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.

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

The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

[Not my brothers canoe. But you get the point. Source: Google Search]

Canoes were always a part of my boyhood. Our family was definitely zero-octane. It’s all very logical given the fact that our property at 420 Front St., Owego, NY, my childhood home, happened to have the Susquehanna River in our backyard. And, we used the river often. My memories and adventures on those waters often give me solace when I leaf through my Book of Youth. One of our favorite afternoon activities was to collect a few empty mayonnaise jars, a few empty bottles of Coke and perhaps even a tomato sauce jar, put them in the canoe and head up-river toward Hiawatha Island. We were armed with our trusty Daisy BB guns. After our paddle to the island we would slowly make our way back home. We’d toss the bottles into the river and shoot at them until they shattered and sank to the silty river bottom. The shattered glass is still there sixty-some years later. This lasted until my brother Dan, bought a pellet gun that would blow the jars and bottles to shards with one shot. Who would want to compete with that?

None of this would have happened if my older brother, Chris didn’t obtain and restore a large Old Town canoe. Most average canoes are 16′ long. This was a 19′ long craft. It reminded me of an Indian war canoe or something you’d find at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills. Somewhere in my photo boxes I have a picture of Chris working on the bow of his canoe. I cannot find this photo so the downloaded featured picture is the best I could find. You get the idea.

I recall an afternoon paddle. It was getting late and I was a tired boy. The boat was large enough for me to lie down with my head beneath the bow seat. There was a tarp. I pulled it over my head and put my ear to the floor board. I listened to the faint flow and gurgle of the water that was an inch from my cheek. I thought of the broken bottles sitting in the mud below me. The BB itself would be long gone in the future. Not so with the glass.

I lifted the tarp and saw the dark outlines of Cemetery Hill and the trees along the river bank. I knew we were close to home.

As we paddled slowly toward our property I thought of the river. I was aware of my geography so that if we left all things alone, we’d drift downstream for days into the mighty Chesapeake Bay…beyond that…the Atlantic Ocean. All the history and importance of the Susquehanna watershed began at the mouth of a moderate sized lake in central New York State, Otsego Lake in Cooperstown.

But we didn’t get to the Bay. We got home in the dark and I was left with only a memory of my evening on the floor of a large canoe.

So, on a recent trip to Owego I went over to the Hickories Park. None of the stores, hotels or the Hiawatha Bridge existed back in the day of that trip. I stand and look out over the choppy waters and think of the glass shards still resting on the river bottom. A great deal of water has flowed past the Hickories where I stood.

It’s all a memory now. Once the water passes me it’s off to the great ocean. It’s a little like life. It flows past and to really understand it and love it, one has to lie still and listen to the sound of flowing water.

Escaping to the South

[Susquehanna River. Source is Mine]

The AMTRAK Car/Sleep train sped south at about 110 mph, the deepening southern landscape getting darker. Despite the intermittent snow, rain and spectacular weather we had survived up north, we then put up with 11 barking hot days in Florida. We have become ‘snow birds’…How could anyone live in such hostility.

The train had no WiFi. All we had was each other and the data on our phones. We were in the last car of a train that was a least 20 miles long. The rocking and rolling and swaying made reading impossible. But at least we had a private bath.

Those that flee the harsh weather, snow to be shoveled and the challenge of winter have to be younger to survive the trip. We were traveling at the speed of sound. This is an exaggeration of course, it had not been broken at all.

[The Future of Florida? Common mode of transportation.]

Nearly There

The purpose of this short but sweet blog is two-fold. The first is to let you know that we are on our way to our house in Fort Meyers, Florida. It was just as the snow was nearly melted at Rainbow Lake when we decided to see what it was that we bought. It’s going to be hot and it’s going to be humid, much like we needed it.

The flowers shown above are from the rear of the parking lot behind Starbucks which is located just beyond the car lot at our Marriott Residence Inn. I thought you’d like to see the colors unlike the small patch of green outside our lot at the Residence in Scranton.

We’re taking the car/train from Lorton, VA to Orlando.

The tree colors are better than snow and patches of green.

The second reason for this blog is to try out my new iPad. This my first blog attempt at this…while the fish bakes.

Reunion

[Source: Egan Family Archives.]

I’m working on my family tree using Ancestry.com. As my son has said: “It’s addictive.”

When my father passed away in 2004, there were boxes of old photographs. Many. of course, were unlabeled. My father would dig this photo out of wherever he stored it and name almost 75% of those in the picture. If you haven’t found him yet, my father (aged 12) is the third boy from the left, bottom row. My grandparents are the last couple on the right, back row.

The rest of those sitting or standing at an unknown farm in Orange, PA. are strangers to me, yet connected to me by blood or marriage.

How I wish I was there that day sitting among four (my best guess) generations of Egans, Hotchko’s and Berlews. I would pepper the old timers with question about a world I would never know. (A word of advice: always label any and all old photos.)

Yes, it’s sad to say that it’s likely that all those in the photograph are gone from us. But each had a story about themselves…each had a memory of someone else in the picture.

