again slack-jawed. He did not dare say what he was thinking which was most likely something like – “if you had only listed to the instructions you crazy nut you could have avoided the agony!” Since Dad sped off, he missed little nuggets of wisdom such as letting go of the throttle stopped the jet ski immediately and that you were supposed to stand on the jet ski versus body surfing behind it.
I stood on shore, laughing until my sides hurt and the tears ran down my face. Poor Ed was afraid to laugh at risk of seeming callous and probably feeling some of Dad’s pain but it was just another Big Ed moment for me!
Be it Ever so Humble…
I believe that any compilation of family stories should also pay homage to the structures that housed all the chaos. It is for this reason I submit the following stories.
From Tim: 1037
The number 1037 spoken to any of the extended family born before 1979 immediately evokes the image of a large brick red asbestos shingled house on the corner of Lovejoy and Greene in Buffalo. It is still there, but to drive by the place it almost breaks your heart. It has been run down, the roof and eves in dire need of work. The garage is in need of a wrecking ball. The blue spruce in the front is gone, however the hedge that Grandpa K sculpted is still well manicured. The side yard Grandpa K mowed and rolled with care is an overgrown mess with a broken down swing set.
1037 in its hay day housed seven children, two adults, one over bred dog, a dental office, a basement party room, and a front entrance law “office.” I also believe there were ten foot ceilings, and a monstrous furnace in the basement a quarter the size of my current house. The house, despite its size, still seemed to have warmth, not because Grandma K had a flare with decorating, the house was plain, simple, and functional. 1037, Grandma K’s house, was warm and inviting none the less, enticing grandchildren with a dark red glass candy jar on top of the china cabinet in the dinning room.
From Tim: 1037, the Indian in the Closet
As family legends go this one is as believable as the Christie Brinkley, David Brinkley legend (that one is for you, Kathleen). The first bedroom on the right on the second floor had a closet, not a big closet, maybe four foot by five foot. In the closet dangled a bare light bulb with a pull string, a few clothes, and, oh yeah, a dead Indian (Native American). Well, I never saw the entity in question, but several eyewitnesses claim to have seen him coming from the closet. Why an Indian? The house is on an Indian burial ground of course! The story as Aunt Barb use to tell was that she was staying the night and about to drift to sleep when someone, something approached her bed. He sat down at the foot of her bed so she spoke to him thinking it was Grandpa K. However, when she spoke, he disappeared. After the little Houdini thing, she no longer believed it was Grandpa.
Uncle Jack recalls feeling a firm hand on his shoulder one night while descending the stair case past the room. He was alone in the house because the folks were in Florida so he thought the worse, but when he turned around there was no one, nothing… He did not spend a lot of time in the house after that at night.
My Mother lived there through the 1940s and 1950s. She denies ever having witnessed this Indian. Tom also lived there at one point in the early 1980s without incident. Still, it is perilous to dismiss the unknown and unbelievable as not real or imagined. Oddly enough all the sightings occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the time known in popular culture as the “psychedelic age”…
As Forrest Gump would say… and that’s all I’m gonna say about that…
From Tim: 1037, Doc Finger’s Office
The house on Lovejoy as mentioned before had a dental office where Doc Finger practiced. Mom half jokingly says most of her fillings were Dr. Finger’s way of recouping the rent he paid Grandpa. I never saw him as a patient, but I understand that Tom bit him once. Mom snickers as she recalls that moment. My only memory of that office was of its bathroom. As large as that house was there was no bathroom on the first floor of the residence. So on occasion Grandpa would walk you through the connecting door between the kitchen and dinning room into the dental office. He would then escort you to the restroom. Usually this was when the office was closed. I do have a distinct memory of walking into the waiting room when a patient(s) was in there. Grandpa exchanged pleasantries, “Hi Norm… Hi Bill (or whatever his name was)… This is my Grandson,” then he pointed me to the toilet and he went after me… odd memory huh? The few times I was in that office over the years I never recall walking in the front door…
From Tim: 43 Argonne
It is our first family home. The memories are a bit fuzzier because we were young and it was so long ago. In the house on Argonne, I recall being in the upstairs hallway while Mom was vacuuming and I was jumping up and down on my “Pet-Me-Bear” so called because he had a squeaker inside that sounded like a high pitched “pet-me pet-me” when you squeezed it. We later renamed the bear Ellyn… she is seemingly okay now….
