Farewell Marcel

[Volumn #1]

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

–Marcel Proust

As I strolled through the Parisian gardens of Luxembourg I paused and watched the people absorbing the sun’s warmth which was peeking, like a cat burglar, through the sweet gate in the sky made possible by the slowly drifting clouds that often looked dark and menacing at times and light, dazzling and adamantine at others. I opened a package of Madelines I was never without and dipped one in a small cup of tea I had purchased from a portly gentleman with a bushy mustache and a pocket that sagged with the spare francs he had earned that day. The scent of the tea on the little cookie entered into my every senses. I began to think of my youth, the girls I loved who had by now become stately women. I touched my beard, newly trimmed, and could feel the grayness of my hair. I was old. What happened to all those Lost Years, the years of my older youth, my early middle age and now my late middle age? I had yet to taste of the fruits of old age with its wrinkles, gray hair and painful legs. I had yet failed in my attempts to rediscover the Lost Time of my life. My memories were fading and I must learn ways to regain the imagery and sensations of the questionable choices I had made in the heat of my youth when my blood ran hot in my veins and laughter came easy. But along with the cheers and smiles I am beginning to recall how hard and fast my heart breaks. I have loved but my love was too dear for the women I most desired.

I brought the Madeline to my nose again. I drew in an olfactory sensation that brought back my most elusive memories. I closed my eyes and somewhere, behind my eyes and between my ears were the smells of burning leaves along Front Street of Owego in the state of New York, the town where my childhood was played out like a Shakespearian play, sometimes a tragedy sometimes a comedy. The leaves gave way to the sweet fragrance of a newly mown lawn along Main Street. The old river town has changed over the years, I am told, into a boutique village of cafes and antique shops selling the latest of the old town’s ephemera. One can sit in the sun and watch the slowly drifting Susquehanna River as it winds its way to the Chesapeake Bay. Up on Cemetery Hill, the moss grows over the lettering of the graves of young men and women I played with in sandy baseball fields and snowy hills that seem to exist only to provide gravity to an eight-year-old boy on a sled. How many languid afternoons has seen me at The Fair Grounds, eating sloppy cheesesteak sandwiches and watching the horses race the oval track. On the back row of seats in the grandstand is where I may have tasted my first Madeline.

I shall set a goal for myself. Some people are driven by their need for achieving certain goals. Driven to do such picaresque actions these goals are sometimes achievable and sometimes not. Some people have the ability to set recording devices in order to never miss an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or the Hoarders. Some set themselves on arduous journeys to summit Everest or Denali or the Matterhorn. Others will bike their way across Iowa. Many jump out of airplanes (on purpose) to feel the rush of the wind as they free fall a thousand feet. I set my goal several years ago (I’m not saying when) to read what is arguably the longest novel ever written (not counting the Game of Thrones books). I was going to read Proust’s magnum opus: A La Recherche du Temps Perdu or otherwise referred to in English as In Search of Lost Time. It will be a daunting task. The book (depending on the edition) runs from 3,000 to 4,000 pages. My eyes must look at and understand 1,267,069 words. The books are six in number. I must search for and find the longest sentence ever written. That sentence clocks in at 847 words.

I am proud and somewhat amazed that I have only fifty pages left to complete this gargantuan task. At times the book can be like sucking fudge through a straw. The exquisite power of the language, the depth of the writing, the scope of the descriptions, the insights into love, death, grief, loneliness, lust, desire and dreams of men and women. I truly believe that if one calls him or herself a lover of books, then reading Proust is a must do action.

I have read many books in my life (so far) but none of them can stand up under the blazing light of Proust. If you like challenges…read these books. You’ll never see another book, your life and your dreams and memories the same way again…ever.

[Proust had little need for paragraph breaks, commas and pictures.]

[All photos are mine.]

Out Of The Woods

Goodbye’s too good a word, babe

So I’ll just say “Fare thee well”

–Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”

[Our front yard on July 10, 2022. Photo is mine.]

