The Angels of Midnight

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

~~Maya Angelou

I

You’re trying to sleep in the ER of the Albany Medical Center. It’s sometime between the hour of midnight and dawn. You know things are going bad for you when all your dreams and desires are for a red paper cup of ice chips.

Even the night shift nurses with $1,000 worth of tats were of little distraction. And the finger nail polish that glowed (only the tips) were heavenly pink and emitted a beam of ethereal light that was almost supernatural in nature, did little to distract me from my greatest need…ICE!

On one level I was in the middle of an older man’s fantasy. On the other level I was positive I had yet to pay my moral dues. I felt caught in a special kind of medically induced purgatory. My entire right side was in a kind of agony that one only begins to imagine. I’d rather have triplets.

On the other side was a cadre of highly trained nurses, nurse practitioners and medical staff. They wanted to hold off on the water in case there was a test in my future that demanded nothing by mouth.

II

One of the midnight angels gave me a powerful pain killer. I was asleep in minutes. I dreamt about drowning in ice cold lemonade.

In my man’s eye, these women were all as beautiful as Aphrodite…but with green masks they likely resembled a woman you’d pass on the street on your way to Starbucks. It was the inner beauty that I was drawn to…something to be said in favor of a veil. The more that is hidden, the more you’re imagination is free to run wild.

III

So leaving out a great many details, how did it all turn out? I was discharged late Friday morning. It was hotter than Hades so we stopped at the nearest Panera and I had the best lemonade on the planet. From there to Starbucks in the lobby of our hotel. I couldn’t face a Cold Brew which I love and tried a Kiwi Starfruit Refresher with Lemonade. It was heavenly.

IV

Settled in our room at the Hilton Garden Inn, I ate for for the first time in days, a steak salad, while Mariam had a salmon salad. I was fully awake and asked to watch Mulan, a film I wanted to see for months. I was asleep before the opening credits.

I don’t remember my dreams anymore but they must have included the kindness of the ambulance EMTs that got me to Albany, the attending staff in general and the orderlies.

And the angels of midnight who choose to dedicate their lives to alleviating the pain of shleps like me.

Adulthood Rising

I have a hard time learning languages. Some people have an ability to pick up German, Portuguese, Farsi or Russian with ease. High School French was the first of my stumbling blocks. I used to “get sick” in the morning to avoid Mrs. Lowe’s first period freshman French class. I tried…I really tried…to understand the conjugation of verbs, but found only limited success. As an adult I can order dinner in Paris and get a hotel room arranged. That’s about it. Then again that’s about all a guy really needs to know.

In the 1980’s I asked the French teacher at the school I was teaching in (I was a possible chaperone for a trip to Paris with the French Club) how to say “Hi Cupcake, can I buy you a drink?” Petite gateau is a far as her suggestion went. I never chaperoned the trip.

But I digress.

I didn’t cut all of Mrs. Lowe’s classes however. Every so often she would abandon her grammar lessons and show us a film about French culture. That was very cool because no one is as cultured as the French. One day she ran a documentary about Maurice Utrillo, the French painter (1883-1955). I was fascinated by his work. He became one of my favorite artists. There was something about his style…

An Utrillo Painting
[Source: Google Search]

Something changed in me that day. I was suddenly alert to nature in a way that was new and fresh. I had grown up a little after that film. I grew up more than I was expected. I took a renewed interest in our backyard. It was in the Spring. I would lay on my stomach in some hidden corner of our yard and would begin to believe I could watch the grass grow and the flowers bloom. All this before any Cannabis was in the picture.

The air smelled different and clouds took on meanings and shapes I never noticed before. Teenage love permeated every cell in my young body. The whole wide world had crossed the threshold of my early timid feelings of adulthood. Yes, teenage love had its grip on me. But, being me and being full of self-doubt and insecurity I was unsure of everything–even love.

