Dorset of My Dreams

“Oh, to be in England…”

–Robert Browning

[The chalk coast of Dorset. Photo: Google Search]

It all started on a late winter morning of 1984. I was walking to my office at King & Low-Heywood Thomas School (KLHT) in Stamford, Connecticut. Walking with me was a teacher/administrator. She was going through her teacher-mail regarding microscope sales and Petri dish discounts. She held on to an envelope and after a few moments glanced at the contents, she turned to me and said: “Here, maybe you will find this interesting.” She handed me a letter. I took a quick look and put it on my desk. I had a first period class.

Later, after my ninth cup of Faculty Room Coffee I looked over the letter. It was from a business office in New York City. The company arranged Teacher Exchanges. I put it on my desk again and went off to meet with a student. As the Fates would have it, the British teacher who was seeking an exchange was right there in the office. We talked. He took the Amtrak to Stamford where I met him and took him to the school for a tour.

To make a long story short, this guy, Chris, really wanted to do the exchange. The Headmaster was not so enthusiastic. But, it all worked out in the end. Early August of 1984 found me on an late evening flight to Heathrow.

[Corfe Hills School, Corfe Mullen, Dorset. Photo: Source CHS webside]

A year is a long time to distill my experiences into a few paragraphs. Simply put, I had a few rocky days getting to know the ‘system’, meeting my colleagues, learning the names of my students and attempting to find my various classrooms. I was hired as a Geography teacher, a subject I love. I was happy. What was difficult was the number of courses they gave me to teach. I taught fifth and sixth form geography, General Studies and Religious Studies. They gave it all to me.

“Face it. You’re bloody irrelevant being here only a year,” some administrator told me on my second or third day.

[Last day of school. Two of my favorite students who helped me and gave me sage advice. Sally in the white blouse and Yzanne is to my right. Photo: Photo is mine]

I was never bored. When the weekends approached, I was faced with two choices (mostly): Take a hike on a Footpath in Thomas Hardy country or go to BritRail, buy a return and spend the weekend in a Cathedral city like Wells or Salisbury. I couldn’t get enough of the countryside, the dramatic coast of Dorset, the small villages that had little more than a pub. My ‘local’ pub was the Barley Mow. I can’t tell you how many pints and Steak & Kidney Pie I’ve eaten in that very old thatched building.

[A hillside with a copse of trees on the summit. Photo is mine]

I found some walks that went through some of the most picturesque locations. The sunken path below is near Shaftesbury. Madonna had a house nearby.

[One of my favorite footpaths. The trail itself is sunken about ten feet. Photo is mine]

The places I travelled are all marked off in my dozens of hiking guides. My personal best is a nine-mile walk that began in the parking lot of a pub called A Brace of Pheasants. I was exhausted at the end of the day. The Ploughman’s Lunch and two pints of Guinness helped me start out but didn’t help me finish. I had a Steak & Kidney Pie. It was a Sunday so I went home, took a shower and turned on Radio 4 to listen to a drama. Later, when I was a bit too hyped-up to sleep, I would tune to the station that carried “Prime Minister’s Question Time”. You can image how interesting that show was.

[Footpath signage. Photo is mine]

I have been back to Dorset many times since the mid ’80’s. I made every effort to share what my past was like by going on footpaths with Mariam. My favorite hill to climb is the Glastonbury Tor.

[Mariam on top of the Glastonbury Tor. Beneath her feet, King Arthur is said to await a return to save England. Photo is mine]

Mariam and I spent one Christmas (just before Covid) at a ancient northern Dorset pub called the White Lion Inn. A cozy room. A friendly bar downstairs and a garden eating area.

[The White Lion Inn. Photo is mine]
[A typical narrow back lane in Cornwall. Photo is mine]

Each trip Mariam and I make, we try to explore a different region. Above is our trip to Cornwall. We’ve been to The Lake District, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Dartmoor, the east coast and London, of course.

[Our close friends. They live in north Dorset. Anna is destined to be a great ballerina. Photo is mine.]

I’ve only picked out a minute part of the things I did while in Dorset. But, like all good adventures, I got a book out of it.

[So go out and buy yourself this book. It contains all my adventures (mostly). And it has color illustrations. A great holiday gift. Photo is mine]

Dan & Daughter At Rest

My father is hidden behind everything I am.