Look close. It’s hard to see. If you’re reading this post on a laptop, you’re out of luck. On a mobile device you can use your fingers to enlarge the photo. See the sign in the background? The one that reads: Tir Na Nog. It refers to a very old Irish legend. Tir Na Nog is (was) the Land of Eternal Youth. If you lived there, you would never grow old. If you left that place, and touched the ground in the ‘outside’ world…you could never return. And you would grow old and eventually die. This was the name of our camp in the Adirondacks. The whole spell worked for a time, and then it didn’t. I grew old.

The sign in the foreground speaks for itself.

A small bit of backstory here.

I have been coming to these mountains since I was five years old. Seventy years of family camping, canoeing, hiking, climbing and building sand castles became part of my DNA. As a teenager I first had the feeling that living in these glorious hills was a dream to be wished. Time passes. Hiking partners, several dear friends and a brother or two…fellows who shared a cramped lean-to, built campfires, swam and sweated together began to move on (a sweet euphemism for death), leaving me alone without the motivation to climb just one more summit or paddle to just one more lake.

Did I mention that I have a deep fear of being alone? Loneliness most often brings me to tears.

A hiatus set in for several years. Then I met the woman who would be my wife. Even though she was born and raised in Queens, she took to camping like a bird takes to the clouds. She loved it. She often said that the Adirondacks were “soul satisfying”. So we bought a house in the woods where deer and bears roam, by a lake with a dozen loons, under skies that rang out with thunder and the rain fell by the pailful. We moved from our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Rainbow Lake in November, 2011. We decorated with gusto, bought a wood stove, hung Adirondack posters, bought several kayaks and a new pair of hiking boots. We were happy…until we weren’t.

[Our house is nearly hidden by the trees. Photo is mine.]

Those of you who have followed me on WordPress have read my many posts highlighting my many complaints about the harsh weather, the length of winter and the incessant presence of mosquitoes, gnats and black flies. A winter or two ago we had a week of frigid arctic air. The high temperature for that week never rose above -9° F. But make no mistake. I have also celebrated the quiet snowfalls, the early summer wildflowers and the jaw-dropping autumn colors.

So, I’m turning another page in the book of my life. Pending any financial issues, we have found a buyer. Boxes are already filled and labelled: BOOKS FROM PAT’S OFFICE. TO NYC. Eleven years of memories are going with us…but just as many are staying…for the new owners and for a few friends.

Not an hour ago I said a tearful farewell to my daughter, Erin, her husband, Bob and to my precious grandson. Elias got to see where grandpa has spent the last decade. I’m so thankful for that. The next time he visits, I’ll be taking him to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

I will be trading the tall pines that surround our house with skyscrapers of glass and steel. Some of my friends don’t care for urban life but I thrive on the buzz, the convenience and the lack of isolation. As I wrote a few lines ago, the wilderness (the Adirondacks have lost the real sense of wilderness experience to the masses of hikers seeking this very isolation…ironic, but true), breeds loneliness in my soul. Where I once found solace and quiet, I now find sadness. The ghosts of my brothers and close friends lurk around alder thickets and shadowy forests. I can not escape them.

[Manhattan skyline. Photo is mine.]
[Our front yard. Photo is mine.]

But the Adirondacks haven’t seen the last of me. I will surely be back to take care of the items still resting at the bottom of my bucket list. I’ll return on a glacially cold day in a future January and ski the slope on Whiteface Mountain where the Men’s Downhill was held in 1932 and again in 1980. Then I intend to learn the intricate moves of curling and join a pick-up team.

Or maybe I won’t.

I already have a plan. Once we’re settled in an apartment, I’m going to order Chinese take-out. Or perhaps I’ll take a walk in Central Park to experience nature.

I will have the freedom to choose.

Paying It Forward: More Late Night Thoughts on Greg

“And when I come to the dim trail-end,

I who have been Life’s rover,

This is all I would ask, my friend,

Over and over and over:

//

Stars that gleam on a moss-grey stone

Graven by those who love me–

There would I lie alone, alone,

With a single pine above me;

Pine that the north wind whinnys through–

Oh, I have been Life’s lover!

But there I’d lie and listen to

Eternity passing over.”

