Firing from the Lip

A collection of thoughts, stories, tall tales, half truths and opinions from the Heartland of America.

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Location: Missouri, United States

An irreverent but loving grandfather of five and father of three, I enjoy writing of family, love, life, and the never ending fascination of it all.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Each New Day

An ancient wise man once wrote, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The Teacher was beaten down by a life filled with thrilling ascents to glory and crashing falls into despair and hopelessness, and had concluded that ‘all is vanity.’

But was he right? I don’t think so.

I believe each day brings forth something new under the sun. The brilliance of the sunrise may look like yesterday, but there are subtle differences in the Lord’s pallet of color each morning. Sunrises inspire me, they always have. I love sitting on my deck and soaking up the first new rays of another day of my life. Breathing the cool, crisp, air while watching the fog gradually thinning, then fading into nothingness is like lifting the veil of a new bride. The hint of beauty revealed for those who would seek it.

Many of us have been blessed with new life in our families this year. Some are parents for the first time, excited and a bit frightened by the responsibility for another. I remember that feeling well, the wondering if I will be good enough, if I have enough heart and patience. I did and I do, and so do you. Just enjoy them as much as possible because the time passes far more swiftly than you know. The days of tea parties and kickball games don’t last long. Treasure them, they are the memories you will hold fast to in your later years, long after the laughter has faded away.

A lucky few have become grandparents for the first time, and know the joy of seeing those special little faces napping gently in your arms. It is a moment you will never forget, the first time you gaze at your grandchild. Your heart melts and you find yourself wrapped around a very small finger forever. The two nicest things I’ve ever been called are Daddy and PaPa. God, it’s wonderful isn’t it? Nothing new under the sun? I daresay, he was wrong, there is something new, and beautiful, under the sun each bright morning of our lives.

Some of us have lost someone we love this past year, and are dealing with that loss as best we can. Our loved ones can see the sunrise from the other side of the veil now. They can watch as God creates the dawn. They can see the Creator’s sovereign right hand drop slowly as he gently and tenderly lays the sun to rest at the end of each day, and they can still share our lives and our love for them. I believe they remain with us forever. Nothing is stronger than love, and a heart full of love and devotion never dies, it simply takes on a new and majestic form in Heaven alongside the Father and the Son. We mourn for them, and we feel the pain of their absence from our presence, but we will be together again someday. I still talk to the loved ones I’ve lost in my life and I believe they can hear me. They cannot answer, but perhaps they smile when I say their names, and know they are remembered and loved.

There is something new under the sun this morning. It’s the opportunity to make it a better day than yesterday. To say I love you, or I need you, to someone special who would appreciate hearing it. To hold someone in your arms for a moment, to share the warmth of your heart with them, to treasure them. I look at each new dawn through the eyes of a child receiving a gift from a loving father. Each day is special, each day is ours to fill with what we will. The choice is ours.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Love in the Afternoon

A recently released study claims that an overwhelming majority of Americans have engaged in premarital sex. In homage to premarital sex, family lore, and heart-pounding adventure, I bring you this tale of young love and an unexpected encounter with the Bull of the Woods. I call it Love in the Afternoon.

When my parents were courting they often double-dated with my mothers sister, Faye, and her boyfriend Jim. Aunt Faye was everything Mom wasn’t. She was outgoing, brassy, and bold, enjoyed a cold beer or a shot of bourbon, and could cuss like a sailor and fight like a man. It took a man with guts to date my Aunt Faye, and Lord knows, my future uncle, James Davis, had guts.

Jim was a rough-houser, a down-home country boy from way back in the woods with an engaging smile, a ready laugh, and sparkling eyes full of mischief. Not much bothered Uncle Jim. He could get along with you, or not, and smile either way. He’d grown up a sawyer’s son and worked in the mills and on the farm all his young life. He was an immensely strong man and wasn’t afraid of much of anything. He was a bit afraid, perhaps, of my grandfather, who’d threatened to take a shotgun to the young lad if he got out of line with his daughter.

Through mom and Faye, my dad and Jim met, and became as close as brothers for as long as they lived. The two had much in common. Daddy wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone either, and like Jim, he wasn’t one to shy away from a fight or a cold beer. My father always laughed as he told me about meeting Jim. Faye introduced him, and Jim looked up and said, “Damn! You’re a big sonofabitch, ain’t ya?” Pop said he laughed and shook Jim’s hand, and the bond was immediate between them.

