Coal For Christmas

[My regular readers will recognize this story. I republish it every holiday season with a tweak here and there. This story is true and I am passing it down to new readers and my two children. I hope you enjoy it. Have a great and meaningful holiday.]

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor]

I am a grandfather now, feeling every ache and sadness of my seventy-fourth year.  The stories that my father told me about his father have taken on new meanings.  I’m the old one now, the last of the Egans.  I am the carrier of the family history.  When a recollection of a family event comes to mind, be it a birthday party, a funeral, a wedding or a birth, I get my journal and I write with haste, in case I might forget something, get a name wrong or a date incorrect.  Or, forget the event entirely. This is especially true when the snow falls and the Christmas tree decorations are brought down from wherever my parents lived  during any particular winter.  There is a certain melancholy mood that comes with the wintertime holidays.  The sentiment of A Christmas Carol comes to mind.  It is a time to listen to the winter wind blow, put a log on the fire, pour a little more wine and to recall and celebrate the memory of those who have passed on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom? Dad?”

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

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

He caught his fears before they had a chance to surface.  His parents were on a midnight walk, that’s all. A nearly full moon shining off the snow gave the landscape a light that helped him keep on the trail of the four footprints.

In his anxiety my father had forgotten it was Christmas Eve.

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

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

He dropped to his knees and peered over the edge.

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

[Winter scene by Paul Egan. Watercolor.]

Freed From Fleece

I did something this afternoon that I haven’t done in a long long time. I took off my fleece jacket and walked across a parking lot. Now, I’ve been in countless parking lots in my adult life so I wasn’t shy. Feeling a bit naked, I kept my fleece vest on. Normally I remove my fleece jacket for only certain special occasions like going to bed taking a shower and certain surgical procedures. This time I stripped off the jacket because it was warm weather. Well, maybe not warm as most people would define the term. Perhaps the more appropriate phrase would be mild. But I was happy to finally cross the lot (which was about the size of an Amazon warehouse).

But I digress.

The reason I’m sitting at this very functional desk at the Residence Inn Charleston Riverview and writing this piece is to inform my friends, followers, fans and readers that we are on our way to our new little cottage in Fort Meyers, Florida to spend our first winter snow-free and warm. Normally we’d be visiting our friends in Dorset, England…but things aren’t normal right now are they.

Please be assured that you’re not losing me as your favorite blogger and storyteller. I will continue to report on life from the Deep South as I see it. The future blogs are already germinating, the ideas are already taking shape and my adventures are just beginning.

We are in Charleston, South Caroline at the moment. I just finished a fantastic plate of Blackened Chicken Pasta. Mariam nearly completed her portion of Fried Oysters on a Caesar Salad.

So, stay tuned, my beloved friends and have a very Happy Holiday Season.

[Note: If anyone out there still takes the time and trouble to send a real greeting card made of paper (instead of pushing a button) my address until sometime in April is:

Patrick Egan

Siesta Bay Resort

19333 Summerlin Road.

319 Cuarto

Fort Meyers, FL 33908

Christmas by the Pool

Cardiologists and others (who live on Long Island) have said that shoveling snow can be beneficial to living a healthy life. People over 55 however should limit their shovel time to a reasonable level. For me that time limit is roughly 43 seconds. Over the years I’ve moved a lot of snow from the walkway and the access to the garage. There were times when the drifts got so large I feared that I would end up like The Little Match Girl instead of the beautiful Nancy Kerrigan or the alluring Tanya Harding. Since I have very little of importance to say to anyone and my wife loves to read cozy mysteries, I was afraid I’d be forgotten until 3:30 am and Mariam would wake up and find my side of the bed empty.

“Oh, he must be having such fun he wants to play in the snow until dawn.” Meanwhile, hours earlier (after the last interesting story on CNN} I would have turned into a lump of gray flesh with a plaid coat and L. L. Bean’s rejected gloves that were made out of the thinnest cotton available.

But I digress.

The time has come to throw my fake fur away and trade it in for a straw cowboy hat. We’re finally moving away, away from the Frozen North, away from the land of Nanook for the winter. We bought a little cottage in Florida and I shall be practicing the doggie-paddle in a solar heated pool.

In truth, I can’t wait for a walk in an outdoor mall with the palm trees beautifully decorated with red and green lights, with Bing Crosby crooning over the PA system, while all my friends who haven’t moved south yet are standing and shivering to meet Santa in a Walmart parking lot.

I will, of course, still have issues to deal with but a dose of SPF 45 will take care of that. No more cans of deicer to unfreeze the car door that went solid after the first bag of groceries were put in the kitchen.

I will also have to do certain things if necessary. When they close off half the pool so the old folks can play volleyball, I’ll need to locate a beach chair that has at least some shade, and stretch out to listen to the murmur of the waves of the Gulf of Mexico a mile or so away. There I can also listen to the motor boats from Venezuela taking drugs to Alabama.

It’ll be a winter of warmth and quiet. I’ll better myself too. I will continue to improve my sailing skills, I’ll comb the beaches for shells, learn to play Shuffleboard and Bingo.

If you follow my blogs, don’t worry. They will continue as I learn about alligators and snakes.

Best wishes and stay warm.

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]

Dealing With It?

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

But I could deal with it.

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

But I could deal with it.

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

[The squirrel-proof suet feeder.]

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

But I can deal with it.

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

But I can deal with it.

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

I can’t deal with that.

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

But this is what I see:

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

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

Living The High Life In Manhattan

Buildings

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my little world:

Mariam prepares dinner in our spacious kitchen.

My own personal workspace.

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

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

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.

Winter

Old Nan: Oh my sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for winter, when the snows fall one hundred feet deep. Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little lord, when the white walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks. So is this the sort of story you like?

—Old Nan referring to the Adirondacks

—Game of Thrones [George R. R. Martin]

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.”