Happy Mother’s Day To One Brave Lady

My mother, Marion Brown, being cool on a trip to Connecticut.

I was about an hour away from having a doctor stick a knife into me and splice open my skin when the nerves started getting the better of me.

This was just about three years ago and, in the larger scheme of things, going under the knife for an umbilical hernia was rather minor surgery and I would be home in a matter of hours.

To calm my nerves, though, I only had to think of one person.

My mother.

Marion Brown.

I was closing in on 50 years of age when I had this surgery and came through it was flying colors, I suppose.

But to make sure I don’t sound like a little boy crying for his mommy when he was scared, I decided today – Mother’s Day – is the perfect day to share that story.

The reason I thought of my mother is because more than a decade earlier she bravely faced major surgery – open heart surgery for a valve replacement.

How could I be scared of a three-inch incision next to my belly button when my mother had survived – and thrived – after something much more serious?

But it also made me think of my mother in a different light.

Brave?

Yes, brave.

It dawned on me that my mother had shown many different levels of bravery over the course of her own whole life.

Knowledge of that left me rather staggered and stunned.

My mother was a brave woman.

She was born in Watford, England, and it was just today that I realized that her bravery might have started there and then.

During World War II, her father, my grandfather, was one of 11 brothers who went off to fight for the allied forces in defense of their country, against the epitome of history’s most-evil figure.

God blessed our family as all 11 brothers came home safe and sound.

My mother remembers racing into bomb shelters, or hiding under stairs during the war. She remembers seeing the red skies over London, just 16 miles away, as the city burned from one of the Nazi forces steady bombing runs.

Our children are growing up worried that the cable will go out, or the Internet gets bogged down and streaming videos start to lag.

My mother was hiding in bomb shelters hoping her father would come home from the war.

The times they have a changed.

In the mid-1960s, she and my dad hopped up on a ship and left their entire family behind – save for a sister, my aunt – for a new life in the United States.

That’s bravery, right there.

She knew one person on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, but she decided to head off into the great unknown, leaving everything she knew behind.

I left Bangor, Maine, in the fall of 1998, moving three hours south to Dover, N.H., and I had a small (albeit left unsaid) concern about being alone from the only home I had ever known.

My mother wound up having three kids – none of us perfect, each of us testing her in our own vastly different ways.

My mother with her first born.

She loved us all, though, (some more than others, right favorite middle-sister Michelle? Ha) and says she’s proud of where we all have ended up in life.

It is us, though, that should be proud of her.

She made a life for us, making sure we never went without, even if that meant months of government cheese and powdered eggs during our darker times.

She knew nothing about sports, but she would make it a point to go to my games in Little League and in high school. Or, sould be sit there beside me in the living room watching an NCAA college basketball game.

She went through a divorce and made it a point to never bad mouth our father, and when she remarried, she opened her home and her heart to two other children.

She quit smoking (after I moved out of the house, which she claims to be the reason she was able to quit) and along with my step father she became a home owner.

They owned their own business, showing us children first-hand what hard work was all about.

And, after she got all five of us kids out of the house, she started to travel to see many different places she wanted to see.

As proud as she was to be our mother, I sense a deeper pride in becoming the grandmother of our own children.

My mother, left, and step-father along with my son.

I can only hope they brave the future she faced her own so many years ago.

The last year as been tough on my mother as a variety of different maladies and infections have chipped away at her health.

Yet she keeps fighting back, refusing to give in.

There’s that bravery thing again.

She’s even proud (brave?) enough to admit she’s a Donald Trump supporter.

I’m not perfect and this proves that neither is she.

But I remain proud of my mother, one of the bravest woman I know.

And I love her and thank her for everything she’s done for me over the past 51 years and one week.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Stay strong. Stay brave.

Better Late Than Never: Thank You, Mr. Murphy

Mike Murphy and one of his “angels” from a long ago time. (Photo stolen from Dawn Norton’s facebook page)

I was sitting at the corner of the bar minding my own business when I felt him grab my arm.

“C’mon, John,” Mike Murphy said in his Irish brogue. “I need you.”