I spotted a daisy. I knew the drill, that age old practice of using a daisy to find out if she loved me. I never gave much thought to the idea of raping a daisy to learn the fate of my love. I see it now as akin to a Native American killing a buffalo or a deer. You apologized to it and thanked it for giving up its life and aiding in your survival. So, there I sat in the grass and plucked the petals…one by one.

“She loves me. She loves me not.”

As I was approaching the final half-dozen petals I could see ahead. It was going to end in a resoundingly quiet “She loves me not”. I had to think fast. I feigned pulling the white petal and continued the countdown.

In the end, she loved me. Ultimately I should have continued my count if you get my subtext.

Now I sit, an old man, musing and missing my early life before I knew real pain. That’s what old men do…they sit and think. My daughter is now riding a heat wave from Hell in distant Seattle. My son will soon be married and will rely less on “Pops” as the years move on.

Yes, I sit and think. I gathered a small bunch of daisies today during a short walk and put them in a pale green vase. I thought of that daisy from my backyard.

And thanks to Mrs. Lowe, I have an abiding love of Maurice Utrillo.

Tracking the Elusive Michigan

It was mid-morning and time to begin thinking about lunch. Mariam mentioned the term MICHIGAN and my mouth began to salivate like I was one of Pavlov’s dogs. I love Michigans.

If you’ve heard of Michigans but always wondered what they are, I’m your go to guy.

A Michigan is a regional sandwich from the Adirondacks. It’s range more than likely extends beyond the Blue Line of the Park. In a word…it’s a hot dog topped with a sauce that I could eat by the spoonful. It’s messy so eating while driving is definitely not a good idea. Not that sitting at a picnic table makes it any less messy but it helps with the cleanup.

Not every hot dog stand or diner carries Michigans. One has to search around a bit. We’re lucky having two sources within a few miles of our house.

If you’re a sandwich lover and you travel around the Northeast you’ll find a wide variety of regional eats. If you’re in parts of New Jersey or Philadelphia, you have the Hoagie and the Grinder. In New York City it’s a Hero or Torpedo. Also in New Jersey is the famous Blimpie. Down in Louisiana one orders a Po’ Boy. In Boston you can feast on one of my favorites, the Spuckie. Eastern Pennsylvania puts out a great Zeppelin. But another favorite of mine is the famous Spiedie, native to Binghamton, NY.

There are so many more so check out Wikipedia for other regional sandwiches.

A Michigan Recipe:

Grandma Slattery’s Michigan SauceThis is a Meat Sauce from Upstate New York that is used on top of Hot Dogs. When I grew up it was used on steamed hot dogs and steamed rolls, sometimes with raw onions (for those who like them) on top! Very good… thanks Grandma Slattery for getting the recipe!Prep:10 mins. Cook:30 minsTotal:40 minsServings:6Yield:6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon butter 
  • 1 onion, chopped 
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar 
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar 
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice 
  • ½ tablespoon prepared mustard 
  • 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 
  • 1 pound lean ground beef 
  • 1 cup ketchup 
  • 1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce 
  • 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste 
  • salt and pepper to taste 

Directions

  • Step 1Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onion in butter until soft. Stir in the vinegar, brown sugar, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Stir to blend.
  • Step 2When the mixture begins to simmer, add the raw ground beef breaking it into pieces with a wooden spoon. Simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Serve over steamed hot dogs. Of course you can add some raw onions if you want.

Nutrition Facts 

Per Serving: 322 calories; protein 16.1g; carbohydrates 25.9g; fat 18g; cholesterol 61.8mg; sodium 1127.8mg.

[Our favorite gentleman. The Michigan Man at Paul Smiths, NY. Source: My photo.]

Note: Keep plenty of napkins handy.]

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.

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.