The four of them liked to steal away in Jim’s old Buick out to the country to go parking. They often found themselves along Halter Road, a little strip of gravel that survives to this day, and one which I made much the same use of growing up. The best spot on Halter was at the top of the big hill. From there, you could see a car coming from a half-mile away and it gave you time to get yourself situated before unwanted attention was paid to you by the authorities or an angry father.

One lazy Summer afternoon, the four found themselves at the top of the big hill enjoying a beer and each other’s company. Faye and Jim were a bit more, shall we say, ‘advanced,’ in their relationship than Mom and Pop were at the time, and Faye let it be known that they’d like a bit of privacy.

Pop led Mom off, and they took a hand in hand stroll down the hill to the creek that ran through the bottom of the hollows. I don’t know exactly what pop had in mind, but being young myself once, I can make a pretty good guess. My mother was a chaste woman, and Pop didn’t get very far in his youthful attempts at amour with her. Momma believed in ‘ring before fling’ and suggested they cool their feet in the creek to get Pop’s body temperature down.

As the two young lovers sat, soaked their feet, and talked on the moss covered rocks of Halter Creek they had an unexpected visitor. The old farmer that owed the land had a big, black bull named Samson. He was a huge old bull, thick and wide with a bit of an attitude. He was the King of All He Surveyed. On this particular afternoon he surveyed my parents cooling their heels in his creek. The old fellow seemed to take offense at this trespass, and wandered over to lodge a formal complaint.

Wrapped up in each other, the two lovers didn’t see Samson coming. Being a polite bull, he announced his presence with a deep huff, and Mom looked up to see him standing just ten feet away on the other side of the shallow creek. My mother was a woman prone to quick reaction in time of doubt or fear. When it came to the ‘fight or flight’ instinct, she had a double portion of ‘flight.’ Grabbing her shoes, she took off running as fast as she could back to the car, leaving poor Pop to fend for himself. Pop didn’t know what to do, so he took off running after mom. Poor old Samson didn’t know what to make of all this but he must have thought, ‘hell, if everyone else is gonna’ run, I may as well too,’ and took off in hot pursuit of my parents.

Reaching the car in a panic, my mother jerked the door open and dove into the back seat. Right on top of a very busy - and buck naked - Uncle Jim. Jim thought it was my grandfather and he let out a screech you could hear from a mile away. The poor boy thought he was a dead man! Faye was screaming at Mom to get the hell out of there, Mom was screaming ‘you go to hell, there’s a bull out there,’ and wouldn’t budge, and Jim was trying to get his pants on before Mom saw something she shouldn’t.

While this was going on, my poor father was rolling on the ground laughing. It didn’t matter that Old Samson was just a few yards away. Pop couldn’t stop laughing at the funniest thing he’d ever seen. Samson himself seemed to think this was worth watching, because he just stood there pawing the ground and taking it all in.

Poor old Jim lost about five years off his life when Mom landed screaming on his back. Faye was mad at Mom at first, but when she found out the whole story she laughed til’ she cried. She told Mom, ‘I wish I’d seen you coming, Mary. I’d have locked the doors just to hear you scream.’ I told you Faye had a mean streak!

I remember my Daddy and my uncle telling me this story while my Mom’s face got red as a beet and Faye laughed. Jim said, “I’ll tell you what, son. I’m glad it wasn’t your granddaddy. I’d rather have taken my chances with Old Samson.”

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Time to Remember; A Family Christmas Tradition

Four miles outside of town on a lonely country road, just around a hairpin curve to the left, lies Cedar Falls Cemetery. Over two hundred years old, filled with brooding old oaks that tower over the graves and shelter those resting beneath that hallowed ground. It’s a lonely, foreboding place that seems to take one back in time as you walk between the irregular rows of old and faded headstones.

On the far left as you pull into the drive, along the fence row, lie seventeen graves whose occupants share my last name. I have come today to see them, along with my aging father. We visit our family a few weeks before Christmas each year to clean their graves, and place small, colorful wreaths against the stones, to make them part of our Christmas celebration, and to tell their spirits that they are not forgotten.

