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]

The Troll Who Cried

[Heading off to the Barnum Brook Bridge]

I began my walk to the Barnum Brook Bridge carrying an emotional load that nearly broke my already painful back. It was a warm and very muggy afternoon. There were grey clouds in the hazy sky. There were grey clouds in my mind, my soul and my heart. I was not dreading the Bridge like I once did. In fact, I was looking forward to visiting an old friend…sort of. I walked slowly because I needed the extra minutes to think. At the same time, I was formulating my words. It’s not every day that one has to say farewell to a friend. For me, now was that time. I must make this my finest hour.

I walked on, pausing to photograph a wildflower for a later post on Facebook.

[The Trail to the Barnum Brook Bridge]

I had arrived. I put my foot down hard on the first plank, making more noise than usual. Sure enough, out pops The Troll. He looked about and disappeared beneath the bridge when he spotted me.

“Who is passing over my bridge?” he asked.

“I am passing over your bridge,” I said. “Let’s get this over with. I need to sit down.

He emerged from under the wooden planks and said: “I know you. Listen up. Keep your distance.”

“Why?”

“The Covid thing, remember. Are you still in lock-down mode?”

“Not really,” I said. “Things aren’t as bad as they were when I last came this way. Now it’s the Monkey Pox.”

“Just in case, don’t come any closer. I’m packing a can of Mace.”

“Let’s get the riddle thing over, shall we. I need to have a talk with you.”

[The Bridge. If you look closely for a long enough time, you may see a bit of Troll’s head peeping out]

“Okay. Okay. Here’s the first riddle:

What is dirty when it’s white?”

I pondered the question for about forty-five seconds when it came to me. “A Blackboard.”

“One down and two biggies to go, Patrick.

What goes from Z to A?”

Another new one. Where did he get these riddles? I thought. This time I was really puzzled…for about a minute. “Zebra”, I almost shouted.

“Whoa. Who’s on a roll today?”

“I am. Let me have the third one, Sir Troll.”

“Don’t get cheeky, my friend. You know what fate awaits you if you miss one. I cringe to even contemplate…”

“Spill it,” I demanded.

He looked smug. He thought he was going to get me on the last one.

He spoke with a twinkle in his large eyes: “What is the saddest fruit?”

Now I was worried. I had no idea. This wasn’t in the Big Book of Riddles I study before every trip to the VIC. And no mention of any of these new puzzles in the Ultimate Book of Norse Mythology. The newer edition that has a new forward by the author, Dr. Sven Sunquist.

“The clock is ticking, Patrick.”

“Go ahead, grind my bones or whatever you do when someone misses a riddle. I give up.”

He stared long and hard at me: “You look like a beaten donkey. I see damage in your eyes. I’m going to give you a pass. The answer, appropriately, is Blueberries. You can pass, but you owe me one.”

“I owe you a riddle?”

“Figure of speech,” he said. “Don’t get anal on me.”

I sat down on the wooden bench near the bridge: “I’ve got something to tell you, Troll.”

“You won the Mega Millions.”

“Don’t I wish. No, it’s…it’s that we’re going away. We’re moving. We’re going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough woods and winter and slush and bugs.”

He looked deep into my eyes again. No words came to his lips. He just looked at me. His eyes were moist. He sighed.

“How long are you gonna be gone?” he asked slowly while trying to swallow. “When can I expect to visit with my favorite human again?”

[A rare image of The Troll]

I chocked at my following words: “That’s just it, Troll. We’re moving away for good. It’s possible that we may never see each other again. Don’t think for a moment that I won’t miss you because I will. You see Troll, these last few months have been very hard on me. I lost my closest friend. I wish he had just moved somewhere, but he didn’t. He passed away. I have only a few real friends. You could count them on two of your three fingers. I’m lonely up here in the North Country. You, Troll, are the only real friend I have left…besides my wife, of course.”

He had one hand in his pocket and the other one rested on the planks of the bridge. He was drumming his fingers on the dried wood. He said: “Funny thing. I don’t have many real and true friends either. We’re both the same here, are we not?”

He turned away and began to cry. He didn’t just cry, he sobbed and wailed. I’d never seen him like this before.

