by Lin Stone
Happy birthday, kid. You know better than to expect a real present from me by now, so I won't apologize none for what you are getting. With my money so tight, I thought I'd just show you some pictures I took long ago and never showed nobody. I thought you might be interested since they are pictures of you that I've been saving up.
You remember how seldom we had film when you was growing up. So you'll understand why these pictures are made a little different from the ones you usually see stuck off in somebody's cigar box. They ain't stilted poses. They aren't frozen points of time. My pictures were made with lots of care and took me many hours of polishing before I tucked them away in my heart forever. And now that you are grown I thought you might want to take a peek, to see what pictures I kept, and why they were special enough to save.
The first picture took me four hours to make. That was how long I got to hold you, all my own, when my mother drove us home while Mama laid there exhausted in the back. Oh, I pretended to look off down that grim, barren road. But I never took my eyes off your face. You were a treasure given just to me. your hair was so sweet, your mouth so moist. And your tiny little fingers clutched my hand even while you were asleep. Oh, you smelled so sweet, like a breath of cool air off the alfalfa field when the dew first settles in at midnight and the hay is all ready to bale.
You were so precious to me. I made you a lot of promises on the way home that day. And I wanted to be the best in the world for you. I wanted to give you everything I'd never had. I don't guess I kept a single promise I made though. I guess I knew when I made them that I never could. But that's a part of the picture too, cause I tried. I busted my heart out trying to change myself and change the world too. But i just wasn't good enough to do it.
You was on your air mattress for the second picture I took. Lib was mad when I wouldn't let them take you off it to play with you all hours of the day. "He acts like she's a queen," she snapped. And you was. You was always a queen to me. That pad was your throne.
That throne was the only soft thing we could buy for your baby bed. When it went flat you'd cry just a little and we'd come to look. How come it kept going flat we just didn't understand till Mama caught herself sticking the pins in it every time she changed your diapers. I nodded wisely, and you didn't tell a soul. But I saw you smiling even before I started to nod. You was on to my pretensions even then.
Life got a little better as the next few years passed. And in your third picture I even had a steady job. It was seven days a week, twelve hours a night. That's about as steady as you can get. I was working in Bill's Service Station from six at night until six in the morning. You and Mama walked down to be with me just awhile that night. You rode your tricycle. I'd bought you a new one with money honestly earned. Me and Mama got to talking about the bills, and forgot about you for a moment. Then we looked up and you was in the service bay with your tricycle up on its back on the rack. You had the oil can out and you was generously oiling your machine. There wasn't nothing haphazard about the way you was doing it either. you were planning the need for each drop before you let it splatter. There was a serious shine in your eyes that night. You were already determined to do things just right even then. I guess that was the happiest day of my life. Me and Mama both just laughed about your new dress. It didn't matter a bit. We was making $270 a month, and we just loved you more.
The next picture was mercifully short but painfully clear when I made it. That was the day we got Jeannie and Mama out of the hospital in El Cajon. I'd borrowed a car; we didn't have one again. And there was no new job in sight when the one I had was withering away quick. I wouldn't leave you with nobody on that day. But the hospital wouldn't let me bring you in, just one more time the world twisted my arms and stomped on my feet because I wasn't good enough to make it and they knew they could get away with treating me like dirt. I put you in the car, rolled the windows up tight, locked the doors and went in to get Mama and Jeannie out. They twisted my arms some more in there. I guess they was used to people like me. But, worse yet, they twisted Mama's arms too, till her pride was gone and broke. They done that to her cause of me.
When we came out I was awful bitter, and seeing you bawling inside that steaming car where they'd made me leave you didn't help a bit. The sun wasn't so bright that day, but that picture is always startling clear. It hurts my eyes to look at it even now. When you seen Jeannie you quit crying and got happy as could be. But that ain't part of my picture. I know it happened, but only because Mama told me so.
I ain't none too proud of what I done in the next picture neither. it was snapped just a few weeks later. My job was gone; they wasn't even sorry to let me go. I didn't have no education, no car, the rent was up, groceries gone, and nobody in this whole wide world gave a damn. What few dreams I'd hazed up out of boiled smoke were wiped away in the bitter fog of despair. But we still had running water till the end of the month, and you decided to take a shower.
You stayed in there an awful long time, more than an hour. That's a lot of water on a little girl; Mama was afraid you'd drown. She went in and put you to bed. You came back and turned on the shower. Mama put you to bed. You went back to shower some more. Mama whipped you and put you to bed. Before she got back to our room you was in the shower again. She done it twice more. But you came right back each time.