And each grain of memory has, through some mystery…filtered through time to make me who I am.

My Way Home

This morning, about an hour after dawn (6:45 am locally), I was lying in bed, propped up by my three pillows, checking on the responses from my last blog. Beside me, Mariam dozed, probably dreaming of new mask designs. More than likely, she was exhausted from walking me around the living room to help alleviate cramps and the horrid agony of restless leg syndrome, both of which I suffer from. We stopped when the cramps began to ease. I took advantage to rest and get several small carrots. An hour ago the snowplow came by, making noise that reminded me of a Delta airliner landing without the wheels down. Beyond that, all was quiet like the deep woods after a snowfall, which would be just about every night for the last month and a half.

Falling to sleep last night was problematic. I had written an outline for my next novel a week ago. The outline took me hours to get my thoughts and plans into the computer. We printed it out so I could use it as a guide to continue working. I needed to flesh out the story line, enhance the drama and tension and make the narrative clearer. The print out came to 23 pages. Fair enough I thought, that’s a great start. So I took the pages back to the computer and began to add, subtract and fill in gaps. I wrote for about a week. With satisfaction we printed it out. The number of pages came to 23!

What happened? Where was all that writing?

I guess that anger and agitation led to the cramps.

But, I digress.

There I was, thinking odd thoughts when a movement caught my eye. I put down my iPhone and listened. Again there a movement. This time I noted that it was coming from outside…

I quietly slipped off my side of the bed and crept to the window which was only a foot or two from Mariam’s soft breathing. I edged myself close enough to the glass I could almost see my own breath’s fog. I saw nothing at first except a small mountain of snow. But, there, right before my eyes was where the sound came from. It was a drop. A drop of water from one of hundreds of icicles. It was a small sign of melting. Soon there would be more I hoped.

As soon as Mariam was awake and sipping her coffee, I excitedly told her about the drop of water and what it could mean for us. She looked at me like I was speaking about something crazy, like a cloned black-footed ferret.

“Have some camomile,” she said. “You’ve had a hard night.”

I told her I was going to drive to the post office and get our catalogues.

“Take the recycles out to the bins,” she said as she made a successful move on Words with Friends. As I walked across the front deck I took care to not cause a mini avalanche. I walked with pride to the garage, nudged the door open and reached in to push the button to open the large front door. I closed it immediately and covered my ears. The noise from the automatic door opener is loud and screechy enough to make ones ears bleed. I emptied a can of WD-40 on the track, but it only made the door louder. Perhaps I had picked up a can of WD-39 instead.

As I walked back from the garage, with the door noise still vibrating in my middle ear, I paused and looked at the canyon-like path the led to our front door. I looked down at where the ‘salt’ had melted some ice. That was enough to settle a long-standing disagreement between Mariam and myself as to what our deck was made of. As usual, she won. It was wood.

I noted the deck shovel, the plastic sled that we move our groceries from the car.

I also noted the metal sunburst house decoration. That, in a way, helped me find my way home.

[Note from author: All photos are mine, but more importantly, if anyone out there has a method to relieve restless leg syndrome, please email me at: pegan7@roadrunner.com]

Living The High Life In Manhattan

Buildings

[I’ll take Manhattan. Source: Google search.]

There was a time, back in the day, when most people would cherish, desire and even pay a small fortune to have even a few hours of free time to roam and marvel the world of Manhattan. Well, we are nearing the end of our stay. Tomorrow morning we head north to Albany, with a full tank of gas and a brand new tire on our Honda Fit. We’re leaving our nest at the Marriott Residence on E. 48th St. Living high? We’re in Room 1017 and that’s high enough for me, thank you.

Doctor visits and MRI’s completed, I got the word yesterday that I have no life threatening disorders. For this, I am forever thankful. I’m stressed about traveling anywhere in the middle of winter, but the stress of my medical state is gone for the time being. Mariam was emotionally stressed but she can breathe now. At ease knowing I’m more or less okay. There is the matter of my two hernias which have not been attended to. But that’s alright. I’ve grown to like my little abdominal friends. I’m thinking of naming them.

So you must be wondering what it’s like living for a modest cost in the Greatest City in the World. I have not left the room since the snow storm this past monday. Mariam has ventured out to the drug store and small market. Me, I listen to WQKR (classical music), read (just finished Woman in the Window…can’t say I loved it), think about my novel, and mull over my next blog. What you’re reading is the result of a great deal of mulling. I have no breathtaking view to show you.

[Stunning view of the Chrysler Building from our window.]

Here is my little world:

Mariam prepares dinner in our spacious kitchen.

My own personal workspace.

So as you can plainly see, we have it all. Who needs a spa? An in-house restaurant? And, an added bonus, we can get two free plastic bottles of water just for the asking.

What more can one ask for? Now all we have to do is keep an eye on our weather apps for our long drive back to the Cabin in the Woods where one can find real quiet and maybe a little exercise with the snow shovel.