–Robert Service Heart O’ The North

[Greg just outside Owego. February, 1960]

A Labatts Blue in his right hand, a left hand on my shoulder. We were arguing in an Owego tavern that if I would just give him fifteen minutes he would prove to me how cell phones were going to ruin my life. I deftly avoided the conversation. Greg was set in his ways. Not only was he mistaken, but without cell phones, I would never have to take his call and tell him how to get to our Adirondack home so many times in the early days of 2011.

I was privileged to be given the opportunity to delivery his eulogy. I regret nothing of what I said. My major failure was what I had left out.

So, gather the grandchildren, the aunts, sisters, brothers, a wife, and his sons. Gather his friends alongside his family. We are now the Flame Keepers, the storytellers and the sources of one man’s history. It must live on and on. Say it all loud and with conviction. Make no apologizes for a flawed human. Tell his life like it was. Hold nothing back. Don’t leave the painting half-finished. Future generation not yet born will thank you.

[Greg on Avalanche Lake at the base of Mt. Colden]

The day will come when the younger generations will be asking those who lived back in those days: “I wonder what Grandpa would say about that?”

If only he were still by my side. I knew him well but still have as many questions as the stars in the sky.

Yesterday morning I was walking a wooded path. The trail headed east so I had to squint and shade my eyes against the sun. I saw him. I’m sure it was him. He was standing on a mountaintop with the rising sun ahead of him. The morning mist was slowly being burned away by the sun.

[Greg on the summit of Mt. Colden. Temperature was about -10° F. Year was 1960-61]

Was he waiting for me? He beckoned. To me? He pointed to the east. Did he want me? Did he need me?

Then, somehow I was near him. His eyes were filled with tears of contentment. There was a hint of sadness for those he left behind. But he seemed filled with joy that he had at last reached his final destination. His final summit.

I heard his voice clearly in my mind: “There is no end to this, Pat. There are more trailheads and beginnings than I ever thought existed.”

He took a step away…distancing himself. “Don’t be long. I don’t like waiting.” These were his last audible words to me. “Let’s have one more cup of coffee till we go to the valley below.”

Thanks again, Greg. This time for teaching me how to enjoy ‘nuclear’ wings at Rattigan’s and how to savor a Lupo’s Spiedie.

We each learned from the other. But I doubt he ever fully understood what an Emoji was. Then again, maybe he did.

[Me in an alpine valley, Alaska. 1967]

A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

The Migratory Habits of Cockle Shells, Birds & Yankees

[Recent snow storm near Owego, NY. Photo courtesy of my friend Mark Mendelson]

[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this humble blog to my friends and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, were caught up in a Late-Spring Snowstorm. No wonder many of my classmates from high school moved to the south or mid-south after graduation. After a winter in Fort Myers, Florida, I totally get it.] Now the blog:

All Things Must Pass–A George Harrison album name.

[A palm frond. Down and out at winter’s end. Photo is mine]

We are taking our late afternoon walk down Cuarto Lane. One must wait until after 6:30 pm for such a stroll. Otherwise, it’s so barking hot the sun will melt your polyester toupee, it’ll bleach your already grey hair and sear your retina unless your wearing Ray Bans. I’m not wearing Ray Bans. I’m wearing cheap Walgreen’s sunglasses. I can feel the plastic rims get soft. That’s why 6:30 is our cut-off time.

But I digress.

On our walk yesterday I snapped a photo of a palm frond, on the grass, beside the Lane waiting to be picked up by the Resort maintenance crew. I saw it as a symbol of a season’s completion. Just like the leaves in Autumn in the mountains of the Adirondacks or all of New England. The frond spoke to me. It was lamenting the fact that it was done with contributing any and all Oxygen to the atmosphere. No more photosynthesis, it said. I stopped to answer back but my wife, Mariam tugged at my arm.

“Don’t! The neighbors are watching.”