As dad and I pulled weeds and cleaned fallen branches from the graves, he told me what he expected of me when he was gone. It’s not a subject I enjoy talking about, but he feels it’s necessary at his age, to reassure himself that his son will carry on our traditions after his death, and to reassure his son that his death is nothing to fear.

“I hope you’ll always do this, Luke. It meant a lot to your grandparents to take care of our family graves, and it means a lot to me as well. I trust you, Donnie, not to let it go when I’m gone.”

“No, sir. I won’t let it go, Pop. I’ll do it every year just like you always have.”

Looking into the fading blue eyes of a man who has meant everything to me, I was suddenly struck by an almost overwhelming grief. I felt the emptiness of his absence from my life and it broke my heart, and I had to turn away from him to hide my tears.

“You don’t like talking about me dying, do you, son?”

“No, sir, I don’t.”

My father wrapped his arms around me from behind, and hugged me to his chest. I wondered as he held me, how many times had those arms sheltered me in my life? How many times had those hands, gnarled and twisted by arthritis now, gently brushed away the tears of a hurt little boy and sent him off with a pat on the back and a smile?

“Don’t worry about me, Luke. I’m an old man, son. God could take me at any time and I’m fine with that. I’ve tried to be decent and I think the Good Lord will take that into account.”

I had to smile at him, he’s so at peace with himself and his God that he shames me sometimes. He has the faith of a child, simple, trusting, and innocent. He believes in a gentle and forgiving Christ, he believes all men are God’s children and deserving of respect and dignity, regardless of color or country. He’s a truly good man in a world that has too few good men. He has been the best of fathers, and my best friend, all my life.

I ached looking at him because I know how very much I will miss him when he’s gone. I hope he knows in his heart how much he means to me, how much I love and respect him. I’ve tried to tell him but words fail me as I attempt to explain such depth of emotion. I reached out and took my fathers hand, and we walked back to the graves and finished our work. I love listening to my dad hum softly to himself as he works. I’ve always found that sound reassuring, it told me everything was alright, that he was there and there was nothing to fear. He caught me looking at him and I laughed as he winked at me and asked if I was going to let an old man do all the work?

As we placed each wreath gently on the graves of our family, I reflected on how fortunate I’ve been in my life. How many gifts I have that I took for granted for so many years. One of the greatest gifts was working next to me as we payed tribute to our lost loved ones. He gave me love and patience, he was strong but gentle, and he was a father I could go to with any problem or question and be listened to and counseled wisely, without judgement on his part.

Rising from our work, we shared a thermos of coffee in his truck and talked. He told me he’d gone to see Mom that morning, on his way to my house.

“I’ll be laid to rest beside your mother, babe. It’s a long way from this place where so many of us are resting. Your mom wouldn’t hear of being buried here, it’s too far out in the country for her, so I guess I’ll have to be laid out in a damn town.”

“Could be worse, Pop. If we’d put mom here she probably would have haunted us.”

“Oh, I think she would have if we’d done that! That’s all I need, to get woke up at night by a mean old woman’s ghost.”

“You’re so full of crap, Pop.”

He laughed as he started his old truck and we drove back to my home. Dad was tired, so he dropped me off and headed for his cabin in the woods by the river. Watching him drive away, I whispered a soft prayer of gratitude for this man God has made my father.

Someday, the duty of taking care of our graves will pass to me. I’ll place a wreath on my father’s stone, and tell my sons about the greatest man I ever knew.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Year Without Gifts

Two weeks before Christmas in 1969 our home burned to the ground. Despite the tragedy of that loss it was a memorable time.

The most memorable Christmas of my life is the year we had nothing. I was eight-years-old, my parents home had burned to the ground two weeks earlier. They had lost everything in the fire and we were living in our storm cellar. My parents were sad and worried that year, but as always, they put me before themselves and tried to make it special despite the loss.

My grandmother lived next door to us. Her home was old and warm, with a large wood stove in the living room, and the memories of her life surrounding her. I loved that house, and I adored her. Granny’s house had a loft that was my daddy’s bedroom when he was a child. I’d climb the ladder and look over the rail at grandma and laugh.

