(Previously in the book: For his fifth birthday Herman received a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Herman asked his parents to make burlap bears for his brother and sister for Christmas. As Herman grew up, life was happy–he liked school, Tad was nicer and the tent show was coming to town.)
That night as Herman lay in bed he held Burly close. “Isn’t it exciting, Burly?” He didn’t hold his bear too close because it was hot in the loft. Three small windows were open by each of the beds. Herman slept in his undershorts, but there wasn’t enough breeze to keep him from sweating.
“Yes, it is exciting,” Burly said. “Nice things like that help keep your mind off how uncomfortable the heat is.”
“Tad said this man Harley is real funny. I don’t know what he does exactly, but I can’t wait for us to see it.”
“I’m glad you want Callie and Tad to have a good time too.”
Herman tickled Burly’s tummy. “No, I mean you. I can’t wait for you to see Harley.”
“No, Herman, I can’t go. They won’t want stuffed bears coming to their show.”
Frowning, Herman asked, “Why not?”
“I don’t know for sure. I just know if you asked your father he’d say no.”
Herman slumped down on his pillow. “I don’t know if I want to go if I can’t take you. It won’t be any fun without you.”
“Of course it will.” Burly paused to think. “Imagine how much fun you’ll have telling me all about it later.”
A smile crept across Herman’s face as his eyes fell heavily and a breeze finally blew across the bed.
Wednesday, the day of the tent show came to town, took on the same magical anticipation as Christmas. Each school day wound down slowly, and each chore at home took forever. Instead of twenty spelling words on the final test of the year, Herman could have sworn the teacher called out a thousand. And on the last day of school Herman was sure the teacher moved as though she were plowing through mud up to her waist. He didn’t even care about the grades on his report card, although they were very good.
“Hmph,” Tad said with disdain as he looked at Herman’s card, “grades don’t mean a thing.”
Herman would have been upset if he hadn’t seen Callie smile and wink at him.
Tuesday night was the longest night in Herman’s life, for there was nothing so exciting as the complete unknown. And that’s what the tent show was to him. What did Harley Sadler look like? Was he like a movie star? Big and good looking? Did he have a funny voice? What exactly did make Harley Sadler funny? Herman couldn’t wait to find out.
Tad, Callie and Herman got up early, ate quickly and ran out the door to go to town before the tent went up. As he flew out the door Herman heard his mother cough loudly and deeply. He paused to go back when Tad yelled at him to hurry up.
The hurly burly on the empty field next to the high school was enough to scare Herman, but Callie held his hand so everything was all right. Finally the tent was up and a short, fair man with sandy blond hair sauntered up to the large group of boys and girls eagerly awaiting the word. He had a funny, lopsided kind of grin and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“I don’t suppose I could find anybody here willing to put up a few chairs for me for a ticket to the show tonight?”
‘You bet, Toby!” Tad yelled out with all the other children.
So this was Harley Sadler. He certainly didn’t sound funny. He had a pretty deep voice. And he didn’t really look all that funny. Mostly he looked like a rich businessman. On the other hand, his smile, and the look in his eyes, they were funny, Herman decided. More than that, they were exciting because they hinted at funnier things to come.
“Well, Herman, come on.” Tad tugged at his sleeve. “Let’s go!”
Herman was embarrassed he had been caught gawking at the famous actor, but Harley didn’t seem to mind. He just laughed and patted Herman on the head. There were so many children scrambling for chairs that Herman only got to set up three chairs before they were finished. At first he was afraid he hadn’t done enough work to earn the ticket, but he forgot that quickly as he was the first child Harley gave a ticket to.
“Now hang on to that,” Harley said, winking at Herman.
When all the tickets were distributed Harley said loudly, “Be sure to tell your folks that tonight is ladies night. All women get in free when brought by a man buying a ticket!”
“Oh boy!” Tad exclaimed as they hurried home. “Do you know what that means? It means papa will have to buy only one ticket! Mama’ll get in free!”
“This is going to be so much fun!” Callie giggled as she skipped beside Herman.
Life couldn’t be happier, Herman decided as he looked at his sister’s face and then his brother’s.
“And Burly will get in free too!” Herman chirped, forgetting what his little bear had warned him about the bear’s prediction he wouldn’t be allowed to go.
“Aww, Herman, you’re not going to drag along that toy bear, are you?” Tad moaned.
“If papa says it’s all right, why should you care?” Callie shot back, putting her arm around Herman.
When they came through the front door, they saw their father entering from his bedroom.
“Guess what!” Herman said loudly, “Mama can get in free!”
