“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
The midnight ride of a can of beer.
Down the alley and over the fence
And into my stomach with 15 cents.”
Rather than trying to describe my grandfather, Oscar, I thought I’d let him introduce himself.
Feb. 7, 1976
Dear Connie, et al,
Here we are in the midst of a veritable winter wonderland… I wonder how I’m going to pay the oil bills and Betty wonders why she isn’t in Florida – the reason for which is my fault. Of course she is right as always, but her attitude does little to enlist my sympathy. What little I possess is required for my own sad state. I always save a little sympathy for myself — God knows where else I would obtain any. I tuck away any small surplus I find myself occasionally possessed of beyond that which I immediately require, secreting it in concealed little spots, and when I am alone and not pressed for time I drag them out and line them up and feel and fondle and admire them, the agonizing sobs, the tears, the pain wracked spasms. Self-sympathy is great. If cultivated with diligence and devotion it can replace all other motivations and activities to which one has become accustomed.
Well, we had a jolly old shovel out yesterday and this AM, ridding our deck and driveway of a generous accumulation of snow and ice which had fallen and hardened into the embryo of a monstrous glacier. As I say, yesterday and today we aborted it and now the snow is again tumbling in stifling clouds of fluffy cotton and piling our deck and driveway once more to a back wrenching depth. If I get this letter finished before the mailman comes dashing up in a swirl of snow it will go out today. I can hear him when he is coming these days… the barking and yelping of his mush mush doggies. We don’t tip the mailman any more, we throw a little blubber to his huskies.
The mail came and I didn’t hear it. The dogs were silent, choking no doubt, on a frozen herring. There was a letter from you, mentioning all the books you have read by Morris West. I know I read Salamander and the Tower of Babel. I don’t recall being extremely impressed by either of them. I did watch Roots. Mother didn’t but she has become a hostile, verbose authority on the production. I think that by not viewing the drama nor reading the book she can maintain a detached, objective viewpoint from which to offer a true, unprejudiced assessment of its dramatic value, an assessment with its faultless accuracy undiluted by any knowledge whatever of the subject under judgement.
Sorry we have to tell you about your ancestors. On your mother’s side, they were a rotten, degraded bunch. They weren’t exactly horse thieves, a relatively honorable vocation. They stole horse manure. They could always be found marching in the rear of a parade. Your great, great grandmother was a lovely Celctic druidess who had an affair with a baldheaded ape who had fuzzy red hair growing between his shoulder blades. This has been a family characteristic ever since. We try to catch the kids and shave it off when they are quite young. When they get a little older they scamper about like Hell and is it he devil’s own job to capture them. On your aristocratic father’s side you are the descendant of a long line of blue-blooded nobility. The first one who crashed the pages of history came to England from Normandy with William the Conqueror. He was known as Sir Oscar of Cavendish, and is remembered for his famous quote “Willie I will be behind you all the way.” And William’s equally famous answer, “Sir Ozzie, if I hadn’t known you were behind me I would never have conquered England, and if I had known how far behind you were, I would never have attempted it.” William was a great kidder. The Candages fought in every war the United States ever engaged in, but the only one they ever volunteered for was the Whiskey Rebellion. It was a sobering experience, so he deserted. It was during this fierce conflict that he wrote a song called “Getting Bombed on the Potomac”. This was later revised and the name changed to “The Star Spangled Banner”. They deleted the three hiccups which followed “…the land of the brave.” A Candage was one of the most popular soldiers in the Civil War on both sides. He will long be remembered for his strong penchant for wearing ladies’ underwear.
I enjoyed Esther’s book. The people she mentioned and the archaic activities she described recalled things to my mind I had not remembered for many years. Sights, smells, tastes, etc. Chopping wood with Dad and George was a strong point of recall. The clear air, the smooth snow in the woods until we broke a trail with our boots, the smell of the pine and the spruce trees, the tracks of rabbits, foxes, deer, porcupines and now and then a bob cat, the bite of the axe blade in the trunk of the tree and the scatter of the chips. The hot fire to warm our lunch at noon, the neat piles of cord wood placed to assure easy loading on the horse drawn sleds when the cutting was all finished for the winter. A real nostalgia kick! We didn’t know what an energy crisis was. In the winter the automobile was jacked up on blocks and the battery and the tires removed for purposes of preservation, and the jingle of sleigh bells replaced the raucous blast of the horn. And the only exhaust was contained in the steamy breath of horses or oxen expelled from the velvety nose of the horse or the rubbery nostrils of the ox. The world was just emerging into the mechanical age and we so foolishly labeled it progress. Instead of ecological disaster. And we all wanted to get away to the city where the “action was”.
I will now go to get the Monday morning papers and mail this.
Lots of love. Write when you get the time, but don’t feel compelled.
This is one of a hundred or so letters Oscar Candage wrote to his daughter, Connie—written in such volume that many were simply dated “Monday” or “Thursday”—after he retired from his 30 year career as the Providence Journal’s photoengraving superintendent. Alex and I were toddlers, soon to move with the family to Little Silver, NJ, where Oscar himself would come to live during the last four years of his life.
