A lump of coal…and a warm hearth


Ever had someone threaten to give you that in your stocking? Or perhaps you’ve threatened to give it instead. That’s what my grandparents used to tell us Santa would bring for naughty little boys and girls – nothing but a great, ugly lump of coal.

It had special meaning to us. To most kids, the image of a lump of coal might bring vague pictures of coalmines, maybe the cinders of a train yard (depending upon what part of the country they’re from) and the most readily available image is a charcoal briquette. But we knew differently.

You see, sitting on the hearth, year in and year out, was a large chunk of anthracite coal. I don’t mean a kernel, or even a pebble. I mean a chunk about the size of your head – sitting there with sharp tool marks still evident.

Why my grandmother kept it, I have no idea. Certainly, she had no soft spot for the West Virginian coalmining towns of her youth. Or maybe she did. Maybe it was a reminder of how far she’d come, or from what humble beginnings. Or maybe there was a shred of nostalgia for simpler, more innocent times. I’ll never know, and I don’t suspect she ever really told anyone why that chunk sat on the hearth, year in and year out.

That very same chunk of coal now sits on my hearth, and there it shall stay.

Why do I keep it? I don’t really know.

Perhaps it’s a reminder of childhood pleasures – propping my feet on the hearth. Maybe it’s a link to a family I know very little about beyond the last few generations, though I know it includes those who genuinely define the term “hillbillies.”


That chunk of coal sits on my hearth, just as it sat on my grandparent’s. But there is something different. These days, that chunk has a couple of companions. Sitting on top of it are two brass crickets, they were my mother’s. And if you look closely, you can just see those crickets behind The Boy’s head.

Mom had them for years, they usually sat on our hearth, and when we didn’t have a fireplace, they sat in amongst some of her plants.

For her, crickets in the home were symbols of good luck. I often wondered if she had ever read Dickens’ “The Cricket On The Hearth”, but figured she probably hadn’t. No, they were just one of those things Mom liked, and in her quirky way, they were part of her.

Sometimes, the crickets sat by themselves. Other times, they were hovered over by a pair of brass cranes looking for all the world as if they were about to swoop down and gobble up the crickets. Another example of Mom’s rather odd sense of humor. I arranged them that way at first, only to discover that arrangement somewhat disturbed my kids – I guess they aren’t quite as twisted as their grandma was. So, in our home, the crickets found a new resting place – atop the chunk of coal.