Christmas in St. Lawrence County
a time for rituals, traditions and memories


Just the other day I dragged out the boxes of Christmas lights and decorations from the shed and began the yearly ritual of sorting through the old, the not so old, and the relatively new.

This sorting is an annual tradition, one which I look forward to, one which sorts out the yesterdays from the todays.

Tomorrows are best left for New Year’s, when the twin faces of Janus look simultaneously backward and forward, the time when we take stock of where we’ve been and vow we won’t go there again.

But the words for this season are “rituals” and “traditions,” those customs that sustain us in good times and bad.

And so, in the bags and boxes of Christmases past, I found the candles, the bulbs, and the pretty white star I have used for years.

As my life is a minimal one, my house is minimally decorated, which means I never will win any local competitions. There is no Santa on my roof, no team of red-nosed reindeer looking cute, no Frosties in my yard. My cascading veil of lights doesn’t exist, although I tried one year to light up every bush, every shrub. It just wasn’t me.

Perhaps I am just a boring person and not at all like the Danny DeVito character in the funny holiday movie, “Deck the Halls,” in which the new misfit in the neighborhood has an identity crisis and decides to put enough lights on his house to be seen from outer space. But I don’t think so. As with all our holiday traditions, mine are based on the memories of my own life. There are reasons for my choices, just as there are reasons for folks who fill every available space with twinkly bulbs.

When it comes to the holidays, one size definitely does not fit all, but it’s a lovely thing to share stories of how comes and whys.

When I was a younger woman, I lived in a lovely small Pennsylvania city. Bethlehem was founded in the 17th century by a small but faithful sect of Christians called “Moravians” who had fled Europe for the freedoms promised by the New World. Later the city became known for its massive steel operations, serpentine plants running many miles along the river that provided power for the searing blast furnaces and cooling water to calm down its blistering product. These colossal steel furnaces that arrived in the 1800s, bringing enthusiastic workers from all over the world, running not from religious tyranny but rather from poverty, are quiet now, stilled by global shifts and greed. The Moravian descendants are still there, too, with their four minimalist churches, their four unassuming cemeteries, their beautiful music and simple traditions.

These are not like the Amish, with their traditional costume and separate lifestyle, but more like people who live next door, with TVs and modern vehicles, and a strong emphasis on education and equality. But no customs of these people are as powerful as what happens to their city during Advent. Those who are Moravian and those who aren’t equally grab hold of the uncomplicated beauty of history and continue the welcome even now, when cars have replaced horses and telephones take the anxiety out of travel.

On the first Sunday in Advent, a single candle is placed in each window. The light tells travelers that they are welcome here. The candles, once beeswax and now electric, say that the hearth is warm, Moravian sugar cake is in the oven, and hot coffee with thick cream is ready for the cup.

There’s one more thing. On that first Sunday, on all the front porches, Moravian or not, is hung the famed Herrnhut Star, a 26-pointed orb created by joining 17 square and nine triangular points in a dramatic beacon. Originally made of translucent paper, the star was created in 15th century Herrnhut, a small community in Eastern Saxony, as a welcoming sign from one community of pilgrims to any others passing by. The story goes that Herrnhut was the first refuge for a religious community of emigrants from Moravia, then part of Germany, now integrated somewhat into the Czech Republic.


From humble beginnings in Eastern Europe to members now in 22 countries all over the world, and headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I went to college.

Imagine what the Christmas season looks like, in a city of 76,000 people, with their 25,000 houses and apartments, and in each window a single white candle beckoning the visitor home. And on each front porch a Herrnhut Star, its light reaching literally and symbolically far past the edge of town to acquaintances in other lands and old members scattered about here and there.

Here, in St. Lawrence County, New York, far from Moravian congregations, with their midnight vespers and rich musical rituals, I’ve tried to capture those magnificent traditions in my own home. I’ve tried to share the rich heritage first with my children, then with all those who have inquired about the single candles in my windows and the distinctive star, swaying to and fro in the North Country winter wind.