The next thing I knew I was standing on the edge of a bar fight with two men awash in alcohol-induced machismo verbally comparing sizes while threatening to throw punches.

This was Mr. Murphy’s Irish pub, not a boxing ring or a college frat house, and from his side of the bar he saw what was happening and cut it off before anything got out of control. I was just along for the ride because if punches were thrown I was likely going to be useless.

But, I’d like to think, Mr. Murphy knew my loyalty to his establishment and if somebody was going to have his back, he knew I was somebody he could trust.

I’ll drink to that, as I am right now as I write this — A toast to a long, lost friend who is now lost for all of time.

Word came today that Mike Murphy had passed away and that news, alone, is sad to hear.

Mike was a nice guy. He had his flaws — who of us doesn’t? — but he had bought me more than my fair share of beers over the seven or so years where I was a regular at his bar in Dover, New Hampshire.

With word of his passing, I also think back to those long ago times and the group Mike Murphy brought together as regulars in his little bar.

I started going there because I was smitten with a bartender — Katherine, was her name, if my memory serves me correctly — and her artwork still hangs in my apartment all these years later, a going away gift for me when she moved on to bigger and better things.

I started going there because of her, but I stayed because of everybody else.

The regular bartender became my roommate, the regular customers became my friends and family. And I loved them deeply and still care for them so much even today.

I would list them all here, but I know i’d leave people out and I don’t want to do that. If you are reading this, then you know who you are.

As individuals, we were all special people. As a group, it was like we were meant to be together as friends at this time of our collective lives.

I’ve had three vastly different sets of close friends in my life, all of which spark a flame inside my heart when I think of them.

My school-aged friends growing up were a part of my formative years. My young adult friends helped me make legendary memories while traversing the world between being a kid and being an adult.

And my New Hampshire friends — my grown up friends — were always there with a hug, a smile, a beer. Sometimes all three.

It didn’t matter the night. Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday. When you walked into Mike Murphy’s bar you were going to see somebody you knew and wanted to catch up with, sitting there, having a beer, or playing pool.

Some nights you would see Mike. Other nights you would not.

But going out was like going home.

The regulars at Mr. Murphy’s pub welcomed me at a time when I had first moved away from home and was, if truth needs to be told, the perfect elixir to the touch of loneliness which was an everyday occurrence in my life.

The friendships spilled outside of the bar, too. That’s why they all rang so true. And, I suppose, that’s what made them all so special.

We shared many different aspects of our lives together. Highs, lows, laughter, tears.

And the occasional hangover.

Yet we kept going back, to be together once again.

We sang together, we danced together.

We drank together, we grew together.

Over time, some of us grew apart and we went our separate ways as different roads and goals led us away from Dover, led us away from Mike Murphy and that special, magical place he created.

Tonight, we are all back together, at least in spirit.

Mike is gone and as word spreads of his passing we mourn knowing that, but we also embrace the memories his death brings forth.

Our friend Joel, in a Facebook post, summed up our loss the best, I think.

“Damn, so sad,” Joel wrote in a comment under a post that shared the sad news with us. “He provided the setting that allowed me to meet so many of my friends. Thanks for everything Mike.”

That’s so true. He provided the setting for all of us to come together and create a time we are surely never to forget.

God speed, Mr. Murphy.

And thank you so much for that bar, that time, and those people you brought together.

Sometimes You Just Want To Feel Close To Home

Patrick Stewart of Bangor, Maine, was a senior at Colby College this winter (Photo courtesy of centralmaine.com)

Patrick Stewart of Bangor, Maine, was a senior at Colby College this winter (Photo courtesy of centralmaine.com)

Walking through the under belly of Wesleyan University’s Freeman Athletic Center in Middletown, Connecticut, I came across the Colby College hockey team.

I was there for the 2017 National High School Squash Championships. The Mules were there to play hockey.

One by one, earphones plugged in to drown out the outside, they were lugging their gear from the bus, heading to their locker room, their eyes focused on what was to come.

Suddenly, I was focusing on what once was.

Colby College. Waterville. Maine.

Home.

Well, almost home.

