Thursday, June 30, 2022

 To Celebrate a Life

Long before I came to know them by name, I was only vaguely acquainted with trees. While not a single tree was to be found on the paved streets of our neighborhood in the Bronx, up on Fordham Road in a sliver of an island we called Banana Park, two or three trees graced a few benches with a canopy of shade. But as a city boy I could not tell you what types of trees they were. To me they were just trees. 

On occasional jaunts to other parks in the area, we became acquainted with some variety among trees, mainly by the seeds they dropped. We gathered chestnuts in the Fall and pelted each other with “itchy balls” that dropped from the branches and clung miraculously to our clothes. We opened other seeds and made polynoses or twirled them like helicopters when we sent them aloft in Spring and dove headfirst into piles of leaves in the Fall, all the while blissfully unaware of the species that had dropped these treasures in our paths. 

When my wife and I bought the house “in the country” some years later, trees, of course, abounded everywhere we looked. Over the decades I came to appreciate their species, their lifecycles, and their boundless beauty. We mourned the loss of trees to storms, infestations, and disease. We were ambivalent when the stilted willow that had served many years as first base in our backyard baseball games made way for the pool, but we lamented having to cut down the choke cherries and ash lest they fall on a neighbor’s house. 

Over the years I have come to cultivate many trees, mindful that they will grow to imposing maturity after I myself have returned to the earth. I planted whips of poplar and ash, honeysuckle and lilac. More recently, I have planted twigs of hawthorn, buckthorn, and crape myrtle, all of which have sprouted hardy stems and leaves after four years of blazing New York heat and frigid winters. They’ll soon be ready for transplanting to more prominent areas of the yard.

I can think of no more fitting gesture to commemorate someone we love than the planting of a tree in that person’s name. Whether to mark a birth or a death, planting a tree celebrates a life in all its transient beauty and all its enduring memory. So it is that we plant a tree each time a grandchild is born. We planted a sugar maple when our Canadian American granddaughter Chloe was born in 2010 and a Kwanzan cherry tree when our Japanese American grandson Alex was born in 2017. This year we planted a Yoshino cherry to mark the 2020 birth of our Japanese American granddaughter Lilia. All three of these grandchild trees grace the yard with their distinctive beauty and celebration. The maple drops its helicopter seeds with which I may someday teach the children to make polynoses, and in the Fall its golden yellow leaves illuminate the dusk. The Kwanzan cherry sprouts its graceful pink blossoms in the Spring and, alongside it now, the Yoshino cherry opens its snowy white blooms. If the grandchildren are visiting in springtime, we may picnic beneath the cherry blossoms to celebrate their transient beauty. 

It is with such transience in mind that I planted a clump of white birch trees to commemorate the life of John Palencsar, my closest friend of more than sixty years, who died rather sooner than we’d expected in 2020. John was fond of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches” with its idyllic image of a young boy swinging the pliable branches who “flung outward, feet first, with a swish,/Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” I see that tree now, John’s birch, outside my den window, and I find comfort in knowing that, like those of the grandchildren, it is rooted firmly to mark a life, the “going and coming back,” in all its days of storms and resplendent beauty, to celebrate a life that once was, and—in all its seasons—a life worth remembering. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016




                                   My wife looked out upon a single fawn
                                   that gnawed, unaware, at the hedge beside
                                   the rock garden on this first day of winter.
                                   “There’s something wrong with one of its legs,”
                                    she told me with a frown. As it grazed its way
                                    to the yew bushes along the front walk, I could
                                    see that she was right.

                                    The deer was young, a few months old at best,
                                    from its size, left hind leg hobbled a bit by
                                    what seemed a tumor that shackled her
                                    to her fate.

                                    The fawn foraged in solitude amid a carpet of
                                     snow, cast out perhaps from the herd to fend
                                     alone all predators, to ward off the dark, to
                                     die at last a solitary death and take with it                     
                                     the blight it bore.