Shadows

[Above the clouds as they cast shadows on the earth below. Source: Google search]

Like the wallpaper sticks to the wall

Like the seashore clings to the sea

Like you’ll never get rid of your shadow

You’ll never get rid of me

–Al Jolson & Billy Rose

Fast. Fast I ran, as fast as my little legs could carry me. I glanced over my shoulder. It was still behind me. I slowed and it slowed. It mimicked me when I jumped to the left and then to my right. I thought I would fool it so I turned around and began running. This time it was in front of me. I had discovered my shadow. I was young and there was much more of life to learn about. It was all ahead of me. Now, there’s still more to learn but time is not on my side.

Yes, I found my shadow and it’s still with me. It even got bigger as I grew to be an adult. I only once lost my shadow but a pretty girl sewed it back onto the bottom of my feet (but that episode belongs to another story.)

Like clouds, I’ve never taken shadows for granted. I do believe that most adults have forgotten the significance of this phenomenon. The sun (I’ll call it the shadow-maker) is sometimes annoying. One cups their hand to block out the sun on a beach while trying to have a simple conversation. A guy named Phil folds and repositions his cap while sitting in the afternoon glare in a seat off first or third base at Yankee Stadium. Alternatively, a young man and his girlfriend walking in a park want to speak of important matters. We all know this can only be done in the shade of an old Sycamore tree…or perhaps an apple tree blooming small white flowers.

But I digress.

I’m taking an on-line water color painting course. (Many of my friends are accomplished artists in that medium. They can skip a few paragraphs here. They can find something more important to do, like taking a few minutes to finish their whittling project or check the suet cage). So the subject of shadows came up. Someone wanted to know what color to make a tree on snow. I shot a photograph, shown below on a frozen pond. I looked and noticed the shadows are bluish…grading to gray. Yet that shadow that still follows me is more or less black.

[The Frozen Pond. My photo]

Shadows. I’ve spent over thirty years as a science teacher and never heard about many aspects of shadows. I won’t tell you about the umbra, penumbra and antumbra, fascinating as they are. I was quite surprised to find out that shadows have three dimensions. But wait. I look down at the ground in front of me and I see only length and width. That’s two dimensions. Where is the third dimension in the dark shape in front of me? It turns out that if you see your shadow when its foggy, you’re looking at the third dimension. The whole concept sounds like the basis of a science fiction story.

It’s 23.2 degrees outside right. It’s cold but I think I’ll put on my L.L Bean down jacket (probably on sale now since the new Spring/Summer line is out) and go out to any part of our front deck that doesn’t have a mountain of snow, and study my life-long friend…my shadow.

[Wonderment for the child. Source: Google search]

[Is she walking toward love…or away. Does she know she’s being followed? Source: Google search]

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]

Dealing With It?

I’ve been through a lot of situations in my life thus far. I fell into a glacial crevasse, got lost in Alaska, got lost in the Adirondacks, capsized a canoe in the Susquehanna River and visited a grave on Cemetery Hill at midnight.

But I could deal with it.

I spent nearly a week in a hotel room in New York City (see previous blog), pacing the well-worn rug, waiting for results of an MRI. The results were good. Barring accidents, I’d live. But boredom set in and I lost the desire to read. I play Words With Friends until well past my usual bed time while trying to think of what names to give my two hernias. On or about midnight I would take my sleep medications but the strong diuretic from the afternoon was still on board. This meant hourly trips to the bathroom.

But I could deal with it.

Back home we spent money on a suet feeder that was double caged “to deter squirrels”. Within a day, one red squirrel figured out a way to enter the feeder…this animal is eating well and doing a great job at keeping out the wrens, chickadees and finches. There was a moment when I thought of finding something in my shop and attacking the feeder like a piñata.

[The squirrel-proof suet feeder.]

My shop door is next to a certain red snowblower. It’s been used twice. I never knew how difficult those blowers can be until I tried to use it. My back pain told me that this is something for younger men or women to do. I was disappointed but I listened to my back. I’ll find some neighbor kid to handle all that. The only problem is that there are no kids, teenagers or otherwise on our block.

But I can deal with it.

