Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

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On Front Street At The End Of October

Different times…different places…different memories…

[Photo source: Google search.]

I should mention that, as a child, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was to kick a pile of leaves along a stone sidewalk.

It’s gloomy, rainy and windy here in the North Country.  It rained hard before dawn this morning so nearly all the foliage is now on the ground.  If the wind continues, the little color that is left will leave the deciduous trees naked in a few days.  But, surprisingly, the outside temperature is in the mid-sixties, so it’s hard to think of this being October 8, only a few weeks before my favorite time of year, Halloween! But, we live in a rather isolated location, so there will be no trick-or-treat for us.  There never has been any since we moved here in 2011.

This is not like the place where I grew up, Owego, NY.  It’s about six hours downstate and it probably rained there as well last night.  But, in the vast store of my childhood memories, I’m sure there were wet and dark days in my home town when I was young.  However, once the weather front went through, the air would turn crisp and sometimes there would be frost on grassy lawns, and on the pumpkins, carved and candle-lit, that sat on the porches and front steps like sentinels…or warnings.  The strange truck with the giant vacuum hose had already made its slow way along the curbside to suck up the leaves that were raked in piles.  We were still allowed to burn leaves in those days so the air was rich with the scent of smoldering oak and maple and elm leaves from someones back yard fire pile. Trick-or-treating down Front and Main Streets, as well as John, Ross and Paige Streets was a joyful time of year for me.

My happiest Halloween’s were when I would take my daughter, Erin (in the mid to late 1970’s) and later, my son, Brian (in the early 1990’s) down those fearful streets. Those were when the sidewalks would be crowded with families and the houses would be lit up with orange light and strange candles and we could see our breath in the chilly air.

[My daughter, Erin.  Getting ready for a trip to Owego.]

[My son, Brian…as Fu Manchu.]

After a lifetime of growing up on Front Street, this was my chance to peek inside the older and larger houses…all the way to the business district.

Our first stop was the Sparks’ house next to ours.  Then it was across the street to the old Loring house and then back across the street to walk past the only ‘haunted’ house in my neighborhood, the very old Taylor mansion with the floor to ceiling windows and mansard roof.  We’d be sure to stop at Dr. Amouk’s house (pardon the spelling).  He usually had the best candy which was ironic because he was a dentist.

My children usually made a ‘pretty good haul’ on those nights.  And, it was a joy to view their excitement from an adults perspective.

I remember one Halloween in particular.  My wife and I were taking my son Brian on the rounds.  We got to a house that was almost directly across the street from my old elementary school, St. Patrick’s.  There were corn shocks and fake cobwebs all over the large porch.  Then my son spotted a pair of feet sticking out of a box next to the front door.  He hesitated.  We pushed the door bell.  A woman dressed like a vampire came to answer.  She was holding a box of candy.  But Brian had already made a retreat to the sidewalk.  He was having no part of this woman’s fun that night.

Remembering how my kids enjoyed those walks forces me to remember the times when my friends and I owned those after dark hours while we hid behind the Frankenstein masks or space-suits; the hours when you never knew who would open a door or what monster might cross you path.  So many leaves were scattered on the slate sidewalks that one simply had to kick at them.  As children, we knew the magic of that season would last only a few days.

Now, we can still kick leaves along our road…but it’s not the same as it was.  Nothing will ever be the same as those charmed nights of a spooky holiday when you’re seven or eight…or even fifteen, when your goal is not an apple or twenty M & M’s, but to steal a kiss behind the large elms that once lined Front Street.

To steal that kiss was a treat that couldn’t be bought in any candy store.

 

 

Coal For Christmas

paul-egan-2-resized-copy

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

Another year and another chance for me to share this holiday post…

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

This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever they live during the summer. There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays. The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind. It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

It’s time for a Christmas story. It’s time to think again about my family and how they lived their lives so many decades ago.

I was raised in the post-war years. My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good…or Santa would not leave us a brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold. No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing. But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking. No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk barefoot through ten inches of snow to attend school or go from house to house asking for bread.  It was just the kind of poor that would keep his father only one step ahead of the rent collector. Dad would often make a joke about poor he was as a child.

“I was so poor that I would get roller skates for Christmas but I would have to wait until the next year to get the key,” he would say with a sly smile. It was a joke of course…wasn’t it?

His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree. I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s. In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow ever deeper.

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

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He rarely broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes. There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and slipped out of bed.  The floor felt unusually cold against his socks.  He crept down the stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up, talking and keeping warm beside the coal stove.   But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  He pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  A pale moon helped light the way. The tracks led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

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

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

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

He knew this pit from summertime games, but it was a place to be avoided in the winter. The walls were steep and it would be easy to slip in the snow and fall the dozen or so feet to an icy bottom. The children never went into that field after the hay was cut and the autumn leaves had fallen and the snow began to drift.

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart-breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids, not on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

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

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together. My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed. He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

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

. . .

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me. Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”

dad-farm-picture-original-enlarged

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

Where Are The Castles In The Sky?

ADKclouds

When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”

cloud2b:w

Unfortunate Souls

UnfortunateSoulsPlaque

One afternoon, in the late 19th Century, the fifteen year old brother of Maria Moreno complained about the way she was dancing.  She got angry.  His response was to say: “So, shoot me.”  Maria, who was sixteen went into her house and brought her father’s rifle.  She shot and killed her brother.  He should have let her dance anyway she wanted.  Maria was convicted and sentenced to the Yuma Territorial Prison.