                                     Was this the lone deer we saw below our
                                     bedroom window two nights past, feasting
                                     on the birdseed I had scattered beneath
                                     the feeder? We’d thought it odd to see but            

                                     She’d stood, legs splayed, nearly genuflecting
                                     as she fed, the nap of her young fur smooth
                                     and gleaming in the moonglow. We hadn’t
                                     noticed in that swath of silver light the knob
                                     that hobbled her, her outcast plight.

                                     As the shadows lengthen on this longest night,
                                     I’ll seed again the snow beneath the barren ash,
                                     will scatter far and wide the feed to brook 
                                     the coming darkness, the feeble light.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Four Dead in O-hi-o

            Rummaging through some old college notebooks from a box in the attic the other day, I came upon a protest flyer from my senior year at Iona College, in New Rochelle, New York. It was May of 1970, and I was weeks away from graduating. “ON STRIKE” the flyer proclaims. I lifted it to my face for a whiff of the familiar purple smell of the mimeograph ink, but the scent had long-since faded, much as the memory of that year has receded into our collective national unconscious of that fateful time.   
            But the flyer brought rushing back the angst that roiled American campuses 46 years ago this spring. Just eight months earlier, in September of 1969, Lt. William Calley had been charged with leading his platoon in a massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including women and children—in the village of My Lai the previous year. That atrocity surely did not reflect the actions of most American troops in Vietnam; but in the virulent outrage that resulted, many in the anti-war movement unjustly vilified all American soldiers as “baby killers.” It got that ugly.
            Three months later, in December of 1969, President Richard Nixon reinstituted a draft lottery. Nearly half a million U.S. soldiers were serving in Southeast Asia and nearly 50,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese had already been killed. Then, on April 30, 1970, Nixon went on television to announce to a weary nation that U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had crossed into Cambodia to launch preemptive strikes against North Vietnamese supply lines. He also declared the need to draft 150,000 additional men. This escalation of the war provoked mass protests across American campuses. Days later, on May 4, twenty-eight national guardsmen opened fire at an unarmed crowd of protesters on the campus of Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were shot dead.
            The news stunned the nation: for the first time in our history, American students were being killed by American troops on an American college campus. In response, colleges all over the country erupted in furious protests. Hundreds shut down or canceled classes as students went on strike. On campuses across the nation, ROTC buildings were set ablaze and students clashed with police and National Guard units. Within weeks, Neil Young’s song “Ohio” blared from radios across the land, stoking the flames of outrage:
                                              Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
                                                   We’re finally on our own.
                                              This summer I hear the drumming,
                                                   Four dead in Ohio.
                       On May 14, just ten days after the Kent State shootings, without warning, police shot dead two students during a protest at the all-black Jackson State University, in Mississippi. That unprovoked attack garnered comparatively little national attention. Some blacks complained at the time that maybe black lives didn’t count as much as white ones. This grievance sounds eerily familiar today.
            On the whole, college campuses in 2016 are very different places from what they were in 1970. They are communities where political correctness and nurturing of perceived slights prevail. A far cry from the university as a place to broaden one’s perspectives, American campuses have become bastions of intolerance for opposing points of view. Just ask Condoleeza Rice or the growing number of other controversial figures who have been disinvited to speak on college campuses because some group or other is offended by their role or viewpoint. Or ask Erika Christakis, a former lecturer at Yale who resigned in the face of student protests over her suggestion that perhaps they might themselves be better suited than the administration to decide what Halloween costumes they should wear. Ask the college professors who are required to give “trigger warnings” when they are about to broach a topic that may provoke unease or trauma in any of their students. Assigning a reading of The Great Gatsby or Hamlet without trigger warnings about their possibly disturbing issues of physical violence or dysfunctional families would be considered a “microaggression” against vulnerable and unsuspecting students—college students, mind you. Or ask the professors in Texas and the seven other states that allow students to carry concealed weapons on public campuses what the impact is likely to be on free and open expression of ideas or on grade inflation.
            Yet, as spring approaches in 2016, the most enduring protests on American college campuses are those over issues of persistent racial tensions. Nearly 46 years after the killings of American students at Kent State and Jackson State, numerous incidents of black men killed by police in the streets of American cities have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which in turn has galvanized minority student protests. Beginning at the University of Missouri over the slow response of administrators to a series of racist incidents, the protests and their demands for equality have spread to campuses across the land.
            But just as the vast majority of American soldiers in Vietnam were not “baby killers,” most American police officers do not shoot young black men in our streets. The truth is that police lives matter too, white lives matter, Latino lives matter. All lives deserve respect. Still, time after time, black men—often unarmed—are killed at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace. The point of the protests is that black lives matter too, and enough is enough.
            Perhaps, then, some progress has been made in the spirit of dissent on our campuses amid what seems at times a national regression. The Black Lives Matter movement is a protest that speaks for its time. In the midst of an indulgent culture of trigger warnings, it seems heartening that some college students today are clamoring for justice and equality, demands that echo the high moral ground of bringing an end to an unjust war and the killings of innocent students. Such protests are today what my generation’s reaction to the killings at Kent State was—a defining moment, a time to take a stand on what you believe in. As Neil Young would put it,
                                              What if you knew [them]
                                 And found [them] dead on the ground
                                 How can you run when you know?

