Finding Old Friends: A Strange Story of West Hempstead, LI
Posted by Peter M. Shane on December 26, 2010
The summer I turned seven, my family moved us from Wildwood Road, around the corner from Cornwell Avenue School, to a house on Woodfield Road, around the corner from Eagle Avenue. Throughout elementary school, my most frequent playmate was undoubtedly my next door neighbor, Kevin Kleffmann. Coming in a close second, however, would surely have been my across-the-street neighbor, Gary Ellson – at least until his family moved away. (I’m guessing that happened just before junior high.) In any event, from second grade until the Ellsons moved to Wantagh, Gary and I were close buddies — my clearest memory of us is trick-or-treating, he as a Union solder and I as a baseball player; we told anyone who asked that we were both “Yankees.” Because of this memory, Halloween — especially when my daughter was young — always brought Gary to mind. I’m pretty sure I tried Googling his name some years ago, although the name was too common to surface any reliable clue as to his whereabouts.
Last week, for no reason I can think of, I had a dream in which I was again in high school. I was a participant in a county-wide high school band (which, in reality, never happened) and, at our first practice, I ran into Gary. We were very happy to see one another and, after catching up a bit, I said to him, “How are Laurel and Judith?” Laurel and Judith were his younger sisters and, truth be told, I’m not completely sure I would have had a conscious memory of their names. I was thus so struck by the clarity of my memory in the dream that I couldn’t help but respond to the following thought: “Laurel Ellson” is a distinctive-sounding name; if she kept Ellson as a surname, she might be more easily discoverable online than Gary. So, I went to Facebook, searched for “Laurel Ellson,” and immediately found a woman who appeared to be in the right age range, whose hometown was “Wantagh.” After a couple of days’ thought, I decided to tell her all this via email (just assuming I had found the right person), only to share my best wishes with her family and, through her, to extend my regards to Gary.
Within hours, Laurel responded, warmly and in detail. She was, indeed, the sister of my childhood friend. She conveyed the sad news that Gary had died two years ago from brain cancer. What stunned me, however, is that she also shared the news that, until his death, Gary had been a resident of Columbus, Ohio, and a staff member at Ohio State University, where I have taught since 2003. With his wife, he co-founded the Actors Theater in Columbus, probably best known for its summer performances in our beautiful Schiller Park. In other words, a bright, funny companion of fifty years ago was again my neighbor, and I didn’t know it. Not knowing of Gary’s whereabouts, I had lost out on at least five years’ opportunity for renewed friendship with someone who had plainly grown up to be a smart, creative, energetic adult.
I don’t believe in omens or magical thinking, but I do take a lesson from this story: The impulse to reconnect should not be treated lightly. Gary lived clearly enough in my memory, and the Internet makes corresponding so easy, that I should have taken more seriously years ago the impulse to find him. The point would not have been to wander down Memory Lane – I doubt either of us would have remembered enough of Grades 2-6 to sustain much conversation – but for the mutual enjoyment of whom we had each grown up to be. Gary’s premature death was no doubt a profound loss to many, many people; I am sorry to have learned so late that I am among them.