–Adrienne Egan “Danny Boy” (From a high school essay)

[Long Pond with Long Pond Mountain in the distance. Photo Courtesy of Terri Mendelson]

I have long dreaded what was about to take place. As I approached the shore of Long Pond, the memories began to weigh heavy on my heart. How often had I stood in the sand since the early 1980’s when my older brother, Chris, discovered the St. Regis Wilderness Canoe Area? A group of friends followed me to the beach. My son, Brian, carried a backpack that held a black box. I was about to say a final goodbye to my brother, Dan. He was the last of my brothers…the last Egan from Owego…except me. I was alone now. I thought of a phone call in 2019.

Mariam and I were in a pub in Dorset, England. The establishment was closed except for several dozen locals. It was Christmas Day. The dinner was for those who had nowhere else to go for the holiday. Mariam had located the small square in the pub where cell phone reception was weak but present. She punched in the number. It was a phone call I wish didn’t have to happen.

I spoke (or tried to with a broken signal) to my brother, Dan. He was in a hospice bed and he had about forty hours or so to live. I managed to say “I love you” but I don’t think he could make out the words.

Two days later, while we were settling in for dinner at the White Lion Inn, Mariam’s cell rang. The message was simple. The message was clear…and final. Dan had passed away.

I signed a paper to allow for Dan’s cremation.

Years later, in early August, 2022 I sat up in bed and realized that I was the one responsible for the cremains. I chose August 27 for the day to fulfill Dan’s will and have his ashes left in Long Pond.

~ ~ ~

Many years ago, back in 1991, just after I arrived in New York City to take a new teaching job, my phone rang. It was my father. What he told me sent shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes. Dan, who had been badly injured in Viet Nam, was told by the doctors that a) he would never walk again and b) he would never father a child. He proved the good doctors wrong. He walked with a limp…but he walked. And, he had a daughter by a young woman named Diana. The child’s name was Adrienne.

All was well until it wasn’t.

Adrienne and other college mates were having a party event on the roof of Adrienne’s dormitory. The facts are vague in my mind. The others left the roof…left the roof for Adrienne. She fell asleep. She rolled to the roof edge. She fell. She died.

Something died in my brother that day. His personality darkened. But he pushed through much of the grief…as much as one can…and he began to age. We all aged. But Adrienne was destined to be the teenager that lived in Dan’s memory. For the rest of his days.

Dan has been reunited with his daughter in the urn.

They both will enjoy the sunsets and storms that roll over Long Pond. The ice of winter. The buzz of mosquitos and black flies will fill their ears. The wind will howl in the dark nights of winter. The burning sun of summer. The meteor showers and the Aurora. The rainbows and the woodsmoke. These are all the things that Long Pond will offer them as it welcomes the new arrivals.

[For the Memorial Service. Photo courtesy of Bart Durkin]

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.

Four Impossible Things Before 11:30 am

After every dark night, there is a bright day.

–Anon. [Source: Google search]

[Sunrise in the Prairie/Desert]

The Butterfly Effect

Two mornings ago I woke up with an overwhelming feeling that I was immersed up to my neck in a bad case of The Butterfly Effect. I definitely felt I had a sensitive dependence on the fact that even a small change in one’s state in a deterministic nonlinear system could result in a large difference in a later state. Putting it differently, I had work to do. Of course I had several hours of restless legs and overall ill ease that I was lucky to get a few hours in the arms of Hypnos. But, when I made my last stop at the urinal and another sip of tonic water, I felt like I was the bees knees.

During the night, while waiting for sleep to kiss my fair forehead, I made a TO DO list. I always wanted such a list. All my friends have them. I wanted one, so I wrote one out around 3:17 am. What follows is an illustrated picture show on what owning a house, preparing the said house for sale and cleaning in areas where Swiffers are strangers.

The Tasks

The first thing I decided to attack were the numerous spider/cob webs that show up on the exterior walls. The spiders here seen to have an innate sense of ownership and living. You own the house. The spiders thinks the house belongs to them. A conflict arises out of such a treaty. I looked at the Adirondack chairs. There are so many slots and cracks that needed brooming out with my trusty whisk-broom.

[The whisk broom, a former spider web and me]

[Author’s Aside: Like duct tape, a good whisk-broom is an absolutely necessity for any D.I.Y. kind of guy like myself.]

When I stood closer to the chair, I noticed cobwebs and pollen. I did the same to the wall below our picture window. I stared at the cobwebs and counted an endless number of places they would go. There, on our deck, I stood and looked. I felt as though I had an Albatross tied around my neck. The burden and endless toil of homeownership…I felt I was barking up the wrong tree. My wife glanced at me and said I looked like a deer in the headlights.

My next deck project was relatively easy. My job, as I saw it, was to check the status of the BBQ. I approached with caution. There was no way to know what manner of small furry animals may have chosen to make our BBQ a summer home.