“Shush,” Papa hushed him with a finger to his lips as he motioned the children to the table to sit down. “Your mama’s not feeling good. She fainted this afternoon.”
“Oh no!” Callie gasped.
“Did you get the doctor?” Herman asked.
“Don’t be dumb,” Tad chided him. “We can’t afford the doctor.”
“That’s right, son,” his father said. “But—but I don’t think she’s too bad. I don’t think though we should go to the show tonight.”
All three children knew better than to protest, but Herman couldn’t help but let out a little groan.
“I know it’s a big letdown—“
“Woody!” mama called out weakly from the bedroom.
Papa stood and went into the bedroom. A few minutes later he came out. Herman tried to figure out what he was going to say from the look on papa’s face, but Herman couldn’t guess what the faraway look on his eyes meant.
“Hmm, your mama says she’s not that bad, that she wants us to go on to the show. She’ll be fine by herself.”
“I could let Burly stay with her,” Herman offered weakly.
Papa looked at him in a blur. “Who? Oh no, that’s all right.” He looked around the room as though he were helpless. “Hmm, Callie help me with supper. Tad, tend the animals in the barn.”
Tad left while Callie and papa turned to the kitchen. Herman quietly went to the loft and got Burly to take to his mother. He slowly opened the door so it wouldn’t creak and stepped in. He approached the bed where mama was sleeping restlessly. The dark spots under her eyes and the paleness of her skin became very real to him for the first time and it scared him.
“Mama?” he whispered.
Her eyes opened and she smiled. “Hi, baby.”
“Would you like Burly to keep you company tonight?”
She laughed and touched his cheek. “No, thank you, honey. It’s so sweet of you to offer.”
The door swung open and Herman heard his father’s voice.
“Herman, I thought I told you not to bother your mother.”
“That’s all right, Woody,” she said softly. “I wanted to see my baby.”
“Get out,” papa ordered. He paused to chuckle a bit. “Don’t you have chores to do?”
“Yes sir,” Herman replied meekly.
He hurriedly returned Burly to the loft and went outside. Supper went by very quietly, almost sadly, considering where they were going that evening. Papa took a tray of food into the bedroom and shut the door, staying with mama the entire meal. After he came out, Callie cast a quick glance at Herman and ventured a question.
“Could Herman take his bear to the show?
Papa turned to look at Callie and then at Herman. “Now why would you want to do that?”
“I don’t,” Herman protested.
“This afternoon he said he wanted to,” Callie replied.
Herman noticed Tad remained quiet during the exchange. He expected his brother to say something mean, but Tad almost never did what Herman expected.
Finally papa announced, “It’s time to go.” He actually was smiling. “Each of you may go in to see your mother, but don’t stay too long.”
“I want to go first!” Tad replied, heading for the bedroom.
“Don’t run and be quiet!” papa reminded him, causing Tad to slow down.
Callie went for a kiss. Then it was Herman’s turn. Mama gathered her baby into her arms and kissed him.
“Have a good time and obey your papa,” she whispered, her breath smelling of some foul medicine.
As Herman came out of his parents’ bedroom he noticed Tad had just come down the ladder from the loft.
“Come on, boys, or we’re going without you!” papa called from outside.
The photographer was late coming to mother’s birthday party, and she was not pleased.
The smallest of things always displeased mother so the use of the word party in connection with any event which involved her became a misnomer. The last people to walk this earth who could please her were her mother and father, and they had passed on years ago to their reward for carefully molding and leaving on humanity’s doorstep such a spoiled brat.
Grandfather had made his money selling shoes that fell apart after a five-mile march during the Civil War. When asked why he would sell such a shoddy product to the United States government he said they were meant for the Cavalry. Grandmother’s family came over on one of the early boats, not the Mayflower but one that came when Massachusetts became more suitable for habitation.
Mother made it a custom to have a photographer to come to her home in the Concord countryside to record for posterity all family gatherings, birthdays, weddings, wakes, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and Fourth of July. Of course, she complained that no one remained straight and still enough for the portrait. She was as stiff as her freshly starched blouses. The only person not criticized for being stiff enough was the guest of honor in the casket at a wake.
“This is inexcusable,” she muttered as she sipped on her lemonade. “I have never had a photographer be this late at one of our events. We can’t cut the cake until the photographer arrives.”
“We just had a horrific summer thunderstorm, Mother dear,” I told her.
“No excuse,” she cut me off briskly. “Anyone of true breeding would have allowed time for such atmospheric disruptions.”
“No one else seems to mind. They’re having a good time talking among themselves.”
