My father grew up poor. Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread. His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he grew up poor. My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story. Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it nearly always came to me around Christmas when it was cold and snowy. Winters were like that in those years, always cold and snowy.
It was Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish. All three generations went down into the mines, every day, before dawn and surfaced again long after the sun had set. Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit. Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm. It all came crashing down when their simple farm-house burned to the foundation. After seeing his family safely out, all my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover. My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet. He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.
But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve.
It was in the early 1920’s. The four children were asleep in the remote farm-house my grandparents rented. Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome. It was too quiet. There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night…the reality of their lives erased those kind of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.
He slipped on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove. The room was empty and the coal stove was barely warm. The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling was turned on. My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale. He called out. He heard nothing. Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing cold flow of outside air. In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house. He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints. They led across a small pasture and through a gate. From there the trail went up a small hill and faded from his sight. He followed the trail. Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions. A child’s fear swept over him. Were the young kids being abandoned? It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years in rural America.
At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope. He pushed ahead and went to the edge of the pit…and looked down.
At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside. They had nearly filled the bucket with the chunks of black rock. They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them. They looked back at each other with a heart breaking sadness. They didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids. They stared at each other and then up at my dad.
“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty. Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”
My father hopped down and in only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal. The bucket was filled. They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.
In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again. My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee. He went up stairs to bed and fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.
Years later when I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve. I had not been very good that day, and I was afraid. No one, however, had spoken of The Threat that would punish naughtiness.
“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy..tell them to go to hell.”