“You better be careful up there, little boy. You’ll do just like your daddy did if you’re not!”

“What did he do, granny?”

“He fell! He was horsing around, just like you are now, when he slipped and fell on his fool head.”

I thought of all the happy moments I’d spent in her home as I looked at the ashes where it had stood. The heat from our fire had ignited granny’s house as well, and it was a total loss. My father had not only lost his home, but the house he grew up in. He was terribly sad over the loss of his mother’s home, and I think dad grieved over that more than anything. The loss of our home was sad but he was still young and healthy, and he could build it back. He knew he couldn’t replace what his mother had lost and it hurt him deeply.

The most difficult loss for my grandmother was her family pictures. She’d grabbed her wedding portrait off the wall and it was the only thing she had time to save. She told me later that it’s funny what you think of at a time like that, and that all she cared about was saving a picture of her and my grandfather together.

“As long as I have this, son, I can make another home.”

My father said he heard the explosion as the furnace malfunctioned, and had looked back in shock to see fire already rising from the roof. I’d never seen my dad cry before that day, but after he’d gotten me out of the house, he hugged me tight and when he put me down, his deep blue eyes were full of tears. Pop told me many years later that all he remembers thinking that morning was “Oh, God. My boy's in there.”

As dad spoke of that day, his voice was almost a whisper as he looked at me and said, “I thought I’d lost you.” He couldn’t say any more, but he didn’t have to. I had children of my own then, and I knew how deeply afraid he’d been.

As our homes burned on that terrible day, I stood in my neighbors yard and watched. I had on a pair of pajamas and they were the only clothing I had left. The fire was fast and hot, and the houses old and dry. There was no chance to save them. As my mother softly cried in the arms of my grandmother and my father, our neighbors gathered around. Dad had always treated folks with respect and kindness, and now that he needed them they were anxious to help. As the men talked to my dad, he stood by me with his hand on my shoulder, holding me to him. Dad was a loving man, but he was never openly affectionate. He wasn’t a hugger, he didn’t say I love you every day, and I think it embarrassed him to do so. On that day, he became a different man. He knew I was confused and scared, and he stayed right by me.

“Everything will be okay, Luke. I promise.”

“I know, daddy.”

I remember watching my mom and dad sift through the ashes of our home hoping to find anything they could save. I’d never seen them so sad, and I would have done anything to make it all go away, to bring back what they had lost. I told dad how sorry I was, and sitting on the ruins of our home, he gave me a little hug and said, “You and your Mom are okay, son. I can build it back. As long as I have you guys, I’ll be fine.”

We spent that Christmas Eve in the storm cellar my grandfather built in 1917. It had a ten step staircase and was large enough for a queen size bed, two chairs, and a bus seat. Light came from coal oil lamps, heat from granny’s down-filled comforter and a small, wood-burning kettle stove.

Dad cooked our Christmas dinner on a Coleman stove outside. We had fried potatoes, bacon and eggs, and sausage. It’s still the best Christmas dinner I’ve ever eaten. Sitting in a cold and damp storm cellar, without gifts, without a home, but surrounded by people I loved that I knew would take care of me, was far more meaningful that any toy could have been.

Over the course of the following year my dad built a new home and a three bay garage for his business, and bought my grandmother a small mobile home and placed it next to our new house. Things were never as they were again, no longer could I sit in granny’s old house and pretend to be my dad as a little boy, no more nights spent lying in her floor listening to the antique radio in her living room. We had lost much of our family history and irreplaceable photographs, but we had what makes a family in our hearts, and we’ve never lost it.

On that cold Christmas so long ago, I received chocolate chip cookies as my gift and fell asleep in the loving and protective arms of my father, and I was blessed.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Christmas; Now and Then

I put our Christmas tree up yesterday afternoon. For the first time, my grandson Brendan helped.
“We’re working as a team, Papa!”
“Yes, baby. We’re a team.”

When we were finished we sat in the floor and shared a cup of hot chocolate together. The look in his eyes is what I remember of my own children and it brings conflicting emotions. I’m so glad we can make Christmas special for him, but I’m sad that I can no longer do so for my own kids. I hate them being gone and I miss them so much at this time of year.