For the three hour trip from Albany (we break the trip in half) I sat or rather squirmed in our Honda Fit. Took my pills after Albany and went to bed around midnight. Then came the urge to urinate. I made several unsuccessful attempts. Nothing. Something was wrong. On each attempt, the pain increased. I cried out in pain. Mariam came to help. Suddenly, at 4:15 am, I passed a bladder stone the size of a Buick. Then came the peaceful sleep.

But I can deal with it.

What I can’t deal with is another curse thrown my way. Insomnia. Couple that with restless leg syndrome and you have a combination of pure pain. Insomnia. What should I think about to bring on sleep. Everywhere in my mind was a place I didn’t want to go. My boyhood? My schooldays? My so-called fond memories of my so-called adventures just reminded me of how terrified I was at the time. I have to face the fact that I’m afraid of the dark.

I can’t deal with that.

While fighting off insomnia, I close my eyes and try to envision this:

But this is what I see:

When all is said and done, I want spring to come early and surprise me. This I can deal with.

[All photos are mine with the exception of the green mossy one. Source: Pinterest]

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.

Coal For Christmas

[Watercolor sketch by Paul Egan. Date unknown.]

[Note to my readers: If you think you’ve read this blog before, don’t think you’re getting senile. It’s perhaps the fourth or fifth time I’ve posted it.  It’s my version of a pure Christmas Story. I’ve tweaked the story several times to try to make the narrative better, clearer and more truthful.  As the years pass, I hope these newer memories are adding reality and not just wishes. This is not a made-up story by me.  It really happened].  

It’s another year and another chance for me to share this holiday memory. Happy Holidays to you all!

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache in my joints and every sadness of my seventy-third year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something or get a name wrong or a date incorrect. Or, forget the event entirely.

This is especially true when the snow falls deep and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer to brighten the dark and endless winter evenings. It is a time to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.  It’s time for a Christmas story.

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 presents, red-ribboned and as big a box as a little 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, if we were bad little boys, as my parents often said, he would leave a lump of coal. You deserved nothing more.

My father, Paul Egan, grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out to find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. When we had a house in Owego, N.Y. and we had plenty of space for a large tree in the living room.  And we had plenty of fist-sized chunks of coal in the cellar.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow so much deeper.  And the coal so much more dear.

It was northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day before dawn, only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  On his only day off, Sunday, he would sleep the sleep of bones that were weary beyond words.

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and family legend has it that he 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 cold. Frigid is more apt a term. The chill of the season found a way into a house using the smallest openings. There was never enough flannel.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after midnight, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet. It was too chilly.  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.

In the corner of the small living room stood a stunted Christmas tree.  There were a few bulbs on the branches. My father never spoke about whether there was a string of bright lights, but my suspicions were that there were no bright red, green and white bulbs.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold, bare feet into an old pair of his father’s cold boots that were five sizes too large.  He then 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 now merely embers. Not enough for a house.  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 air.  In the fresh snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was a common occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

In his young and innocent mind, he prayed that the hard times hadn’t become that hard.  But deep within, he knew of his parents unconditional love and concern.  He knew he and his brother and sisters were cherished.

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter.  The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the ten or more feet to an icy bottom.  The children never went into the field with the pit after the autumn leaves fell.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the inside of the pit.  At their feet was a tin bucket that was nearly full with chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  The embarrassment was evident on their faces. They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  After glancing at each other once, they looked up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father was helped down the ladder 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 load between them. My grandmother carried the third pail.

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 had 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.

The Christmas morning that followed a few hours later was in a warm living room.  My dad never spoke anything to his siblings about the previous night.

Twenty some years after the midnight trip to the coal-pit, my parents and my two older brothers moved to Owego, New York.  I was born two years later, in 1947.

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.  That dreaded lump of coal in the stocking that was tacked to the mantle over the little-used fireplace.  My fears left me.  Dad’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.”