Friday, November 6, 2015

A Road I've Taken

            On some occasional rambles through my blog earlier this year, I came upon a path that had been calling me for quite some time. And so I’ve been away from these pages for the past few months, consumed with a historical novel that I’m writing.
            The working title is Tobarmaire (Mary’s Well). The story is set in a fictionalized blend of Dowra, my wife’s native village in County Cavan, and the old village of Tobar nearby that had preceded it. It takes place in 1845-46 during the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor—The Great Hunger—as it’s known in Irish), when the potato blight ravaged the land.
            Tobarmaire tells the story of Michael Corrigan, a fiery young man brimming with resentment as his family and neighbors, evicted from their cottages for non-payment of rent, face starvation.     I've been thinking and reading and writing about this story for quite some time. It began, for me, on a summer evening in Ireland in 1981, when Nan McGovern, my mother-in-law, brought me up Gubaveeny Mountain near her home in County Cavan to meet an old man who lived alone in a cottage. He was known in the region as a “shanachie” (pronounced “shanakey”), a sort of local historian who was said to have “a head full of knowledge about the history of the place.”
            During ancient times, Gaelic clans lived in particular areas of rural Ireland. Evidence of that survives today when so many families in a region have the same surnames. And so, for example, to distinguish one family from another of the same name, a man and his own family would be known locally by his first name, then his father’s first name, then his grandfather’s first name, followed by the family surname. He would be known locally as Charley Thomas Ned McGuire, and his family (if he had one), as the Charley Thomas Ned McGuires, or more simply as the Charley Thomas Neds.
            Charley Thomas Ned—Charley to his face—heard our car approaching and met us at the door of his stone cottage. Stooped, with a gray stubble and rheumy eyes, he greeted us through a mostly toothless grin in the dusty voice of his eighty-five years. “You’re very welcome,” he said to Nan, and turning to me, nodded. We sat before his open hearth, his only source of light. Many of the older folks on the mountain never had the electric hooked up when it came to the region in the 1950s—afraid of it, or just never seeing the need. The light of the hearth, for Charley Thomas Ned, was enough.
            He recalled for us the history of the region as it had been passed down to him in the oral tradition in the years before tape recorders or television, and he regaled us with tales of a local hero who roamed the area nearly 250 years ago. Dick Supple (pronounced “Souple”) Corrigan was a “rapparee,” a highwayman who ran with a gang that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Through many daring exploits, Supple Corrigan bedeviled the English who oppressed the native Irish in the region in the late 18th century. He is remembered in legend and song in the northwest of Ireland to this day. 
            As the late summer dusk descended on the mountain, the turf fire in the hearth glowed brighter and Nan and I rose to leave. We thanked Charley Thomas Ned for his hospitality and his stories, and the old man replied in a lyrical echo of ages past: “Sure, and wouldn’t ye be happy of the visit if ye was sitting here all the week long with nary a Christian soul to cross yer doorstep?”
            In Tobarmaire, my protagonist, Michael Corrigan, is the great-grandson of Supple Corrigan. Through a series of encounters, he seeks to settle some scores with the English during the famine of the 1840s, some seventy years after Supple had done the same.
            So this is where I’ve been of late, consumed with the past in the present. I’ll be back with some more blog posts from time to time—I’ve just recorded a post at the radio station, which I’ll link to these pages soon. But if I’m away from the blog for a stretch of time, I’m probably just wandering the lanes of my imagination, thinking, researching, or writing about the characters and happenings of Tobarmaire.