After we’d finished our chocolate, I told Brendan there were a few more things remaining to do. Going out into the garage, I brought in a very special box. As I took the contents from the box one by one, I explained to Brendan what they were, and why I treasure them.

The first item was an old manger, dusty and weathered by time. It's fragile and showing it's age now, but it’s not Christmas without it.

“Your great-grandmother Della gave me this when I was five-years old.”
“Gosh, Pa! How old is it?”
“It’s forty-years old, son. I know that seems very old to you, as it did to me when I was young like you, but it passed so quickly, baby. You would have loved Granny, Mr. B, and she would have adored you.”
“Was she nice, Papa?”
“She was more than nice, son. She was the sweetest person I’ve ever known. We used to bake cookies together for Christmas. I mostly just got in the way, but she always had me help her. I loved sitting in her lap, eating warm snickerdoodles and drinking my chocolate milk.”
“I like to help you, and sit in your lap, Pa!”
“I know you do, baby. Papa likes it too.”

Smiling at my little grandson, I placed my grandmother’s manger under our tree and carefully arranged the white cloth around it to make it look like snow. My mind was flooded with memories of a lady I loved with all my heart and miss every day of my life. I can still see her smile, her twinkling eyes behind small, round glasses. I miss the warmth of her hugs, our talks on the porch, her tenderness and her wisdom. My grandmother gave me a great gift. A gift I had to become much older to appreciate fully. She believed in me. I hope she’s looking down from Heaven today, and can see how much her little grandson still loves and cherishes her many years after her death.

Turning back to the box, I took out three tattered old stockings. They belonged to my children when they were small. I remember their excitement on Christmas morning when we handed them the stockings stuffed full of cookies and small toys, and with a note from Santa to each child. Brendan and I went downstairs to the fireplace, and as I lifted him up he placed each stocking on the mantle so Santa could see them.

“Mama has a surprise for you, baby.”
“What is it Pa?” he asked, wide-eyed.
“Better go see!”
He ran up the stairs yelling, “what do have for me, Ma?” A moment later, he excitedly said “Pa! I got my own stocking! It’s just like the others and it has my name on it!”
“Well, you better bring it down here, honey.”

Brendan came back downstairs carefully holding his stocking so it wouldn’t drag on the floor. I lifted him again, and he proudly placed his alongside those of his aunt and uncles.

“Will I get something from Santa in my stocking, Pa?”
“Have you been a good boy this year?”
“Yes! I’m always a good boy except when I’m mad.”

Laughing, I told Brendan I was sure his stocking would be stuffed as full as Santa could get it. His happy smile lit up the room, and his Papa’s heart. He ran to tell his Mommy about his special gift, and left me alone in the family room with my children’s memories for a few moments. Where did the time go? How did my babies grow so fast? It seems like only yesterday when our home was filled with their laughter. When bedtime meant changing giggling little bodies into pajamas with feet. God, how I miss them. The only regret I have over my children is that I cannot do it all over again. I was lucky, I realized they were a gift from God and I cherished every day with them.

They’re grown and gone now, with children of their own. I'm very proud of them but I still long for the days when they were small. My daughter laughs at me sometimes because I’m so sentimental. I can’t help it, it’s just who I am. I suppose it’s silly for a grown man’s eyes to fill with tears when he thinks of those he’s lost along the way. Sometimes the tears are sad and lonely, sometimes they’re filled with longing for another day of my long-ago life. Mostly, they are simply expressions of the love and gratitude I feel for those wonderful and wise people who made me what I am.

This year, Christmas is even more special because of how horrible and trying the year has been. I was hurt but I’m alive. My body was broken, but my spirit didn’t bend. I called on the strength and love of my youthful memories to pull me through. They didn’t fail me.

On Christmas morning I will watch my beloved grandson tear into his gifts with glee. I will smile, and his joy will be my greatest gift this season. My eyes will wander to the stockings hanging over the fireplace and the manger under the tree, and I will once again recall special people and cherished memories. I will see, in my mind’s eye, the bustle of my grandmothers kitchen and hear her soft singing as she bakes cookies for her grandson. I will hear again the laughter of my own children on those ancient Christmas mornings when they were young, and I will softly thank God in my heart for all his gifts to a foolish and undeserving man.