~ Pennsylvania Stories ~ A Western Pennsylvania Christmas
#Walking by Inner Vision Blog
This week I am decorating my western Pennsylvania home and art studio with twinkling colorful lights, a variety of Christmas trees, and Santa figures dressed in green. At each entrance to our home, I put wreaths on the Caribbean Blue doors. The fresh deep green balsam wreaths from Maine feature a red velvet bow and white-tipped pine cones.
Each Sunday during December, I will feature stories, poems, and photographs from my books. Today’s memoir is from my book #WALKING BY INNER VISION: STORIES & POEMS ( ©2017. #Lynda McKinney Lambert. 239 pages).
Please read more about my book at my author page – Here.
Please enjoy my story, A Western Pennsylvania Christmas (page 199 ©2017. Lynda McKinney Lambert.)
Edited and Designed at DLD Books, Denver, Colorado 2017 (239 pages).
A Western Pennsylvania Christmas
by Lynda McKinney Lambert
“Oh, it is so cold this morning! My lips are probably blue! Are they, Patti? Are my lips blue? I don’t want to get up,” I whimpered.
My sister and I shared a bedroom. Patti woke up now because I was complaining. She took a deep breath, then she spoke slowly, “Do we have to get up already?” She took a quick look towards the wall of double–hung windows on her side of the bed. “It’s still kind of dark outside,” she announced. A cold wind was blowing outside.
Just like every other house in the neighborhood, ours was a typical home like those of most of the steelworkers in our little city. The wood−frame house had a wide porch that spanned the front of the house from one side to the other. The front door was in the center of the porch, with a large window on each side of it.
Mom was proud of the organdy ruffled curtains in every room of the house. They were a lot of work for her, and it was even harder because of all the soot that drifted in on the air from outside.
“Just a couple more days till Santa comes,” Mom said. School would be closed soon, and we would be home for the Christmas holiday.
Our two–story house was heated by a large coal furnace two floors below our bedroom. The cast−iron furnace stood like a hulking giant right in the center of the hard dirt floor of the basement. Its round, hollow arms captured heat from the furnace and moved it upwards into the entire house. Dad got up before dawn to get the fire started. Once the fire was giving off heat, Dad could leave for his walk down the railroad tracks, across the creek, to the steel mill. Dad made stainless steel. In winter time, he left in the dark morning and returned home in the dark evening.
Coal, the central part of our lives, heated our homes in the 1940s. The coal miners of western Pennsylvania provided coal needed all across the country.
Homes and factories were no longer heated by wood. Coal was the king of daily life in America since the late 19th century in the northeastern United States. Pennsylvania coal was needed for homes, steamships, locomotives, and factories. Children growing up in western Pennsylvania knew a lot about coal.
Every home had a coal furnace, a coal chute, and a coal cellar in the basement. The black dust filled the air all through the basement and outside on the day when the coal truck made its delivery.
Mom’s voice sounded urgent. “Girls! Are you out of bed yet? You better be up, because we have to leave soon, and you need to have your breakfast first. Your oatmeal is ready. Come and get it before it gets cold!”
Patti and I both decided to jump out of bed at the same time. Our bare feet hit the highly polished pine floor as we jumped down from the bed. We were wearing our flannel nightgowns. With a rush in the brisk morning, we ran the few steps from the bed to the registers in the bedroom. “Oh, the register feels so good,” I said. We huddled together, each of us trying to keep our cold, bare feet on the warming metal register in our bedroom floor.
Two floors below our bedroom, Dad had the fire blazing. When he was certain it was going to keep on burning, he closed the heavy cast iron door. Dad knew how to keep the fire burning for hours at a time. My awareness of the magic of coal and fire was in those daily trips to the basement to watch Dad work the fire into a frenzy. Dad was a magician, and we four children were his attentive audience as he practiced daily magic rituals.
One afternoon, we all sat around the long mahogany table in the dining room together. Santa needed letters from us so he would know what we wanted for Christmas. We had the Sears catalogue, and we all gathered around it to get a look at all the delights on the pages of the catalogue.
“I want a Snow White doll. She comes with her seven dwarves, too! I really, really want a Snow White doll,” Patti cooed with determination.
The two boys were mostly interested in some new trucks and cars, like the red fire truck with ladders and the solid metal green bulldozers and tractors they saw in the catalogue.
We all wanted to be certain Santa got our lists, so we wrote down our favorite toys.
Coal is a shiny black rock. I actually know it is magic, because a piece of coal burns. A rock that burns! Bituminous coal is also called “soft coal,” and it starts to burn much more quickly than the other kind of coal. The other kind of coal is anthracite, and that is usually called “hard coal.”