“That’s another thing,” she snapped. “They should at least be talking to me about how the photographer has ruined my birthday.”
“The only person who can ruin your birthday is you,” I said, immediately ruing the words that just came out of my mouth.
“I beg your pardon!” She bolted out of her chair and glared at me, all without spilling a single drop of her lemonade.
Fortunately, the telephone rang at that moment and I excused myself to answer it. Everyone in the parlor became silent and stared at me as I spoke into the receiver.
“Yes, yes. This is the Van Horne residence. I am Mrs. Van Horne’s son. Yes, we were expecting his arrival at any moment. Oh. I see. Thank you very much.”
I hung up and turned toward mother, who had already sat down. All the aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins and grandchildren parted like the Red Sea as I walked back to her.
“I don’t care what his excuse is,” she said, pursing her lips. “I shall never hire him again.”
“Mother, the photographer had a car accident on the way over to the house during the thunderstorm. He’s dead.”
“Well, that’s just another good reason never to hire him again.”
Half a century ago when I was a little boy in a rural Texas town, I heard that people who danced were going to hell.
Decent people didn’t dance, smoke, drink or vote Republican.
And if they did, they had the good manners not to let anyone know.
Once I mentioned to a church lady on a Sunday morning that I had bought a cupcake from the high school student council. I didn’t really want it but the two girls selling the tray of cupcakes were really cute and kinda flirted with me so I gave up a couple of quarters and enjoyed the cupcake.
“That was supporting dancing!” the woman declared. “Which is the same as supporting the devil!”
When I asked why she said the only thing high school student councils do was organize dances so when I bought that cupcake for fifty cents I was supporting dancing.
Well, that took the sweet memory off that cupcake.
Once I had the audacity to ask the preacher why dancing was sinful since it wasn’t one of the Ten Commandments nor one of the abominations listed in Chronicles Chapter 12. The next Sunday night he preached an entire sermon about how the Bible didn’t specifically say dancing was a sin, it did record that every time some one danced, something bad happened to people.
When the Israelites got bored waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments they danced around and they got smote down and good. When David danced naked in front of the Ark of the Covenant as it came into Jerusalem, he was denied the privilege of building the Temple. When Salome danced in front of King Herod, John the Baptist lost his head.
Well, I think all the fornicating before, during and after the dancing was what got the Israelites in trouble with God and not specifically the dancing. Also, David put Bathsheba’s husband on the front lines of battle to kill him off so he could marry her. That probably kept David from building the Temple more than the dancing. Finally, King Herod was just plain crazy. He didn’t need a dancing girl to give him an excuse to kill anyone.
Anyway, I kept all those thoughts to myself while I was growing up. Besides, I had this terrible suspicion that if I did try to dance I wouldn’t be very good at it. I had two left feet.
Fortunately, I married Janet who two right feet. We just had fun on the dance floor and didn’t care if anyone noticed. The nice thing about people who like to dance is that they’re having too much fun to judge anyone else’s abilities. I kept telling Janet that we needed to get a video from the public library about easy ball room dancing steps but we never got around to it.
As old people we occasionally went to events that feature orchestras that played the Big Band sound. All around us were people who had rhythm in their feet and smiles on their faces as they danced to jazz, doo wop, Latin and especially Frank Sinatra. For three hours the world went away and everyone went happy. I don’t go dancing anymore because Janet died of cancer and I lost my two right feet. I don’t know if that is a sin but it is a crying shame.
As for that church lady, I have a sneaking suspicion that she didn’t know what she was talking about.
“Now I want all of you to eat every bite of this,” Mother said as she sat down at the table. “I had another one of my headaches today while I was cooking.”
“Well, I helped cook,” Betty replied, sticking out her lower lip in a pout, as she spooned the turnip greens on her plate. “But I do love turnip greens, with lots and lots of bacon grease.”
“I don’t want any greens” Royce said. “Bacon grease upsets my stomach.”
“Bacon grease is yummy.”
“That’s why you’re a fat pig. You eat too much bacon grease.”
“Royce, if Betty wants to enjoy her food, that’s her right,” Mother said, putting a small dollop of potatoes on her plate. “These potatoes are delicious, but I don’t want to gain any more weight.”
Dad grunted as he piled the food on his plate and kept his head down.
Donny, the youngest, took the last cutlet, emptied the bowl of potatoes and covered them both with gravy.
“You little pig,” Royce said. “You took all the food. What if Dad wanted more? At least he works. I might have wanted more. I have a paper route. You don’t work. You don’t deserve to eat.”
