The Old Man - Jennifer

Monday, March 6, 2017
James Wilson

(“. . .having’ the best honey or using the prettiest in ingredients ain’t important, but lettin’ Nature work her wonders is all that counts.”)

Jennifer was trying ever so hard to pay attention, but the little bald man at the front of the room was having difficulty competing with the action that was taking place outside the window. She decided that it was an unwise decision to take a seat next to the window during the spring quarter. The two gray squirrels had been frantically chasing each other since the professor had begun his lecture and although the windows were closed, she could hear the unmistakable sound of their claws on the bark. Actually, she couldn’t hear the squirrels, but because she was so sure of the sounds they were making, Jennifer didn’t need to really hear. She knew. Just as she knew that when they abruptly stopped their chasing and faced each other, that twitching tails would soon follow. And, with the movement of the tails came scolding barks, each trying to gain more volume than the other. She smiled and flicked a tuft of blonde hair from her forehead with the end of the pencil.

Once again she turned her attention to the man with the book. He was not sitting on the corner of his desk and discussing Emily Dickinson. She thought that literature would be much more interesting if you had personally known the poets. Somehow there must be lost meanings between the actual writing of the poems and the bald man who was reading them. The teacher suddenly stopped his lecture and wiped his right hand over the smooth head as if searching for hair that had long since gone away. “And then there is Aristocracy,” he continued.

“The pedigree of honey

Does not concern the bee;

A clover, anytime, to him

Is aristocracy.”

Jennifer was startled. Somewhere, she knew that she had heard those words before. She was sure that someone had explained the meaning of those lines, but she never knew that Emily Dickinson had written them. She turned to the window and the squirrels had gone. And, as she followed each limb of the magnificent oak to its end, searching for a tail or an ear, she remembered . . . . .

The Old Man didn’t look so old back then. His mustache was solid brown and not nearly so bushy as now. Jennifer remembered how he would mysteriously appear in the yard and every child would turn their attention to him.

“Jenny,” he’d say as he lifted her to his knee, “I sure am proud that out of these grand kids around here, the good Lord blessed me with a pretty little ‘she child’.”

The others, which were all boys, would sneer and beg him to take them out with the bird dogs. The Old Man would lift her to his shoulders and walk off, talking all the while.

“I ain’t takin’ you heathens out with my dogs ‘cause everybody knows that boys ain’t got no sense about ‘im at all ‘till they’re ten or eleven and even then the sense they got makes ‘em dangerous. Boys should’ve been born ten years old so a man wouldn’t have to put up with all that foolishness. Now, girls is different, ain’t they, Jenny?”

Jenny remembered laughing and then exposing her tongue to the parading line of boys.

“And besides,” he’d say, “my dogs have got manners. They know what’s right and what’s wrong. If’n you boys spent any time at all with my dogs your bad manners would rub off and afore you knew it, why they’d be runnin’ rabbits, treein’ possums and pointin’ cow piles. Now you boys begone. Me and Jenny got some serious studyin’ to do.”

Jennifer remembered how wonderful she felt to be singled out by her grandfather, much to the dismay of her brothers and male cousins.

“Little girls are special,” he would say as they argued for the Old Man’s attention. “Little girls are smarter’n little boys, ‘cause they can be taught to keep quiet. Ain’t never met a boy who could stay quiet in the woods. They’re always askin’ questions and throwin’ rocks and splashin’ water and such. Now you take Jenny here. She’ll ride up on my shoulders and never make a sound and when she does want to ask a question, she taps me on the head and whispers in my ear. “You see,” he would continue after painstakingly preparing his pipe, “Jenny has already learned about destroyin’ the quiet of the woods.”

And, on later occasions when she had decided that the worst possible fate of any young girl was to grow up with all boys, she would go to the Old Man for comfort. They would sit on the big porch swing and he would very carefully restore her confidence.

“You see, Jenny, you’re worried ‘cause all the things that seem important to you now don’t include little girls. Like huntin’ quail and killin’ frogs and catchin’ fish. At your age boys just don’t like girls. It’s just plum natural. And it’s also natural that pretty quick like, things are gonna change. Just let nature work her wonders and you’ll see that before this thing’s over with, you’re gonna come out happy as can be. I read me a poem once, Jenny, that means what I’m tryin’ to teach you. What it means is this. The honeybees that we see all the time when we walk, don’t really care about how good their honey turns out. They’re not havin’ any contests to see which hive can make the best tastin’ honey. All they care about is doin’ what comes natural, which is makin’ honey. Now those bees have a multitude of flowers to choose from to get the ingredients for their honey, but the clover to the bee is tops. You just can’t go no better than clover, that is if you were a little bee. What I’m tryin’ to say is that you should trust your old grand pappy when he tells you that the bees have told us what is important. They’ve told us that havin’ the best honey or using the prettiest ingredients ain’t important, but lettin’ nature work her wonders is all that counts. And you, little girl, are about the most wonderful work of nature this feller’s ever seen.”

