Sometimes, a walk down memory lane… sucks.

One of the cool things about kids is that they unintentionally unearth back-of-the-rack childhood memories.

It’s like my brain is filled with long, dimly-lit corridors, crammed with stuff I’ll never find. And, like kids running with arms outstretched down a grocery story aisle, eventually, they’re bound to knock something off a shelf.

It happens periodically. Most recently, this morning. The kids are attending a Harry Potter camp, and they were chattering about puffs… puffs, pygmy puffs and magic. It wasn’t long before my brain drifted to the song, “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

I don’t know if my parents owned the record, but I distinctly remember hearing the song in my Dad’s green MG. I was pretty young, waiting in the car, while Dad retrieved his dry cleaning. I remember twisting the radio’s black rubber knobs (which I was allowed to use, opposed to the TV dials which I couldn’t touch, after I accidentally removed the on/off knob). I heard that song several times.

Puff the Magic Dragon,” I tested aloud in the kitchen, “lived by the sea, and… and….what did he do? Something, something, in a land called Homily.”

The kids immediately took interest. They didn’t know the song, but they wanted to know it.

I googled the title on my phone and it popped up, accompanied by a low-grade, still-frame youtube video. I hit “play,” and resumed breakfast distribution and lunch assembly.

Puff, the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist

in a land called Honahlee

“Autumn mist, that’s it!” I said. “Now it’s coming back to me.”

But as it came back, so did the vague notion that this tale about a boy and his dragon didn’t end well.

Sure enough, as little Jackie Paper and that rascal Puff, frolicked, and sailed happily around the world, a feeling of dread settled over me.

“Hey,” I said slowly. “I should mention that things might not end well for Puff…”

Just then, Peter, Paul and Mary hit the stanza where Jackie Paper — lured by toys — loses interest in Puff. He totally disses the dragon, and Puff plummets into a deep depression. His scales fall off, he slips into a cave, and presumably dies.

That’s when Hadley unleashed a guttural cry. “That is SO SAD!” she wailed hysterically, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The dragon was his best friend and he ignored him! And he died!”

Cayden hugged Hadley and he started crying. Brynn hadn’t quite grasped the ending, but her eyes welled up, too.

“Hey, stop crying! It’s just a song,” I said, grabbing my phone. “Look, this isn’t even Puff! Puff has green scales! This stupid dragon is orange!”

Hadley kept sobbing.

“You never cried when I read The Giving Tree,” I said. “That boy cuts his beloved tree down to the stump, and you never got sad about that!”

“A tree isn’t the same as a dragon!” Cayden replied tearfully.

In the early 1970s, I never cried over Puff. But there wasn’t any visual evidence of the dragon’s demise. It was just a strange, kid-appealing song among adult contemporary radio rotation.

“Seriously, stop crying,” I said, semi-sternly. “Hey, some people think that ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is about smoking pot!”

That didn’t help.

“Okay, you can update the song, with a modern spin,” I suggested. “Nowadays, the boy would ditch Puff, and some cool girl — who doesn’t fall for cheap, plastic crap made in China — would become Puff’s best friend. And together, they’d sail the world, and find Jackie Paper’s house… probably in some shoddy subdivision. And then Puff would use his fire-breathing skills to torch the roof off!” I gave the kids an encouraging smile.

“You could end the song that way. Puff would live happily ever after! Well, assuming he didn’t encounter a US Navy destroyer… or Somali pirates.”

Cayden mulled this over. Hadley remained remorse until we shifted back to Harry Potter.

So, what did I learn today?

It is possible to make three kids cry simultaneously at breakfast.

And some memories, miraculously unearthed, are best re-shelved.

Moving on and looking back


After living for 40-plus years on the same street, my mom recently sold her house. In a few weeks, she’ll settle into smaller digs.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have no sentimental attachment to that house — I grew up two doors down. The house she’s leaving is just a structure of steel, brick and cement.

It’s the innards that matter. Memories glued to everything. Not just photos from family trips, but the dishes that we dined on for decades, furnishings that adorned both houses, trinkets scattered along Mom’s bookshelves, and Dad’s roll-top desk, the cubbies stocked with the same supplies for as long as I can remember.

Back in August, I rode the heart-wrenching roller coaster of sorting through my father’s stuff. With so much to tackle on a tight deadline, we had little time to reflect or review; I boxed anything sentimental — family records, photos and files — for future perusal.

I tried to be practical and efficient, unaffected by emotion. It worked for a while, even as I boxed framed family photos and my parents’ wedding pictures. But then I found Dad’s old telephoto lens, tucked in its case.

On family trips, that stupid lens was my responsibility…. perpetually slung over me like a bandolier. I lugged that thing all over Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and so on, year after year. I couldn’t stand carrying it and my only reprieve was when Dad would pop the 35 mm off his camera and say, “Gunga Din! Bring me my telephoto lens!”


I hadn’t set eyes on that thing in 20 or 30 years. But there it was, in a drawer, in an old wardrobe in the basement. I burst into tears. After that, it was impossible to be emotionally detached.

I spent an exhausting two days boxing and packing, but it wasn’t all tearful. Lots of my grandmother’s things had been shuttled to the basement and I was reunited with oodles of photos and records.

Snapshots of my father as a toddler, my grandmother, out-skiing her family members before the war, and joyful images of my grandparents after years of living in DP camps, happily settled in the US.


I also found a treasure trove of old family photos — unknown relatives, who apparently, were album-worthy. I discovered 200-year-old books, and mysterious ledgers and records from the early 1800s. All of those are in Hungarian — some printed, but others, barely-decipherable in early 19th-century scrawl.