“I help mother around the house,” Betty said, stuffing potatoes into her mouth. “If that’s not work, then I don’t know what is.”
Donny pushed the plate away and looked down.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Mother asked. “After all I went through to put it on the table.”
“Royce said I didn’t deserve to eat.”
“You’ve got to learn to not pay attention to what Royce says. Eat up or you’ll give me another headache.”
“I don’t wanna.”
“One of these days I’m gonna bop you over the head,” Betty mumbled, glaring at Royce. “Always picking on the baby.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“Then stop acting like one,” Royce spat.
“Father, what are we going to do? Donny won’t eat because Royce said something.”
“Eat your damn supper.” Father let out a belch before cutting another slice of cutlet.
“Why do you always have to upset the baby at supper?” Betty was on the verge of hysteria. “I think you’re just not happy unless you stir up a little hell.”
“Betty, mind your own business.” Mother ate the last forkful of potatoes on her plate. “Those potatoes were so delicious. I’m glad they’re all gone so I wouldn’t be tempted to eat anymore.”
“You’d have enough potatoes, Mother,” Royce said, “if the pig hadn’t put them all on his plate.”
“Oh no, if Donny thinks he can eat all those potatoes I want him to have them.” Mother sighed. “Go ahead and eat your potatoes, Donny.”
“Yeah, you little pig,” Royce added with a growl.
“Don’t call the baby a pig!” Betty’s face turned red.
“It’s just not fair!” Royce had tears in his eyes. “He gets away with everything ‘cause he’s the baby!”
“Father, what are we going to do with these children?” Mother shook her head. “It seems we can’t have a moment’s peace without somebody getting upset.”
“Everybody shut the hell up. And you eat your damn potatoes.”
“Yes, Father.” Donny slowly raised a forkful of food to his mouth.
“I’m just going to stop trying to fix a good meal anymore. Nobody ever wants to eat.”
(Previously in the book: Herman anticipated fifth birthday on the plains of Texas during the Depression. He was overjoyed to receive a home-made bear, which magically came to life when Herman’s tear fell on him. Before Christmas, Burly told Herman he wanted a family too.)
Herman and Burly went out to the barn after putting on their coats, for the East Texas wind made the winter cold even colder than it was. Herman’s coat was made of denim, and Burly’s was actually a piece of old flannel with a hole in the middle. Papa called it a poncho. Moving bales of hay, papa had his denim coat off and his sleeves rolled halfway up his arms. Ever since he hugged his father for giving him Burly, Herman wasn’t afraid of those worms.
“Papa? May I talk to you a minute?” Herman spoke right up.
His father looked around, his face all twisted up from working so hard, but when he saw Herman he smiled very big. “Yes, son. What do you want?”
“I was thinking, it would be nice if Callie and Tad could have burlap bears like Burly for Christmas. Mother said she would make them if you had the burlap bags to spare.”
“That’s a good idea, son. I have a whole stack of empty ones over in the corner. You pick out two for your mother to make the bears.” He patted his son. “I was worried I wouldn’t have anything to give them this Christmas. Yep, you had a really good idea.”
Herman smiled broadly because both his mother and father had told him he was good for thinking of the bears for his sister and brother. He was beginning to understand what they meant when they said in church that it was more blessed to give than receive. All of a sudden, though, his happy thoughts turned to worry. In order for the new bears to be real parents to Burly Bear, they would have to be able to talk, just like Burly. And that would mean they would have to come from the same magical kind of burlap that Burly came from. What did Burly say about how he made his burlap bag move under father’s hand to make him think of making the stuffed bear? Oh, Herman wished father wasn’t standing so close so he could talk to Burly and get his advice.
Herman slowly touched all the empty burlap bags, but they all felt the same to him. He went through the stack again.
“Haven’t you picked out two bags yet?” his father yelled at him.
“No,” Herman replied. Maybe it was his father who had the magic touch to pick out the exactly right burlap to make the magical bears. “Would you pick the bags for me?”
His father walked over laughing. “You’re a good boy, Herman, but sometimes you do act silly.”
Herman was afraid his father wouldn’t take time to pick the right ones because at first he just grabbed the two on top.
“These will do,” he said, but then he stopped and looked at the bags. “Oh no. That won’t do at all. They got big holes in them. Let me look again.”
Herman smiled to himself. Father would make the right selection this time.
“Here, take these.” He tossed two bags at Herman.
