A Lump of Coal in My Stocking

It is one of my most prized possessions – I carry it with me everywhere. This prized possession comes from my great-grandfather’s coal mine in Pennsylvania. I carried it to my home in New Mexico and then to my new home in North Dakota.

I frequently hold it in my palm and wrap all my fingers around it. It’s black – the deepest, darkest black you may ever see. It’s rough on many surfaces, smooth as velvet on others. It’s a lump of coal.

Children of years ago were threatened with getting a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking if they were not well-behaved throughout the year. Most people reading this blog will not realize the significance of coal in the forward movement of the industrial revolution of America. But it is coal that chugged the railroads and it is the railroad that pushed America to where it is now.

For many years, Mom, Agnes, Betty, Mary, Jimmy, and Boyd picked bits and lumps of coal from railroad embankments so they could heat the house or so they could cook the evening meal or wash the laundry for the coal-mining members of their families. Working in the coal mine was what paid the bills at the company store.

A lump of coal is a symbol to me. It is my 19-year old great-grandfather James Day leaving his southern Wales home, alone, to travel thousands of miles across a virulent sea to his new future. Coal is the symbol of a young man leaving his family and all he ever knew to move forward to the New World and new opportunity. Coal mining was his life’s blood for over 45 years (a record in the coal mines)…

And it is our family’s legacy.

Great-grandfather Day came to America in 1869 and he settled in Lansford, PA. I don’t know why he picked that particular spot. He probably got off the ocean steamer in Philly (this was pre-Ellis Island) and said, “Where do I go to mine coal?” and someone pointed inland. James met and married his wife in Lansford, PA in 1872. She was from Swansea, Wales, so they had a great deal in common – Wales, coal mining, hardship, and lamp chop recipes.

During my youth in the 1960’s, I walked along train tracks at the boundaries of my family’s property in New Ringgold, PA. When I found a lump or even a speck of coal, I’d hold it up and yell, “I found one!” Mom and Ang and Aunt Betty would come running.

After Mom had died and Ang had died, I planned a memorial ash-spreading ceremony in their coal-mining hometown. I walked along a sparse beach at Hauto Lake and cried out loud, “I found one!” No one was there to hear me.

I was born in Wilmington, DE. A product of an ill-fated union, but still, the roots run deep. If not for James Day and his adventurous spirit; if not for Ann Edwards and her family’s wish to grab hold of a better life, I would not be here.

Coal is in the news as a demon black rock because a coal mine collapse or explosion kills or traps dozens of miners. Great numbers of suffering families are displayed on news feeds; suffering because they have lost their loved ones. It happens all over the world – in the U.S., Korea, China, Chile, New Zealand. I follow these news stories with veracity, leaning forward on my couch. And for all those families who have lost loved ones, I sympathize and I cry for your loss.

But for me, without coal mining, I would not be here.

So this year when you wish for electronic goodies or apps or e-games or Wii or whatever to be in your stocking, dig deep and look for a lump of coal.

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