Speechless in the Battle

“I have no voice,” he said, barely audible. I was driving my friend John Palencsar to SUNY New Paltz so he could teach his history classes at the college. John is battling cancer of the vocal chords and   had just had a radiation treatment that morning. His speech reduced to a raspy whisper, he told me what frustrated him most: “I have no voice.” Later, in his class, he would repeat those words into a microphone that merely amplified his gravelly message to his attentive students.
            “I think it might serve as a metaphor, too,” he told them. His class by now was rapt, leaning forward, intrigued by what “Professor P.” was saying. “I never felt this before,” he continued. “I always had a voice.” He looked around the room and smiled. The class smiled back and nodded.
            “Maybe some of you have felt this way all along,” he said. “Women . . . and minorities . . . and gays. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what it means to not have a voice. Maybe those of you who are shy or lonely know. Those who are different in any way—to feel that you don’t have a voice.” The students were riveted now by the power of his metaphor.
            Having seized upon a “teachable moment,” Professor P. related the point to the aim of his lesson—that Thomas Jefferson alone was able to articulate a voice for those colonists who objected to a king denying them a say in the conduct of their own affairs. That in the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had given vent to their frustrations and their passions. He had given them a voice.
            After weeks and weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, John’s prognosis is good. His doctors are hopeful that he will not need surgery to remove his larynx and guardedly optimistic that as his vocal chords heal from the barrage of radiation, he will, in time, recover his voice.
            I think of those who, metaphorically, have much less hope, of those who need not to “recover” their voice, but to “discover” it for the first time. How empowering that moment would be. When the poor pursue means to climb out of their penury, they have found a voice. When minorities refuse to accept that the color of their skin should hold them back they have found a voice. When women or gays or trans people insist that their gender or sexual orientation be respected in their fight for pay equity or civil rights, they have found their voice. Whenever any who feel disenfranchised in any way declare, “Enough! We’ve had enough! We’re not going to take it anymore!” they have found a voice.
            It is one thing to declare one’s passion, to have a voice, but quite another to attain one’s demands. As Professor P. would attest, the American Revolution dragged on from 1775 to 1783. But by conveying the frustrations and desires of the colonists in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson gave expression to their hopes and their dreams. He inspired them to fight against the odds. As with all who feel unrepresented or ignored, however, the journey started with discovering their voice.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Walk to Remember

