Welcome to The Squeaky Pen

...where life is slow, and ripe with rural treasures

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Celebrating The Past

On Saturday, September 27, from noon to 5 p.m., historic properties of Sherburne will open to visitors in the first historic walking tour sponsored by Save The Sherburne Inn Restoration Project (SSIRP), a splendid “Welcome to autumn!” in this small village.

“For this tour, we’ve identified homes and other properties built between 1830 and 1920,” Peg Jeffrey, tour chairperson, said. “Property owners have been very generous in opening their doors to share with others the beauty of these historic buildings.”

Cost for the tour is $20 for advance tickets, and $25 for tickets sold on September 27. Tickets will be on sale on September 27 at The Sherburne Inn (2 West State Street), where guests will be offered complimentary refreshments and where questions will be welcome about the future of The Inn. SSIRP invites all tour attendees to stop by the Inn to tour the building. Advance tickets may be purchased online at thesherburneinn.org (click House Tour), and at the following outlets: The Big M and The Sherburne News office in Sherburne; and Maxwell’s Chocolate Shop and Burt Marshall’s office in Hamilton. Attendees may call 607-674-2486 for ticket information.

Jeffrey, who is a member of the SSIRP board of directors, is home-grown in Sherburne and, with her husband Jim, is proprietor of the Pillow and Pantry Bed & Breakfast located on Sherburne’s South Main Street. “Sherburne is a small place,” she said, “but has some outstanding homes and other properties built in this timeframe. We’re excited about the tour, and about having the opportunity to showcase our beautiful village and its historic architecture.”

Thirteen properties are on the tour: five private homes; The Sherburne Public Library; two churches, one of which with two affiliate properties; Sanford Lee-Gaines Park, which on September 27 will also feature a farmers’ market and food vendors; the Mule Barn, which once housed mules that worked the Chenango Canal; and of course, The Sherburne Inn.

“There are so many beautiful properties in Sherburne that it was difficult to choose,” Jeffrey said. “However, we plan to make the tour an annual event, and will soon begin scheduling of properties for 2015.”

Save The Sherburne Inn Restoration Project was formed in 2013 in an effort to preserve the century-old Sherburne Inn, which has stood vacant since 2002 and which was threatened with demolition in 2012. SSIRP, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, intends to restore and renovate the Inn, which held its grand opening on June 19, 1917. Plans include a farm-to-table restaurant, two bars, guest rooms, conference and meeting facilities, and other amenities, including retail space. SSIRP was awarded a $50,000 grant from the Howard K. Finch Memorial Foundation in July 2013, a $500,000 economic development grant from New York State in December 2013, and has raised more than $200,000 in community donations toward purchase and restoration since 2012. Total cost for the project is estimated to be $3 million. Other grants are in process, and SSIRP encourages corporate sponsors to contribute to the Inn’s restoration as a way to enhance local sustainability. SSIRP has retained preservation architects Crawford & Stearns of Syracuse to oversee construction and to preserve the historic qualities of the building during renovation.

For more information on the 2014 Sherburne Historic Walking Tour, call 607-674-2486. For information on Save The Sherburne Inn Restoration Project, or to purchase Historic House Tour tickets online, visit thesherburneinn.org.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The First Cut Is The Deepest

There's a first time for everything, as the old saying goes. Some first times are good. Some first times ... not so much.
I got home over the weekend from a wonderful vacation in Maine, relaxed and refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of autumn. Harry went with me, of course, and he too was glad to be home and back in his fenced-in yard. The first thing he did was race in circles and chase away rabbits and squirrels who had taken up residence in his absence. He didn't catch any (I'm happy to report) but he certainly gave them something to think about now that the Little Prince Of The Lawn has returned.
We weren't in town an hour before I heard him making strange noises out back. He's always a bit aggressive with the neighborhood fauna that drifts into his fence, but this was different. It wasn't exactly a sound of pain, nor was it a sound of triumph. More like angry freaking out. The back door was open and just as I was getting up to see what was happening he came roaring into the house soaking wet. I'd like to say it was raining. I'd like to say he fell into a puddle. I'd like to say just about anything other than the truth: Harry had encountered his first skunk.
My poor dog got sprayed smack in the face: in his eyes, up his nose, down his throat. He went purely crazy, rolling around on the carpet and charging through the rooms, spreading ghastly skunk oil everywhere he went. I finally trapped him in the library and rushed him to the tub, where I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed. There was no time to look online to find out the right thing to do, there was only time to try to get him some relief. He shook himself a dozen times, spraying water and smell all over the place. My clothes were drenched. My house reeked of skunk. And after it was all said and done, in spite of all the scrubbing, so did Harry.
(By the way, the "right" thing to do, per later Internet research, is a combination of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap. I used baking soda, white vinegar, and dog soap. Live and learn.)
That was Sunday. It's now Tuesday. After several more dog baths, lots of fans, lots of fragrant candles, lots of mopping, and lots of laundry, things are pretty much back to normal. I can still detect a faint scent in the house, although a friend stopped by today and assured me he didn't smell skunk in the air. He sniffed Harry and announced "I don't smell anything!" until he buried his face in Harry's neck. "Oh yeah, I smell that," he muttered, which is why Harry's been sleeping in his cage the last two nights instead of at my side in bed. I think we have a few more cage-nights to go until the smell is completely gone, and after a couple of more baths. I haven't tried the hydrogen peroxide method yet because both Harry and I have about had it with the bathing ritual. Maybe tomorrow, if the neck
smell persists ...
I'm hoping my Harry's first encounter with a skunk has taught him a big lesson, which is to chase squirrels with effervescence but to leave the big black and white critters alone. This was also my first encounter with a skunked pet. Not bad after 58 years. Let's hope it's my (and Harry's) last.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Robin Williams