[BBQ checking method]

I moved inside the screened-in-porch, feeling like there was an elephant in the room and I was the elephant. This was the hardest task of all. My plan was to remove two of the plexiglass panels to provide the usually chilly breezes to ventilate the room.

Me: “Mariam I need a large flat-head screwdriver.”

Me: “Mariam I need the orange extension cord put in over there.”

Me: “Mariam, I need a hand!”

I felt exhausted when it was all over.

Feeling like a mutton dresses like a lamb, I made my final stop in the kitchen.

[Removing the interior screen panel from the kitchen. I took it out into the front yard and aimed the JET setting on the nozzle. Boy, did that pollen fly. There’s no way to ‘tag’ pollen so I gather that the pollen had quite a ride.]

So, my tasks for the morning. My back is sore so I think I’ll have a bit of a lie-down. I am deep into another task of completing In Search Of Lost Time by Proust. I began reading the book before Reagan was POTUS. I’m making progress, though. I don’t feel like I’m flogging a dead horse.

Heaven forbid.

[Reading Proust]

[Notes: All photos are mine with the exception of the lead-in picture.]


A Beautiful Day in My Neighborhood: Then & Now

You can take the guy out of the neighborhood but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the guy.

–Frankie Valli

[My first apartment house in NYC]

It was a spectacular day in my old neighborhood. A mild May day, breezy and comfortable with the sun splashing the sidewalks with a warm glow. I decided to take a short walk and check things out…

I was a new resident in a great building on the Upper West Side. I came to the City to teach again after an 18-month hiatus from the classroom. A difficult divorce behind me, I was determined to make the most of what the City had to offer. I stood on the corner of W. 92nd Street and gazed at my new home. My mind was overflowing with plans, ideas and questions. I stood for a long time looking at the front entrance. How will this turn out? I thought. How long will I be here? Will I meet someone soon? I felt I was on the cusp of something very different from what I was used to. City living is not for everyone, but I didn’t see myself being overwhelmed by it all. I was ready. Little did I know…

I walked up the street and turned left, downtown, on Columbus Avenue. The crowds, the crates of bottled water and delivery guys at Trader Joe’s blocked my way. This was new since the days I lived here. I reached the corner of W. 92nd St. There was a young man standing and staring at the building across the street. He needed a beard trim and perhaps a new haircut. He was mumbling to himself. As I passed him he crossed the street and entered the apartment house. I snapped a photo with my iPhone. That was my old place, I thought. Such memories of my two years there. And the rent was more than reasonable…$450/mo. for a studio on the 26th floor. How I came to live here is the stuff of another blog.

I met my wife shortly after arriving in the City. I barely had time to settle in. She lived on W. 93rd. Take all the five boroughs and the millions of residents…what an extraordinary coincidence. We used to be somewhat beleaguered by the nighttime basketball playing in the next door school yard. And the car alarms…well forget it. I once walked the entire block in an effort to silence a particularly persistent car horn. I clutched a raw egg in my right pocket. I was going to ‘do’ his windshield. Just as I got to the car, just as my grip on the egg firmed and i began to pull it from my pocket, a police car from the 24th Precinct pulled up. New York’s finest was there to silence the alarm…much to relief of several hundred residents.

I walked west on 91st. About halfway to Amsterdam Avenue I passed the same young man I had seen earlier. His hand was in his right pocket of his jacket. He looked nervous. I decided to lean against the rails of an apartment building. I looked up at the old place I had called home. I counted three floors from the 29th and two from the left. I saw two figures standing in the window. One person was pointing downtown.

[My apartment was three floors down and one in from the left]

It was a cozy L-shaped studio. I had a nice table from IKEA and an old desk from my family’s house. Early on, I scored a visit from my father, my son Brian and my older brother, Chris. I remember one night when we sat by my window and looked to the south, the view was quite spectacular. Chris, who always noticed things before I did, pointed to the lights in the sky: “Planes approaching JFK or LaGuardia,” he said. I looked and saw a half dozen lights following the Hudson River to the north. He found his spare mattress and prepared for bed. I stared at the slowly approaching lights.

I made it around the block but felt restless. I walked into a Sushi restaurant on the corner of Amsterdam and 93rd. I went in and ordered a mug of Sapporo. It was after my first sip that I noticed the same young man I had seen earlier. He was sitting next to me. I looked at the mirror behind the liquor bottles. I looked into his eyes. They displayed an eagerness…an energy that was unusual. Should I say something to him? I sat and thought about what I would say. In the end, I watched him close the door behind him as he headed toward 92nd St. What could I possibly say to the young man that I already didn’t know.

