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.”

The Big One: Part 3

I’ve been dwelling and raving about The Big One for several days now. It finally arrived. The only problem is that we only were hit with an inch and a half.

The Big One still has left my red snowblower untouched and shiny.

The Big One fell on the area of my hometown. The real ground zero seems to have been Binghamton. This city is located about five hours away from us.

This is the railing of my back deck a few minutes ago:

[Source: my photo.]

[Source: Josephchampaign]

But this is what The Big One really looks like.

The Big One: Part 2

This is a ice crystal pattern

[Source: Mine]

Somewhere, in the wild world of the Troposphere, it all begins. That’s where The Big One originates. There’s water involved, cold temperatures, wind and a waiting winter, already mostly frozen.

Everyone in the North Country is awaiting the arrival of the first significant snowfall, To us, it’s The Big One. I have my brand new red snowblower all ready to move large amounts of the white stuff.

Instead, we got slammed with a thumb-numbing cold. It was at least -6 degrees Fahrenheit when the sun came through the woods early this morning. Now, I’ve seen it much worse ( -6 F would actually seen mild).

But, it is what it is. I felt frozen as I went about my morning.

Every adult knows that no two snowflakes are the same. No wonder about that when you consider the types of snowflakes that eventually form snow.

[Source: Wikipedia.]

[Source: Mine.]

Instead of test driving my new red snowblower, I’m on my knees on the front deck with a hand lens.

Looking for signs of The Big One.

Till Their Hearts Content

My normal blogs are usually free of self pity. I don’t complain very much about my state of life. What follows is an exception.

Sometime early this afternoon, at a major New York City hospital, (when the moon is 22.8% waning crescent) I will lie face down, half naked, hands gripping the mattress by my forehead, to have two needles inserted in my lower back.

I won’t be alone. Countless others have the same condition. We endure Epidural Steroid Injections (ESI). The procedure is part of a “non-surgical management” of sciatica and lower back pain. It sounds as though it were developed in some forgotten gulag during the Stalin era. It was just his kind of thing.

My procedural relief normally lasts about four months, then it is back to New York City again. I have a great pain management doctor. But this past winter we were stuck in Portugal, then COVID, then travel restrictions. On the way home we were ahead of the virus by only a few days. As a consequence, I was months behind in my injections. My pain level rose like an escalator to Macy’s Santa Land.

So we made appointments to get THE SHOT that would make the lumbar discomfort vanish like the snows of winter. The procedure isn’t without flaws however. There is an occasional error. The MIRACLE INJECTION failed to take. Within a few weeks I was suffering as before.

Well here I am again waiting for my turn devouring the latest issue of Arthritis Today. I’m ready this time. No trembling with fear, no nervousness, no worries and no projectile vomiting. Now I’ll be able to return to my normal quality of life like tying my shoes, picking up a stray raisin or hopefully handling my brand new red snow blower that has yet to see a single flake. They can inject till their hearts content.

[Source: Google search and Dr. Richard Staehler, MD]

The Great Suet Cage Conflict of Rainbow Lake

[Source: Johns Hopkins.edu]

After an hour of lying on my sofa I felt it was time to get up and stretch my chronically sore back. I was lost in a copy of The Principles of Leadership and Management. It was a interesting and informative book. I’ll tell you how it ends when I finish it, sometime in the next few months.

As I was deciding which shoulder needed a rubbing of CBD lotion, I glanced out of the picture window to concentrate on our green suet cage. I noticed a small white object at the bottom the feeder. There were two explanations:

Either a small bit of suet remained or it was the body of a dead albino finch. Since the ‘door’ was latched from the outside, I decided it was the remains of some suet. A locked-in albino finch presented a whole new mystery and I failed to find the energy to play Agatha Christie at the moment.

Suet cages and I have a history. I put one up and it was gone the next day! Gone. I know that squirrels love suet, but to figure out how to open one and/or drag the entire object away made me angry. I decided to fight back.

Study the photo below:

Do you notice the small curvy latches that are supposed to ‘lock’ the cage door? A field mouse with a case of bad arthritis could open those latches. I came to the conclusion that some other, stronger and squirrel-proof device was called for.

My wife suggested using a twist-tie. A twist-tie, I thought, could easily be chewed by a large woodpecker. No, I thought, that won’t do.

