Coal For Christmas

paul-egan-2-resized-copy

[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.”

dad-farm-picture-original-enlarged

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

I Heard The Secrets Of The Grackle’s Song

grackle

[Image: Google search]

A short time ago, perhaps a week, maybe more, I spent a few days in Austin, Texas.  We were visiting with a gentleman, William, that I had met during a writers workshop in Westport, New York in October, 2012.  He has been a good friend and faithful follower of my blogs since I began posting them.

Austin.  The home of the long-running pbs music show, Austin City Limits, the Skylark Lounge, a great blues club, a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that stands on the banks of the Colorado River (not the Colorado River).  Arguably the most famous dance hall in Texas, The Broken Spoke, is in Austin.  It’s where I “learned” to do the Texas 2-step and when my bones and legs couldn’t keep time with the music, I could sit and sip a Lone Star beer and watch the real dudes and drug-store cowboy’s do the dance the way it should be done.  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys played this city, while virtually inventing Texas Swing music.  A statue of Willie Nelson stands outside the theater where Austin City Limits is recorded.

Austin.  A town where the hills glow violet in the setting sun.  A vermillion hue in the afternoon sky.  And, in that afternoon sky are thousands of birds.  The Grackles of Austin.

The Grackle is considered by many to be a disease-carrying bird that is a genuine pest.  Cannons have been used to keep them from clustering in various city parks.  On my first afternoon, a late afternoon, when the sky had begun to redden, I saw black objects clinging to the power lines near the exit ramp of I-35.  I could make out that they were birds…but the numbers were staggering.  I can say one thing straight away: I have never seen such flocks of these starling-like, black-hued avians roosting on power lines in my life.  When they took flight from the trees, shrubs and high wires, they would fill the air and darken the sky.  When they moved, when they were on the wing, they moved as one.  I described this sudden turn of direction in my first novel, Standing Stone, as “one shared soul.”

GracklesInWaco

[The swarming Grackles in Waco, Texas. Image: Google search]

These are birds of legend.  To a person unfamiliar with large flocks of crow-like creatures, these looked like something that was left on the cutting-room floor after Alfred Hitchcock decided he had gone too far.

Birds of Legend?

I was familiar with the real birds of legend.  The Phoenix, rising from the ashes.  The Ibis of Ancient Egypt.  The Dove of Noah.  The Eagle of American power and might.

But, the Grackle?  What legend?  What was it about this Raven-like bird that inspired such mystery and admiration…and contempt?

It seems that in the ancient days, back in the time when even dust was old, the Grackle did not make a sound…it had no call.  It was mute.  But, birds need a song to sing…to communicate a message of warning, spread the word about where water could be found…or to call to one another, to seek a mate…to make a nest…to pass on a new generation of life.  For nothing lives forever…

The Legend begins:

In Mexico, the bird were called zantes.  In Pre-Columbian times, it has been said, the mute birds began to seek a voice. They found a Sea Turtle and the zantes stole their voice from him.  They stole the archaic song of the Sea Turtle.  That was the mystical Song of the Seven Passions.  They now had their voice…their song.

800px-Zanate-Sea_turtle_artifact_icon

[Image: Google search]

For eons, they have sung this most sacred of songs.  But, to the modern ear, it sounds like a common cackle.  The sound and the name stuck…hence, the Grackle.

Annoying and obtrusive to most people these days, I found myself alone in a quiet park one afternoon.  I listened to the cackling.  I listened for the song.  It began to clarify in my head.  I could make out intonation, nuance, emotion and meaning.

I began to hear the Seven Songs of Passion.

I heard LOVE…and I thought of my childhood.  My mother, my father, my brothers, my elders, my girlfriend, my lovers, my wife.  I thought of those I never knew… never knew I really loved them, and those who I never realized, once loved me.

I heard HATE…and I thought of killing in the name of God, killing those who are different, killing those who chose to love those we don’t think they have a right to love.  I thought of those killed by others who believe in another God than the One of our birth.  I thought of the death of the spirit in a child by withholding love, by hurting their tiny hearts and bodies.  I thought of those who hate because…they hate.

I heard FEAR…and I thought of a lonely snow-covered trail in the Northern Forest and the fear that I was losing a dear friend.  I recalled a phone call, and then another, followed by yet another, telling me that a parent or sibling was near death.  I thought of the fear that a woman I loved would simply walk out the door.  I thought of the fear of abandonment and the fear of being unloved.  I thought of the fear of dying, the fear of pain, the fear of being afraid.

I heard COURAGE…and I thought of the brave who have died for their beliefs, not for a flag or a symbol, but for  human dignity and the freedom from being a slave of any kind.

I heard JOY…and I thought of how I felt when my children were born.  How I love and respect my daughter, Erin and how she and her husband, Bob are raising my grandson, Elias, to be an inquisitive and curious and kind child.  I thought of how much fun I have when I sit and have a talk with my son, Brian, who is smart, witty and has the heart as big as Texas (with New Mexico and a good deal of Utah thrown in).

I heard ANGER…and I thought of the misspoken words between a married couple, between a child and a parent, between lovers, between nations, between religions, with oneself for not being able to accomplish something creative and meaningful, lasting and full of beauty.

I heard SADNESS…and I feel a billion tears from a million people crying, at a graveside for the soul of someone they will never see or touch again, at a wedding when a father says farewell to a daughter or a son, in an office when a husband or wife hears of the loss of a spouse or child in a misbegotten war, in the heart of a student when the teacher implies he or she can’t do something, in the doorway of a family home when a parent watches their child walk away into the life of adulthood, never to be a child again.  The sadness of those losses are overwhelming.

MourningFigure

[Source: Pinterest]

I heard all these passions from the beak of that dark bird, the Grackle.  I was overwhelmed by this ability to hear these things.  It’s too much for one person to handle.  If more people just stopped and listened to the zantes, perhaps the burden would be spread out…and lighten the load for the few who stop to listen, not just to this one bird of Austin, but to all life.

WatercolorTears

[Image: Google Search]

 

 

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my sixty-eighth 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.  It is a time 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.  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 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 never 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 six 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 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.  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.  They 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.

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 ten or so feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

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.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was half filled with 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.  After glancing at each other once, they looked 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 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.”