Hiking in Acadia with the ghosts of my grandfathers

Solo hike above Maine’s Cranberry Islands, I remember the summer when my grandparents taught me how to play poker. When Grandpa Tom took a bet from Grandma Betsy or Ms. Paulsen their lovely friend from Mahopac, NY, he would say, “She obviously has a full blouse.” If he spilled crisps or spilled beer, he would mutter, “That damn dropsy again.” The joke I didn’t understand was that dropsy was short for hydropsy, a heart swollen with excess water, but he used it to explain why he dropped things, like s ‘he had the jerks.

I later found out that the symptoms of the hydropsy were chest pain, swollen ankles, difficulty breathing, tingling in the arm, things you can’t imagine at 9 years old. Having the shakes or a wet brain meant you were perhaps a little too fond of gin mills. I didn’t understand half of his jokes, but I looked up dropsy in our World Book and asked my parents and teachers about it. Edema, that meant. Or a swollen heart, from which you could die. Victims of this disease included Roman Emperor Hadrian, fat Prime Minister Khrushchev, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, and of course Grandfather Jim, my father’s father, a teetotaler who died of a heart attack in 36 years old, when my father was 8 months old. My father also died of a heart attack when he was only 61 years old. This is why my cardiologist has a heart attack if I don’t exercise six days a week or even watch a cheeseburger. My wife Jennifer too, because she wants to save the earth and the animals. Save me too, won’t you, honey? Sorry, she said. Just the earth and the animals.

Grandpa Tom would have loved Jennifer, but he died at age 72 in 1972, long before she and I met. He died of what they called asbestosis, which he “caught” while wrapping pipes with asbestos in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war. His own father had died before I was born, also because he was covering pipes. My great-grandfather’s name is on a plaque in the lobby of the Empire State Building that honors the best craftsmen, the first workers to earn a dollar an hour, who built it so quickly and steadily in 1930 and 31. The best plumber, best plasterer, best terrazzo, best carpenter, in alphabetical order by their last names, 32 in all. PETER MADDEN, says his line, in bronze on a black background, ASBESTOS WORKER.

Great job, Grandpa Pete! I always think of you when I hear about mesothelioma or when I see Saul Steinberg’s drawing of the view looking west from Manhattan, over the Rockies, to Japan. i thought i could see Asia from the Empire State Bridge, because Grandpa Tom told me I could, “although it’s a little too cloudy today”.

In the early 1950s, in the lair of a white-planked house in Northeast Harbor here on Mount Desert Island, Marguerite Yourcenar and Grace Frick, Madame’s life partner and co-translator, faced each other in armchairs. captain upholstered in green on a strange double desk custom-made for them by a local carpenter. Their typewriter duels clacked and clacked, Madame Yourcenar’s old black with a French AZERTY keyboard, Frick’s modern green Royal with a QWERTY, like “Mémoires d’Hadrien”, published in 1951, became “Mémoires d ‘Hadrien “, published three years later, each a unique mistress. Madame’s sixty-something, Latin-speaking bisexual emperor is “is about to die of a dropsy of the heart”, While in his collaborative version with Frick, he is a little less ready to go to hell:“ on the verge of dying of a dropsy heart. ”

These days, at 70, with my own case of dropsy, I can’t stand the thin air of the Rockies or the Alps. Because my COVID beard is white, my poker buddies started calling me Bulger or Whitey. Dosed with TriCor, Losartan and fish oil, I find the Irish and Appalachian mountains much more my speed. Croagh Patrick, for example, riding through loose, jagged, and far too stiff shale in good boots alongside bare legs and feet smeared with penitential blood on purpose. Realizing that I hadn’t filled a fifth of the way up Lugnaquilla with water. Angry, hangover, the Connemara Bens in the morning after finishing a place out of the money in the Irish Poker Open Main Event. Or today on that sunburned but hydrated, DEET-stinking coast 2,600 miles across the Atlantic on a low-impact hike through nearly flat pink and blue granite .

Looking for ticks on a bench in the shade of three pine trees, I pull off a sock and take a cold look at the deeply wavy band around my right. ankle. Still on the run in Santa Monica at 81, Bulger used to stretch the elastic of his socks around 64-ounce soda bottles to diminish those embarrassing marks betraying peripheral edema or something much worse, but he was clubbed to death in a West Virginia prison called Misery Mountain, aged 89, with a sock with a padlock inside, because he was a rat and a killer.

I take off my left sock, I don’t find any ticks there either. I won’t live forever, of course, but right now, as I palpate my pulse and start counting, I would take 89, or even 81, in the blink of an eye.

James McManus is the author of “Positively Fifth Street” and 10 other books. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and America’s Best Anthologies of Poetry, Sports Writing, Political Writing, Magazine Writing, and Science and Nature Writing.

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