   Rich Albero has a long history as a generous soul. When we taught high school together in New York for twenty-five years, he would occasionally show up to school in the morning looking a bit rumpled and haggard, perhaps even unshaven. Some would make assumptions based on this appearance. He’d had a rough night, they’d think, or he didn’t care about how he looked. Both conclusions were right, but not for the reasons assumed.
            I knew that, in fact, Rich had arrived at school having volunteered to help supervise a homeless shelter in his hometown overnight. If he seemed less concerned with his own appearance, it was because he was more concerned with providing a warm meal and a safe bed for others in need. At school, he kept his work at the shelter to himself and asked me not to mention it to anyone. That selfless volunteer spirit spoke to who Rich was.
            It came as no surprise to me, then, when Rich began to talk last year about wanting to walk more than 1,200 miles from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. That grand plan spoke of who he still is.
            Rich Albero is sixty-five years old now, retired several years from high school teaching and just this past year from teaching math at St. Petersburg College, not far from his home in Dunedin, Florida. Having travelled around the world as a young seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Rich was later to take other trips of note with his nephew Gary Albero—a memorable excursion to the Grand Canyon, for example, or a drive up to Boston to cheer his beloved Yankees as they battled the Red Sox at Fenway.
            But now, his grandest of journeys, this trek from Tampa to the Bronx is a tribute to Gary, who died in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. True to Rich and Gary’s generous spirits, the walk is also raising donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.
            The Yankees organization has been very supportive of his walk. In the first week of March, Rich started his journey from home plate at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where in the midst of spring training the Yankees gave him an enthusiastic send-off. “See you in New York,” manager Joe Girardi said with a hug.
            With some help from a few sponsors—ionic sportwater, Brooks shoes, Tilley hats, Wyndham Hotels, and Wish You Were Here Productions, among others—Rich is now well past the half-way point of his journey. Calling on a small cadre of close friends or family as his support drivers, he recently made his way north through the Carolinas one step at a time. Now, in early May, with more than 800 miles behind him, he has reached the rolling hills of Richmond, Virginia.
            As he approaches Washington, D.C., I’m to join Rich as his support driver for a week. He’ll rise before dawn, do his morning exercises, then wake me for breakfast. Next, I’ll drive him to where he had ended the previous day’s walk, and he’ll resume his journey, aiming for another twenty miles that day. Around noon, Rich will call to tell me his location. Along with an afternoon’s supply of sportwater, I’ll bring his lunch and a bucket of ice water to soak his feet mid-day. Following that, he’ll resume his walk until late afternoon or early evening, when I’ll pick him up and drive him to our next hotel. After a hearty dinner, it’ll be early to bed and up again before dawn.
            Rich hopes to reach New York City by Memorial Day weekend. There he will lay a commemorative wreath beneath Gary’s name at Ground Zero. He will end his walk with a ceremony at home plate before a game at Yankee Stadium, a fitting conclusion to a selfless journey by a sixty-five-year-old Yankee fan who walked more than 1,200 miles from spring training to a home game in the Bronx to honor his nephew and our wounded warriors.

Follow Rich Albero’s progress and donate if you can at

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Going Home to a Place I'd Never Known