One evening, again the late 19th Century, Elera Estrada, found out that her lover was being unfaithful.  She cut his heart out and threw it in his face.  She claimed in court that he fell onto her knife.  The jury didn’t buy her story.  Elvira was sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison.  Excuse the graphic description, I’m just writing about what I read.

EleraEstrada

[Not your everyday crime]

ElviraEstrada

[An everyday crime]

On Saturday, February 13, I parked our red Ford Escape and Mariam and I paid a small fee to tour the few buildings that was all that remained of the infamous prison.  I tried to imagine what a newly convicted person would feel like when we entered.

They would not have passed through a gift shop that carried hand lotions, lip balm, dream-catchers (made in China), post cards and books of the Wicked Women and Outlaws of the Old West.

They would not have entered a courtyard that was planted with blooming flowers and palm trees.  Inside the museum, there were display cases exhibiting the stories of the more colorful and interesting inmates.

There was a photo and story of Pearl Hart, a misguided train robber who teamed up with a guy named Boot.  They robbed one train and took away $421 in loot.  Both were captured and sent to different prisons.  Boot escaped and disappeared from the history books.  Hart went on to try her hand at acting.  She failed at that as well.  Her revolver was on display behind glass.

PearlHart

[Pearl tried her hand on the New York stage.]

This must have been a dismal place to serve time.  The cells, each holding six inmates must have been unbearably hot…Yuma is a very hot city.

There was the solitary confinement called the Dark Cell.  One poor soul spent 120 days in this room without light.  He emerged a “model prisoner” and never gave anyone any trouble after that.  My guess is that he had lost much of his reason inside this hellish enclosure.  That’s just my guess.

DarkHole

[The Dark Cell]

I tried to write down the names of the unfortunate souls who committed a crime, some hideous, like murder, and some that are not serious enough to require incarceration, like adultery.  I tried to look into the eyes of these men and women who suffered for what they did.  If you’re a religious person, consider that they paid twice for their sins, once in Yuma and again in Hell.  The two were the same if you looked deep enough into the eyes…those dark, wet, frightening, scared and pitiful eyes.  The eyes of people like Barney K. Riggs, Trinidad Verdugo, Henry Wilson, Donald Waters, Daniel Morin, R.L. McDonald, Jennie McCleary, Georgie Clifford, Pearl Hart and Frank Leslie.  There were too many to write down…too many to remember.

FrankLeslie

[A woman wrote to him while he was in prison. They married.]

The prison was opened in 1876.  The first inmate was William Hall.  In 1889, Manuel Fimbres gave birth to a child while a prisoner.  In 1899, Pearl Hart was behind bars.

The prison closed in 1909.

I stood in the court-yard and tried to imagine the conditions…but it just didn’t get inside me.  Nearby, the truck traffic on I-8 drowned out any chance for quiet reflection.  A lot of traffic was crossing the Colorado River (what’s left of it) in and out of California.  On a nearby hill was a casino.  A bike path wound its way alongside the river.  The parking lot was half-filled with SUV’s…most with out-of-state plates.  Ours was one of them, easy to spot because of the two bikes mounted on the roof.

We drove down a small road (perhaps a hundred yards) and walked to the Old Prison Cemetery. Here are 104 small mounds, most are covered with rocks.  None are marked. These are the unfortunate souls who died up on the hill, inside the stone walls, of Tuberculosis, snake bites, murder, suicide and executions.

I stood and took a photo, noticing my shadow falling across the graves.  I looked to my right and noticed my car with the bikes, sitting in the hot sun…alone.  There were no visitors to this part of the prison exhibits.  I wondered if anyone ever came here to visit a distant descendant, take a pebble as a souvenir, read the plaque, swat the flies, apply SPF or to mumble a prayer for these unfortunate souls whose bones mixed with the sand and dust beneath the baked rocks.

MyShadowonGraves

[The Prison Cemetery]

CarAtGraveyardYuma

[In the distance: A Ford Escape. Irony?]

There certainly was death beneath my feet, but there was also death in the eyes of those in the haunting photographs.  Those eyes.  Look at those eyes.

For a moment, they were forced to look at a camera…and in a sense into a society they mostly rejected.

But, for whatever despicable deed they committed, it occurred to me that each of them was born of a woman who loved them, for however briefly, before they grew up and found out what terror life can hold.

For a short time, they were fortunate souls.

 

 

Coal For Christmas

Paul Egan #2 copy 2

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

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

I was raised in the post-war years.  My parents were not saying anything original when they would tell me, or my brothers, that we had to be good…very good, or Santa would not leave us any brightly wrapped present, red-ribboned and as big a box as a boy could hold.  No, Santa would not leave such a wondrous thing.  But he wasn’t so vengeful to leave nothing in our stocking.  No, he would leave a lump of coal…if you deserved nothing more.

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

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

Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down, literally, when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at a wall.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve that took place in my father’s boyhood.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in a remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night—the reality of their lives erased those kinds of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes that were six sizes too large, and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  But the room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The only light was from a single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling on a thin chain.  My father noticed the steam of his breath each time he exhaled.  He called out.

“Mom? Dad?”

He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a low hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years of rural America.

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

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

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

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

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

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

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

My father was helped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.  My father and his father carried the bucket between them.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee and the house was warmed a few degrees.  Dad kissed his mother and father and went upstairs to bed.  He fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

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

When I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned the threat that would be used to punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “if anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them: ‘I hope so,’ then wish them a very Merry Christmas.”