I tell them about Bethlehem, about the Moravians, about the distinctive music so much like Bach and Mozart. Sometimes I bake Moravian sugar cakes, made with hot mashed potatoes, and share them with those who hunger for a new taste, a taste made with memory and baked with tradition. And for a moment they are with me in the big churches, in the cities of white lights, listening to the young child singing the first line of the 1657 hymn “Morning Star” to a congregation which responds in full voice:

“Morning Star, O cheering sight! Ere thou cam'st, how dark earth's night!

‘Morning Star, O cheering sight! Ere thou cam'st, how dark earth's night!

“Jesus mine, in me shine; in me shine,

Jesus mine; fill my heart with light divine.”

When the season is over, we’ll put away the music, pack away the candles, the bulbs, the lights and stars until next year. We assume in the packing that there will indeed be a next year and that no matter what has happened in between, we will meet these old friends again and relive the old days, almost as if it were yesterday.

These are challenging days. No one knows what the next 12 months will bring, nor are we sure than everyone and everything will still be here once they pass. But in times like these, it’s important to remember the rituals of our past and understand the role they play in keeping us steady.

Whether it’s fruit cake or Bing Crosby, ham or Handel, all of us have memories that ground us and hold us together. For me, it’s windows of white candles – tiny beacons of greeting in a world grown distant.

And this year I’m in no hurry to pack them away.


Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.




Panis Angelicus


Just the other day I found myself listening to Pavarotti’s version of Panis Angelicus, a 19th century hymn set to music by the Belgian composer Cesar Franck. It’s a short tune about the bread of angels which nourishes us all. The tenor is accompanied by chorus and orchestra. Everybody knows it whether they think they do or not. The Latin words go:

Panis Angelicus fit panis hominum

Dat panis coelicus figuris terminum

O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum

Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis

Pauper, pauper, servus et humilis.

When I hear this pretty song, however, I stop dead, head cocked, listening. Again I hear my little brother, maybe eight or nine years old, singing at the top of his voice in his white choir robe - a small boy soprano sending his young prayer to heaven.

When he died a few years back, just before Christmas, we played the Panis at home, we played it at his funeral, we played it afterwards whenever we could. Each time the music swelled the family wept and wept, me seeing my small sibling singing his heart out, my niece and nephew hearing the resonant bass voice of their dad, his wife hearing him singing in the church choir, lifting his voice heavenward and carrying the family with him. Through the tears, transfiguration was complete.

All music is like that. We hear a tune on the radio or on some grocery store Muzak device and we’re stunned by the force of memory – we see a loved one, our bodies sway to a remembered dance, we smile and laugh out loud to something dumb that happened years ago; we cry without warning as loss takes over.

“It’s nothing,” we say.

“Just something I remembered,” we say.

“Just someone I thought of,” we say.

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” we say, reaching for the tissue and pretending we‘re okay.

Nobody wants to remember sad things but we don’t want to forget the past, either. The trick is to learn how to separate the grief from the joy. But it’s the music that kills us: Our brains remember the nuances of grief through song, even though we thought we could pick and choose which parts of the past we’d prefer to remember.

Or which to forget.

But can we? In “Requiem for a Nun,” William Faulkner said "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

And so each Christmas, about the time my brother was breathing his last, the strains of Panis Angelicus come swirling up from the past, surrounding me with grief, then love, then gratitude for him, for the days we had together, for his legacy and for the music which brings it all home.

And I love him all over again.


The angel's bread becomes the bread of men

The heavenly bread ends all symbols

Oh, miraculous thing! The body of the Lord will nourish

The poor, poor, and humble servant

The poor, poor, and humble servant

To listen visit,




Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.



Thanksgiving just wouldn't be Thanksgiving without gravy


Just the other day I was talking with a friend about Thanksgiving dinner – about what we served, how we served it, and what people liked.

We talked about whether cranberries should be sauced or jellied, with or without orange peel, with or without horseradish. Horseradish? Yes, gives quite a bite to the relish, I said.

“Well,” she said, raising her brows, “I’m going to make a big bowl of gravy no matter what anyone says. Turkey dinner just isn’t the same without gravy.”