But I got the point. All things must pass, even palm fronds. And even Snowbirds like us. Soon we leave this little bit of paradise and go north. Back to our home on Rainbow Lake and the very real possibility of a freak mid-June snowstorm. Think I’m kidding? We once sat at the bar of Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. It was May 31, my birthday, and we were have a quick glass of wine before a lovely steak dinner at the Adirondack Steak & Seafood. I spun around in my bar stool to look out at Mirror Lake, but it was snowing…no, it was blizzarding. I saw the fronds as a metaphor for our eventual departure. But, there’s more:

This blog is about travel, migration and departing. Here is something of interest:

[A Bar-tailed godwit (L. lapponica. Photo: Google search]

The bird shown above happens to hold the record for longest migratory flight yet discovered. The Godwit has been found to have the ability to fly 6,800 miles without any layovers. (Think of it as Jet Blue with feathers). Now, I don’t know what impresses you, my reader, but 6,800 miles is one badass flight. In doing the research necessary to bring you this post I also found out that some long-term migratory birds can do awesome things on their journey. One species has the ability to eat, fly, sleep and mate while on the wing. My brain short circuits when I think of humans doing these sorts of things. Myself? I can barely drive along a country road for a country mile while eating a cheeseburger.

Well, so much for the avians. Time to discuss Cockle shells.

[This is a Cockle shell. I found it and a zillion others on the beach this very afternoon. Photo is mine]

The Cockle shells litter the edges of the beach…where the waves wash up and then back into the sea. Whole shells, bits of shells…shells of all kinds are found in the sands of Sanibel Island. I find pleasure in picking one from the knee deep water and holding it for the iPhone camera. But, like everything else along a shoreline, the waves and currents are constantly moving the shells along only to replace them with newer ones. If I were to stand at the exact same spot on the exact same beach at the exact same time next year, I will reach into the sand beneath my feet and find another Cockle shell…exactly like the one I found today. I’m not sure what the point is about all this, but it does remind one of moving along, going away, traveling and replacing one environment (the beach) with another (the Adirondack lake shores). Some of my readers will say:

“A place in the Adirondacks? You have waterfront? Kayaks? Canoes? A screened-in porch? A quiet place in the playground of New York State? And you’re not satisfied? Are you playing with a full hand?” The truth is that I enjoy the Adirondacks very much, but not like I used to. As a little boy I played in sands of many of the most popular beaches in the ‘dacks. But I’m not a boy. I’m not a healthy fit young teenager who would climb any peak at the mere suggestion of doing it. Two of my three brothers were Adirondack oriented men. Both are no longer with us. I have found that around every bend in a trail, every curve in the road and every paddle stroke I make to round an island, I see the ghosts of my brothers. I’m tired of seeing ghosts, both figurative and real.

I love the night sky and the Adirondack air is fairly free of light pollution. The stars tumble out in numbers that are not humanly countable. I’ve slept on mountain peaks and counted the stars. I gave up after reaching 3,000 points of light. But our house is surrounded by trees and my patch of sky above our house can be covered with one open hand.

I want to see for miles while standing at sea level.

Which brings us to Yankees. Sorry, but this is not about the Bronx Bombers. This is about snowbirds who flock to Florida for the winter. I’m one of them. A yankee? In one sense, that is the definition of anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But what about my one-time sailing partner here in Fort Myers? He was from Toronto. Well he’s a yankee too, by my definition.

I’m lonely and I’m restless. How many years do I have left to see the world? Only a seer can answer that kind of question.

[This not my car. Mine is cobalt blue. Photo: Google search]

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

–Bob Dylan “Boots of Spanish Leather”

Late Night Thoughts on Connie Francis

Spring and summer were still weeks away, although summer seems to permanently exist here in Florida. But still…

I was sitting in the lanai making notes on developing and writing and publishing a blog about music and the importance of Connie Francis. We had just been to the beach and my head was full of Beach Boy songs. I asked Alexa to play a few more when we returned home. But, I knew there was more to summer and sand music then Brian Wilson & Company. Out of the blue it came to me. I stopped making notes and picked up my iPhone and went straight to Spotify. There they were. I downloaded (or is it uploaded?) several songs by Connie Francis. I sat back and played Where The Boys Are. Her sweet alto voice rising and falling stopped me in my tracks. This was the music of my youth, those halcyon days of bikes, pools and buzzing cicadas.

