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.

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.

Nearly There

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

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

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

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

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

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]

The Toboggan

It’s not really a wedding gift…it’s a gift for the future beyond that.

[In the garage]

When I was growing up in Owego, NY we had a garage that my father built using spare lumber he had accumulated since the late 1940’s. I cannot locate a proper photograph because I, more than likely, never took one. The whole structure leaned at a dangerous angle. It was never painted but it had many uses, mostly storing old oil cans, ladders, a canoe or two and a lawnmower. If you stood half-way along our driveway one could see a snarl of yellow plastic rope handing from the rafters. This was our toboggan. We rarely used it because we lacked proper slopes. You would have to drive to the IBM Country Club and find joy and thrills on the snow-covered golf course. I only took my girlfriend out for a few runs. Other than that, the toboggan waited patiently in the rafter of the old garage. My father probably acquired the sled sometime in the 1940’s.

I grew up and went to college, forgetting the old toboggan. It lay upside-down, above our ever changing cars. As my dad aged, he urged his four sons to begin claiming and cleaning the objects of our childhood. I spoke up and said I wanted the toboggan so it was handed down to me. Only in the 1970’s did I actually remove the sled from it’s resting place and took it to Pennsylvania. There it got well-used, fulfilling its function, when I took my young daughter, Erin for many pulls.

I relocated to Connecticut. I was getting older and Erin was getting heavier. The toboggan went back to it’s little home on the rafter of the garage at 420 Front St. in Owego. There it waited out many winters and watched the snow come and go.

Now, I am a father again. I have a son in his mid thirties. On October 9, 2021 he will be marrying the woman he loves. Perhaps they will choose to raise a family…perhaps not. But I could think of no better gift than to restore the old toboggan. That way, regardless of whether they have a family or not, they will get a lovingly new old toboggan to hang on their wall or hang from the rafter of a garage.

During the restoring process, I found myself challenged by a knot in the old plastic rope. It was so well tied, I needed scissors to cut the rope.

[Clipping the old knot]

In a way it was like cutting old ties to objects of my youth. The snip that broke the knot broke something in my heart.

[All done]
[Appropriate Title]

My Way Home

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

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

What happened? Where was all that writing?

I guess that anger and agitation led to the cramps.

But, I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living The High Life In Manhattan

Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my little world:

Mariam prepares dinner in our spacious kitchen.

My own personal workspace.

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

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

A Winter’s Drive

[Source: Google Search]

The elderly couple had the kind neighbor woman to help in loading their car. It was late morning and the temperature bounced around the zero level. When they first pulled the car down the drive, it was -0 F. Then it climbed to +0 F. What a difference.

Their car was a Honda Fit, dazzling blue on a dazzling day, but now it was white with dried road salt, reflecting the overcast black and white world of snow and more snow. Every time the elderly man brushed against the car, a part of his down coat or new L.L.Bean cargo pants would turn white. The last bag went in and the couple drove off. Their destination was Albany, about 150 miles away when you consider driving through Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. Time was the last concern on their minds. It was just one of several drives to New York City for doctors. This time it was important, no, essential that they were at Mount Sinai on Monday afternoon for tests.

He had a Starbucks thermos of cold brew so the first real stop was the High Peaks Visitors Center at the beginning of the 100 mile stretch to Albany.

“I’ll drop you close to the door”, the wife said. Near the curb was a crunch and a scrape. The man got out, checked the car (everything seemed well) and went inside to relieve himself.

Twenty miles further south, the wife asked if he heard anything coming from the right rear tire. She pulled over at the shuttered gate of the old Schroon Lake rest stop. He got out and to add to his mountain of other worries saw that the tire was flat. That’s when he smelled the burnt rubber.

Out came the AAA roadside assistance card. A call was made. The wife was put on hold and the call was cut off.

The elderly man looked around. Only a few cars and a semi or two roared passed (probably from Canada). All else…nothing.

They were very luck to have the flat in a zone that had cell phone service. Some stretches along I-87 were dead zones. Being a worrisome sort, the man began to imagine the worst case scenarios. Just then he felt the need to urinate (he’s on a diuretic). The minutes passed in silence. The couple discussed the situation. The man suggested calling AAA back when the wife said:

“Call 911.”

The man checked the south bound lane. Empty. Just as he was approaching the snow bank to empty his bladder, he saw the State Police cruiser about a mile away and the lights were flashing, The trooper had located us. The old man stood next to the once-blue Honda as the couple explained the situation. He knew there was a spare (a donut) in a pit under 300 pounds of luggage. He realized he hadn’t changed a tire since the late 1970’s. Despite the pain of two hernias, the trooper talked the man into the proper jack position and began to change the tire. The man had to ask for help in getting the spare up and out of the car.

“This is one of those baby spares, right?” he asked the officer.

“Yes.”

“The kind you’re not supposed to drive very far?”

“Yup.”

“So how far is recommended?”

“About fifty miles.”

“How far is it to Albany?”

“Ninety miles, but you’ll be okay if you don’t speed. Keep it at 65 mph.”

The trooper drove off. The old man felt like he had just earned a Merit Badge. Should they head to the Honda dealer in Albany or find a tire store? Minutes passed in silence. Honda closed at five. Firestone at six. So many decisions. They went to the Firestone store, they had the tire we needed and they checked to make sure the rim wasn’t damaged, then we had it aligned. While listening to power tools and phone calls, the old fellow realized he hadn’t urniated. That was ninety miles ago. He wandered off to the mens room. After he was done he settled back in the waiting room to watch a few more minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Watching it rain heavily on Tom Hanks, he realized he hadn’t taken his medicine for the day. You know, the box of pills which contained a serious diuretic. He swallowed his dosage and awaited the first urges in his bladder.

Soon the stressed-out and exhausted elderly couple were in their hotel room.

They had all day sunday to get to New York for the old guys monday afternoon tests. Except for the final challenge. The parking lot closed at four.

They turned on the giant hotel TV and watched an NCIS rerun. Then, thinking all was well with the world, the elderly man checked his weather app on his iPhone. Monday was to be the height of a major weather warning. The accumulation was expected to be 23″.

The old man put a bottle of leg cramp lotion at his bedside and looked forward to a night of pain, as exhausted as he was. The diuretic kicked in.

He was not disappointed.

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.”