From Mike: 43 Argonne, the Blue Room
The Blue Room was the first room at the top of the stairs on the right at 43 Argonne in Kenmore and I am not surprised that it is not well remembered. It was the guest room until Brian came along then it was the nursery with a changing table for stinky diapers. Brian, and later Tim, stayed in that big old crib from Gramma C’s until he was about two and a half. Mom finally put the railing down so he could crawl in and out because Brian used to fall out of that bed so often we believed that he thought it was how you were supposed to get up in the morning and that THUMP arghhhh… was his idea of conversation. Mom would say “I guess Brian is up, better check if the floor is alright.” The other clear memory that I see from that room was the Blessed Brian plaque that someone gave him for Baptism hanging above the crib. I supposed Mom got it right. The brain damage from all those thumps is mild, and apparently the memory formation came around once Brian was out of the Blue room. I wonder what ever happened to that little plaque.
From Mike: 43 Argonne, Spreigel’s Tree House
The Spreigel’s Tree House was not more than five feet high (probably closer to four feet because I do remember jumping off the front) but it was the looming heights of doom as a child. Our great challenge was to walk around the one foot wide ledge that circled the shack. We didn’t always make it around and fell on multiple occasions and we kept going back for more.
From Tim: 10 Genesee Parkway
Another large home that housed five kids, two adults, various cat and and numerous visiting relatives on any given weekend. Again, another home that had warmth that went beyond the four walls. I believe this was the draw to the relatives who were willing to sleep stacked like cord wood on the floor, on couches, and under tables in order to stay the night. Mom’s pies may have had a little to do with it as well, or was it the gin and limburger cheese that made them drop where the stood, hmm? For whatever reason that home never seemed to have small gatherings, whether it was friends, family or both, it was a Mecca for food, drink and stay. You have to credit Mom and Dad for creating this environment. They really embody the sacrament of marriage which by its nature is a bridge to the communion of family (too many years in the Catholic system… sometimes it slips out). As corny as this may sound, for over 20 years that house was the physical bridge.
From Tim: 10 Genesee Parkway, the Monster in the Closet
As the youngest of four boys I spent many a day trying to bug the pants off my older brothers. They often repaid in kind by torturing me in some way, you know a smack, a push, a slug or drawing a “Mutder” tattoo on my chest (spelling it wrong was their little joke). At times they were more proactive and preformed preemptive strikes. One such strike concocted by these geniuses (under Aunt Jean’s tutelage) was the monster in the closet. They figured that they could scare their younger siblings stupid by hiding in the third floor closet and grab the “unsuspecting” kid who entered their dark lair. Now the ordinary grab in the dark lacked pizzazz, they needed something to punch it up a little, such as fur lined gloves turned inside out and a red crayon to simulate the color and feel of a scratch, aka the mark of the untamed beast. Ironically you would already have had to been stupid to believe that there was a beast in that closet ready to attack little kids. After all everyone knows beasts prefer teens, it’s the pimple cream or something.
From Tom: 10 Genesee Parkway, Watching the Repairmen
Just some stray memories…
Dad shorting out the bare copper wires with his crow bar while ripping out the second floor ceiling.
In a similar vein Dad or Mike discovering the hard way that the wall between the kitchen and the bathroom was made of solid two inch planks during the kitchen demolition.
I remember me and somebody else rough housing and one of us (memory fails me) putting an elbow or shoulder through the kitchen wall, which I then had to patch. However Tim and Brian remember it differently. In their version, it was TV that made me do it. I was recounting how in Welcome Back Kotter everyone was locked in a giant vault and Juan Epstein, after listening to the wall, did a funky hand slapping, finger clicking wall tapping dance and the door swung open. Unfortunately, one of my moves included a hip swing and I put my hip through the wall. That’s not what I remember and I am fairly certain I had an accomplice but if Tim and Brian want to throw me under the bus to cover their involvement, so be it.