I'm a big I Love Lucy fan. I remember one episode, called Pioneer Women, where Lucy and Ethel are trying to become members of the The Society Matron's League. Without going into too much detail, the gang (Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel) get into some situation where they all decide to live like people did in the early 1900s. Antique clothes, baking bread, churning butter, and so on. Snooty representatives from The Society Matron's League show up at the apartment in a surprise visit to "check out" the potential new members. Heated conversation ensues after the Matron's League ladies observe the strange goings-on at the Ricardo home and make a comment about "theater people." At the end of the day, Lucy tells them to take their League and shove it, the ladies leave, and the kooky quartet is happy continuing to live a zany though content theater people life.
Theater people. There was a time when that phrase was common, and was a not-so-flattering description of those in the stage and movie business. It implied wacky, off balance, eccentric, and yes, a bit nuts. Then somewhere along the way -- certainly after 1952 when Lucy's Pioneer Women aired on televisions across America -- theater people became multi-millionaire idols, idols many today admire and try to emulate. They aren't sniffed at and called theater people anymore. They're called STARS.
I have friends (oddly reminiscent of the Society Matrons) who turn up their noses at any news related to celebrities. I guess they (these friends) think of themselves as too intellectually superior to wallow in the pish-posh of celebrity information. Okay, whatever. So I'm a dumb-head celebrity gazer. Guilty and proud of it. I like to read, I like to write, I like to sit and ponder my toenail, I watch birds, I listen to music, I dabble around on the Internet, and yes, I like the Housewives. I've never quite understood why some people have to make others feel less because of interests that drift into pop culture. Theater people -- stars -- certainly fall into the pop culture category. Again ... w h a t e v e r. To each her own and let me be.
Robin Williams was one of those pop culture, theater people guys. The first time I saw him was on Mork and Mindy. I remember thinking he was a nut. A wildly talented nut, but a nut nonetheless. I didn't know him, of course. Like everyone else, I knew him from TV and the movies. His routines and moods seemed to swing so much. Swwwing. Sometimes he was quiet and sincere and deep (as in Good Will Hunting), and sometimes he was utterly over the top (as in his comedy skits, or on talk shows). I saw him once in person, a million years ago when I was climbing aboard a cable car in San Francisco. He was standing on the street, just a regular fellow in jeans and a T-shirt hailing a cab. That was my one and only personal connection to the man. There he was, hand raised on a hilly street where Tony Bennett left his heart, flagging down a taxi. Then the cable car moved on and that was that.
A million years later, on August 11 of this year, a friend sent me a text with this message: "Robin Williams. Suicide."
Shit, I said out loud when I read the text. I couldn't quite believe it, wanted it to be one of those web hoaxes. I was with a gang of friends celebrating summer. Robin Williams killed himself, I told them. They said it too. Shit. We shook our heads. What a crying shame.
It's true, I didn't know Mr. Williams. But I did so admire his work, his theater people work. He made me laugh out loud a thousand times. He made me think and sigh in Good Will Hunting, and he made me mop tears in Awakenings. He made me a nervous wreck sometimes, so erratic was his behavior. I often wondered if he was a manic/depressive (ie, bipolar) because there were times he was so serene and focused, and others when he was just flat over the wall. Like two people in one body, one up, one down. The single thing I never wondered, though, was if he was sad. He was a complete stranger to me, and let's face it, he was theater people. And you know, as the Society Matrons said, they're all a little crazy.
I guess I never actually considered that he was just a human being. Living in his house somewhere, probably California. Sad. Tortured. Suffering, as one columnist put it last week, with Thought Cancer.
So one night he had enough of this life and hanged himself. Shit. And from my southern sensibilities, bless his heart.
To those who poo-poo the celebrity thing, and who in fact make nasty remarks like "he was so rich" and "he was so famous" and "what a jerk he was to waste all that:" let's try not to forget that Robin was just a person, like all of us and like all the other stars out there who eat and drink and sleep and laugh and suffer love and try their best to carve a living with whatever talents they have. He was a famous man, certainly, but in the shower or tossing a ball to his dog in the park or running his car through the Jiffy Wash or hailing a cab, he was just guy who had a particular gift that was to make people laugh, which he did well. Forget about People and Radar Online and all the other celebrity buzz outlets that titillate with photos and soundbites and that make my friends snarl about pop culture. Like it or not, this is our culture, one in which we feel we know people whom we don't, and in which we grieve for people who maybe deserve a little grieving over, even though they're strangers to us. After all, what's wrong with grieving for a stranger? Doesn't that make us human?
Mr. Williams put his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me; but unlike you and me (hopefully) he was a person on this earth who was wounded by a chemical imbalance that finally led him to put a belt around his neck and say goodbye cruel world. I don't think there's anything wrong with weeping for that poor soul, famous or rich or pop culture or not.
So adios Society Matrons. Some of us like and appreciate theater people, and mourn them when they're gone.
Robin Williams brought great joy to the world, if not -- in the end -- to himself. Bless his heart indeed.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Kids These Days ...

