The Winters Of My Life

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“Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.  If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.” 

–Robert Service. The Cremation of Sam Magee

I live in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York.  I don’t live in the Yukon.  But lately, I feel like the Yukon would be a bit more comfortable.  Am I living in Lapland or Spitzbergen or Thule…in lovely Greenland?

Don’t get me wrong.  Don’t misunderstand.  Don’t think I’ve lost my spirit and my love for wintertime.  I love snow.  I used to be able to skate backwards on the Brick Pond when I was young.  Remember the Brick Pond blog post?  Of course you do.  I have fond memories of the winters of my life.  My childhood girlfriend and I built a fantastic snowman in my front yard on Front Street after an unusual April snowstorm.  It was probably 1963.  In four days it was a pile of melted snow…like Frosty.  A birch tree grows in that place where the snowman stood and wasted away that April.

My brothers and I would play ‘Fox & Geese’ in our backyard on dark December evenings.  We’d make paths in the 18″ of snow, making figure 8’s and sharp turns…and then the game began.  It was a form of Tag, except you were expected to not just ‘tag’ someone…you would push them into the snow.

It was unbelievable fun.

And, we’d take our snowsuits off in the backroom and our faces were red and our clothes steamed from melting snow and sweat and our mother made hot chocolate and maybe popcorn while we changed clothes…into our flannel pajamas.  No hot chocolate or popcorn has tasted as good as it did on those winter nights in the 1950’s.

But, time moves on and bodies get older and the joy of moving snow has become a challenge that I can hardly face these days.  See the path to the garage?  I’ve shoveled such a path for sixteen years…at least (this is a rough guess) 30 times a year.  That makes an estimated 480 times I’ve pushed the shovel and threw the snow from the front porch to the garage door.  (I’d feel comfortable rounding that number up to 600).  Then came the carrying of the garbage and recycling bags.  Then I would walk into the garage where the bins are and find myself holding onto something to prevent my slipping on the frozen surface of the floor (from the melting of the snow from the car).

My back hurts in places I didn’t know existed.  I’ve learned all about the L3 and L4 that I will need surgery to correct my stenosis.  I think I may have had enough of the North Country winters.

I always believed that people needed four distinct seasons to keep one’s brain alive and enjoy the difference in weather.  In my hometown of Owego, NY, we had four seasons.  None of them went on too long…some of them like autumn were too short.  But, here in the Adirondacks there are five seasons. Sounds great, right?  Well it comes down to this:

  • A Long Winter
  • Mud
  • Bugs
  • A Short Summer
  • A Brief Autumn

I’ve checked my indoor/outdoor thermometer on a March night and saw that it was -38 F.  This was early in our years in the North Country.

“Mariam, let’s step outside and take a breath.  The inside of your nares will feel like pin pricks.”

“No,” she said.

“But it’s bracing, invigorating and stimulating,” I said.  “You never experienced this in Queens.” She stared at me for a moment probably wondering if I truly understood the word “NO”.  She went back to the warm sofa and picked up her book.

Clearly she didn’t fully understand the vibrant and visceral pleasures of walking our loop road when it’s forty below zero.  Sometimes I find her hard to understand.  What was her problem with a bit of a chill in the air?  It took me a year or two to fully get her point.

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[We never got around to setting this clock back an hour.  It’s really 11:20 on December 15 as I finish this blog. It’s expected to go down to -14 F in a few hours…but I can’t stay up that long. So take my word for it.]

I own more fleece than is legal.  I own enough wool to keep all the Irish Aran Island knitters in their due pint of Guinness.  I have seven pairs of gloves, none of which keeps my fingers from numbness.

So, without regret, we are relocating to New York City for about six months.  This is not because of my whining, mind you.  It’s a professional move on the part of my wife, Mariam.

This is a fantastic country here in the Adirondacks, but it’s a young person’s world.

The skiing is great on Whiteface this year, so I read.  But when your age is on the wrong end of the 60’s, I’d rather let someone else move the snow.

The weather in the City can be bitter in the winter when the wind blows off the Hudson, but I won’t have to shovel a path to put my garbage out or to get the newspaper.  All I have to worry about is the slush in the gutters that will be my challenge as I stroll up Broadway to Zabars for some Irish Cheddar and some salmon fillets.

And, if its way too awful to get out…I can always order take-out from a Chinese restaurant.

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[Mariam and I in front of our new home in 2000. Who would have guessed?]

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Coal For Christmas

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[Artwork:Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]

Another year and another chance for me to share this holiday post…

 I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-ninth year. The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings. I’m the old one now. I am the carrier of the family history. When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold. No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines. Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

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, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item 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 rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse 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 kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid 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.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low 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 of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard. But deep within, he knew of his parents’ unconditional love and concern. He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished and loved.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface. His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

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 slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see. He looked down.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

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 a 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 sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The kitchen stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down and after 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. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York. I was born two years later, in 1947.

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“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: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

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[Artwork: Unfinished watercolor sketch by Paul Egan (Date unknown)]