Lest he cut his bare feet on the tin can lids tacked down all ’round the rotten wooden floor, covering holes and keeping out the critters what lived down under, Lester kept his work boots tucked “toes in” under his mattress. He grabbed them first thing, ‘fore he ever even hardly opened up his eyes to the new mornin’. Ten years old today! This was the big one! He knew Mama’d have biscuits and gravy on the table, and he’d get his first, with a little extra, before all the other brothers and sisters fighting for a bite. There was ten of them total, Lincoln, Lawrence, Livie, Luce, Lester, Loreen, Louis, and Lawton, otherwise known as Little Bit, then Mama and Daddy. Now they all shared and shared alike, they was family, after all, but this day was his! He’d get the washbasin first, he’d likely find a treasure under his pillow later on today, and they was all supposed to be extra special nice to him, on account this was his birthday!
Lester’d been countin’ the days. He’d noticed sly looks from his sisters, mostly, knowing they was cookin’ something up. He sure hoped that something involved apples and pie. And now it was finally here. He stuck his big ol’ boots, what used to belong to Lincoln, then Lawrence, back under the sheets, pulled them sheets clear to his neck, and fairly shuddered with happiness. This was going to be a special day!
Now of course, there was chores to be done, before he could even think about his breakfast meal. It was early, just a sliver of the sun showing through the tattered screen and cracked glass on the window yonder. He knew the older boys was already at the barn, their cots was empty, covers pulled up tight. Tending the horses and tossing hay to the dairy cow occupied them just now. They’d given him a little pass, slipping out quiet like, ‘lowing Lester a few more moments to dream. He was glad of it, wriggled one more time, then threw back his covers, grabbed his yesterday clothes from the chair, and rushed out the door, pulling on his coat as he went.
The morning was misty and cool. The sun was giving its all, but it was just a glimmer of yellow there off to the east. The waft of the hay and the dewy grass always made him happy. Mornings always smelled the same, no matter on which farm or plot of land they were dwelling. They moved often, Lester’s family did. The Europe war , and the Japanese one, too, was done. Boys was coming back, looking for work. Wasn’t nobody wanting to deny them. Money was scarce, feeding eight young’uns wasn’t easy, and while everybody pitched in, they just couldn’t always make payments when they come up due. There wasn’t no hidin’ it. Daddy’d work something out with the land owner best he could, trade something, offer one of the children for special chores, or just pack up the crew in the middle of the night, tie the livestock to the back of a wagon, and head off on down the road. Three different schools just this year for Lester and the kids. But it was now spring, and he reckoned they’d see this one through the end of the term.
But the mornings? They always smelled the same. And for Lester, that was a comfort. Something he held dear.
Trying to be as stealthy as he could, he stepped lightly toward the barn. Almost a’tiptoe. He could hear the big boys, Lincoln was 14, Lawrence was nearly 13, breathing hard and grunting. He could smell the mix of of manure and hay and wet and rotting wood as he neared the barn. The clank and swish of pitchforks and feed buckets singing their morning tune. The impatient stomping and puffing of the horses and two cows. But as quiet as he thought he was, the big boys hollered out, “Hey, Birthday Man, ’bout time you made it out here!” “You gettin’ soft, boy?!”
Lester hurried on in. No need for Daddy to hear them callin’ out like that. His mornings began even earlier, at work in the machine shed, fixin’ a plow or just a’oilin’ his treasured tools. Daddy’d roll out of his shed with a switch, if he figured they was a’ lollygaggin’. Not this day! Preserve this day, that was important! He grabbed himself a shovel and dug into that large smelly still warm mountain of dung deposited by ol’ Bessie. Days didn’t start no different, even if you WAS the Birthday Boy!