Early in 1973, Atkin’s job transferred him to Chicago, so he and a pregnant Connie packed up their things, me among them, and headed to the midwest. I suppose Oscar’s letters began at that point, when the long distance phone charges seemed formidable. Bi-weekly, he planted himself before the Smith-Corona typewriter that sat at his desk, overlooking the Long Island Sound in my grandparents’ small coastal Connecticut house.
A little background: Oscar (born 1909) grew up the son of a veterinarian in Blue Hill, Maine. Young “Doc Candage” accompanied his father in a horse and buggy on his rounds to the farms, and the nickname stuck with the old timers throughout his life. Of course, by the time he died, his memorial service was populated by teenaged kids in Little Silver, none of whom called him Doc.
The original Doc Candage, the veterinarian, died of Bright’s Disease when Oscar was 6 years old, and his mother remarried a strict Baptist, which was one of a few reasons why Oscar snuck out of his house at night to drink moonshine with his Native American friends who worked the Maine fields. And like many men of his generation, Oscar was a WWII Veteran. He was stationed in the south of France until he landed a head injury and a purple heart medal, the former from an incoming bomb that crumbled ruins over the dugout where he and his cronies were playing poker. A direct hit, and everyone covered with bricks. When they dug through the rubble, Oscar was the only one still alive and after a brief hospital stay, he was released to a family in France to recuperate for nearly a year. My Grandma Amy, saddled at home with their one-year-old daughter, wasn’t too happy to see the pictures he brought home of him cuddled up with the daughters of his French host family, but when Oscar finally arrived in New York Harbor, he met then two-year-old Connie for the first time, and the three of them moved from Jackson Heights to Rhode Island to start his job and family life.
Against all this as backdrop, Oscar was an artist. He painted watercolored nature scenes on anything he could find, and he drew cartoons; all of our birthday and holiday cards consisted of slightly perverse depictions of the occasion: my grandmother holding a knife in a stand-off against a turkey, or us rolling down a hill toward a giant Christmas tree, or two frogs at a candlelight dinner in France, unaware that their legs were being observed by the chef from behind a curtain. Oscar was also color blind, so his cards and cartoons depicted, for instance, red or purple candle flames—not orange and yellow—which made his greetings a bit more intriguing to Alex and me.
As for the realities and intensities that life inevitably tosses up, Oscar appeared to meet them with a level-headed gentleness, perhaps a touch of alcohol, and always with a sense of humor. He saw the world around him through a slightly absurd lens, occasionally riding his dentures out on his tongue, mid-conversation, for example. And when he drank his daily cocktail(s), he seemed to get a little sillier and more joyful, the sign of a gentle, if not slightly detached heart. Granted, I was his grand-daughter, but I never heard him raise his voice to anyone. And all of us—from my and my brother’s adolescent friends, to my father, to my mother’s friends, to the woman who cleaned the house—adored him. After Oscar bought out Atkin’s half of the house and moved in with us, my father would drive him to his doctor’s appointments and come over to chat for an hour here and there while my mom was at work. My dad really came to life during those visits and, I think, especially loved Oscar not only because Oscar was kind and reliable for an entertaining conversation, but also because he was fatherly—and Atkin’s own father had been decidedly absent throughout his life.
By the time he lived with us, Oscar spent his days reading the New York Times, drawing, writing, singing loudly through his oxygen tubes (he had emphysema from 30 years of smoking, and lugged a carrying case of oxygen throughout the house), and devising entertaining ways to ask my brother, me, and our friends to microwave his TV dinners or mix his drinks. Our house was close to the high school, and friends would often stop over for a few minutes on their way home to have a word or two with Oscar. My friend Jeanene, in particular, loved to wait on him. “Let’s go home and make a banana bread for your grandfather!” One day, in describing a visit to the doctor, he referred to the nurse as a “hot sketch” at which point Jeanene doubled over in near-hysterics and refused to leave the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon. As you may have noted from his letter, he was able to make a day where absolutely nothing happened sound colorful, so you can imagine what he could do with a small encounter.
My brother, who was only then a budding recluse, probably spent the most time with him. While Alex peppered the conversation with one-word prompts, Oscar regaled him with stories of his childhood. This is noteworthy because Alex otherwise, no matter the company, spent almost all of his time hidden away from us. It was from Alex that I learned of Oscar’s midnight escapes to Native American moonshine get-togethers, his war stories, and his and his step-brother George’s shenanigans when they were boys in Maine. Oscar was not one to interfere or try to teach lessons; as a matter of fact, if he had one lesson, it was “take a risk”. And while he tried to toe a line if pressed (“listen to your parents”), his stories often implied, “…but not too much.”