As we talked I saw my fat Wedgwood pitcher standing in the center of the table, filled with thick brown gravy, hot and steamy, the ladle standing straight up in it, waiting for Grace to be over and plates to be passed.

Nutritionists say that despite its allure, there isn’t one speck of dietary value in gravy. In fact, they say, those on strict diets should bypass the pitcher altogether. They say the delicious topping is filled with empty calories, full of fat and flour. Here, have an apple instead.

Gravy. Say the word. Again. Out loud. Just the sound of it sends a smack to the lips, water to the mouth. Gravy. A five-letter word you can taste as you say it. Gravy. GRAVY. Gra-Vee.

The word comes from an Old English expression “greavie,” meaning sediments at the bottom of pans, and any cook knows that’s where the magic begins: the browner the pan drippings, the better the gravy. From lots of pan drippings come quarts and quarts of wonderful gravy, nutritionally-poor and loaded with fat, but the one thing on the banquet table that separates real cooks from beginners.

Here’s how I make my turkey gravy:

Remove bird from roasting pan and place the pan on top of the stove. DON’T turn on the fire. Thankfully look at all the fat in the bottom. If you’re in luck, some of the skin has stuck and has turned dark. (That means “burned.”) Grab your flour and sprinkle enough on the fat to absorb all of it. If you have a lot of fat you’ll have to add a lot of flour but that means MORE gravy! Mush it into a nice paste with a wooden spatula or metal spoon. Never plastic.

While the bird was roasting I simmered the neck, the gizzard, liver and heart in a pot of water. Now, add just a little of that water to the fat/flour paste and mush it again. Add a little more. Again mush it. (This is the part that’s slow and painstaking but haste here will make lumps and everyone will know you’re no darn good at gravy making and go to a diner. A glass of white wine while you’re doing this is perfect!)

Continue on until the paste becomes a creamy-looking goo. Now it’s safe to turn the fire on – low. Keep adding liquid, faster now since the danger of lumps has passed. If you run out of gizzard water and the mess is still too thick, add regular old water from the kettle. Some people add milk at this point to make cream gravy. I do not.

What I do next is optional and I always lie to those in my family who are squeamish about innards. While the gravy simmers and bubbles to cook the flour, cut up the gizzards and heart, strip the meat from the neck and throw it all in. Keep the strong taste out of the sumptuous gravy and eat the liver with your wine. The nutritionists will be happy.

Now, look at it. Is it dark enough? If not, drop in a little Gravymaster.

Taste it. Does your mouth water as you lick the spoon? If not, add a cube of chicken bouillon, salt and pepper. Ah. Perfect.

You have just made “Pat’s Famous Giblet Gravy,” pronounced “Jiblet,” praised by diners all over the world, featured on Oprah and Martha Stewart. Imitated but never duplicated. Have another glass of wine.

Gravy is always a wonderful addition to any meal although, as with the gizzards, lots of people just don’t want to know what’s in it. Take “Red Eye Gravy,” for example. My southern mother-in-law used to serve up “Country Ham & Red Eye Gravy” as her specialty. You can still get it in the South, served over grits or biscuits.

Curious? Fry up that salt-cured ham in an iron skillet. When it’s done, remove the meat and add a cup or two of strong coffee to the grease. Chicory is best. Sweeten the whole thing with a little sugar. Don’t thicken it. Serve as is and hope your gall bladder holds until the end of the meal.

Never my thing but those from Dixie still sing its praises.

“Gravy” is a great word. Just saying it conjures up visions of comfort and well-being. Hearing it fills the mind with memories of smells and tastes of other days, soothing, calming, filled with reassurances. Thinking of it eases tensions and placates the spirit. Say it again. Slowly. And again…

“Gravy” has been combined over and over with other words to show a richness of life, a sudden experience of good fortune, success. Books, films, TV shows have used “gravy train” over and over to show journeys “down easy street.”

The rock band Pink Floyd used it in one of their early songs, “Have A Cigar”: “And did we tell you the name of the game, boy, we call it riding the gravy train.”