Bustin’ their backsides left no more room for chattin’, anyhow. They got after it. The sweet pungent aroma of breakfast, though, escaped through the chimley and the paperweight walls of the tumbledown cabin. Resting askew on the back forty of ol’ man Brunke’s place for nigh on close to a century, or the way Lester saw it, purtin’ near forever, it hadn’t seen living folks livin’ in it for a very long time. But anything sending out heavenly smoke signals like that was home! The boys put a move on, then found the pump and its ice cold water to worsh up.
The girls and the littler ‘uns, they was already inside, having done fed the chickens on the other side of the back lot, helped Mama with breakfast, and done other odd chores. But as was the family rule, didn’t nobody sit down to the table until Daddy. And on special days, even Daddy waited for the person of honor, and today, that person was Lester.
So, it was a surprise to all when, on entering the back part of the cabin that was the kitchen, stretching the whole width of the place side to side, some towheaded soldier man was already seated, his back to the door, stiff army cover a’dangling on the back of the chair. Mama’d already served him a mug of coffee! Now, they was always takin’ in friends of friends and strays down on their luck. Sharing what little they had was second nature and no one was ever turned away. But before he could register just who could have taken his place, Lester felt himself cloud up, felt those tears well up quick and heavy. This was His day! His day! Mama looked his way, a sad little smile urged his patience as she peered into his eyes, and he willed those tears to stay in their gates. She wiped her floury hands on her tattered gingham apron, inclining her head toward their visitor.
“Look here, Lester” she said softly, “Look who’s come home for your birthday!”
With that, the golden head, to this point bowed low, lifted and turned his way, and Lester, he gasped, then bounced and gulped and shimmied in the air.
“Hey, Lester. Happy Birthday, boy!”
“Uncle Les! Uncle Les!” Lester’s motor shifted into high gear and he fairly lunged into the arms of his family famous soldier uncle for whom he was proudly named.
Uncle Les, patient for only a bit with the wild show of love and affection, gripped young Lester by both arms, durned near lifting him off his feet.
“Boy, you’ve grown some!” Lester felt love just flow through him, all warm and happy, from his prickly home cut hair to the toes in his hand-me-down boots. His Uncle Les, fresh back from fighting them evil Nazis over somewhere across the wide blue ocean, had come back just for him!
“Now fellers, settle down, breakfast is on its way,” Mama began to hustle and bustle about, “Yer Daddy is comin’ in directly, said for us to go ahead and eat, so gather round the table for grace.”
All the kids, the whole passel of ’em, burning with excitement, slowed their insides , hushed their outsides and stood behind their chairs. Uncle Les stood, a little stiffly, and they all gathered hands.
Mama, without Daddy to lead the way, nodded at little brother Uncle Les, all buttoned up and proud in his dress uniform, “Les, would you us the honor and pray for us?”
Lord, Lester wondered, worry furrowed a brow, would he remember how, after all that fightin’ and killin’?
Pulling himself up to his full height, with Lester clinging to his hand and sneaking a sly look up, Mama’s baby brother Les bowed his head, the others following suit.
“Our heavenly Father, ” his voice low and full, “Thank you for bringing our family together this day.” Lester felt a little lump in his insides. “Thank you for keeping us safe in the face of danger.” Lester’s eyes stung just a little. “Bless this day, Bless this house, Bless this food to our bodies,” Lester’s weight shifted a little, hoping this wouldn’t be a long one. “Lord, Bless this good and loving family, and dear Lord, most of all, Bless young Lester on his special day!”
And with that, the whole family shouted, as always in unison and with gusto, “Amen!”
Then, with the same gusto, they pulled out their chairs, dragging and scraping along the old wooden floor, with Lester landing first. Even Uncle Les waited. The cacophony of chairs then lifted and dragged back in closer to the table didn’t bother Mama one bit. With two tea towels, she grasped a large cookie sheet from the stove and marched right behind the wriggling Lester.
“Happy Birthday, Lester,” she beamed, and the first two biscuits, warm and steaming and oh so lightly browned on top, biscuits with the promise of soft-just-past-gooey on the insides, followed by a generous ladle of white peppered gravy, landed square on his plate.
Happy Birthday, Boy!