FOOD & FUEL
The Christmas tree was a scrub cedar cut from the edge of the woods that bordered the farm. Big-bulbed lights, strung barber pole fashion, generated almost as much heat as the nearby wood stove. Yellowed Christmas cards, saved over the years and perched like doves in the untrimmed branches, served as ornaments.
“I believe this is the prettiest tree I’ve ever had,” Howard proclaimed as we stood in its glow. “And it smells good, too.”
The only scent evident to me was a mixture of wood smoke and fried pork. I lied, though, and said, “Sure does.”
Howard waved me to sit. We had shared Christmas Day in the dairy barn and it was his request that we share a bit of the night, also. He knew I was alone because my family, his employer, was visiting relatives. I knew he was alone because he was always alone, a bachelor for nearly 40 years.
“I’ll get us a little cheer,” he offered as he shuffled toward the kitchen. A minute later he returned with two water glasses brimming with rhubarb wine.
“It’s been a good Christmas, ain’t it Allie Boy?” he asked as he sat in a wooden chair near the stove. He had called me Allie Boy for as long as I could remember; I called him Hoard the Dairyman after the dairying magazine my father received.
It had been good. Two newborn calves greeted us when we arrived at the dairy barn almost a day ago. We dried ’em with the past summer’s straw before showing them how to find breakfast at their mamas’ sides. One was a bull, the other a heifer.
“We ought to name ’em Mary and Joseph,” Howard said, “on account of ’em being born today.”
Mary and Joseph? Howard had one name for all cows: Succum. None of us knew what it meant or where it came from, but from the time he arrived on the farm every cow was simply Succum and every calf was Baby Succum.
“Fine,” I said, “Mary and Joseph they’ll be.”
Silence hung in the stale air so I worked on my wine. Howard dipped his well-chewed pipe in the red can of Velvet that had been my Christmas gift to him that morning.
“You want to roll yourself one, Allie, I got some papers?” I shook off the offer.
“Yep,” Howard said some puffs later, ‘”that’s the prettiest tree I’ve ever had and this is shaping up to be the best Christmas I’ve ever had because you came by.”
I looked at the tree and then at the old man ringed in tobacco smoke staring at it and I felt sad. Not for him. I felt sad for me. I had come to his house as a favor, a favor for a hired man.
But Howard didn’t want a favor; he just wanted to share his best tree ever, a warm fire, and some homemade wine. He just wanted to share his happiness.
As I stared at the silhouette of Hoard the Dairyman in the glow of the Christmas lights I saw a man of great warmth and vast wealth. He didn’t have a checking account or credit card, but he was far richer than the condescending college boy on his sofa.
“Well Hoard,” I said a very quiet minute later, “I better go. We both have got to be at the barn early tomorrow.”
He walked me to the back door. “Don’t forget,” he said as I nodded good night, “we’ll call those calves Mary and Joseph.”
Almost 40 Christmas nights later, I have not forgotten two calves named Mary and Joseph and Howard’s simple gift of giving.
Guebert is a syndicated columnist from Delavan, Ill. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.
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