[Once my home for over two decades]

Somehow I felt like I knew this young man, as well as I knew myself. Yet I let him walk out of the restaurant. I yelled after him, in my mind:

“My friend,” I would have said aloud. “I have a very strong feeling that a great many experiences are going to happen to you. Some of them will be happy and bring tears of joy and some will be heartbreaking and difficult and bring tears of sadness…but embrace them all, all of them. It’ll be an awesome ride and you only have one ticket…for one ride.

Of Time, Thomas Wolfe & Me

[The Thomas Wolfe House, Asheville, NC. Photo is mine]

“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas,”…

You, my readers, have no idea how long I’ve waited to use that quote in a blog or short story. Now, I sit in the 9th floor room of the Marriott Renaissance in Asheville, North Carolina. Just steps away from the hotel front door is Thomas Wolfe’s House. I can feel his presence. The quote puts into clarity the feelings I’ve always had about everyone’s shared history and the unbroken continuity of human relationships. I must be careful. I must be wary. Something I say or do, however small, will set in motion a chain of events that may not be apparent for a hundred centuries.

I grew up in Owego, New York, a small town in the south-central part of New York State. I am not ashamed to admit that I’ve had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that that is not my home anymore. I’ve grown up and I’ve moved away. But something deep inside me tugs away and whispers in my ear: “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.”

The spare, nearly naked choice of words…the sentiment…I’ve felt this too.

Many years ago Bob Dylan wrote these words:

“…she opened up a book of poems

And handed it to me

Written by an Italian poet

From the thirteenth century

And every one of them words rang true

And glowed like burning coal

Pouring off of every page

Like it was written in my soul…”

–“Tangled Up in Blue”

That’s the way the writing of Thomas Wolfe strikes me. The man knows me. He understands me. He has seen into my heart and he writes words that are usually just out of the touch of my fingers, on the tip of my tongue or just behind my eyes, or only in my dreams…on the rare midnight hours when I do dream. Dylan, of course, has the same effect. But this post is not about Bob. It’s about how Wolfe’s books reflect my take on life. The titles of his most popular novels are ones I would have chosen.

-Of Time And The River

-You Can’t Go Home Again

-Look Homeword, Angel

[The Angel. The inspiration for Wolfe. Now located on a private plot (not Wolfe’s) in Oakdale Cemetery in Hendersonville, NC. Source: Photo is mine]

I’ve read a fair number of books on the craft of writing and I’ve learned how the story arc is supposed to play out in fiction. The secret to almost all stories is the “Hero’s Journey”. Most, if not all, great tales use the common archetype: The protagonist sets out on a journey, he/she must overcome challenges (conflict)…the ultimate goal? To Go Home. Everyone wants to go home.

[Cover of a new edition. Source: Google search]

Examples abound: Dorothy wants to go back to Kansas, Odysseus wants to return to Penelope in Ithaca and most of the characters in Game of Thrones want to go home, wherever that is. For many years, Owego, NY, was that lodestone. And to some extent, it still is. I was happy growing up in that small river town. The cemetery on the hill. The river. The backyards. The children attending St. Patrick’s playing in the school yard. Standing on the Court Street Bridge and looking down at the Susquehanna River ice floes crash against the abutments. The autumn leaves that covered the Bluestone sidewalks. The smell of the burning leaves, back in the day. The snow piles. The smell of newly mown lawns.

It’s been said many times: “You can’t go home again”. In my late middle age years I went home again, to live. It was an act born of necessity. But, I found the adage true. You really can’t go home again.

But the urge surfaces every so often, when I’m not looking, when I’m not listening. The urge to go home.

In the end, though, where is home for me? I don’t know. Perhaps that’s the root cause of my restlessness…and my loneliness.

My Florida Pastels

Did I ever mention how much I liked pastels. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York I tend to spend more time in the galleries of watercolors and oils by the Dutch Masters and Turner. There’s not a great deal of high art using pastel colors. The exception at the MET is an Cobalt Blue Rhinoceros (Cobalt Blue is a pastel color to me. If any of my readers happen to have a Master’s of Art or is an artist themselves, I’m not in any mood to argue. Don’t ruin a good story with facts.)

But I digress.

When setting up a household in Florida one must, repeat must utilize the pastels in every room and on every wall. The large tricycles are pastel colored as are a few golf carts. The pool lining is blue. Overhead, the sky is often blue. I made attempts to purchase a light blue pair of ear plugs to prevent swimmers ear. I had to settle with a dark blue, much to my dismay.

