Travelogue #8 – Mom’s hometown

It was hard to leave the horse ranch. After all, how often does one get to spend that much time hanging out with horses? Though the rain began again as I got ready to leave. It followed me for a bit on the road. Luckily, it didn’t get too bad but I was glad to leave it behind.

The drive from the horse farm to Rome, NY wasn’t too bad, which was why I had chosen to stop in between. I could have driven straight through from Findlay but that would have meant almost seven hours on the road, something I try to avoid.

My mother’s family is all from this area in upstate New York. Rome, Utica, Syracuse, Clinton, Rochester. It was her and her two sisters, Karen and Aleen.

Aleen, Mom (Estella) and Karen

She talked about going to Utica to get into trouble and how Rome had once been a thriving military community. But the military and manufacturing has all but abandoned those towns as jobs got sent overseas because corporations could make more money that way. They try to make us think that “foreigners” are taking jobs, but it’s really the corporations stealing your work.

Anyway …

When I was 19 (I think), my mother took me to Clinton to see where she grew up. I don’t think she had been home in years because we moved to Manitoba from Clinton when I was two years old. I doubt she ever went back. Apparently, her mother came to live with us for a couple of years but I must have been very young because I have no recollection of that.

When we went there at that time, my cousin, Carrie, and I kind of bonded. We were the same age. We were both writing a lot at that time. We had apparently started a novel of some sort via mail at that time. I also have barely any recollection of that.

Carrie’s sister, Kathryn, is a few years younger than we are. I remember her being there when I was 19 but that’s about it. I guess because she was younger, Carrie and I probably hung out more.

My aunt Aleen, the youngest of the three sisters, had a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Diane. Both seemed kind of odd, even at 19. Kevin – I think – was older than me, probably closer to my sister’s age. But Diane was kind of standoffish and I never really got to know her. When I asked Carrie about her, she didn’t know much either.

I have a few memories of that time. I remember my Aunt Aileen’s house because we stayed there. I remembered the town square probably because that’s one place that Mom had photos of. I remember Alteri’s, the local pizza place, because that was apparently my mom’s favorite hang out.

The next time I saw Carrie was in New York City in 1996. I went to stay with my sister in the city while I attended a film market. Carrie came down for a few days to join us. Somewhere, I have a photo of all three of us at the top of the Empire State Building.

I was kind of excited to go back to upstate New York. After seeing the village where my father’s father had been born, I thought it would be interesting to go back to where my mother had been born and raised, this time with a different mind-set.

I pulled up to Carrie’s house in Rome mid-afternoon. She’s been living in the same house for decades. It was her father’s parents’ house so it’s been in the family for some time. After a brief discussion, her husband, Derek, pulled a piece of the fence open so I could park in their yard. Apparently Rome is not terribly safe.

Rome used to house a military base and manufacturing. Both have all but vanished in the past couple of decades, leaving Rome struggling to survive.

The only mark on the whole visit was bringing Indy from the car into the trailer. I left him in the car while I got the trailer set, then loaded him into his stroller, figuring this would be the easiest way to move him from the street, around the back, into the yard. Carrie and Derek have a dog who is a husky mix so she had warned me that we needed to be careful because Gordy would probably attack.

Well, none of us were paying close enough attention and, sure enough, as I wheeled Indy around, Gordy attacked, determined to get Indy through the mesh of the stroller. Indy hiss and spit and growled like I have never seen him do before. Someone got Gordy under control and I got Indy into the trailer. Needless to say, Indy did not want to come out very often while we were there. It was no one’s fault – we were all distracted and talking and not paying close enough attention. However, nobody got hurt, just a little ruffled fur.

Once the pet drama calmed down, Carrie, Kathryn, Derek and I all sat outside on the porch. We had talked about social distancing and our circles and all of that. I have been following them on social media so I know their social circles are very small. Even still, after an initial quick hug, we all kept as safe a distance as possible during my entire time there.

We caught up on lives not discussed over decades. Getting to re-know each other was kind of weird considering we’re cousins. But we were never really close. Facebook has probably brought us closer, as much as it can. At least you can see what each other is up to.

Carrie and Kathryn’s friend, Donna, joined us later on the evening with her dog, Patches.

Nothing exciting to report other than just catching up, talking, laughing and connecting. Eventually, we all gave into the late hour and went to bed.

The next day ended up being mostly a work day, which I sorely needed. Carrie, Kathryn and a friend had plans so they went off while I hung out at Carrie’s. I got some trip stuff organized and figured out. Got a couple of postcards finished to send off. I also got the rough layout done of a new book about Indiana Jones figured out, so I went out to get that printed. Not exciting but necessary day. Not much to do in Rome, especially with so many things closed due to the pandemic.

Carrie’s husband had mentioned an art show that was nearby the next day, so I went by the gallery just to check things out and see if I could get the owner to let me sell my work. It was a cute little gallery called The Copper Easel. I guess that whole area of town has something to do with “copper” because a number of businesses had that in their name. The owner, Adam, was really nice and showed me around. The place was a small storefront but the walls had a nicely curated selection of local artists. He also mentioned that it wasn’t really a show the next day, but closer to an open house, where the artists would be there and promote their work. He explained how the area had just gotten a $10 million arts grant to renovate buildings, bring in new business, etc. They were just waiting for the pandemic to show signs of ending before they could really begin.

Ended up that night watching “Black Panther” with Derek. I was heartbroken over the loss of Chadwick Boseman. Talk about someone who was just really coming into his own. And the fact that he made so many films while fighting stage four cancer is something I can’t even wrap my brain around. Rest in power, my king.