It wasn’t long until Christmas came to the little farm house near Cumby. Father found a cedar tree, cut it down and dragged it into the house, filling the air with sweet evergreen aromas. Mother popped corn, and Callie and Tad strung the kernels together and hung them on the tree. Father bought a sack of cranberries which were strung on the tree too. All three children cut and colored paper ornament until the tree became pretty enough for the holidays.
Christmas Eve the family gathered around the tree after a meal of chili and cornbread. Father cleared his throat which was a sign for everyone to become still and silent.
“Times have been hard this year, and your mother and I can’t afford to give you anything except what we’ve always given you—our love. So I want each of you to come to your mother and me, and we’ll give you our present, a hug and kiss.”
Callie led the way and gave father and mother the biggest hug she had. Tad looked down and shuffled his feet like he was sad he wasn’t getting anything else, but he was able to give his parents a warm hug. Herman skipped over and got his hug and kiss, barely holding back a giggle, since he knew that wasn’t all some of them were getting.
After the children sat down again, father said, “Now two of you are getting something extra.”
“Yeah, and I can guess which two it’s going to be,” Tad grumbled.
“No, I bet you can’t guess,” his father said.
Mother pulled out the two bears wrapped in old newspaper. “These are for you and Callie.”
“Oh my goodness! Thank you! “ Callie yelled as she grabbed her package and tore it open.
“For me!” Tad squealed, his eyes dancing. He tore into his gift.
Each held up their burlap bears and hugged them, and then ran to their parents.
“They’re wonderful!” Callie exclaimed.
“Yes! Oh thank you!” Tad appeared younger and happier to Herman.
“You should tank your brother Herman,” their mother said. “He’s the one who suggested I make them for you.”
Callie hugged Herman and kissed him on the cheek. “Oh Herman, you’re so sweet!”
And so, Herman got his second Christmas present, the wonderful feeling of giving to someone else. Unfortunately, Tad broke the Christmas spell by throwing his bear to the floor.
“I don’t want the old thing!” he growled. “Herman just did it so he could get people to say he was wonderful. And—and he knew I wouldn’t want a silly old bear so he’d end up having two bears, the little pig!”
Callie turned red and stepped toward Tad. “Oh Tad!” She stopped abruptly, looked at her parents and sat down. For a nine-year-old girl, she was learning to mind her own business, Herman decided.
“Tad, that’s not a nice thing to say to your brother,” his mother said softly.
“Well, that’s what he is, a little pig!” Tad kicked the bear across the room.
“That’s enough of that, young man.” His father stood. “We’re going out behind the barn.”
Mama told me all the stories of the great blinding light and times of darkness and cold. She did not live through them herself, but she assured me it was not so long ago. Before the great glow, never-ending darkness and cold, there walked upon the earth terrible giants who kindly fed us and just as ruthlessly crushed us underfoot.
These stories were fading from my memory, and I was afraid. They gave me a reason for living and the determination to keep my legs moving in the eternal search for food. If I could only find Mama she would explain why food made life worth living. Or, rather, what worthwhile reason made eating so important.
The last time I remembered being with Mama we were in the midst of our kind. We clamored over each other trying to find food. At one point my legs gave way, and I felt a thousand little legs on my back. I sensed their fear and desperation. There were so many of us, and no one knew what to do but keep scampering around. If we kept moving maybe we would find a gooey mountain that once was one of the giants. The giants had become our food.
I knew that I was not smart. When I didn’t know what to do, I often did absolutely nothing and hoped absolutely nothing happened to me. This also gave me time to think about things Mama told me. We needed food to exist, but if we could not find food, we should look for water to drink. Drinking water would keep us alive until we found food.
If I found a pipe, she told me, crawl up it because pipes always carried water. I bumped into a long round thing which I thought was one of those pipes Mama talked about, and I climbed on it and began to scuttle upwards. One of my feet slipped into a crack so I decided to crawl inside. Mama said water was always inside the pipe.
It was dry. My legs weakened. I didn’t know how much longer I could walk. Within my body was a growing perception that I no longer cared to move. I tried to control the panic. Just ahead, I came upon a hole. Crawling through, I found myself in a great basin. My spirits lifted. This was one of the places where water existed.
In the distance I saw a great brown mound. It was one of us. As I came closer I knew who it was. I recognized the pattern of the shell. I smelled its essence. My antennae touched its antennae. It was Mama. I nudged her, hoping that she was just sleeping. But she was not sleeping. All that was left was her dry shell.
Momentarily I considered leaving to continue my search for food and water but changed my mind. My fatigue overwhelmed me. My legs could move no more. I was with Mama. And all was good.
(Previously in the book: Herman anticipated fifth birthday on the plains of Texas during the Depression. He was overjoyed to receive a home-made bear, but his brother Tad’s ouburst ruined the moment.)
