Coal miner's kids' Christmas
By Anthony Buccino
The coal miners' kids were appreciative to get an orange for Christmas. When the Salvation Army showed up with a basket of food, that was the miracle of Christmas.
Harry was four years old when his dad died in a coal mine cave-in in Plains, near Wilkes Barre, Pa. He was the youngest of eight children, the oldest was barely a teenager. That was March 18, 1929.
His oldest brother went to work for a carpenter and the next oldest eventually became a miner's union representative who often went head-to-head for worker safety with the mine owner's goons.
His sisters cleaned houses and did laundry for the neighbors. Often the laundry baskets outweighed the young waifs. But they persevered for the sake of the family.
Harry's mom used the settlement -- after some intercession by an interpreter, or compare, to get anything at all -- she got from the mining company to pay off her house. "At least we'll have a roof over our heads," she said in her native Italian.
And fatherless Harry was the handful for his mother who never failed to put food on the table. She proved to be such an expert baker that the local stores took all the breads she baked and swapped them for other provisions the struggling family needed.
One cold winter morning, Harry's sister wandered past the coal piles and helped herself to the shiny black rocks that had fallen off the carts and onto the cobblestone street. When a burly guard arrived, he scolded the youngster for stealing the coal, she proved her mettle. "My dad died digging up this coal. I have a right to it."
And in the icy, frigid Pennsylvania coal mountain morning, the guard turned away in shame.
Harry's mom tended the chickens and goat.
Without sentiment, the family raised a hog each year. At slaughtering time, they used nearly "every piece of the pig, but the shit and the squeal" to make dinners to feed the struggling widow's large family.
The girls shared a winter coat, taking turns going to school without.
The boys worked everywhere they could to pick up a penny or a nickel to help mom.
And the young family eked out a survival on the foreign land of their father's bountiful dreams.
In the family that struggled to survive, the children were delighted to find any kind of treat at all in their stocking on Christmas morning. In the good years, it was an orange for each child, and a grand meal for which they gave thanks.
In the rough years, it was enough to remember that Christ was born with even less than this tightly knit family had.
And somehow, when the downtrodden family faced its worst of times, folks from the Salvation Army showed up with food to eat and a modest gift for each child.
So after all these years, Harry gets a little misty-eyed when he hears Salvation Army volunteers' clanging bells piercing the winter cold. For what kind of childhood would Harry and his brothers and sisters ever have had if not for the kindness of others?
The proud family would have withstood the hunger, and the children would have foregone the holiday morning's wild unwrapping party, all as long as they were together.
But it was the kindness of strangers nearly 70 years ago that moves dear old Harry to remember those in need.
For the past few decades, this writer has heard Harry recount the struggles of his family and the wonder of answered prayer when the Salvation Army folks showed up with staples.
From that fatherless family in 1929 has come a generation of teachers, lawyers, social workers and the grandchildren with the commitment to give back to the needy with a hand up.
So it is with unabashed glee that my wife and I selected a toy here and another handful of toys there to drop into the Salvation Army collection box in the newspaper office that I now manage.
Although we shall never see the faces of the children who later this month will play with the toys in this box, I can see in my mind's eye little Harry and his siblings in wide-eyed wonder when people they never knew remembered the children on Christmas morning.
This holiday is about giving, in whatever way you can. This holiday is for the hungry, the sad, the poor, the hurting little ones, the orphans, and those who have faced extremes in this society through no fault of their own.
Just a little giving can go a long way, as Harry reminds me. After all, it was one tiny bundle delivered nearly 2000 years ago that has made a big difference in the world, as we know it.
Adapted from RAMBLING ROUND Inside and Outside at the Same Time
and originally published in Worrall Community Newspapers, December 1997.
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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards. The Pushcart Prize-nominated writer has been called ' “New Jersey’s ‘Garrison Keillor” or something to that effect.’
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