Waterville is located about a 50-minute drive from my hometown, but it’s a place I’ve been to too many times to count.

As an athlete. As a sports writer. As a coach. As a fan.

Colby College was a place I knew well.

One of the highlights of my life occurred at Colby College way back during my sophomore year in high school.

The school was playing host to the Maine State Cross Country Championship meet and that day I happened to have the race of my life, finishing 27th … right on the heels of our No. 2 runner who was usually more than a minute in front of me.

From start to finish, I felt great. It was a hilly course and I loved it. It’s one of the highlights of my athletic career (27th? Shows you how pathetic my overall talent level was, I suppose).

The Waterville-campus continued to play a role in my life after I started working at the Bangor Daily News. I was covering a lot of Husson College basketball games back then and it was a pretty intense in-state rivalry with Colby that made those sojourns down I-95 so worth it.

I saw countless good Division 3 college basketball games inside the Wadsworth Gymnasium, and many good players.

For a few summers, when I was in my 30s, I got to work on the basketball courts that Colby College offered up. I was coaching basketball in those days and working basketball camps in the summer.

We stayed in the dorms, ate in the dining commons, and, like kids revisiting our college days, drank a little too much at night.

So, yeah … Colby … great memories.

It wasn’t long after the hockey team walked past me that Colby’s men’s basketball team entered the facility, as well. It too was facing Wesleyan that day.

“Any Mainers on the team,” I asked a random player, recalling the program’s love for in-state players. “I grew up in Bangor.”

“Bangor? Patrick Stewart is from Bangor,” a player replied, pointing up the hallway at the 6-foot-6 Colby senior walking well in front of us.

I left Bangor 19 years ago and never looked back.

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Patrick Stewart, Colby College basketball player.

That meant Patrick Stewart, if he had been born in Bangor, was likely just three years old when I left.

I knew nothing about him short of the fact of what I just learned. He was from Bangor and played for Bangor High School before going off to college.

Suddenly, I wanted to see him play. I wanted to see Colby play. I guess, for even a few moments, I just wanted to feel close to home again.

Where I live in lower Connecticut, about an hour from the Wesleyan campus, it’s a six-hour drive home — Short enough to be able to make the trip in case of an emergency, long enough to be just enough of a pain-in-the-ass to make it home regularly.

There are times when I miss Maine a lot. My family. My friends. The chosen few who have never left my heart and I think of every day.

Things trigger those memories. A song. A smell. A word.

Colby.

Those Colby College athletes walking past me did just that.

So, after my squash duties were done, I made the walk back through the Freeman Center and I slipped into a side door of Wesleyan’s gym. I found myself a seat in the back row of the Wesleyan stands.

It was a close game at halftime, the two teams knotted up at 33-33.

Over the course of the second half, Wesleyan proved to be more athletic and the cold-shooting Colby team was no match for the home team.

The final score was 82-67.

Stewart, who finished with 11 points, two rebounds and an assist, came out of the game in the closing seconds. He walked down the bench, hugging each and every teammate, one by one.

It didn’t take me long to realize I just witnessed the last game of his college career.

Representing Bangor and supporting Bangor: I found myself applauding him as he reached the end of his bench.

Stewart played and started in all 24 of Colby’s game this season. He averaged 16.1 points per game.

Over the course of his five-year career — he missed his junior season with an injury and earned a medical redshirt — he had scored more than 1,000 career points.

And, I’ve since discovered that Patrick has a sense of humor.

While doing some research to write this, I discovered a Q&A with Stewart on the Colby athletics website. When asked by the school why he picked Colby, his opened his reply with, “Well besides the appeal of coming south for the warm weather …”

Bangor humor. My humor.

A second-team All-Maine player at Bangor High, Stewart plans on becoming a teacher. If I had to guess, that means he’ll become a coach, too. He’s following in a long line of many great Bangor High athletes if he does that.

Had I stayed in Bangor, and had life gone differently, I might have watched him grow up as a Bangor High player and appreciated him all the more.

Instead, it was a one-shot deal.

One game; one-half of one game, to be more accurate.

But for nearly an hour watching Patrick Stewart represent his parents, his hometown and Colby College, I got to feel a little bit closer to home.