Herman climbed into the loft, took his clothes off and got into bed with Burly. He looked out of the window at the dark sky and thought how lonely he still felt. Burly was wonderful, and he could him hug him; but, Herman still felt lonely and sad. Part of it was because Tad made such a fuss and another was—well, Herman still didn’t know why. Again, as so many nights, tears began to fall from Herman’s eyes.
“Herman,” Burly said in a soft, soothing voice, “please don’t cry.”
Herman looked around. He didn’t know where the voice came from. Then he looked down to see Burly smiling up at him.
“Burly! You’re alive! You can talk!”
“Not so loud,” Burly shushed him. “Yes, I can talk, but only when it’s just you and me. When Callie and Tad, or anyone else is around I’m just a regular stuffed animal.”
Burly wrinkled his brow. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I can talk. But when your tear hit the top of my head I began to talk. That’s all I know.”
“Oh this is wonderful,” Herman whispered, hugging Burly tightly. “Oh! I didn’t hurt you by squeezing too right, did I?”
“Oh no,” Burly replied. “We burlap bears are pretty tough.”
“And you’ll be my friend!”
“Of course, I’ll be your friend,” Burly said. “I’ve been your friend ever since I was that feed bag. Remember, you rode in the pick-up to buy me at the feed store.”
“Not really,” Herman had to admit.
“You impressed me because you were so nice and kind and polite,” Burly explained. “And honest.”
“See how polite you are. Do you want to know a secret? I t was really my idea for me to be made into a bear. I made the bag rustle underneath your father’s hand that day so he would notice me and get the idea.”
“I didn’t think papa liked me enough to think of it on his own,” Herman sighed, a bit sad.
“Oh no, Herman,” Burly corrected him firmly. “Your father loves you very much. I could have sat there rustling all day long, but if he hadn’t really wanted you to have a bear, my rustling wouldn’t have meant much.”
“Oh.” Herman was happier knowing his father did love him after all.
“And do you know why he left so quickly after the birthday party?”
“He had to check the horses and cows,” Herman replied innocently.
“Wrong again,” Burly said. “He left because he didn’t want you to see him crying.”
“You mean papa cries? Gosh, I didn’t think anybody that big and strong ever cried.”
“Your father cries all the time, but you and your brother and sister don’t know it. He loves you all very much, and it makes him sad when he can’t give you things.”
“I guess things don’t matter as long as I know papa loves me.”
“Oh my, nice and kind and polite and smart too,” Burly sang. “I knew I was right to want to belong to you.”
Herman smiled a little, then thought of Tad and sighed. “I just wish Tad didn’t hate me.”
“Your brother doesn’t hate you,” Burly said. “He’s just jealous because he never got a stuffed bear. And he’s jealous because he has to go to school and help on the farm more than you do.”
“I do what I can,” Herman protested. “I’m only five.”
“Six. But you see, Tad is still just a little boy, even though he is bigger than you, so he doesn’t understand these things.”
“So maybe when he’s older he won’t hate me,” Herman said hopefully.
“Of course,” Burly assured him. “After all, he is your brother.”
Herman smiled and hugged Burly, knowing he would never feel sad or lonely again. “And you are my friend.”
“Yes, and you are my friend.”
Herman heard Callie and Tad come into the house, muttering and crying. He felt sorry they had gotten into trouble but felt good that they would know better as they got older. Like he would know better as he got older, with the help of Burly Bear, of course. He hugged Burly once more.
“Happy birthday, Burly.”
My mother-in-law Maude was always certain she was right because of this list of wise sayings from her mother.
“You get more with honey than vinegar…what goes around comes around…”
No need to list any more of them. They’re all from Benjamin Franklin, Confucius or some other source forgotten in time. Any problem in life could be solved by one of them, and Maude was the first one to remind you of it.
Often I asked her why she thought I was wrong about everything.
“It’s not that I think you’re wrong. It’s just that I know that I am right.”
The rare instance when I was able to prove she was factually wrong and I was right and I asked why she corrected me anyway, she’d reply, “Well, I thought if I didn’t know you wouldn’t either.”
Of course, a sense of being right all the time can create an air of confidence and as we all know nothing succeeds in life more than having confidence. Her biggest success was as a bookkeeper because one and one are always two. She kept the books for the family coal company, and they always had the exact amount of money that Maude said they had. And I say this without sarcasm. Not knowing exactly how much money a business had caused a lot of bankruptcies and kept governments teetering on the brink of insolvency.
