Most Sundays we get together with mom and pops for dinner. After a week of work and crazy schedules followed by a weekend of chores and projects or travel, one of us decides that someone should cook a decent meal, pour some wine in a glass and make us all sit down.
I admit, with the house and my weird schedule, it has been momma making the meals lately.
But it’s one of the things I think we both look forward to, and now that the sun stays out a little longer and there’s no snow in sight, I pull on my shoes, whistle for the dogs and follow the winding creek to my parent’s house over three big hills, nestled in the oak groves. Husband, usually busy putting in the last nail for the day, meets me over there in his pickup and soon we’re settled the kind of easy talk that comes only with the people you’re closest to.
We complement my mother’s cooking, tease her about her bottomless wine supply, talk about work and weather and my stupid dogs. Usually I whip out a story that requires use of an accent and pops laughs and squeezes his eyes tight as he throws his head back. It’s my favorite look on him for so many reasons…
But my favorite is when we start talking memories. It usually always comes to this, a story about my father’s childhood in the very spot we’re building a house. A revelation about how my mom was forced to run track by her cheerleading coach, so she did it…in ballet slippers. Husband’s confessions about the punishment dealt out after fighting with his brother that included holding hands with him on the couch for as long as his father saw fit.
There’s something about being a room with people who you know the best in this world, people who know you in the same way, and still being able to learn something about them. And it doesn’t matter if we’ve heard the same story a few times, there is always something to add, a question to ask that reveals more character, more memory, sheds a different light on this person.
Last night pops shared a story about his childhood that I’m sure I’ve heard before, possibly dozens of times. But it doesn’t matter, I could hear it a thousand times and be transported.
I want to exist in this story, in this ten minute vignette of my father at four years old that somehow sums up everything he became here on this landscape as a child, growing into a man with white hair and a wife who he transplanted from city sidewalks and dance studios to a house at the end of a dirt road in the coulee with party-line phones and a bull snake in the shed.
I love the way he tells it, sitting at the end of the table, plate pushed forward, arms folded, coffee brewing for dessert. He looks to the ceiling as if up there he might catch a glimpse of that little boy, four-years-old with curly black hair riding bareback on a paint pony alongside his father. It’s fall or summer, he can’t remember. But I imagine the leaves were just starting to turn as the pair trotted out of the barnyard, the little boy on his father’s trail moving east toward the reservation where the cattle graze in the summer.
He’s not sure why his father took him along for an almost seven-mile-one-way cross-country trip. At four-years-old, he thinks now that it might have been a little extreme for such a youngster. But ask him then and it was all he wanted to do. Leave him behind? He would have tried to follow anyway.
The pastures out east, even today with an increase in activity, are some of the most isolated and untouched places out here. The rolling buttes rise and fall for miles between fences into creek bottoms with black mud and cattails, creeks that are difficult to cross with a horse, even in the late summer. The oak groves, bordered by thorny bull berry brush and thistle, begin to blend into one another and look the same. I’ve seen them play tricks on even the most familiar cowboy, getting him mixed up on what draw he’s in or where he is when he emerges from ducking and cutting through the narrow cattle trails along the banks.
So there he was, a little boy, clinging tight to that pony as it jumped over the creek and raced up the side hills to keep up with the big horse. And it was at the top of one of those rocky hills that his father told him to stay and wait.
“Don’t move,” his father said as he made plans to check the creek bottoms, to find cows that have been milling in there to stay cool and get away from the flies. “I will come back and get you.”
So on top of that hill sat my father on his pony. He shakes his head now and laughs as he tells it and we take a sip of our coffee, shift in our seats and imagine him as a little boy, wind flopping his hat and moving fluffy clouds that made shadows on the buttes.
He can’t remember if he was scared or nervous now. He searches for a recollection of that feeling in his coffee cup and then rests his chin on his fist. All he can remember is that he was told not to move and so he didn’t. He didn’t move as he scanned the hills and squinted into the oak trees for any sign that his father might be on his way back to him.
And while he was peering into the horizon, holding his breath and the reigns of his pony, someone did come over that hill. But it wasn’t his father in his saddle and cowboy hat, but a Native American girl with long black hair and legs dangling on each side of her bare backed horse under the late summer sky.
“Can you imagine what she thought,” my father chuckles at the memory of this girl, who he recalls was a teenager, but was probably only about ten or eleven years old, so young herself. “Here she found this little boy on a pony all by himself out there on the hill.”
He goes on then to tell us the part of the story we remember from last time it was told here at this kitchen table. He recalls how she asked him if he was ok and if he was lost. He told her that he wasn’t supposed to leave this spot. That his dad was coming back for him.
My father doesn’t remember many of the details of conversation, what she looked like, what they said, but he remembers she stayed with him, she stayed with that little boy with curly hair and a hat flopping in the prairie wind, on that hilltop, more than likely holding her breath and scanning the horizon for any sign of a cowboy coming back.
Now he pulls at his napkin and says though he doesn’t remember how long she sat with him, but when you’re four years old ten minutes can seem like hours. And I can relate, remembering my own time spent on hilltops waiting for this father of mine to come back for me. It could have been hours. It could have been minutes. But she stayed until that little boy had an escort through the valleys and over the creeks, back west to the barnyard and to his momma and big sister waiting with canned meat and biscuits and for a report of the day’s events.
And so he told it to his mother, the story about the girl. And for years to come around their dinner table this would be one of their family’s stories, one of the memories they would share over Sunday meals about a little boy who was my father who had found a girlfriend out east in the hilltop.
And as my father protested, they would throw back their heads and close their eyes and laugh…