“Please Troll, don’t make this any harder. It’s not you, it’s me. You have your little place under the bridge. I’m a restless guy. I need a change. I need something new. I don’t know how many years I have left.”

“Hah, I can see right through you. You’re leaving me for some Big City Troll, right? I knew it. Those Big City Trolls are different than ones like me. They wear the traditional outfits. They look like they just got off a photo shoot with National Geographic Magazine.”

“No, there’s nobody else, in New York or anywhere. Come here. Let me shake your hand and wish you farewell.”

“Oh, but that’s against the Rules. You can’t touch me. Strange things might happen.”

“There are no such Rules out here, Troll. Here, give me your hand.”

As he placed his very large hand in mine I felt a jolt. I swear a bolt of lightening hit my arm. I closed my eyes. I had visions. Troll standing in the rain and waving at me, or standing in a foot of snow and grinning up with those big cow-like eyes. Or wiping away the sweat on days like this. I remember how he played the Pan Flute and made me see the different Adirondack seasons squeezed into one short vision. He was a treasure trove of wisdom and I’d be crazy to let him go out of my life for good. No. I would return someday…some sunny day. I will be older, more feeble, more pained and maybe just a little bit wiser. But Troll, he will never age. He has all the time in the world. I don’t.

I withdrew my hand: “I have to go now. Be good, my friend. It’s not forever, it’s just for awhile. I’ll be back.”

“That’s what the little girl said in Poltergeist.”

I turned and began the walk back to my car.

“I see your son was in Iceland for a few days. He loved it, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but how did you know?”

“My Icelandic cousin. And, oh, I see your daughter, her husband and your grandson came for a visit. I bet you loved that.”

“I did.”

“Oh, by the way. I know you used a photo of Fluffy to hawk your books. That’s shameful.”

“Little Lambs Eat Ivy.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re the Riddle King. Figure it out.”

The trail curved to the left. I looked back for one more wave. I saw him blowing his large nose with a red bandana.

[Note: All photos are mine with the exception of the Troll image. That was a result of a Google search.]


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]

Into The Woods

[The Adirondack Forest. Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.”

–Carl Jung

In the rearview mirror of the last three weeks of my life, I see I’ve left behind many things and added many memories. I’ve left behind the heat and sand of Florida, the peaches and boiled peanuts of Georgia, a friend and his wife in North Carolina, the breathtaking vistas and overlooks of the Blue Ridge Parkway and later, Skyline Drive. Mariam and I sat in a restaurant in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and played music bingo. We passed Carlisle where my daughter went to college so many years ago. We drove apace with the trucks and cars across New Jersey and plunged straight into the Holland Tunnel.

The Grateful Dead: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Once we were settled in a generous friend’s apartment, we began to search for a place of our own. Both of us want to come back to New York City to live. But it’s proving to be harder than we expected. One place is too small, another lacks outdoor space. One might be a walk-up. I can’t do four floors as well as I once could. No, not now.

Why move? you might ask. You have waterfront, kayaks, canoes, snowshoes and bikes. The answer is simple and complex at the same time. We love the quiet woods. We love the sound of our paddles as we glide along on Rainbow Lake. But, so much of what the ‘dacks provides are activities that are fit for a younger man (I speak here for myself). We miss people. The quiet can be overwhelming sometimes and brings with it the loneliness of the North Woods. As a person who has struggled with insomnia since childhood, I dread the dark nights, those dark nights when the wind shifts in strange ways and the moon struggles to peek out from behind a dark cloud.

I don’t want to shovel another millimeter of snow. I don’t want to get into my car just to get our mail. I want something of a social life. I want to be able to order in Mexican or Chinese food. I want company.

Bob Dylan: “I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea. Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, at times it’s only me.”

With the exception of my mother (she never took to the camping), my entire family had strong ties to the Adirondacks. They made Eighth Lake, Raquette Lake and Long Lake special places. But these people have passed on. Around every corner I turn, behind every tree, on any lake, along any trail…there are ghosts lurking…not to harm me, but to remind me of the many great times I had among the mountains. One spirit, however, follows me. He was a good friend. I took him on his first trip to the High Peaks. On a chilly November night…I remember the gibbous moon…this friend died, not in my arms but very nearly so. I’ve told this story before. His presence, his souI and his life have followed me for forty-eight years. My memories of the night he died are dark and are the stuff of my nightmares.