                 When I was a child, my father would regale my sisters and brothers and me with countless family stories of his youth and young manhood in the Bronx in the 1920s and ‘30s. But we knew little if anything of the life his own grandparents had left behind in Germany. Who were they? Where in Germany did they come from? What did they work at? Care about? What were their dreams? Why did they leave all they had ever known to come to this new land with its strange customs and language? And what became of them as they lived out the remainder of their lives in Massachusetts? It was all a mystery to us. 
                  His own father, Arthur Conrad Kersting, my paternal grandfather, had emigrated from Germany in 1880 as an infant in the arms of his mother and grew up in the only land he had ever known, as an American. In 1898, he served in the Spanish-American War, then in 1906 would wed Elizabeth O’Donnell in New York City. By the time my father was born in 1916, the Kerstings had fully assimilated as Americans for two generations.   
                  Through the burning curiosity of my sister Liz and that of our cousin Eddie, whose passion for family history I share, a family tree began to emerge. Resources such as and immigration and census records began to provide a sense of who our people had been.
                  We had always heard that our paternal great-grandparents had “come from” Hamburg, in northern Germany. That turned out to be true—in a literal sense. Genealogical records would reveal that before they emigrated from the port of Hamburg, they had lived in the village of Ottensen, which is now part of greater Hamburg. But Johann Conrad Kersting, our paternal great-grandfather, had been born in Wiedenbrück, Germany, about 175 miles away, in 1848—exactly one hundred years before I was born in the Bronx. He would wed Leonore Baer in her hometown of Ottensen in 1876. Johann Conrad immigrated to New York City in May of 1880, some months after my grandfather was born. Leonore and the infant followed a few months later.
                In May of 2014, my wife, Rita, and I traveled to Weidenbrück in search of the place where so many generations of my ancestors had lived. But after 134 years, no one was home anymore. Before we left on our journey, I had tracked down on the Internet ten or so Kerstings in the Weidenbrück phone book. At our hotel in town, we connected with Renate Loebich, a local guide who confirmed for us that Kersting was indeed a local name in Weidenbrück. As our research had indicated, this is where the Kerstings had come from. With a promise to be in touch, Renate began to call the phone numbers I had shown her.
                  In the meantime, Rita and I began to scan the gravestones in the local cemetery. An abundance of Kersting headstones suggested that we were in the right place. Yet, while some of the given names were familiar, none of the dates coincided with our genealogical research. A visit to the cemetery office explained why. After a grave is unattended for thirty years, we were told, the plot reverts to the state, which routinely resells the gravesite. And so, 134 years later, the graves of our ancestors were as elusive as the stories of their lives. Local church and burial records from that long ago, it turns out, are stored in the state archives in the nearby town of Paderborn. We would save that research for another trip, another time.
                  A call from Renate assured us that all was not so bleak, however. She had contacted Anton Kersting, a retired local farmer who was eager to meet us. A few miles outside town we came to his farm, mostly fruit orchards and several acres of meadows now. Anton and his wife Karola met us at the door of their house, which has been in his family for three hundred years. As they spoke no English and my German was dusty at best, Renate translated. Despite the language barrier, they were warm and welcoming, as was evident in their eyes and their smiles.                  
                  To our dismay, though, we learned that Anton knew little more about his family history than we did ours. He had lost several uncles in the trenches of World War I, but beyond that—or perhaps somewhat because of it—his parents had spoken little of the past. Yet, in our search for common ancestral ground we discovered that our families shared our Catholic faith and several given names over the generations. We also shared some striking physical resemblances: height, body type, and several facial features. We departed with an invitation to return someday and hopes of doing so with my sister and some of my brothers. We were assured of a hearty welcome.  
                  Standing outside his door, Anton told us of a memory during World War II when he was a boy of five or six and allied planes were dropping bombs on a nearby farm owned by an SS general. Aside from that target, however, Wiedenbrück was spared destruction by the allied bombs, unlike the industrial sites in Germany. (As a port city, for example, 95% of Hamburg was  destroyed by allied bombings.) 
Today, many of the timber-framed houses and shops, some dating to the Middle Ages, survive in Wiedenbrück much as they were when my ancestors walked the streets of the town two centuries ago. The building next door to our hotel was in the midst of a renovation, though. “That used to be a cigar factory,” Renate told us, striking yet another genealogical chord. We had learned a while back from U.S. census records that Johan Conrad was listed as a cigar maker when he emigrated from Germany in 1880. This former cigar factory in the center of Wiedenbrück was likely where he had learned his trade as a young man. 
                  Built in 1505, the Roman Catholic church of St. Aegidius in the center of town, was where generations of our Kersting ancestors would have worshipped. For me the most striking feature of this historic church was not its medieval stone tower, not the bullet holes from the Thirty Years War, not its impressive gothic arches, nor its elaborately etched stone pulpit. Not its carved wooden statues, its well-preserved confessionals, not even its magnificent stained glass windows nor its historic wooden doors. I was drawn instead to the stone baptismal font atop a small pedestal of carved arches and biblical scenes. This is the font where generation after generation of Kerstings were Christened as infants, just as their descendants are today in “the new world.” 
                  In hopes of finding a connection, I had come to the town where generations of my ancestors had lived out their hopes and dreams. I had arrived with a vague notion of what I might find. Having walked the same streets my ancestors had trod, eaten local traditional food, and sampled the warm hospitality—the Gemütlichkeit—of the townspeople today, I came away with a distinct sense of the place, both present and past. As the language my ancestors had left behind now echoed in my mind, I found, in the end, that you can go home again, even after 134 years.


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  • "The Other Ireland," CARA Magazine (Dublin), Nov.-Dec. 1982
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