For myself, I know intellectually one and one equals two but putting it down on paper has always been the problem. It’s hard to concentrate on one and one when a pretty butterfly flutters by or I consider what happens when the wrong one tries to join to another wrong one. And what was I talking about in the first place?
Eventually Maude’s county elected her to be treasurer. This was in the 1980s when bank interest rates were double digits. She kept the county’s money in various short-term accounts with different banks, and every morning she called each bank to see what the going rates were. Then she transferred accounts to the best rate. She made her county several million dollars just by switching money around. The national association of county treasurers named her treasurer of the year. Not just of small population counties but of every county in the United States of America.
I could not, would not deny Maude this distinction and the achievement of making so much money without raising taxes, fees or penalties. I wish every politician could do that. And I’m sure Maude gave credit to one of her mother’s time-worn proverbs.
What I had trouble with was her translating her accomplishments into moral imperatives to impose her superior judgement onto how my wife Janet and I raised our children, ran our household and chopped onions. My wife Janet was smarter than I was. She was able to hide the pea of our lives as she shuffled the walnut shells right in front of her mother. I, on the other hand, was a terrible bamboozler. Everything I did was out for the entire world to see and criticize.
Maude lived a long and fruitful life. Wisely, her husband Jim became a federal coal mine inspector in his later years thereby insuring his wife had the best health insurance available as she endured several heart attacks. One cannot outsmart death forever, and eventually Maude entered Hospice and awaited the end from advancing coronary disease.
Despite how aggravated I was with how she treated my family and me, I openly admitted that this was the woman who gave birth to the woman who saved my life and gave me two wonderful children. Through the years I took her to her doctor appointments and was by her side as she went from being bed-ridden at home to many hospitalizations and finally to Hospice.
I sat next to her one day when she announced, “I’ve been going through all my mother’s sayings in my mind, and I can‘t think of one that applies right now. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what to do.”
The next day when I visited, her speech was slurred and she had trouble holding up her hands. She had a letter from back home and I read it to her. I asked if she remembered the person who wrote the letter. She feebly nodded her head.
The day after that I found her asleep, a rasping sound escaping her lips. After sitting next to her in silence, I looked out the window and commented that it was raining. When I turned back I noticed she had stopped breathing.
Despite what she said, I think Maude did know what to do. She just didn’t want to do it.
When I think of my wife Janet’s mother Maude, I can’t help but recall a line from Gone With the Wind. Rhett Butler said of his daughter Bonnie Blue, “She is what Scarlett would have been if it had not been for the war.”
If Maude had not been forced to live through the Great Depression of the 1930s, perhaps her better qualities would have shone through more.
Maude’s father was the chief electrician for a coal mining company in southwestern Virginia which meant the family had a good company house and the older children were able to go to college. As the middle child, Maude became caregiver to her three younger brothers and sister. Her mother also gave her the responsibility of walking to the coal mine every day when the whistle blew to accompany her father home to make sure he didn’t stop in the bar along the way. A small girl didn’t have the actual ability to keep Daddy from going through those swinging doors and stagger back out an hour later. When he finally arrived home, her mother blamed Maude and not her father.
What a terrible moral burden to place on a child, predestining her to fail. Maude spent the rest of her life trying to keep everyone else away from moral turpitude; and, dammit, she was determined not to let her mother down.
When she was fourteen, her father died of tuberculosis, and the coal company kicked the family out of their house because no one there worked for them anymore. Whatever community standing that came with her father’s being the company electrician went away. The money went away. She remembered searching through all the furniture for a missing penny so her mother could mail a letter. The older children helped out the best they could, and Maude and the oldest of her younger brothers went to work. And they couldn’t expect help from the family to go to college either.
One of the bright moments of Maude’s youth was to take the train to the next town over to spend the weekend with her Aunt Missouri. Missouri’s children had all moved away, so she could devote every moment of her gentle attention on Maude. She counted down the days to Friday and the trip. On Thursday evening before she left, a neighbor lady came to visit her mother, bringing along her large, shedding dog. Her mother told Maude to take care of the dog while the neighbor shared the latest town gossip. By the time the woman finished and took her dog home, Maude’s sinuses began to swell from all the dog dander. The trip to Aunt Missouri’s house had to be canceled.
So when Janet and I began having pet dogs, Maude came up with plenty of excuses why we should get rid of them.
“If you didn’t have to spend all that money on the dogs then you could afford to get the children something they really want,” she told me once.
“But what they really want are their dogs.”
Maude arched her eyebrow, sighed in exasperation and muttered, “I suppose you’re right.”