Gordon Lightfoot: “Like brave mountaineers, we aren’t bothered much by time.”

I’m heading headlong toward a milestone birthday…and I am fearful. There are so many years behind me and not very many left to me. I accept that. But I don’t have to like it.

I’m not done yet.

I can only hope.

But, in the end, I will never totally forget my love of the mountains, even though they are now beyond my grasp.

‘There is beauty in everything. Even in silence and darkness.”

–Helen Keller

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.]

A Gathering: A Farewell

The time for tears has come and gone.

You passed from our lives a year ago. It’s sad Nance, that you won’t see your son on a hilltop be married to an amazing woman, Kristin. They moved back to Binghamton, the virus, and other events delayed a final gathering in your name until this day, May 15th.

But here are many of your friends and relatives, each carrying a Nancy story in their hearts, coming together to celebrate your life. You certainly made a mark. Your memory book is filling up. We made a mark together as well. We created a boy named Brian. As awesome a child as can be. He was our gift to the world.

He and Kristin will begin a new cycle on an autumn day in the finger lakes, hopefully under a sky that will be cloudless.

Clouds will come later…they always do. But the love between Brian and Kristin will keep those clouds at bay.

Today is your day Nancy. Enjoy the multitude of friends and family that fill this room. And then… Let It Be.

Too Old, Too Soon: Two Friends

“I want to go for a ride,” said the car that had a teal fender.

“You can’t. You’re a mess. Your engine hasn’t run since the early sixties. A car also needs four wheels and you need three. Your ride isn’t going my friend. This is going to be where you will stay until someone buys you for parts. I hate to be blunt, my friend, but you need to get used to it. But don’t fret. I sort of always wanted to spend time with you,” said his friend.

“I used to run with the big boys back in the day. I could hit 48 mph on a good day. My vinyl seats matched the skirt of any pretty young thing that was brave enough to go out with the guy that owned me. He kept my hood polished and my engine tuned. Boy I was really something back in the day,” said the once black car. By the way, what color were you?”

“Me? I can’t remember those things. I’ve been a sort of rust/brown since the Eisenhower administration. Besides, color doesn’t’ matter. I know so don’t yell at me. You’re going to say that with cars color does matter.”

“I don’t like it here, next to a nearly shuttered Sunoco station in some town that has seven houses,” said Old Blue.

“You have to live with it, ole buddy. The fast times are long gone. You can’t do the things you once were so good at doing. You’re invisible now. No body sees you…I mean the real you. All they see is an old thing. But rest assured, that’s not how I see you.”

“I remember the day when my then owner, Sam, had me painted blue. I was the only blue car around town. All the rest were black. The girls giggled and nodded when Sam asked them if they wanted to ride around the block once or twice. And, boy they giggled when Sam parked me behind the Grandstand at the old Fair Grounds. They nearly wore my springs out. He’s the one who painted me blue.

“I remember when you drove up to the rest of us in your new blue coat of paint. I knew an old song that I changed some words for you. I’d sing it when you’d drive away from me.

I had a car and I called him Blue.

Betcha five dollars he’s a good car too.

“I want to go home. Maybe that traveling salesman who first bought me has a place for me. Perhaps the kid who was just back from the war and used to have me race other cars out on Old Farm-to-Market Road. You remember. He got real sick and had to sell me. He died too. No. He can’t have a place for me. I’ll bet that lovely blonde who owned me in the late 1960’s. She’ll be an old lady by now, just like me. She’ll have a place. And don’t forget that teacher who fixed me up real good in 1992. He had a nice home. He’ll take me.”

“None of that is going to happen, Blue.”

“You can’t go home again no matter where you can find a home. Just settle in right here…next to me and once the last bolt of yours has been sold, or thrown away…it all won’t matter anymore.”

“I beg to differ. All of the people who owned me and are still around have wonderful memories of me. They talk about me and the things we all enjoyed. The stories about me will live on and in that way, so will I.”

“Okay Blue, if you say so. Meanwhile, stay close to me when the night comes. I’m kinda afraid of the dark. But stay near.

I need you.”