Losing My Connecticut ‘Family’

The Amoroso Family -- from left, Johnny, Julie, Jake and John. (Photo blatantly stolen from Julie's Facebook page).

The Amoroso Family — from left, Johnny, Julie, Jake and John. (Photo blatantly stolen from Julie’s Facebook page).

The boy walked up the aisle of the grocery store and as our eyes met it was a classic case of the two-way, “Do I know you?” look flashing back and forth, from me to him and back again.

I knew I knew him, but how, why and where from were the questions I had. After all, just days earlier I had moved three hours south, from Maine to Connecticut to begin working a new job.

I didn’t know anybody outside of my boss at the paper who hired me and my landlords, who allowed me to move into the apartment behind their house, on the second floor of their barn, which doubled as a two-car garage and shed area below my living space.

Ah, the landlords. John and Julie Amoroso. Good people. Very good people. They had two boys. Johnny and Jake. Johnny was in eighth grade, Jake was in sixth. They were baseball players and right outside my window was a batting cage.

One of the reasons I moved in was because the thought of being awakened every morning by the ping of a baseball striking an aluminum bat was appealing to me. And, out in the driveway were two basketball hoops, and how many nights would the dribbling of a basketball and bodies crashing into the garage doors (Nope, that wasn’t a foul) lull me to sleep.

But I digress.

Back inside the grocery story nine years ago, it dawned on me. The boy in front of me that morning was Jake, the landlord’s youngest son.

Today, Jake is a 20-year-old college junior, a right-handed pitcher at Pace University. He’s no longer a boy. He’s all but a man and I’ve had both the privilege and the pleasure of watching him grow up, seeing him fall in love with a great girlfriend, Angela.

Johnny, too.

I watched them both pitch for St. Joseph High School, capturing them in action with my camera as they fired fastballs for strikes.

I watched them both go off to play in college, too.

My monthly rent no doubt helped pay their tuition over the years, and that’s a great feeling if it did.

But they’re gone now and so too are the landlords, their parents, John and Julie.

I’m reminded of that every time I leave my apartment and see their barren and empty house.

My Connecticut family is gone.

• • •

There has been a running joke over the past nine years … a couple of them actually.

The first was the fact I was denied pool rights after I moved in. And I was fine with that. I had asked matter-of-factly when I signed my lease if I could use the pool and was told, “Nope, pool access not included.”

As such, nine years later, I’ve never set foot in the pool. Not even a toe.

A few years ago, when Julie found out John had denied me, she had a good laugh and told me I could use it anytime. Thus the running joke became I would jump in buck naked and leave behind a pair of my boxers on the diving board so they knew I had finally used it.

I never did.

The second running joke was that I had stayed so long that I became the “Crazy Uncle Who Lives Above The Garage.”

But “Crazy Uncle” meant family and as odd as it sounds that’s kind of what the Amoroso clan became to me over the last nine years.

My Connecticut family.

I watched their boys grow up, literally going from boys to men. I mourned the loss of their family dog, Maya, when she passed. I felt their pain when one of them was laid off, or one of them had to have surgery.

When I had to have my surgery a few years back — just a minor walk-in procedure — it was Jake who got up at 5;30 in the morning to take me all the way to Norwalk Hospital.

When I was dealing with another health issue, Julie and John told me to call them anytime day or night if I needed anything.

How many nights did I come home from work and find the family sitting around the fire pit, spending quality time together and drinking beers with family and friends.

On special October evening they even set up a high-def, big-screen television in the back of John’s pick-up so we could watch the Red Sox play in the World Series as the burning embers of the fire snapped and crackled at our feet.

And last Thanksgiving Julie, knowing I was six hours away from my real family for the ninth straight year, hooked me up with a plate.

Like I said, Connecticut family.

• • •

A few years back, the family tried to sell their home. The boys were older, life’s circumstances had changed. It was time.

Fate kept them around a few more years, though. That’s something I appreciated more than they’ve ever known.

Then out of the blue, with the house off the market, a buyer appeared.