Yesterday I was struck with hope for the generation of kids coming out of college. Yes, I've reached that age when I sit around grousing about "kids these days," how so many have a misplaced sense of entitlement, how they don't work as hard as I did when I was their age, how I had to ski to school on barrel slats while they're transported in comfy cars (well, I don't really say that last one, but my father used to). Most importantly, I sit around and wring my hands that these lazy bums will someday be running the country.

Then yesterday arrived and hope was renewed. Thirteen summer interns from GE-Unison in Norwich arrived at The Sherburne Inn and went to work. I'm talking went to work. After a quick orientation about the building and what we wanted them to accomplish -- and after thoughtful, genuinely curious questions from them -- these college kids rolled up their sleeves and got busy. There was no complaining even though the work was difficult and dirty. They hauled debris and heaved it into dumpsters. They hauled scrap wood and heaved that onto a trailer. They hauled ghastly heavy metal refuse and heaved that onto another trailer. They moved and stacked dozens of historic windows. They swept up broken glass and cleaned up garbage. One girl (bless her heart) donned gloves and shoveled out drenched and smelly vines and who knows what else from the downstairs bar door well. There was nary a complaint. In fact, at one point, the interns were singing as they toiled. Vince Yacono, maybe the hardest working man in Sherburne, commented that it seemed there were twice as many of them there, so quick and efficient were their efforts. SSIRP fed them lunch (donated by Nina's Italian Grill), and then got them moving again. At the end of the day, nine thousand pounds of debris (almost 5 tons) was removed from the building, the basement was cleaned out maybe for the first time in a decade, and they thanked us when they left.

I shook my head at the wonder of it.

Indeed, the students get community service hours for helping us yesterday. Yet there was a sense from each of them that the motivation was more than that. They appreciated what SSIRP is doing, not only our goal of reopening The Inn, but preserving the century-old building. They were so polite and ambitious. And so bright. Everything about them was bright, and by that I mean good brains and good vibes. These are kids who are going places.

I'm an optimistic person by nature, but in recent years my "hope springs eternal" button has been in the off position when it comes to kids these days. Save The Sherburne Inn Restoration Project owes GE-Unison and its fantastic interns a big thanks for what was accomplished at The Inn on Monday. On a personal note, though, I owe the students an even bigger thanks. They've renewed my hope that there are 20-somethings out there who get it, who have faith in change, and who really want to make a difference in the world. All I can say to these kids is Bravo! And best of luck on your journey. Not one of you may set foot in this community again, but know what you did yesterday will never be forgotten.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

At the End of a Long Goodbye

I lost someone recently. Someone close, with whom I spent not hours or weeks or months, but years. Fifty-some. Important childhood times, equally important adult times. We didn't always agree, and in fact there were months (and years) when we didn't speak at all. We would fight about silly things, things that seem really silly now that she's gone. She was not technically a friend, she was much more than that. She was a relative, a first cousin actually, who was like a sister to me. Even, dare I say it? a soul mate. There was a connection that neither of us could ever really understand. There were times as kids when I thought she threw the moon and flung the stars. I so admired her, wanted to be like her. She was funny and fun, smart and a smart-ass. Ultimately, she was troubled, something I knew and feared. I feared it because she was so complicated.