Others take trips on the gravy boat, refer to profits as “in the gravy,” see good luck as “all gravy.” Even dog food which makes a tasty liquid when mixed with water uses the name.

Like the skilled manipulators they are, real cooks know that a good gravy is really a good lie and that lots of mistakes or mystery meats can be hidden from diners by an exceptional sauce. Take squirrel, for example. Myself, I wouldn’t eat it, despite the abundance of the red varmints in my trees. Still, with the economy the way it is and my skill at gravy-making, I dug out an old family recipe for:

Fried Squirrel : Make sure all the hair is cleaned off the animal. Cut it up. If it’s old and tough, boil it for half an hour or put it in a pressure cooker for 15 minutes. Salt and pepper it, cover each piece with flour and fry it in a cast iron skillet until it’s brown and tender. It’s a sweet meat and tastes great smothered in gravy and served over rice.

Studies have been done with inmates on death row about the final meal requests. On last dinner trays of these poor souls, at the end of their troubled lives, always comes something with gravy to give them the illusion that all’s right with the world, if just for the moment.

• Roast beef – with GRA-vy.

• Fried chicken – with GRA-vy.

• Mashed potatoes – and GRA-vy.

• Turkey & stuffing – with GRA-vy.

• French fries –with, you guessed it: GRA-vy.

Like all of us, last milers want their gravy thick, hearty, dark and flavorful. Keep the runny, watery pale stuff for people you hate. All of us humans want the rich taste of it on our tongues as we leave the banquet table, the memory of it on our palates as we prepare for the journey home, and the stains of it on our clothes and tablecloths, reminders that we have eaten our fill, that we are wealthy beyond measure and that we don’t mind a spot or two on the linen when abstinence is the alternative.

No nutritional value? Not hardly. Gravy is liquid security, a culinary sanctuary from the arid day-to-day life, fluid absolution from the diets of yesterday and a flowing reminder that it’s always easier to open a button than it is to yearn in vain for foods that only come once or twice a year.



Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.



Amid underemployment in North Country and elsewhere, next chapter in American labor history on its way


Just the other day a friend of mine was griping about her job. First on her list were long hours, second was lack of appreciation. Last, she said, was the pathetically low number in her paycheck compared to that of “administrators” for whom she worked.

“The thing is,” she said, “I shouldn’t really complain. They gave me a promotion and a new title. And a raise. Ten cents an hour.”

In these dark days of unemployment and underemployment, for anyone to have a job, much less one with benefits, is a great thing, I told her. She should cut out the moaning and appreciate what she has, I told her. And then I asked what her title is now.

“I am Vice President of SNEW,” she said. “Stuff no one else wants.”

We laughed and then parted – she to her cubicle and her 12-hour day, me to my car and my retirement.

In truth, my friend is one of the vulnerable ones. Unprotected by union membership, she works at the pleasure of management, the company which recently upped her paycheck 10 cents an hour but will probably take away most of her benefits next year to save money. She is already looking for another job which includes health and retirement, but these days jobs like those are few and far between.

I never really thought about unions much as a girl growing up. My father worked for Western Electric in the office, my mother was a secretary for a book publisher, and if there were unions in either place they were invisible to me. Even as a new teacher in the 1960s, labor unions and education seemed strange bedfellows until Steve, my master teacher and mentor, took me aside one day and asked if I would serve as secretary to a new group just starting up. I liked him, I wanted to belong, I agreed.

My starting salary as a high school English teacher was $3,800 a year. I taught 120 students and I was glad for the job; there were no benefits, no job guarantees. All of us worked summers; those with families worked nights as well. Steve said that had to change. He and a small group in our school were Korean War vets who went to college on the GI bill. He was the first in his family to “cross the river” and go to school rather than work in the steel plant like the rest of his family. At home they called him “the Professor.” He, like the others, was proud of his accomplishments, but broke. His family was OK for now, he told me, but he knew that one good illness would change the whole story.