Jenny remembered the Old Man as he had talked and although she didn’t understand about the bees at that time, she believed that the Old Man understood and if he said things were gonna get better, they always did.

“I’ve got a plan, little girl, that might just tide you over until nature catches up. What do you say, Jenny? You want to learn how to shoot a shotgun?”

Jennifer remembered that she had just turned twelve when he had asked her and although she was a bit afraid, she savored the idea of being taught what her brothers cared so much about. She also cherished the idea of spending time alone with the Old Man. She remembered how gently his big hands had assembled the little Ithaca double. She remembered his voice as he explained, “Now , Jenny, this here shotgun is an Ithaca double-barreled twenty gauge and I want you to know that there is a reason for choosing this little gun. First off, not everyone can shoot a double. It handles different. It’s heavier. But, shootin’ a double is classy and a lady shootin’ a double is even classier. Now, my definition of classy might not fit in with other people’s meaning. I figure that my meaning of the word is real natural, ‘cause there’s nothin’ wrong with showin’ people how good you are without you ever mentioning that you knew you were good all along.”

The lessons continued for almost a year and in the entire time no one else knew how they were spending their time. The Old Man’s philosophies continued with the shooting instructions.

“Now, I want you to understand that your ability to out shoot most men is probably gonna destroy their confidence. But that’s alright as long as it’s done with humility. And, if by chance you find a boy that your ability to out shoot doesn’t upset and he doesn’t get all weak kneed mad, then you better watch out. He might just turn out to be a keeper.”

Jennifer remembered her last lesson was the week before her oldest brother’s 16th birthday and the Old Man was jubilant. He watched carefully as she handled the little shotgun, breaking every clay target that was thrown. And when she was through, the Old Man could not keep from smiling.

“It’s gonna be wonderful,” he said as the pipe was prepared. “I’m plum proud of you, Jenny. You’re safe and you’re confident and I’m plum proud, but I want you to remember that the purpose of all this was to teach you about yourself. That the world out there wasn’t made for just us boys. That every single lesson the world has to teach is for you too. And the most important lesson for you now is to learn how important it is for you to be proud of being a lady.”

On the day of her brother’s birthday, the Old Man showed up to announce his present. The present was, to the surprise of everyone, a trip to the new skeet range. Everyone was invited, even the women. The four brothers were ecstatic.

The brothers shot first and all did well. The Old Man was a good teacher. The oldest brother broke twenty-three; the youngest, who was eleven, broke seventeen. Jennifer remembered, sitting with her mother and grandmother and admiring her brothers. Finally, the Old Man announced that he was going to try his hand.

“I need me a partner to shoot against, though. Hey Jenny! You want to shoot a round?”

Jenny walked slowly toward the Old Man. “Will you show me how?” she asked. “Sure I will.” He smiled and handed her the little double. “Ain’t nothin’ to it.”

The boys broke out in laughter, each betting the other whether or not she would break one clay target. Grandmother protested that she would bruise her shoulder until the Old Man gave her the “be quiet” look.

The Old Man whispered before they began, “Take your time.”

They began to shoot and the brothers became deathly silent. Jennifer remembered how natural the little gun felt and how satisfying it was to tell yourself that you were going to do something and then have the confidence to actually do it. She actually did it. She and the Old Man broke twenty-five straight. They shot shoulder to shoulder, moving from station to station. And when they had finished, she politely handed the double back to the Old Man.

“Thank you Grandfather. That was fun.” She started back to her seat when the Old Man caught her. He held her for a long time.

“You’re classy,” he said and she was the happiest that she had ever known.

The brothers, who could not yet speak, finally realized what had just happened. They began laughing and in a short time, it became evident that they were the proudest of all. Well, almost.

Jennifer remembered how it felt to be fourteen and she remembered that everything the Old Man had tried to teach her, she eventually had understood. And then, as the shuffling of desks brought her back to the reality of a college classroom, she thought about the real teachers that she had known. The Old Man was at the top of the list, like clover to a honeybee.