One of many mystery men

But all that was months ago, and those boxes have migrated to my attic.

Last week, Mom and I pawed through the remaining practical items — stuff that she won’t need, but we can repurpose. Dad’s chainsaw, gardening tools, extra sheets, beach towels, fireplace tongs, reading lamps… totally random stuff.

Maisie got a lifetime supply of tennis balls. When she comes in the house, she likes to stare at her stash.


As I made a final pass through Mom’s house before unwanted items are sold, I thumbed through the books in the basement once more. And I found one that I’d missed: a long-forgotten children’s novel. One that I’d read a million times as a kid.


The Good Master is a story set on the Hungarian plains (the “puszta”) and it follows a head-strong, tomboy named Kate, and her adventures with her cousin Jancsi and his family on their ranch.

My copy is tattered and worn — it’s a 1935 edition, the first year it was printed, and it contains the author’s original illustrations.


I did not add The Good Master to the boxes in the attic. It’s in the kids’ room and we’ve been reading it every night. Aside from the adventurous plot line, the book’s prevailing theme is about the superiority of country life over urban life.

Of course, that resonates with Cayden, Had and Brynn, and further solidifies their notions about clueless city folk and hardy, resourceful country folk.

Out of curiosity, I googled The Good Master and — go figure — it has a wikipedia page. There I learned that it was never translated into Hungarian. But I also discovered that the author published a sequel, The Singing Tree, in 1939.

I found an original copy of The Singing Tree on Ebay. The kids and I split the cost. It’s on the way.

So I know what happened to my family in Hungary.

And in a few days, the kids and I will find out what happened to Kate and Jancsi, too.


The Scoop

It’s been a month since my last confession… or my last post.

I don’t know the proper penance for blog neglect, so I’ll just say “sorry” and move along.

Here’s a book report on my absence.

I tackled the Vineyard in a prior post, but this is my photo book report. I’m kick-starting it with a sunrise shot from the island.


photo by Mike Johnson


Things are pretty loosey-goosey during beach week. We sneak the dog along; everyone eats junk food; the grown-ups booze it up; the kids stretch their artistic wings.

And any canvas is fair game.





Sadly, all vacations must come to an end.

Back home and a week later, a stranger deposited a car on the farm. Unfortunately, the delivery method obliterated two sizable sections of our pasture fence. Wood shards, mangled wire, and vehicle shrapnel laid in the car’s wake.



Said vehicle did not fare well, either.


The driver was not present when Martin discovered the car “parked” in our pasture. Thankfully, the horses were not in that field that night. The sheep were, but they avoided impact and didn’t have the sense to capitalize on their nocturnal freedom.

The police documented the scene and the tow-truck driver removed the car and gathered most of the mangled, scattered car parts.

Let’s see…what else happened?

Well, I tried to make sense of our cluttered kitchen. It wasn’t as disastrous as the vehicular damage above. But the outcome was lackluster.



Foxhunting kicked off a little early this season. (The first weeks are focused on legging up horses and hounds). Brynn and Hadley made it out a few times — of course, with me in tow.



I rode Jazz in a horse show at the Maryland State Fair at the Timonium fairgrounds. Jazzy was surprisingly tolerant of the carnival rides and the fair’s freakshow environment.


Tempting and allegedly famous, but no pork sundae for me.


Amidst all these events — right when the kids went back to school — my mom decided to downsize her living arrangements. And when she makes a decision, she’s off to the races. In an instant, I was catapulted into 4 days of sorting through 150 years of family records, photos, documents and momentos from my father’s side of the family — in preparation to show the house and move on. (No time to shop for school supplies; the kids went to class with pencils in sandwich baggies and IOU notes for supplies later.)

Much of what I’ve earthed is boxed and stored. I’ve had scant time to review anything but here’s a sampling. This photo dates back to 1877 and the faint scrawl on the back is in Hungarian.



Other photos are well marked, like this one of my father and grandparents after the war. Their years of DP camp living were history; in 1951 they were happily living outside Philadelphia.


There’s lots to peruse, catalogue and label, when time allows.

Back to daily farm life.

Frog the cat disappeared in late-July. Although I hoped she’d found better digs, after a five-week absence, I feared the worst. But then she reappeared — dirty and scrawny but alive. I rehabbed her in Martin’s office. (“Why is Frog living in my office?” he asked as I set up a litter box. “Because she’s filthy and might have fleas or something else,” I said. “I’m not putting her in the house, for Pete’s sake!”)

Fortunately for Martin, Frog recovered quickly. Now we feed her far from the barn bullies.



There’s more I could add to my book report. For example, Rocky, our beloved pony, had eye surgery last week. But it’s late and that story can wait.

And I’m not closing with a picture of a cancerous tumor bobbing in formaldehyde.

I began with sunrise and I’ll close with sunset. We have some fabulous ones here. My photos sell them short, but this one will have to do.




Sorry, one closing journalistic sidebar: I planned to call this post “The Down-Low.” (Later, I realized that I confused “down-low” with “low-down.” But you get the idea… I wanted to give readers “the scoop” or “what’s new.”)

Anyway, I checked “down-low” to confirm that it’s hyphenated, and I spied the definition: down-low: pertaining to men who secretly have sex with other men. “What?” I thought. “WTF?”

So I looked up contemporary definitions and the results weren’t much better: a discreet activity or relationship, or men who identify as heterosexual but secretly have sex with men, particularly African American men who want to avoid the stigma in their community.

Wow, well there you go. You learn something new everyday!

Now that I’ve got the low-down on the down-low, I’ll just dish dirt, share the latest, or tell it like it is.