One home repair memory that sticks with me was Mom always sending me down to watch the plumber or electrician so I could do the next one. I swear Leo Vossler and Marshal Allen thought I was their part time apprentice…
I’ll never forget the morning the wallpaper in the front room on the third floor all came off because we hadn’t used sizing.
When on the ladder painting the house, I actually had to flee wasps (the big glossy black ones), and hornets (yellow jackets) several times, most notably along the stretch of eaves up near Dad’s office and Ellyn’s room. Fleeing involved jumping from the two story tall ladder while screaming the appropriate curses at the wasps’ heritage and parenting. Luckily the bushes were right there. Jumping was not an option up on the front peak where I encountered them again, so I got fairly accomplished at swatting them with the paint brush.
From Tim: Starin Drive
I must apologize to the house on Starin Drive. I really have minimal memories of that house. Maybe they were suppressed by the temperamental Dachshund that kept nipping at me. Whatever the reason, the memories I have of Starin Drive are limited. A dead shark on the third floor, a steep banister with a sharp incline at the end, a musty basement that always had apple butter jars lined up on the ledge and a photo lab. A locked observatory sat in the backyard, I never saw the inside until we helped EHC Jr. move out. My older siblings may have a different take but as memories come and go those are the ones I am left with for that house.
There were a number of memories that we recall only as snippets, or where a single word or phrase evokes more than a thousand words could tell or where we would love to expand on but would need years and years to write them all out. This chapter, by its nature, is incomplete. Each time we look it over we add another or two or five thoughts. The memories keep coming but hours in the day run short. So this chapter is a long list of short, random thoughts so we can, for now, tie up the loose ends.
Mother’s story about us making cookies with Grandmother C. and learning “gosh darn it (or words to that effect) I burnt another one”.
Mother burning the green bean/peas or forgetting the salad in the fridge.
So much canning, and pickling and freezing and … that it all blurs together.
Tim sleepwalking and crawling in the hamper.
Sunday dinner music (it seems like it was mostly the Brandenburg Concertos or French Lute Suites).
Trout fishing trips (me, Mike & Dad) where the only available beverage was a thermos of (really bad) coffee.
I’d almost forgotten “The Littlest Mermaid” incident.
Lets not forget little bits like “I’m not sleeping, I’m checking my eyelids for light leaks!”
Mike might also remember Dad forgetting his key to Grandpa Culliton’s on Starin and having to go in through the coal chute.
How about going to pick up Major or Tom doing the obedience course with him or building the “KENNEL” just big enough that he could keep it warm in the winter 6x8x8 (how big did Dad think that puppy would get).
Tom do you remember your first broken window… those yo-yo strings were really cheap back then.
Can’t forget the first grade genius that managed “Please don’t feed the Bear”
Stories about Blankies like when I left mine at G-ma house and mom gave me an old curtain to fill in!
Little Mange pool and skating rink
Beach house in Canada
Trailer trips to Myrtle Beach
Brian fishing in the creek ….every single day… for a month
Sneaking down during “Card club”
Getting Brian to wear the leopard skin jock strap on his head down to Card Club
The move to Cuba right after cleaning up from the dishes from my Birthday party
The Stolberg’s cottage at Cuba Lake
Brian fishing at Cuba Lake ….everyday….for a month
How about just plain Zebco stories
Not letting 6 year olds use spinners (definitely at Allen’s pond, definitely Brian, definitely because he needed to use a spinner that had a little protective cover over the treble hook and he could not wait for a worm, definitely ruined good fishing for…….. a month)
How about Ed Rutecki duck hunting and playing with dead duck feet for a month. In Dads judgment he was a bit weird (first reference that I ever got to the Karma Sutra) but he sure went hunting a lot and that set off a new phase in the Big Ed saga…
How about Mom crying all alone locked in the laundry room after watching the first TV version of Love Story. Our socks were wet for a week.
Tom having his tonsils out
Brian being hospitalized and sleep walking in the Cuba hospital after falling off the monkey bars. He fell on his butt and got a concussion (what the hell would they have done for him if something was really wrong!!!!!). Then they wanted to keep him because he was acting strange. What did that mean in Cuba, talking in full sentences?
How about taking the bus from Cuba Lake to school and Brian tightening his shoes and zipping his lifesaving jacket so he could run fast and not leave anything loose the girls could grab so he could get away from the girls that waited for him when Bus 49 dropped him off at the Little school, that was how he got so quick.