So I went to the hardware store and bought several ‘S’ hooks. Now these are harder than they look, so I tried to alter the shape with my fingers. I immediately cut a bit of my forefinger and thumb off.

[Source: Google Search]

Mariam helped me with the Band-Aid. I needed something stronger so I used a pair of pliers (actually two). Things slipped and I cut myself again. After several attempts, I had the ‘S‘ holding the door secure.

Some lessons I learned: use a hand tool, use a twist tie if needed, keep your wife and first-aid kit nearby and never try this at home.

Now I have to change the suet again because the Downy Woodpeccker has a large appetite. He or she must have finished off the last bit of suet and let it drop through the cage holds to the pile of rotting leaves below.

But, I’ll be prepared next time.

Waiting For Some Friends

Yes, I know. We went to Lowes in Plattsburg and purchased a fire-engine red snowblower. It has all the ‘stuff’ a person would want in one of these babies. It drives itself and controls the direction the snow is blown (away from your face for example).

We waited for the Big One. After all it was getting toward mid-November and by now we would have been slammed by at least three Arctic blasts.

Instead, we got about 4″ to 5″ inches. Hardly a Canadian blitz.

So, except for some hidden bits along the plowed road, there is small patch of snow in our yard about the size of a medium waffle that would come with eggs and coffee at Friendly’s on a day that advertised BREAKFAST SPECIAL!

Knowledge is information, they say. I needed knowledge about the expected and upcoming Big One. I bought a copy of Harris Farmer’s Almanac for 2121. I have nothing against the Old Farmer’s Almanac except I couldn’t locate one and the impulse buying rack carried only copies of rip-off headlines of British scandals and the latest break-up between the Kardashians.

I dove into Harris’ Almanac looking for the Next Big Prediction of Severe Weather. Instead I got caught up in an article about President Taft who became chief justice, Miss America turning 100, President Harding’s First Dog, Laddle Boy and a History of the first drive-in pig stand. What caught most of my interest was a piece on the vanishing song birds.

Finally I found the page about January 2121. Reading this, I now know all the moon’s phases when to plant a root crop and the major holiday’s (National Maritime Day is May 22.)

But, I failed to track down the major snow events for January. It may just as well have stated: The Big One Is Coming. Well, we all know that, (those of us who live in Zone 8), The North Country. Does our little patch of snow in our front yard know that? Can it be assured that it won’t spend the winter alone? You know that loneliness makes me sad.

I must say that I rely on forecasts as we’ve seen and patience. No matter how insignificant one thinks one is, you’re partly right. A tiny bit of snow, when The Big One comes, won’t be alone.

Sometime the wait is worth it. There will be plenty of friends.

[Source: Both photos are mine.]

Autumn Comes First, Right?

I learned a valuable lesson early this morning. No more preparation. Sometimes things make no sense. It doesn’t do much good to try and snow blow a 1/2″ of drizzling rain.

The scheduled delivery from Lowe’s arrived on time. In fact it not only arrived on time, it was early. The truck was at our driveway at 7:00 am. That gave us 15 extra minutes of quality sleep time.

That Craftsman certainly went for a fair price. I expected to pay whatever an average ATV would cost, or perhaps a kit to build a ready-to fly airplane or even a small nuclear generator (small enough to fit in the workshop).

I do believe I got a great deal.

As you know, I’ve been expecting THE BIG ONE. A snow storm the size of Kansas. I’ve been burned before and I vow it won’t happen again,

This morning, I won. It failed to even leave a light coat of frost.

But, I must say, it’s a beautiful red machine. I ordered the brightest color…In case I get lost in a blizzard again. It has an electric start and is self-driving. It will look very trendy and sharp even if I never see a flake of snow again. It will make a great lawn ornament next to my orange lawnmower.

Now that my red miracle machine is safely out of the drizzle…waiting.

Bring on the winter!

The Bearded Man Beholds The Autumn

 

[Photo is mine.]

He sits on the front deck of his home. Despite recent chilly weather, this particular Wednesday proved to be mild…even warm. He has spent the last half-hour watching a red squirrel scurry about a pile of chipped wood. Doubtless, this is to be his winter den.