I regret that I was a pretty self involved teenager during the time Oscar lived with us. He had just turned 81 that December, and on an early January afternoon, he uncharacteristically called to me from his bedroom. I cracked the door and he looked to be in pain, seated on the corner of his bed. “I think you’d better call an ambulance,” he said flatly. I didn’t question it, and one pulled into our driveway 10 minutes later, carting him off to Riverview Medical Center where he died 2 weeks later of kidney failure. My mother and her friend Peggy read him T.S. Eliot poems each night as he twitched—and, we thought, smiled—from his comatose state. Alex and I accompanied Connie on each hospital visit during those two weeks. I remember my mother’s conversation at the nurse’s station, asking what she needed to have in place at home for him when the nurse finally told her softly, “He’s not going home.”
Oscar’s memorial service took place in our family room a month later, and we have a kid-filmed VHS tape of it somewhere. Sixteen teenagers and eight adults, my dad included, sat in a circle talking about the character he was, what everyone had learned in their time with him. The event was filled with laughter and wonder before Alex closed by reading a poem of Oscar’s that showed, I guess, how he had felt in darker moments, and why, I suppose, he met the world with a combination of sensitivity, humor and ultimately, irreverence.
“Dreams of nothing surround us
An instant in time is forever
A century less than a second
and eons are endless, but never.
We raise our arms unto heaven
And wave them aloft in the air
And heaven can have no existence
For nobody answers from there.
We’re lost in an ocean of nothing
Adrift on an endless expanse
Our minds discern figures where nothing exists
As we whirl in a meaningless dance.”
In 1995, I went to look at an apartment on the far west side of Hoboken, which at that time was a sketchy area. I had just landed a job at NBA Entertainment as a transcriber of sports interviews, and I needed a place to live that was close to (but Lord, not in) Secaucus, NJ. My salary was meager, and I had to work with it.
I walked into the railroad apartment and waited for my roommate to show up. For the very imaginative, it was a 2 bedroom place – and cost $700/month. And though I did not expect this, it was absolutely beautiful. Exposed brick, rich, grainy, wide planked dark wood floors, clean, updated kitchen. A woman and man, both older than me by about 5 years, sat at a kitchen table. I said I wanted the apt., and they said okay. I don’t remember the guy at all, but the woman’s name was Pam. She was kind and easy, yet not ingratiating – the sort of person you’d feel good about about. I signed the lease that sat on her table and moved in a month later.
About two months into living there, a letter arrived in the mailbox, addressed to her. An oblong envelope with green stamped designs on the back, it bore the mark of a writer who had taken the time for herself to really craft something. Not an obligatory letter; this writer had made it an evening’s activity to write this letter to her friend Pam.
I put it aside and the next morning, went downstairs to ask the landlord, a kindly, older Egyptian man who owned the building and manned his convenience store on the first floor – if he had a forwarding address for Pam. He didn’t. I looked her up in the phone book, and she was unlisted. Short of hiring a private investigator, I didn’t know how to find her.
I held onto the letter, unopened for three months, wondering if she’d get in touch with me – maybe her friend would tell her about the letter, and she’d come back to claim it. She didn’t. Finally, one night, I sat in my room on the floor and opened the letter and read the sometimes uneven, and always enigmatic, hammered type.
Pam’s friend was hanging out in her room the night of the letter. I had a perfect image; she’d lit a candle and set up her typewriter. Among her news bits, she reported that she’d finally ended a relationship with “xxxx” – she didn’t know what she’d been thinking to be with him – and she was seeing someone new, for the “nooky”. It was nice. She had a way with words, Pam’s friend. And the letter was decorated with various stamps and drawings, some with dialogue bubbles. I really liked Pam’s friend, and of course, Pam – for effortlessly earning such a friend just by being her cool-ass self.
I loved this letter, and simultaneously harbored some sadness over it as well. It had really been a divine evening, as you could read, that had provided the opening to create it. Had I written that letter, I would’ve lamented its having been lost in the mail or otherwise not received by my friend. It was un-recreate-able. It was a mood, a vibe, a misty life between the cracks of work, family and social life, etc. I still have that letter to this day, and though it was never meant for me, it’s one of the best I’ve ever received.
I was witness to life being lived, and this completely voyeuristic approach to letter reading was new to me. Everyone who knows me knows I LOVE writing and receiving letters. In the age of email and immediate immediateness, it’s a lost art form that I’m desperate not to lose. I’ve written and received many letters in my lifetime, and none gave me the feeling that I got from reading Pam’s letter from her friend. And it got me thinking… what if I were to write some letters, to whomever I wanted, and from me, but sent to someone else? That reading-once-removed, that feeling, was so delicious that I want to pass it on.
If you’re reading this and interested, send your address (or someone else’s) to email@example.com, and I’ll send a letter – crafted by me and meant for someone else – to that person. Like the local radio station, I’ll take the first three callers. I’m only committing to three, because let’s face it – I have a baby now and and frankly, you’ve got to have a divine night for this kind of creation. I’m being optimistic to think there are three of those in my near future, but I’m giving myself to the end of this year to send out the three. So write me.