The property on Washington Parkway, in the Lordship Section of Stratford, was about to change hands.

The family promised to find me an apartment if the new owner didn’t want a tenant living on the property. They had my back in that regard.

The buyer, however, liked the fact I had lived here for nine years and would provide a steady income stream to help her pay for the house.

This new buyer is a professor at the University of Bridgeport. She has two dogs. And she wants me to sign a one-year lease at the same rent, which I’m willing to do.

But she’s not the Amoroso family.

Nobody is.

I’ve lived in this space, with this roof over my head, for nine years, two months, and nine days.

I’ve never lived in a single place any longer than I’ve lived here.

The Amoroso family is a big reason why I’ve remained here.

They’re a very special family. They’ve raised two great boys, which in the 21st century is not an easy thing to do.

I’m still kind of numb over what has transpired over the last months. I don’t embrace change easily and I look ahead with great trepidation.

My Connecticut family is gone.

I miss them already.

 

Bangor – The Place Where Changes Collide

sp2rbangor-maine-postcard-paul-bunyan-bangor-auditorium-vieAs I stood waiting for my turn at the counter, one of the two ladies standing next to me had obviously imbibed in a little too much Christmas cheer.

“Connecticut Huskies?” the older one asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, knowing she had read the words and logos on my gray hoodie sweatshirt. “I live in Connecticut.”

She looked me up and down.

“But you’re from here,” she said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”

The first here she was referring to was Bangor, Maine … a/k/a home.

The second here was Tri-City Pizza, a little hole-in-the-wall pizza joint that nobody would go to if they hadn’t lived in Bangor, Maine, and knew it was perhaps the best pizza in the city.

The two ladies in question were spot on and we talked for a bit. The older one graduated five years ahead of me from the high school I had attended for three years. I knew a handful of people from her graduating class and rattled off their names easily. A few teachers, too.

Then, I got my pizza, and disappeared into the night.

I was home, but I wasn’t.

I haven’t called Bangor “home” for almost 20 years — at least not in an official hang-your-hat capacity. That’s nearly 40 percent of my life, believe it or not.

Coming back, I barely recognized her.

Bangor has changed, I’ve been told, by people who have lived their whole lives here.

I sense that. I can feel it as I drive the streets, knowing exactly where I am going even though so little looks the same.

Technically, I didn’t live in Bangor until I was 18. I left when I was approaching 32. But this city of 35,000 in the heart of Maine was the hub of my world growing up.

Stores. The mall. My high school.

I remember going to Sears and Roebuck when it was downtown, hovering high above the Kenduskeag Stream. That was before the Bangor Mall was even an idea. The Freeses building. Standard Shoe. Zayres. Shop n Save.

Growing up, going to Bangor meant something.

There are ghosts to dance with at every turn as I drive through the city, from my formative years to the day I bid her goodbye.

A building I used to work in, gone. A bar I’ve danced at and gotten drunk in, gone. A rooming house where the most adorable red-headed girl sat on my lap in a moment I wanted to hang on to forever … gone. The apartment where I asked my ex-wife to marry? Yeah, that’s still there, with new tenants making new memories that hopefully won’t sour over time.

And that was just last night, making one roundabout trip.

It was Natalie Merchant who once sang, “And I’ve walked these streets; In the madhouse asylum they can be” and I remembered how I once knew every nook and cranny of Bangor, from border to border.

I never thought Bangor would become so distance, but over time and over circumstance, it did.

There was a time, not that long ago, when I seriously thought I’d never return.

Some of the ghosts were just too painful.

But here I am on Christmas Eve, about to make another foray out into the city I once knew so well.

The memories and the ghosts will rise up at an alarming place. Some I will embrace with a smile. Maybe even a hearty chuckle. Others, I’ll ward off best I can.

Bangor is nothing like it was when I left.

Neither am I.

A Hundred Pennies For Your Thoughts: The Story of the Dollar Bill

100 pennies for your thoughts on the story behind this dollar bill.

100 pennies for your thoughts on the story behind this dollar bill.

Everything, I suppose, has a back story to it. Some interesting, some mundane, some likely just run-of-the-mill.