Finally, late into the evening, Carrie and Kathryn came back home, a bit more than tipsy. They both tried to get into the trailer to say hi to Indy, which was simply not possible. Three of us cannot fit into that trailer. We talked about a few things but I knew neither of them would remember the next day so we tabled the discussion until morning.

And I was right. They didn’t remember trying to get into the trailer or anything we discussed. So we talked about my going over to Kathryn’s for a few days to meet her son, Larry, who is about to open a retro videogame store. We got logistics figured out for me to leave the next day.

Carrie’s father stopped by a couple of times while I was there. Aunt Karen died in June, so there was still a lot of healing going on. He had always been a bit of a hardass, but apparently he’s started softening up. I don’t have much to go on as I’ve only seen him a handful of times in my life. But I guess you can start over at any age.

In the meantime, I mentioned that I wanted to drive into Clinton to go see Mom’s home. I had planned to do it on my own but both Carrie and Kathryn decided to join me. I was so glad they did.

We drove by the arena as we entered Clinton.

I wondered if my father had ever played hockey there. He had been a semi-pro hockey player. If you saw the film, “Slapshot,” that was not only based on the league my father played in, he knew all the locations in the film and even some of the players. I never really knew how my parents met and I can’t help but wonder if it was at a local bar after a hockey game.

Clinton, New York is basically your little tiny village.


One main street with a fountain in the center. What impressed me was how much they have tried to keep the village looking the same. So while there may be yoga and sushi, the buildings probably still look like they did when my mother lived there. It was almost exactly how I remembered it from all those years ago.

We sat at the fountain and took a photo, trying to match a photo that my mom, Carrie and Kathryn’s mother, Karen, and the third sister, Aileen, had taken at the fountain years ago. I kind of screwed it up by not sitting with my legs crossed. But here we were, another generation at the fountain.


                                  Mom, Aleen and Karen                                         Kathryn, me and Carrie

We walked around a bit, found a cute little store that sold handmade merchandise. In the back, there was a whole display of wooden recreations of some of the buildings in town, including the arena and Alteri’s. Of course, I bought those to bring home with me. It was really nice to see such beautiful artisan work featured in a store like that in a village like that.

We tried to go Alteri’s but their hours were greatly reduced because of COVID and they weren’t open. Instead, we ended up with a feast of Chinese food eaten at a table outside in the square.

We traded stories that we had heard growing up – how poor the Puffer family was, how abusive our grandfather had apparently been. My mother had a ruptured eardrum from her father hitting her on the side of the head with a broom for coming home late. I guess my mom moved them – or at least her mother – out of the house at one point because of the alcoholism and the abuse. That didn’t stop the cycle. Alcoholism runs rampant all throughout our families, as we discovered. I guess all we can do is try to do better. And I guess be grateful that the abuse didn’t follow.

Carrie and Kathryn pointed out the various places they thought Grandma had lived. They thought my parents had lived above one of the shops in the village but were uncertain which one.


Grandma’s place

My parents possibly lived here.

After lunch, we drove up to Aunt Aileen’s house.

She’s been gone for some time and the place has been sold. However, it was just like I remembered it, only it seemed smaller. And I seemed to remember it being painted a darker color. I seemed to remember the inside being very dark. But, again, that was almost forty years ago, so who knows?

We went back to Carrie’s, stopping by a farmer’s market on the way. Carrie made chick rigatoni – or chicken riggies, as it’s called out there – which was delicious. We spent the rest of the evening just chatting.

Might not sound like an exciting couple of days, but I’m so glad I got to get to know Carrie again.

The next day, Carrie and I freed the trailer and I went to Kathryn’s.

Kathryn’s daughters and son are very cool people. It was another couple of days of just hanging out, getting some work done, talking with Kathryn and her kids, getting to know family.

During this time, we all realized that our mothers never really talked about growing up or their family. We only had the occasional story someone had heard from someone somewhere. No real strong oral history of the Puffer family. I think my sister has some stories from Mom, but even then, I don’t think there’s much.

I think that says a lot about how difficult living in that family had been for them.

We did talk a lot about being happy. All three of us have struggled with difficult marriages, hard choices in our lives, wondering if we’re doing the right thing. It made me think about what makes me happy – and am I happy, living on the road like this.

To be honest, I’m not sure. There are moments where I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Like tonight, sitting in front of a fire – that frankly too waaaaaay too long to catch – in Vermont, where I’ve been for four days. It’s so beautiful here. The air is so clear and pure. I’ve been hanging out at a little coffee shop in Brattleboro, the nearest town. I’ve gotten a lot of work done while still being able to venture out and enjoy myself. For the moment, I’m happy. And this trip has been filled with dozens of those moments – coming up on two young does on either side of the road as I left Montana, who stood and waited for me for a moment before running off; the sunset in Montana; everything about Portland; the horse farm; the goats on the farm early on; watching Indiana Jones discover his wild nature, prowling around and begging to be outside. The happy moments definitely outweigh the tough ones, without a doubt. But happy? I guess no one can be happy all the time, every minute. But I do know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. So many little things happen that keep me going and keep me on track that I can’t help but feel that this is what I’m supposed to do. Inspiring? I don’t think so. I’m just living.

So while the time in New York wasn’t fancy and wasn’t filled with a million memorable things, it was filled with love and connection. I’m so glad I got to see my cousins. And I had a lot of moments not believing that I had actually made it that far. It was worth it just for a few moments with family that are so very far away. I only hope we continue to remain connected.

Next up, on to Vermont. Stay tuned …

One thought on “Travelogue #8 – Mom’s hometown

  1. That made me cry! But in a good way. You and Indy are always welcome at my homestead. I am thankful of the time we got to spend reconnecting or actually, connecting!

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