The biggest problem we all had was the dirty soot that gathered on our porch and windowsills. Soot blew into the sky from the steel mills. It was greasy, black little fragments that floated in the air and landed on all the houses and porches. Cleaning the porches and windows seemed like an endless job to us when the weather was warmer. When winter came, the snow would get a layer of the black dust all over it.
“Have you written your letters to Santa yet?” Dad asked.
“Yes,” we all said at the same time.
Since I was the oldest, I was in charge of getting things done in the house. I handed Dad the four lists we had created. We had written them on our school tablets, with the blue lines on the white paper. We were all aware that it was getting close to Christmas, and we four were all anxious to get those letters off to Santa.
I felt a little nervous about my letter, though, because I knew I had not been good sometimes during the year. I was thinking about the fight I had had in the summer with my two little brothers. I recalled how the neighbor had sent all three of us children home when she heard us fighting in her yard. Santa might know about it, and then I would be in trouble with the gifts, I realized. And how did Santa know everything? Well, that is simple. It is the elves he sends out to spy on us. They report back to him when they see us doing things that are not so nice. When I thought about it, I could remember some other naughty things I did that year.
When we wrote the letters to Santa, my brothers kept watching out the windows for elves, too. Mom told us often during this time of year about the elves watching us day and night. It was frightening to think about it, really! Terror filled our hearts because we all knew the penalty that we would receive on Christmas Day. We had been warned again and again about the dreaded gift we could receive if we had been bad!
I really wanted to get a travel alarm clock, like the one a classmate brought to school one day. My classmate seemed to have everything; I was so jealous of her. But her little red travel alarm clock was the best Christmas gift I could imagine, so I wrote that in my letter to Santa. As I wrote about the travel alarm clock, though, I began to remember that I had stolen some colored pencils while another student was outside for recess. I hoped it would not count because I had to give them back to her after the teacher found out.
I was also thinking about the night our littlest brother played with matches, and how he set the glider in flames. He was really in trouble for that, but it turned out okay because we put the fire out with a bucket of water.
I also remembered the fight I had had with our neighbor girl. We got into a fist fight, and I pulled her hair. I wondered if the elves had seen us that day in our little hideout in the field, as we fought like wildcats.
Dad opened the furnace door, and the fire felt like it was going to come out and burn us up. “We will put the lists in the fire now. Santa will get your list, because he will read the smoke from the chimney.”
We watched as the paper curled up quickly, caught on fire, and turned into nothing as the fire consumed it before our eyes. Dad closed the door with a clank that startled us back to the moment.
I am not sure if those smoke messages really did get to Santa, though.
On Christmas morning, we opened our gifts. There were some cars and trucks, teddy bears, and even an erector set. Patti’s new Snow White doll did have a box full of dwarves with it, just as she had asked for in her letter. Santa got it right, I was thinking.
I was excited as I held the square package that was just the right size for the traveling alarm clock. It was a thrill to even think about what I was going to find inside that wrapping paper. I ripped it off, and there was my gift! A musical powder box! But I never wanted a powder box at all! What was Santa thinking about when he picked out this gift for me?
It was only a few minutes before another even bigger disappointment came that really spoiled my day. Santa had filled our stockings just like he said he would. I was nearly finished opening them when I saw one final package for me. It was a bit heavy for such a small package, too. Once again, I had a burst of renewed energy and got excited with the anticipation of something that I would love to get from Santa. As I ripped the red shiny paper off the gift, my hopes turned to despair.
Oh, no! This is the worst thing that can happen, I thought.
Now I knew for sure the elves had done their sneaky job in reporting misdeeds to Santa for the entire year. I held out my hand and slowly turned the lump of coal around in it for everyone to see. That day I learned a truth that every kid in western Pennsylvania knows. The good little children get gifts that are nice, and the naughty ones get a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings! Santa was for real!
Work in the mines was hard and dangerous. Between 1877 and 1940, 18,000 men and boys died in Pennsylvania bituminous mines. —PA Coal History http://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1–9–18
May your holidays be filled with the joy and warmth of the season!
Copyright December 12, 2015. All rights reserved world-wide
WALKING BY INNER VISION: STORIES & POEMS – is available in two different audio versions. Both are fantastic!
WALKING BY INNER VISION: STORIES & POEMS is also available for patrons of the National Library Service (NLS) as the audio download DBC 11608 from BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download). It was recorded at Perkins Library by narrator, Polly Slavet.
You can also get my book that is a recorded version from Perkins Library.
WALKING BY INNER VISION: STORIES & POEMS was recorded by Lee Ann Rowe (Lillian Yves) for Audible and is available on Amazon.
This book is available in Paperback, Hardback, Audible, e-book,and Kindle.
Please consider gifting this book to friends and family this year.