People and things. Bruises and Broken hearts. Monumental nights and special days.

Even a simple dollar bill can have a story behind it. Of course, I’m going beyond the historic implications of George Washington on the front with the U.S. Seal on the back along with the pyramid and one eye, and the Mason teachings that leads us to a special National Treasure. That story has been done, thank you very much Nicholas Cage.

On Wednesday morning I came across such a dollar bill, one attached with a story I wish I could tell.

By all ways and means, it’s your typical $1 bill. It’s worth 100 pennies. Ten dimes. Four quarters. You get the point.

It was printed in 2001, a Series E bill from the Bank of Richmond, Virginia. It carries with it the serial number E32450315.

It’s 15 years old, but feels newer … likely because it sat protected for a long time, a dollar bill with a special meaning to somebody out there.

I can’t help but wonder why.

This is where the story comes into play.

Hand written on front, in black magic marker, is “2003 … To Poppa … Love, Sara + Kim … XOXO.”

Who are Sara and Kim? Who is Poppa? And why in 2003 did they feel obligated to give him a $1 bill.

It could be anything, really.

• Two sisters who opened a business with their father’s help and the day they made their first $1, they gave it to him as a heartfelt thank you.

• Two grandchildren giving their grandfather a $1 bill because one of his teeth fell out at the dinner table, and they wanted him to feel better since the Tooth Fairy doesn’t visit grown ups.

• Or, maybe it was two Oakland Raiders fans, paying back a bet to their retired father, living in Florida, the year the Tampa Bay Bucaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.

Like I said, it could be anything in the world, but it has a story. I know it. I feel it.

I spent the better part of my morning thinking about this dollar bill. I Googled the words printed on the front, hoping to strike lighting in a bottle. I hopped on Wheresgeorge.com and punched in the serial number hoping against hope to find where the dollar bill came from.

Perhaps the only way to find out is to write a blog post, and stick it in on Facebook and Twitter and hope it goes viral until somebody sees it and says, “Hey, I know that dollar bill.”

Then the real story could be told.

But I am a glass is half empty realist who knows I’ll never know the full story behind this particular dollar bill.

In my head, I’ll just have to write my own story and be satisfied.

 

 

October: The Most Important Month of My Life

(Courtesy of picturescafe.com)

(Courtesy of picturescafe.com)

It’s October 1st.

The 31 days that make up the month of October have a long-and-storied history in the first 49 years of my life, which is surprising since I was born in May and, on paper, that should be the top month in my memory books.

For some reason, it’s October that stands the tallest.

And this October — this 50th October in my life — could very well be the most important.

October always has been a rather prolific month for me when it comes to epic memories and staggering changes in my life. Sometimes the two join forces.

I guess the reason why can be found in the very beginning. After all, my father was born in this month. Without him, there is no me.

I’ve fallen in love in the month of October. More than once.

This very blog is named after an epic two-week long “weekend” that occurred in the month of October, 1985. (In a strange twist, the blog was actually started in February of 2013 with this post, which you can read here).

One year later, October 25, found me dancing as happily as I ever have, only to be left heartbroken in the time it took a ball to dribble up the first base line and go between somebody’s legs.

Yeah, October.

Did I mention I’ve fallen in love during the month of October? More than once, too.

Last October, I made it a goal to post 31 times in the month of October. I failed miserably.

Seven times I sat here to write in this space. When I fail, I fail epically.

Crash and burn, baby.

So here I am back to say I’m going to try to do it again. And, after I hit publish here, I’m one-seventh of the way from matching last year’s total.

While I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude toward actually achieving those 31 posts, there is one thing I know about this specific October — the one that lands in the calendar year 2016.

This is the month where I plan on deciding the rest of my life.

The end-all, be-all goal is simple: Be happy. Period. I can’t remember the last time I was truly happy … at least most of the time.

You see, the last time October threw me a major life twist was nine years ago in 2007. I moved from Maine to Connecticut to accept a job with a company that was such an honor to work for.

Six months ago, that company was swallowed up by a bigger company.

When I woke up this morning, I realized it was October.

I also realized something else.

It’s time.