Where the boys are, where the boys are, someone waits for me…

I look around me. I’m fourteen again. My towel is damp from three hours in the pool. I sit on the steps of my childhood home and talk to my neighbor Craig:

“What do you wanna do today?”

“I dunno, what do you want to do?”

“Beats me, what do you want to do?” Our days were carefree and full of Beach Boys, Tommy Sands, Neil Sedaka and Connie Francis.

In the crowd of a million people, I’ll find my valentine…

[Our helpmate Alexa]

Our thoughts turned to the movies: “Let’s go to the movie tonight,” Craig would suggest. “They’re showing “Beach Blanket Bingo”. This was just after “How To Stuff a Wild Bikini” ran for two weeks. Before that the marquee read: “Dr. Goldfoot” (I’m not making this up.). The next feature was slated to be “Muscle Beach Party”. One could get a shoe full of sand just watching these classics. Many starred Frankie Avalon or Tommy Kirk and, of course Annette Funicello. All the guys around our age, and I suspect a few fathers just adored Annette as a star of the Mickey Mouse Club. And its no wonder. Annette had the biggest…..head of black hair than any other Mousketeer.

And then I’ll climb to the highest steeple and tell the world he’s mine.

Later in life, sad things befell Connie and Annette. It saddens me.

Thank you two ladies for some of the best music of my teenage years.

Now, sitting in the Florida warmth, the ceiling fan whirring above my head, I can feel a bit of the exuberance of youth. Even though I’ve come to fully accept the limitations of age, the pains, the aches, the regrets and the triumphs, I can still appreciate the songs written for the Young At Heart.

But that’s another story for another time. And besides, perhaps inside my worn body beats the heart of a hopeful young boy.

Thank you, Lord, for Spotify.

A Memory Is Immortality

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

—Anon

[A cremation box, not my brother’s]

I stood and stared at the box. I was alone. All the relatives, guests and friends had left after the service. The room was quiet except for the almost imperceptible recorded tones of funeral music. I stood several feet away from the box, in the center of the room. I took three steps backwards and sat in one of the empty folding chairs. I continued to gaze at the box. I had asked the funeral director if I could have the room to myself for a few minutes to gather my thoughts.

The box, golden hued, had only a few words printed on one side:

Daniel Charles Egan

March 1, 1945 – December 26, 2019

Inside the box were the cremains of my brother…my last brother. I began to wonder which Dan I was thinking about. Was this the teenager that took apart a ’57 Ford in the backyard and after honing the cylinders, put the entire thing back together. (He had two bolts left over when he finished.) Was this the guy who used-up most of my Brylcreem on his curly hair before a sock hop at Owego Free Academy?

Or was this the boy that swam away hours at Brown’s Tract Pond when we went family camping each summer in the Adirondacks?

Was his the hand behind the wickedly fast snowball that nearly took my ear off, or maybe the future boat maker who turned down an offer of $11,000 for his hand-crafted Adirondack Guide Boat?

Was this the reader who was fascinated by the history of the Mohawk Valley, who collected Native American sinker stones or flint chips of arrowheads?

It occurred to me that in that box were the remains of a great many Dan Egans.

But not all of Dan’s existence consisted of possessing skills (he was a licensed pilot) and knowledge. Early in the 1990’s life began to take on a downward spiral. His only daughter died tragically.

This was quickly followed by the passing of our mother which was shortly before our eldest brother, Chris died. In the late ’90’s and into the next century Dan survived cancer only to lose the battle in 2019.

All that was left of my last brother was inside that box.

Now, as the years pass, more and more of his friends have died. He survived (barely) Viet Nam and was still being handed a piece of Viet Cong shrapnel that the surgeons found every time he had a hip replacement.

So, that’s the end of the life of my brother.

Or is it?

Many years ago I read the perspective of the Native American view on death. To them, it’s all about stories. As long as someone is spoken about after death, then they never really have died. The memory of someone lives on into the future…as long as there is a story to tell or a song to sing about that person. As Dan’s story is told, he’s not in any box. He’s sitting next to me, alive as he could be. Dan’s memory will fade in our hearts over time…but he’ll remain part of the living world.

