A Birthday Remembered
- by Elizabeth Leopard
As a child growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri in the 1930s, I didn't know we were poor -- in fact, at the age of four, I really didn't know what poor was. But I did know I was getting tired of eating oatmeal and being cold.
One day we heard a sharp, loud knock at the door. I clung to my mother's skirt as she opened the door to what appeared to be a giant in overalls. His face was weather worn, and his hair was long and poorly cut. His eyes were sharp and piercing.
"You Leonard Presson's woman?" It was more a demand for information than a question. "Yes," Mother's voice was shallow and frightened. "But he's off hunting." The giant turned and waved to two boys in a wagon pulled close to the door. "Well, we know y'all didn't get home from out West soon enough to put in a crop, so we brung you food to tide you over."
While he talked, the boys unloaded sacks of flour, grain, sugar, canned food of several varieties and smoked meat. Mother picked me up and stood against the wall. "We can't pay" she began.
"You been gone a long time, Mrs. Eva." His stern face softened. "These is bad times -- people comin' home 'cause they lost everything in the crash." He waved the boys back to the now-empty wagon. "Be sure you're in church come Sunday." He swung into the wagon and picked up the reins. "You'll be helpin' feed others next winter." Something resembling a smile split his somber face. "We hill people take care of our own."
That night we feasted, and on Sunday we were in church. My parents were greeted warmly by people I was yet to know. Winter passed, and in the spring the hills and valleys that made up my world came alive with the promise of new life. Crops were planted and carefully tended. All summer we canned and preserved fruits and vegetables. The fall harvest was more than abundant.
On a bleak December day that was my fifth birthday, my father and two brothers loaded our wagon, and we all climbed up and drove to what had been an abandoned house across the valley. I sat bundled in blankets and boots next to Mother. "This is the most important birthday present you will ever get," she whispered. "I pray one day you'll remember it."
From my vantage high on the wagon seat, I watched my own father and brothers reenact the same scenario that I had seen from the safety of my mother's arms a year earlier. I wanted to jump down and run to the children I watched clinging to their own mother's skirts as I had done. That night in my childish prayer of "Now I lay me down to sleep," I had a feeling of warmth; for what reason I did not know. But in my heart I could see those children, and I knew they slept well -- and so did I.
Time passed slowly for a little girl growing up in the hills of southern Missouri in the early 1930s. As I grew older, I helped prepare the food that was taken by wagon to families who had come home to escape the paralyzing hardship of the Depression. I even met the "giant" who had come to our door that cold winter day. He was the father of the girl who was to become "my very bestest friend." Even after we grew up and left the mountains to make our lives in the city, we corresponded and often met at family reunions in the Ozarks.
My mother was right. On my fifth birthday I received the most important birthday present ever. I've never forgotten the kindness and generosity of the simple but profound people who believed that they were indeed their brother's keeper. Mother's prayer has also been answered -- many times. For the past six decades, no matter where or how I celebrate each December 4, my birthday theme has been that act of kindness I witnessed on my fifth birthday. It has truly been a birthday remembered.
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