Through the years our group worked for higher salaries, vacation days over Christmas, the right to “moonlight,” and, lastly, health insurance, since so many who held three jobs had gotten really sick. Our group changed names several times but always had the word “United” in its title.

My father disapproved. He reminded me that if I kept associating with such people, my eyebrows would end up looking like John L. Lewis’s. I was more amused than worried, but still made certain mine were plucked. What did I know about John L. Lewis? I was 24 years old.

Yes, you can say that $3,800 bought more then than it does today. Yes, you can say that times were different, that the country was different, that ideas and ideals were also different. But, in truth, because of my own lifetime union affiliation, not always constant, not always active, but always there, I gave my children more than my parents could ever have given me or my brother. I and the rest of this country moved from a silent coupon-clipping generation to a well-paid, well-fed nation, eager to make more, do more, be more than it was during our parents’ days.

But time marches on and with the walk comes change. There is talk now that the day of the labor union is over, that America can no longer pay the wages it once did, that it’s union’s fault we are behind the manufacturing 8-ball and that it’s the unions driving jobs away because of greed. Politicians looking for votes are focusing on blame, on slipups, on who is responsible for economic stagnation. Unions, once proud and powerful, have become weak scapegoats for the inability of America to march to a different drummer.

This week the country celebrated the work of organized labor, the sacrifices made by grandfathers and fathers, later of mothers, to build a nation worth emulating. Names like Samuel Gompers, Walter Reuther, and Lewis himself are long forgotten but their legacies live on in parades and rallies and political endorsements by organized groups of workers, eager to move forward. But we also remember not so long ago when these same workers were dazzled by robots, computers, and mechanized efficiencies which soon replaced first one, then 10, then 100 of their peers. Smelters don’t need hundreds of workers when one computer will do the job.

And then there are schools. Computers in the classrooms of America open many doors to students, as do smart phones and iPads, but can we really say that these amazing gadgets have made kids smarter? Have made graduates ready for the future? Have helped teachers do better work?

My friend Steve died some years back of a heart attack still working for teachers in his district, still working two jobs. Other union members I know continue to run state government silently and efficiently when there’s a time gap between election day and inauguration. But smelters and assembly lines continue to limp along, hoping vacating industries will see their value and blow some life back into them.

Unions are the story of America. But as important as it is to honor the past, it’s critical that all of us, unions included, look ahead carefully as we move into uncharted waters where there is no money and little prospect of any. Joined together, the working people of America have power, lots of it. Together they can make changes in education policy, can decide who gets elected and why, can force corporations to change attitudes, locations, and bottom-line plans, but they must remain strong and they must be realistic. Nothing is like it used to be and maybe nothing will ever be the same again; survival depends on our ability to adjust and not add to the noise of “the way things used to be.”

My friend has a new “title,” and the 10 cents she received in her paycheck for doing stuff no one else wants will satisfy her for a while. But I see the day coming when talking to me won’t be enough and that she’ll want to join up with others who are in the same boat.

And her story will be the next chapter in American labor history.



Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.



A North Country wedding invitation


Just the other day I received a wedding invitation in the mail. It had a North Country postmark and a return address that I recognized. Instead of doves, bells, lilies and linked rings, the face of this one was a single image: a sepia-toned photograph of two wrinkled hands, fingers twisted and gnarled, each clasping the other tightly, yet tenderly, as if their people were getting ready for a mystical journey.

“We invite you to share our great joy,” the words read. The names given, the date offered, then the Browning verse:

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life for which the first was made.”

There’s something about a love story that captivates all ages. Throughout history, lovers are written about, talked about, and marked in their passion by music so rich it reverberates across time. We look at lovers so young and fresh they can take the breath away. We hear longing and pain but great passion in Butterfly’s song to Pinkerton. And who can deny Juliet’s joyful breathlessness in Shakespeare’s famous tale?

“Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night;

Give me my Romeo; and, when I shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night...”

In this crazy world of political worry, social media chatter and endless doctor appointments, the “joy” to which we have been invited is not familiar. That two mature people should promise joy at the end of a hot summer is almost too much to believe. People are canning, others are stacking firewood. Still others are trying to squeeze in one last weekend with family before smaller members go back to school.