And my temper boiled over at the whole stinking world and I took it out on you. Who did you think you was, anyway? That time, I went to get you. You wasn't doing nothing, just taking a shower, all naked and clean with your face raised up like an angel looking into falling rain. And I whipped the devil out of you. Then I shoved you into your bed, slammed the door shut, and stomped back to my room. Mama was glaring at me and I wanted to kick the walls down because of what I'd done. Then I heard the shower start up again. And the whole world got so quiet I heard myself swallow something bitter down my throat. I tiptoed back to the open door and peeked in.
Your eyes were raised to the stream of water and your face was like an angel's gazing homeward into the falling rain. Mama might have wasted her time with a switch on you after that, but not me. From then on, when you really wanted to do something, I knew it was time to step aside.
The years have passed. A thousand leaking dreams have sifted through my worthless hands since you was born. We run completely out of food a couple of times. Our clothes were usually rags we'd worn too long, waiting on a bigger payday that was always already spent. There was usually a hope up ahead, maybe just a couple months away. A lot of times things seemed almost about to get better. But, no matter how good things got for us I knew they were just going to get worse. That was the only way my world could roll.
But the terrible stench of poverty never seemed to stain your soul. When times were bad, you took them with the rest of us. And when money came a little thicker, you found ways to earn a little more than your share. Never a penny wasted, never a dime carelessly tossed aside; when your pile of change grew to meet the sum you needed you would quietly, quietly buy what you'd wanted all that time.
But those days were few, and got fewer between after the doctor laid Mama's arm open to the bone and took out that long and ugly thing. Like always, she wanted to spare yawl all the trials she went through. Mama set her mouth shut. She never told yawl a thing. And yawl just thought she was taking a long time to heal, if you thought anything at all.
There weren't enough hours in the day no more for me to pay for what she needed. Day after day it was 18, 20, 22 hours of work for me, and yawl just went blithely on your way like before. With the end coming on quick Mama wanted to build memories and never raised a fuss when advantage was taken. Yawl welcomed the slack. Nobody wanted to do the dishes. Nobody wanted to sweep the floor.
The greatest woman on earth was dying, and yawl was fighting about what show to watch next on TV. When it got so bad even you wouldn't take your turn at the chores, I couldn't take it no more. I think you remember that next picture yourself, real clear; when I took you in the room alone and told you the way yawl was doing her wasn't right. I could take that from the others, but I expected more from you.
"Me and Mama ain't quite told you the truth. She ain't getting no better. Just seeing the way she is you should know she's getting worse. They say she hasn't got long to live. And it is time yawl started acting like you cared."
You looked up at me. You never said a word. But I'll remember that picture forever, for I knew in that instant that you had a real heart in you. You was one that cared.
I guess you cared even more than me. When I groped for the right thing to do, you did it; when I hunted for the right word to say, you said it. And things was different at home after that.
There's just one more picture I want to share with you now. It was a dark night and I had water to change. But you'd made it all the way through school, and I wasn't going to be cheated out of seeing you graduate. I stood up when yawl started coming down that aisle. Nobody there knowed me, I'd been invisible in the fields for many years too long, but you might not've been ashamed of me if they had've. My shirt was almost new. I even had on a tie. You was looking straight ahead, solemn as the ages while the music played. The goal you'd been working on for years was right in front of you. Then when you got right beside me, almost gone forever, you turned your head, and grinned at me for one quick second before you went marching on. You was the star of the show, and you took time to show you cared.
The way your grin made me feel
You're a success now, big company, big desk, the one they come to for help when things are going wrong. You've got brains. You've got position. You've got respect. You seem to find time for everything important. The family you've built is something wonderful.
You never had a fighting chance to do or be all these things. But you wouldn't never let an excuse stop you in your tracks like I did. Every problem that got in your way got turned into an accomplishment.
Everybody tells me you're a good woman now. But I know you better than that, kid. And, honey, you never sunk that low. You have always made me proud of you. From the time I took your first picture till you let me take the last one on this roll, you were GREAT!
Happy Birthday, Kid. And, P.S., I LOVE YOU!
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Lin Stone is an author, writer and photographer living in Mena Arkansas among the gentle mountains known as Ouachita. He writes about adventures and he writes about the peaceable things of this world for Share Your State. In his spare time Lin writes copy for insurance roundup. You can have immediate, and free, reading of many more pieces when you send your little surfer scooting to Lin's home page at http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B001K8SDAA where he keeps stirring up more good things for the soul.
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