For my money, Aquamarine is the only color to add to your list. I can often be found sitting in my blue beach chair in our kitchen and sitting quietly admiring the tea kettle (Aquamarine) and our wall clock (Aquamarine). In the interest of Full Disclosure, the clock was purchased at Zabar’s in New York City, a tiny fact I can live with. The only snag in this set up is that I have to get up and move the chair every time Mariam goes into the bedroom or bathroom. But its a small inconvenience. Sometimes I bring my Blog Idea Book (which is brown and can be seen in the photo below).

Outside the wind has picked up. The blue sky has turned pink. I’m told Hurricane Season is just around the corner.

Right now, I’m happy staring at the hands of our Zabars clock. If I get tired of this, I’ll find something useful to occupy my time until dinner is ready.

I’ll go into our lanai and sit in the comfy beige and flowered overstuffed chair and get back to picking the bar code sticker off the blade of my wife’s spackle blade.

[A creative writer at work]

[All (both) photos are mine]

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.]

Freed From Fleece

I did something this afternoon that I haven’t done in a long long time. I took off my fleece jacket and walked across a parking lot. Now, I’ve been in countless parking lots in my adult life so I wasn’t shy. Feeling a bit naked, I kept my fleece vest on. Normally I remove my fleece jacket for only certain special occasions like going to bed taking a shower and certain surgical procedures. This time I stripped off the jacket because it was warm weather. Well, maybe not warm as most people would define the term. Perhaps the more appropriate phrase would be mild. But I was happy to finally cross the lot (which was about the size of an Amazon warehouse).

But I digress.

The reason I’m sitting at this very functional desk at the Residence Inn Charleston Riverview and writing this piece is to inform my friends, followers, fans and readers that we are on our way to our new little cottage in Fort Meyers, Florida to spend our first winter snow-free and warm. Normally we’d be visiting our friends in Dorset, England…but things aren’t normal right now are they.

Please be assured that you’re not losing me as your favorite blogger and storyteller. I will continue to report on life from the Deep South as I see it. The future blogs are already germinating, the ideas are already taking shape and my adventures are just beginning.

We are in Charleston, South Caroline at the moment. I just finished a fantastic plate of Blackened Chicken Pasta. Mariam nearly completed her portion of Fried Oysters on a Caesar Salad.

So, stay tuned, my beloved friends and have a very Happy Holiday Season.

[Note: If anyone out there still takes the time and trouble to send a real greeting card made of paper (instead of pushing a button) my address until sometime in April is:

Patrick Egan

Siesta Bay Resort

19333 Summerlin Road.

319 Cuarto

Fort Meyers, FL 33908

Christmas by the Pool

Cardiologists and others (who live on Long Island) have said that shoveling snow can be beneficial to living a healthy life. People over 55 however should limit their shovel time to a reasonable level. For me that time limit is roughly 43 seconds. Over the years I’ve moved a lot of snow from the walkway and the access to the garage. There were times when the drifts got so large I feared that I would end up like The Little Match Girl instead of the beautiful Nancy Kerrigan or the alluring Tanya Harding. Since I have very little of importance to say to anyone and my wife loves to read cozy mysteries, I was afraid I’d be forgotten until 3:30 am and Mariam would wake up and find my side of the bed empty.

“Oh, he must be having such fun he wants to play in the snow until dawn.” Meanwhile, hours earlier (after the last interesting story on CNN} I would have turned into a lump of gray flesh with a plaid coat and L. L. Bean’s rejected gloves that were made out of the thinnest cotton available.

But I digress.

The time has come to throw my fake fur away and trade it in for a straw cowboy hat. We’re finally moving away, away from the Frozen North, away from the land of Nanook for the winter. We bought a little cottage in Florida and I shall be practicing the doggie-paddle in a solar heated pool.

In truth, I can’t wait for a walk in an outdoor mall with the palm trees beautifully decorated with red and green lights, with Bing Crosby crooning over the PA system, while all my friends who haven’t moved south yet are standing and shivering to meet Santa in a Walmart parking lot.

I will, of course, still have issues to deal with but a dose of SPF 45 will take care of that. No more cans of deicer to unfreeze the car door that went solid after the first bag of groceries were put in the kitchen.

I will also have to do certain things if necessary. When they close off half the pool so the old folks can play volleyball, I’ll need to locate a beach chair that has at least some shade, and stretch out to listen to the murmur of the waves of the Gulf of Mexico a mile or so away. There I can also listen to the motor boats from Venezuela taking drugs to Alabama.

It’ll be a winter of warmth and quiet. I’ll better myself too. I will continue to improve my sailing skills, I’ll comb the beaches for shells, learn to play Shuffleboard and Bingo.

If you follow my blogs, don’t worry. They will continue as I learn about alligators and snakes.

Best wishes and stay warm.