Joy is a short word but a very human word, hardly used aloud anymore. Instead we get “awesome” or “cool,” or “way to go!” To me it is a quiet word, differing in every way from excitement or enthusiasm, from high-fives and thumbs up. But it is a very specific word, full of feeling. It can come at the end of a family reunion, but not a lotto win; from a letter of apology, never a phone call; from the breath of a new baby or a morning rose filled with dew. Joy is never planned but comes unexpectedly, serendipitously, as in sudden knowledge that two individuals who knew each other will take a different step forward. Together. This kind of blending, this surprise of hearts, this transformation from friend to more astonishes us all, bringing joy where there had been wanting.

I will dress comfortably, as directed, for they are counting on a warm August day for their celebration. There will be chairs and canes and helpers for some of us. Others will bounce in on younger feet, smiling those broad tolerant smiles of youth. I look again at the invitation. I know the owners of these hands, one perhaps better than the other. These hands have known other lives and loves and loss before this decision; they are not new to the altar, either. In front of God and invited guests, they will promise to be each other’s rock, each other’s support for the rest of days; in return, they promise to share their joy with all of us.

I wouldn’t miss this wedding for the world.

“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything -- that's how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen, 1992

High school graduation means changes
many North Country families


Just the other day I remembered a mother, a father and their daughter walking the halls of the college where I worked. The trio was alone, their pace slow, hesitant. They were obviously new to campus, for the moment without guides to show them around.

They are by themselves this day, away from familiar surroundings of neighbors, pets, and the home they had known together for many, many years. As they walk, they peer into classrooms, check out display cases, smile casually at strangers, looking for teachers, students, anyone who would speak to them and intrude upon their quietude.

I watch the family order lunch as I eat my sandwich, feeling their unease: her shyness, their anxiety, her alienation from all she knows, their stalwart focus on their child’s next steps, no one really wanting to complete this particular assignment yet all three acknowledging the inevitable and eager to take on what’s next.

Because I have been there, I know what’s coming in the lives of these three people. Preparations for high school graduation and the promise of a child’s next steps happen at some point to almost all of us this month. Those of us who are lucky enough to see a son graduate, a daughter plan her final parties, hear endless phone conversations, pay for car trips with dubious destinations, and watch gangs of eager young people hover in our kitchens, all looking ahead to lives beyond the home that nurtured them, know that May is the cruelest month, not April, as the poet claimed.

While I eat I watch these parents try to mask their hollow look, feigning pleasure at technicolor opportunities for their child stapled to a bulletin board, eagerly relieved at the handshake of the new advisor. Perhaps they are wondering where her steps will take her, where she will end up now that the past is already past and that new horizons are right here, right now, in the shape of unfamiliar brick buildings and new ideas. And on some level they know that they are, as another poet reminded us, just the bows from which the child-arrows fly to the world.

I recall the Mays of many years ago, when each child was at the threshold of his newness. I watched even then as each clung to his friends with a kind of adolescent frenzy that masked his own apprehension about what might happen after cap and gown.

I have May photos of each one, virile and resplendent, eager and open, proud, handsome, confident, and I knew even then that my years of guidance were over and that I was sending them forth into a uncertain world where there were no guarantees, no nest to come back to, no rewind.

As May parents, we still speak to our children with the language we have always used, parental and intimate, familiar and presuming, unconsciously shielding them more somehow than we did in April, before lilacs and black flies. We set dates for them, make plans and rules for them, engage them in new conversations, new activities, involve them in remembered events, hold on a little tighter than we should.

Our brains have become living scrapbooks. We have pasted 18 years of life on the pages of our minds and each clipping comes swirling back with a clarity that defies science. We say, “Remember that?” Or “”Wasn’t that great?” Or “You remember her…” Or “Remember the day when….” And they nod but don’t seem to attach the same importance to these memories as we do. “That was a long time ago, Mom,” they say. “I don’t remember it quite that way.” And they laugh.