The bearded man is sitting like countless other men and women like him. He spends his idle hours either writing or thinking of odd topics to comment on. At the moment, he is musing on the science that explains the breakdown of the Chlorophyll that is necessary for the tree to reveal the true color of it’s leaves.

[Photo is mine.]

He scratches the whiskers on his cheek. He is fully aware that before he can say Blitzen all this foliage will be composting beneath two feet of powder-white snow,

The relentless challenges of winter will keep the old man close by the fireplace. He will likely be typing about the awesome beauty of the North Country winter.

Some Sunday afternoon in mid-January he will find himself in the icy garage staring at ski poles and snowshoes. He’ll recall times when pain didn’t accompany a simple walk in the woods.

Soon, he will be sitting in his favorite leather wingback chair. His fingers will linger with the buttons of his treasured L.L Bean plaid flannel shirt

Like many old men who sit and think, he’ll ponder his youth, wonder what happened to his middle years and doubtless dread the future left to him.

Then, without a doubt, he’ll reach for a good book.

[Photo credit: Google search.]

A Beautiful Day in The Neighborhood

[Our beautiful neighborhood]

Did I ever tell you that I have a sore back? Surely, I did.

The other day I was sitting on the edge of the bed pondering how long a nap I should take when I chanced to hear the sound of big truck-like things and chainsaws. I decided to investigate. I struggled to my feet and walked to the end of the driveway. The distance felt like I had hiked the Silk Road. At the top of the drive, I felt like I’d summited K2. Just to put things in perspective, it takes Mariam about five minutes to walk the loop.

I was curious about the noise, but the back pain won the battle. It was a forty-five minute nap.

But I digress.

Once, many years ago, I bought a book on building a house. I could see it all…a pile of planks four stories high and six tons of pipes and girders. What could possibly be so hard about that? I’ve watched houses being erected…Plumbing? There’s a book on how to do it.

Finally, my wife got curious and took a drive over to the building site. The house is being built by our friends, Linda and Brad Brett who live and work in and around Jupiter, Florida. They summer here but in a different house. The story of the construction that Mariam related while I nursed my back amazed me. Linda posted a great many pictures.

They are building a custom-made structure. It’s life began in Watertown, NY. By watching the pictures come in I was able to follow the building vicariously. Here’s how a house goes together in a small patch of woods in the North Country:

[Foundation & Lower Level]

[House being lifted into place]

So, what’s going to happen to our quiet little neighborhood…where it’s always a beautiful day? A small green space going…but great neighbors moving in. We can now expect a welcome meal made by the gourmet/owner. There will be cocktail parties and good times. Plenty of Chardonnay, Prosecco, and local craft beer. Discussions of future climbs and hikes, kayak cocktail parties on the lake…and a great deal of laughter.

Maybe I’ll take that walk today.

Welcome , Mr. & Mrs Brad Brett to Garondah Road and Rainbow Lake!

[Home Sweet Home]

{All photographs courtesy of Linda & Mariam}

The Mermaid

[Source: Google search.]

I shall always remember how the peacocks’ tails shimmered when the moon rose amongst the tall trees, and on the shady bank the emerging mermaids gleamed fresh and silvery amongst the rocks…

–Hermann Hesse The Journey To The East

Once upon a time, I traveled to the Seven Seas…to take a swim in all the waters of the earth. It was in the sixth sea that I chanced to meet a mermaid. Few men get to meet a real mermaid…and few men get to walk away from the mystical, magical and forbidden aura that these fantastical creatures and the spell they can weave.

“Come, swim out to where the sea is truly blue…as blue as blue can be,” I said.

“I can’t swim that well,” She said. “I’m afraid of how deep one can sink.”

“I’ll show you new lands,” I promised.

“I’m in a new land,” She said.

So we lived on an island. I took her to places she only had dreamed of. We had a son who rose from the waves and grew to be a pure and a strong soul.

Then, one day, she swam to where I dangled my feet in the cool water.

“I have to go away,” she said. “I need to see the sunset one more time.”

“Will you ever come back to me?”

“No,” she said. “Did you forget what happens to a mortal man when he falls in love with a mermaid?”

I had forgotten.

She swam away. I never saw her again. She met her last sunset.

[Google Search.]

 

{Nancy Dunn Egan}

{November 22, 1953–May 11, 2020} 

{Good night, Nance}