I am not particularly complicated. Yes, I'm a smart-ass. Sarcastic. Bitchy. But not complicated. I wake up every day and am happy about it. Happy to hear the birds, to see my dog's smiling face, glad to climb out of bed and see what the day will bring. She was not. She lived a tortured life, suffered from depression even as a young girl, and was profoundly depressed in recent years for reasons I won't go into here. Quite simply, life was not a happy place for her. Even in old times she did not wake up happy. In these last years, I imagine (because I don't know for sure) she woke up crying.

In the past two weeks I've relived those old old times, the really good stuff. On her family's farm, goofing around as kids do. She was so interesting and so delightful. We climbed trees and skated on frozen ponds. We wrote a little soap opera once and taped it on an old reel-to-reel. We played with trolls and created fantastic shoe box mansions. We scaled country hills and floated shards of wood in rivers and climbed trees where we sat as little girls will (or used to) and talked and talked and talked. There were paper dolls, and kittens, and calling cows. We played table football with matchboxes. Our families spent holidays together, though we were a bit like the Peanuts kids. Adults were quite tall out-of-touch beings with faraway voices. In our world, under card tables covered with blankets to make tents, we whispered and giggled and made plans for a future that would never be.

Our paths diverged as young adults, but happily (I think it was happy for us both) the paths came back together eventually. In most recent years we spent time around a card table instead of under one. It was always so good to see her because I wondered how long we would have. She was sad, as I mentioned, and I knew the clock was ticking. She knew it too. We all did.

On June 2 the end came. I had not spoken with her since last July, another hiatus in our long and inexplicable relationship. The last time I hugged her goodbye I sensed it might be the for-real last time, but 20/20 hindsight and all that, so who knows. She left through my kitchen door and I never spoke to or saw her again, although we did email once or twice after. I'm not completely sure why our contact ended. I hear she needed some distance from me. And that's okay.

When the call came that she was gone, I was shocked but not surprised. I didn't cry. I've been waiting for that call for 30 years and I guess the tears had long ago been cried for this news. I've certainly cried since the call, but not for her. She's finally where she wants to be. I've cried for myself, that I'll never see her lively brown eyes again, that I'll never hear her voice or smell her hair in a hug. As kids I got her hand-me-downs, and there was one green satin dress in particular that I loved so much, because it smelled like my cousin Judy.

I'm trying very hard to understand that she was not happy on this earth, and what that must have been like for her. She wanted to go on to the next place, whatever that is, and now she's there. I hope she knew how much I loved her. I hope she still knows. I hope she's found whatever she was looking for, and that now, finally, she's at peace. I'm strangely happy for her, an odd thing to say because we're supposed to be unhappy when someone dies. But she was so unhappy here. Her life was in darkness. Maybe now she's found some light.

And life goes on. So while I'm still upright and breathing, I've decided to tuck her away in a little quiet spot of my heart, where the beautiful spirit I remember so well can live on forever.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Twisted Mind of Cat

I did a count the other day. In my house there are the following:
6 sofas
3 loveseats
8 upholstered chairs
5 beds
2 chaise lounges
3 rocking chairs
and a dozen or more regular old straight-backed table chairs
Not to mention three plushy store-bought pet beds and a bunch of comfortable rugs. Yet my cat, Lucy, chooses to sit and sleep in a broken box. A box, she in fact, broke herself by pawing and gnawing on the corners until one of the flaps came apart. I picked the box up one day, sick of my cat looking like a homeless thing living on the street, and tossed it on a chair with the intention of disposing of it later. In less than a half hour Lucy had wrangled the box to the floor again and was sleeping in it.
I once had a cat named Taylor who had about 37 toys, fuzzy mice and jingling balls and who knows what all. Yet his favorite plaything was a three-inch-long scrap of cloth that fell on the floor one day.

I read someplace that Americans spend more than 45 billion dollars a year on their pets. I don't know the breakdown, but I have to guess a good chunk of that money goes toward toys and beds. What are we thinking? I love my pets, I do, but sometimes I believe we've all gone a little nuts. They aren't humans even though we treat them like they are. They're animals, who before smirking up at us and slathering our faces with tongue kisses have eaten flies, chewed on deceased rodents, and licked their own butts. I'll never forget the day Harry the dog was dangerously quiet. I found him sitting in the cat box (not the cardboard one, but the one where the cats do their "business"). He looked like a tiny sailor heading out to sea in a disgusting boat, the "business" of the his feline sisters smeared all over his lips.