Who, in May, hasn’t remembered first steps, first words, first real tears? Who hasn’t felt again the small frightened hand, now waving jauntily to a passing car? Who hasn’t known the quiet terror of all-night porch lights, missed curfews and broken agreements as reckless youth, dreaming of amusements, forget road rules and promised phone calls?

We laugh to each other that we are eager for our children to leave home, to take the worry off our shoulders, to let their absence permit sleep once again. But that isn’t really true. We are secretly relieved that they have made it this far and still fret that the worst days may be ahead. We know other parents for whom this May will make sorrow fresh again, and we are thankful for all moments our children allow us.

Our May children are immortal now. They know no cares, no fear, no obligations. They are between worlds. We are merely the umbilicus that connects old days to new; we are people to love and to leave behind.

My lunch is nearly over and the three visitors are finishing theirs. I linger, hoping to catch some conversation. The mother sees me and smiles. I go over.

“Is your daughter planning to come here?” I ask. They nod, she says maybe. “It’s a great school,” I say; “Kids get a good education and they seem to enjoy it.”

“Do you have children?” the mother asks. I nod. She asks whether my children went away to college and I tell her yes. She waits. I say it was a difficult time for me, especially the first time, leaving my child alone, in the hands of strangers. That’s all I say. There is a tear in her eye. I smile and tell her that we all got over it and everybody is all grown up now.

We laugh; I wish the young woman good choices, and turn to go back to work.

“I think I’ll like it here,” the girl says; “My boyfriend goes here.”

It is another May. These parents are hoping to catch next month’s big moment on film, when their 18-year-old holds her head high and with a scream of joy tosses her high school days into the air. My sons are men now with graduations behind them and families of their own, all living in other cities with jobs that take them to many lands.

“But it’s the beginning of the end of our little family,” my youngest cried when his first brother left for college in the mid ‘80s. “We won’t ever be the same again.”

And we never were.




Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.


Dreams of North Country Bullhead


Just the other night I had the same old dream. The May dream. The sweet spring sleep vision that comes annually like clockwork and wakes me smiling and hungry.

In my reverie I can see them lined up in the big pan, brown and crisp on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. Hundreds of them. Heads off. Tails still on for easy holding. Spines rigid for easy serving.

Tasty, perfect delicate morsels from ice cold North Country waters.

Bullhead. The scent of these delicacies is so overpowering that the remembrance bolts me awake. Nothing like it anywhere. At once fragrant and scintillating, pungent and fishy, the illusory aroma of hot grease and crusty morsels make early-morning drool tracks around sleeping smile lines.

I get up, wash my face, seeing the imaginary crumbs drift into the sink along with the dream. At the breakfast table Raisin Bran just won’t cut it no matter how many banana slices I add. I search through the newspaper, not reading the news this time, ignoring the latest Washington gaffes and police reports, bypassing the obituaries and irate letters to the editor. At last I find it -- the Community Calendar.

I’d drive 100 miles for bullhead and have, belching all the way home. It’s the only gluttony I admit to and figure that once or twice a year can’t hurt or make me answer to any Final Judge about how vigorously I commit the third deadly sin each May.

Actually, I start thinking about those sweet fish in early March, dream all the way through April, and don’t stop until I’m stuffed. Usually right after Mother’s Day. Where some people dream about phantom lovers or piles of cash, I dream about fish and the crunchy bodies lying in the roasting pans, hot off the fire, ready for my fingers. I see smiling men who serve them up, usually with flour-spattered aprons and fire department T-shirts.

“More?” they ask, knowing that fresh is best and leftovers aren’t the same.

The Latin name for the common brown bullhead is Ameiurus Nebulosus, meaning “Common North American Catfish, brown in color, with no distinct details and no scales.” He’s a medium sized fish, found in nearly all waters of New York State and Canada. He’s highly adaptable and can live under the most adverse conditions, feeding on bottom leftovers from others.

When oxygen levels are low in the North Country ponds and lakes where he lives, he breathes through his skin, even using his air bladder as an emergency lung by gulping from the surface, as any angler with a bucketful can tell you.