I know it’s my turn next, but I have children and they will have children and they will carry Dan’s story with them. They will know Dan through the tales I will tell. One could say that it’s only a box with some ashes but the story doesn’t end there.

Go ahead, speak of the departed…but tell the listener to speak with loving generosity.

Coal For Christmas

[My regular readers will recognize this story. I republish it every holiday season with a tweak here and there. This story is true and I am passing it down to new readers and my two children. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great and meaningful holiday.]

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor]

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventy-fourth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now, the last of the Egans.  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, 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 my parents lived  during any particular winter.  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 any 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, Paul and Jack and two girls, Jane and Nelda 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 pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were five sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was nearly out. My father managed to find three lumps of fist size coal hidden or forgotten behind the bin. 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.  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 tracks.  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. A nearly full moon shining off the snow gave the landscape a light that helped him keep on the trail of the four footprints.

In his anxiety my father had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

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 eight feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking various-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 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 that midnight trip to the coal pit, my family 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.”

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor.]

Ghosts? Who Am I To Judge?

[illustration of mysterious man behind glass surface. Source: Google search.]

To me, Halloween evokes memories of walking down Front Street in Owego, NY, kicking the piles of unraked leaves while dressed up in a throw-it-all-together costume. Clutching paper bags, my friends and I would go door to door seeking treats. There was a chill in the air, mixed with the rotting leaves that produced a scent that has stayed with me over the years. Never has an autumn arrived that doesn’t take me back to the old houses of Owego and the leaves.

It was a magical evening that enriched my store of memories that etched themselves in my fascination with the past.

Before the advent of such films as Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, the themes were witches, Frankenstein, vampires of all sorts and ghosts. Every young kid on the streets that night became believers in spirits from beyond the grave.

It certainly didn’t hurt to live in a town overshadowed by the presence of the awesome Evergreen Cemetery set on a hill to the north of town.

Do I believe in ghosts? I’d like to say that I do but I am a true skeptic. I’ve heard many strange unsettling stories about my hometown over the years and I do believe some of them sound quite believable. But still I wonder. I have never seen a spirit (once in a B&B in Cooperstown a voice called me at night.)

I post many photos in my blogs and on Facebook and I love looking at supposed “spirit photos’. I look at these pictures and wonder.

Here are four of my favorite:

[The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Source: Wikipedia]

This photo has never to my knowledge been fully debunked or proven authentic. This is arguably the most famous ‘ghost’ photo that has been published.

[Little girl being comforted by a friend/brother sitting on the stairs. Source: Wikipedia]

I have no comment on this photo.

[Who is in the corner? Source: Wikipedia]

Again, I am not familiar with the background of this photo.

[Little girl looks into a pool. Source: Wikipedia]

This photo has always fascinated me. If it’s a faked picture, it’s a very clever one.

It’s creepy!

[If you care to comment on any of these or just tell a ghost story, be my guest. pegan7@roadrunner.com.]

BONUS PHOTO

[ A Peek at my collection of ghost stories.]
[Source: Google search.]

Dear Kristin

[Source: Google search]

Your betrothed, Brian has no idea that I’m sending you this note. He is probably at his computer working out his next Bitcoin move. I will be quick with this note because my furlough from Dannemora will begin soon and the mini-van will be picking me up any minute to take me to my part-time job at the pumpkin farm. I hope you received my monthly payment of $3.77 for restitution.

I am just a poor old man about to lose his only son to you. It will be especially difficult to work the old farm without my boy. Now it’s up to me and Old Paint to get the last of the hay cut and stored in what’s left of the barn after the fire. Old Paint is getting on in years and one of these days I’ll have to take him out behind the woodshed and….oh, I can hardly think of it. That will leave Mariam and I to plow and harrow our two acre farm.

I think we’ll move to Kansas.

So, from what Brian tells me, you’re to have a small party to celebrate your blessed union. And it’s only one week away! My how time flies. I feel like it was only yesterday that I took him to the Five and Dime for his first pair of bib overalls. Whatever you two choose to do in the future, don’t let him near silos.

Mini-van is here now so I must be ending this note. He’s my only boy (that I know of) so take care of him.

Love to you both.

Pops