How about Ellyn’s cart wheel off the stump…..attempted cartwheel…
Hickory dickery doc, Mrs Grant owned half the block, the Cullitons came and reduced her fame, hickory dickery doc.
Vacation with Kathleen, Mom and Dad in the Finger Lakes
Moving to Cuba, Dad stays w/ Aunt Di, kids come down for two week stays, renting at Cuba Lake.
Moving into the East Aurora house…
Mom always saying “God Bless You” as I left for school.
Getting left behind when going to Myrtle Beach
Tim and I getting left at Olean Center Mall after movies… It’s 11:00 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?
Opening day at Rush Creek
Summer cookouts with the Rinkers and Bradleys. Kids versus adults in basketball and Billy getting a Jart stuck in his arm.
Fishing at Hidden Canyon
Fish hook in the finger, Allen Pond surgery… Hook Removal 101
Please don’t feed the bear
Sledding on Aunt Diane’s hill.
Classical music at dinner
Michael leans back and breaks the chair
Walking home from the roller rink
Baked pork chops versus drinks at Rinker’s
Transforming from parents to Grandparents
Waddling money bags
Water fights and Mom supplying me with squirt bottles
“Dad’s” vegetable garden
Tom feeding the carrots liquor
Mike and the “puppy” break a rib/twist and ankle
Dad as Little League commissioner singing the National Anthem on opening day and arguing with Mrs. Cappaletti.
Rockefeller has freckles on his ass hole…
We’re all Carnival Cullitons
Replanting trees at Aunt Diane’s and Uncle Dick’s house after several Bloody Marys and people sleeping (passed out?) on the carpet.
Dad biting Major, Thunder biting Tom’s little Thomas, Grampa C.’s dog biting everyone (to this day I’d rather kick a Dachshund than pet one), trapped animals and who they sold the pelts to, was it Harry the guy who owned the junk store?
1 or 1/2 half a beer plus some peppermint schnapps as a drink offer (as well as shitty instant coffee, no wonder Brian prefers tea) in MI…
My guess the schnapps was suppose to be some sort of alcohol aversion therapy because do you have any memory of him drinking that crap any other time, yuck. If he gave us something we would have liked I guess we would all be working at Cuba Cheese…
Sign of the times: Dad leaving us for what seemed an hour or more by the deep running water of Ischua Creek, talk about a 911 episode… Didn’t Paul and Mike float by on an ice float on one Spring fishing trip at Ischua? I wasn’t there but I recall some thing about them floating down past Dad who per usual was fishing down stream? He was pissed because they disturbed the pool. They thought they were Tom and Huck. Hello 2 kids on ice floating by…
The giant snapping turtle Grandpa K found
Babysitter’s and glue
Crying about the little mermaid
Dragging your bratty sister up to bed early so you could watch something on TV she wasn’t allowed to watch and tearing her hair out because the one carrying her arms was also standing on her hair.…
I remember having a hook removed from my finger webbing at Cousin Bill McMahons’s Farm. It was a cast done by Brian… most of the details are fuzzy but the pain when he yanked it once, twice, three times before he understood that my screaming was not just because I was acting like a wild child but I was the tree branch Brian thought he was hooked on.
Tom and Mike might not remember leaving Brian behind because I think it was one of our trips to Florida. Maybe they didn’t go. But yes, we did leave him behind and as I recall we only made it as far as the gas station. We pulled in and filled up. While we were there Mom took a back seat survey and with a small gasp said, “Where’s Brian?!?” Tim and I were half asleep and we suddenly came to life. Tim mumbled, “In the bathroom” to which Mom inquired “Here?” Tim’s lids were closing again as he said, “Nope, at home.” So off we went to get Brian. As we pulled around the parkway Brian was standing out front looking a little lost and a touch confused. I can still picture him wearing a blue Yankee baseball cap and a zip-up sweatshirt.
How about Dad running from the bathrooms at every border when we headed south.
The Celtic Feasts that Mike and Tom hosted for their buddies from Bona’s and Dad fencing in his long underwear.
How about Dad eating the exploding poppers that he was supposed to throw on the ground?