He averages between 8 and 14 inches and has the typical appearance of any catfish, with his broad flat head and eight dark whiskers around his face with which he can sniff out something to eat. The common bullhead is generally dark brown above and lighter – white to pale yellow - on his belly. He’s not a pretty fish like the brook trout or flashy like the muskellunge, but he has one thing the rest don’t have: his unique defense system. Take a look next time you snag one, but be careful. There are three sharp spikes on his body, one at the front of the dorsal fin on his back and one on each of his two pectoral fins, just behind his head. He can lock these spikes into place to thwart any bigger fish from swallowing him whole or any fingers from trying to do him in. Anyone who has ever tried to get Ameiurus Nebulosus off a hook without bleeding knows the danger of these porcupine-like weapons.

The other day, just at dusk, I saw a father and son standing in the rain, fishing for something in an unlikely creek pool. Ponchos on, white plastic buckets along side, lantern glowing in the twilight. There was no question what they were after. When my sons were small, we fished for brown bullhead through May and into June, the ideal time for spawning and therefore great angling activity. Almost any pond or creek or estuary provides a nice place for these fellows to prowl for food. With a series of hooks spaced four or five inches apart, and bobbers above to keep the line out of the silt, it’s easy to snag several bullheads for the evening’s dinner. Anyone who has ever participated in this most wonderful of bonding experiences knows first hand the screeches of young children who try to get past the spikes to get the landed fish into the bucket. Some never get the hang of it; some don’t want to and weenie out at the first jab, making everyone watch later as they proudly land a sunny instead – no spikes, no problem.

Then there’s the cleaning. Personally, I’ve never mastered it. I know that in order to skin the thing you make a series of small slices near the head and tail, as my neighbor told me every summer. “Nothing to it, Pat. Small cuts, wiggle the skin loose, then grab his tail and just slip the skin over his head like you’re taking off a turtleneck.”

Easy for him to say. Takes me the better part of an hour to clean a mess of bullhead, using pliers, the sharpest tools I can find and plenty of cusswords. Every year I swear to get a really sharp knife before next season, but I never remember until too late. In the end I am bloody, smelly, exhausted but, like all proud cavemen, really puffed up knowing that once again I have brought in the meal.

I don’t think about what these fish ate before I eat them, nor do I worry about mercury or carcinogens or other contaminant horrors warned about by the health people. The season is short for the most delicious fish, the sweetest meat, and so I figure the broccoli and spinach I consume later will take care of any problems. If not, well…once or twice a year. How can it hurt?

Preparing the catch for the table is easy, after the cleaning: Great bullhead chefs simply fill a cast iron skillet with an inch or so of oil, heat it to just below the smoking point, and drop in the fish, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and coated with a flour and corn meal mixture. Quick. Perfect.

Personally, I prefer to have others do the work. The earliest of all North Country Bullhead Feeds, as they’re called, is the one in Brier Hill, just outside Morristown, sponsored, as most are, by the fire department. On Mother’s Day it’s North Lawrence. For nine, ten or 12 dollars, depending, these community rescuers offer all the bullhead I can eat, usually cole slaw, some kind of potato or beans, fresh homemade rolls and sometimes a dessert, if you can squeeze it in. I don’t do the slaw, don’t do the fries, don’t eat a roll, never beans or a dessert.

“I just want the fish,” I tell the men; “Fill up the plate, leave no space.” One year I ate 11 in Massena, 14 in Winthrop. Stopped for soft ice cream on the way home, where I remained in pain for the next 12 hours.


Dreams, they say, tell a lot about the person and the things they value. No fancy cars or big houses for me; no trips to Europe or flying lessons. For me it’s bullhead, piles of freshly-fried bullhead, crackling in hot skillets, stacks of it draining on paper towels, mounds of it, hot and steaming on paper plates.

Hopefully mine.



Pat McKeown has been a print and radio journalist for 20 years and most recently retired from heading the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. Her columns have appeared in both the Daily Courier-Observer and the Syracuse Post Standard.