Right before she died, Maude told the story of the canceled train trip to visit Aunt Missouri and how it was canceled because of dog dander.
Another time Maude told us how she was so tired of cleaning house she decided to lie on her bed and pretend she was in her coffin. Everyone in town came by to say how pretty she looked dead and told her mother how they were all going to miss her. Her mother ruined her day dream when she walked by the bedroom.
“You know you’re really not dead and just lying there is not going to get your chores done.”
With great effort and with a sense of martyrdom, young Maude arose from the dead to complete her obligations to the family, which, she was sure, her brothers and sister did not appreciate.
Maude never could sit down of an evening to watch television with the rest of us. She had to wash clothes, iron or fold and put them away. Something in the kitchen wasn’t clean enough. I think she was afraid her mother was going to come back from the grave to tell her to stop watching that silly television and get her chores done.
Of course, all this is speculation on my part. I must remember I wasn’t there, and all I had to go on was Maude’s version of these stories. Who knows what actually happened back then. All I knew was the Maude who survived the Great Depression.
Grandpa and Santa
Grandpa had a secret.
Little Jimmy learned what it was on late Christmas Eve as he sat with grandpa watching the tree lights twinkling.
“I can’t wait for Santa to arrive.”
“Me too,” Jimmy said. Then he looked at grandpa. “Why are you waiting for Santa?”
Grandpa gave him a big hug. “I’m going to tell you a secret. Do you promise to keep it?”
“Of course, Grandpa. We’re best friends.”
“Well,” he whispered, “I’ve seen Santa Claus every Christmas Eve for the last 80 years. I caught him leaving presents under the tree, and he said if I promised not to tell anyone he would grant me special wishes. For years I wished for toys. Then I wished to get into a good college. Then I wished I would make enough money to give my children everything they ever wanted.” He paused to wink at Jimmy. “Sometimes you wish you didn’t get everything you want.”
“What do you mean, Grandpa?”
“Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but your daddy and your two aunts are awfully spoiled.”
Jimmy smiled. “Yeah, but I didn’t want to say anything.”
Suddenly there was a blast of cold wind and a soft “ho, ho, ho.”
“Well, James I see you have your grandson with you,” Santa said.
“Promise, Santa, I won’t tell,” Jimmy said.
“So, James, what’s your wish this year?”
”I don’t have a wish, except that Jimmy start having his wishes now.”
“He’s a good boy,” Santa said. “I think he can handle it. So, Jimmy, what do you wish for?”
“I just want grandpa to be happy.”
The next morning everyone gathered around the Christmas tree–grandpa, Jimmy, his parents and his two aunts. Jimmy opened each present and hugged and kissed his parents and aunts.
“Dad,” Jimmy’s father said, “you didn’t give Jimmy anything.”
“Yes he did,” Jimmy said spontaneously. “He introduced me to Santa Claus.”
“Introduce you to Santa Claus?” one of his aunts said with shrieking laughter.
Jimmy looked at his grandpa with terror. He had let the secret out. Grandpa nodded, smiled and told his family that he had visited with Santa for the past 80 years. Jimmy’s father scolded him for telling such silly tales to confuse the boy. The two aunts, almost simultaneously, accused grandpa of dementia, to which Jimmy’s father announced that if that were the case then grandpa had to be committed and all his funds taken into a guardianship handled by his three children.
“Oh, yes,” the other aunt added with an evil giggle, “I could take care of Daddy’s money very well.”
Tears filled Jimmy’s eyes as he sat in the judge’s chambers a month later with grandpa, his parents and two aunts. The judge sat at his desk and peered over his glasses at the stack of paperwork in front of him.
“I’m so sorry, Grandpa,” he whispered.
Just then there was a cold blast of air entered the chamber as Santa Claus appeared to Jimmy and grandpa. Everyone else was frozen.
“I wished for grandpa to be happy,” Jimmy said with a pout.
“But you were the one who told,” Santa reminded him.
“Is it too late for me to have a wish?” grandpa asked.
“No, I guess not,” Santa replied.
“I just wish this hadn’t happened.”
With another blast of air, Santa was gone, and the judge looked up from his papers.
“I’m sorry. What were we saying?”
“I was saying,” Jimmy’s father said, “my sisters and I have discussed it, and we think our father has given us more than we deserved throughout our lifetimes. We want our father’s will be changed so that everything will be left to his only grandchild, Jimmy.”
“Oh, I think that can be arranged,” the judge said.
“But Grandpa,” Jimmy said.
“Shh.” Grandpa put his finger to his lips. “It’s a secret.”