As for the Lucy-sitting-and-sleeping-in-a-cardboard-box dilemma, I've given up. It now resides in a corner of my home office, usually with the cat in it, a permanent part of my d├ęcor. Lucy seems to like it and who am I to argue? The plushy pet beds go unused, and I guess I should be happy cat hair that in other circumstances would be all over my furniture is now relegated to a non-plushy, non-soft, brown container that came in the mail with a book in it.

Friday, May 16, 2014


Twenty-two years ago today it was raining. I recall being on Route 17 in upstate New York, heading north in late morning. I was a passenger and my high school friend Jackie was in the driver's seat. I was crying. We both were.

Several hours earlier I'd gotten the phone call, one of many we all ultimately get and all of which we dread. The phone jangled horribly at 5 a.m. A ringing telephone at that hour is always horrible even when everybody's okay. In my case on that rainy day 22 years ago, everybody wasn't okay. My mother had died suddenly in the night. Stroke, or heart attack (or both); we never knew for sure. All we did know was that she'd been at her camp with friends and family, had come rushing out of her camper, banged on her brother's camper door, and died minutes later in her sister-in-law's arms. My mom, Iva, was 69 years old. This loving, friendly, caring woman who had tucked me into bed and brushed tangles out of my hair and bought my first pair of kindergarten shoes, who included a 20-dollar bill with each letter every month I was in college and with whom, as a grown-up, I sat at a kitchen table drinking coffee and eating donuts and laughing and learning about what's important in life, had simply vanished from the world in a matter of minutes. While I was asleep in my bed in New York City, my mama had slipped away.

My father, John, had died in 1980. By the time Iva left us to join him he'd already been gone 12 years. So there I was in 1992, riding along in the rain, without parents at the tender age of 36.

After getting the call, I don't remember much. My mind seemed altered, as though a protective sheath had been tossed over it. I pulled out a suitcase and packed a bra. Then another bra. "Well," I remember thinking. "I'll certainly be noticed at the funeral, the woman wearing two bras and nothing else." I finally managed to get some suits packed, and pondered this: "Good thing I went shopping recently, who knew I was buying a suit for my mother's funeral!" The thought was funny and tragic and wholly inappropriate. But then, what's appropriate when your mother has just died? The sheath got thicker, and for the next year my brain took a vacation.

Oh sure, I remember some things about the next 12 months, and certainly about the next week. I remember how many people flocked into the funeral home to say goodbye to Iva, I remember dearest of friends showing up unexpectedly, many in tears. I remember going back to Queens and changing my driving route so I would never have to think about crossing over the same bridges I did the day my mom died. I remember my lackluster work ethic in the months that followed, shrugging when called on it and saying, "Oh who cares." Then in April of the following year, while on a six-seat plane over of all unlikely places the Maasai Mara in Kenya, the brain sheath chose that moment to remove itself. My poor friend Liz, with whom I was on vacation, took the brunt of being with me when my mind returned. We still talk about it (although now we can laugh). Suffice to say hysteria doesn't begin to explain the situation of a grown woman cracking into ten pieces on a tiny plane where below there are hungry lions waiting.

It's hard to believe that more than two decades have passed since last I heard my mother's voice. Her hands always smelled vaguely of Clorox -- she was fond of bleaching things ... clothes, the sink, the tub, once even suggested I use Clorox to fix my hair when I accidentally died it black. I still see her fussing with flowers or hanging bird feeders. People loved her, especially family. I did not inherit that lucky trait, but I'm told by some that they see qualities of her in me. I could not be more proud of that. She was, truly, a dear person. Maybe one of the kindest souls ever to walk the planet.
It's raining where I am. In fact, we had a bit of a microburst here this morning. Huge trees have been uprooted on a roadway outside of town, property damaged. Another monumental thing happened on May 16, 2014: Barbara Walters, after a long and proud career that shattered the glass ceiling for women in broadcasting, has retired. It's been an interesting day for me, one of microbursts and retirement and rain and tears. Lots of tears. Not for the downed trees, nor for Ms. Walters. Today is the day I became an orphan 22 years ago.
I love you, Mama. I wish I could hear your voice one more time, wish we could have a donut at the kitchen table, wish I could tell you all my troubles and have you tuck me into bed and say it's all going to be all right. But I can't. That's how life goes, isn't it? I guess I should consider myself lucky that I had such a wonderful mother at all, for however brief a time. 
Wherever you are, Iva, I miss you so.  Every single day.


About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum