I remember my eighth birthday with some clarity. It was in December of 1956, a short while after I learned that my mother had died. It was during the cold, clammy part of the year, and the two events overlap somewhat in my memory. I know that on one morning shortly after Thanksgiving, my father called me and my two brothers into the kitchen and told us that our mother (who had been living far away) had died. He told us we should tell our teachers, who needed to know that sort of thing.
Perhaps two weeks later it was my birthday, and maybe the closeness of the two events has caused me to remember that I opened my birthday present in the kitchen. For all I know, I may have opened it in the dining room or living room. But it was in the same house, way out in the country in a cold and lonely land.
I do know that it was 1956, that I was a little boy turning eight, that we had lived for two or three years without a mother, and that my brothers and I were well trained in such things as raking the yard, picking up brush, and feeding and watering animals, as well as such indoor chores as fixing food, washing dishes, and ironing clothes. That’s why I thought my birthday present was an ironing board.
I did not expect anything more exotic. Our family was dirt poor, and gifts were usually very practical—things we needed, such as shoes or clothes. I remember feeling rather pleased, then, to be receiving such a prestigious gift, a gift that recognized my maturity and competency. I saw the package, long and slender, and I guessed it was an ironing board.
My brothers and my dad played along, congratulating me on receiving something that pleased me so well. Then I opened it up, and to my surprise, it was not an ironing board but something even more terrific: it was a B-B gun! It was a beautiful prize: it had a polished stock, an oily barrel, a lever action that went click, a rod that screwed in and out of the barrel end–and it was mine! Before my older brother had even gotten one!
You bet I cried—not just because I received the gun, but because it helped my see in a different way what my family thought of me. I wasn’t just a houseworker, but also a boy who wanted (and deserved?) a noble gift. And this was in the winter time, when families like ours were short on money, and getting shorter as Christmas drew near.
By the next August, hot and dusty August, the gun would be broken up–the stock broken off, the rod bent and lost, so that all that was left was a lever and a barrel, a device fit for scatter-gunning sorghum pellets or small gravel. But on that day, December 14, 1956, it was the most memorable gift I would ever receive.
Twenty-two years later, in a later boyhood, I received a combined birthday-and-Christmas gift (as had often happened in my life). This time it was from my mother-in-law, who could afford it; it was a Winchester .30-06 with a scope and sling, worth at least twenty-two times the value of a B-B gun. I liked the gun and appreciated it, treasured the love behind the gift, but secretly I had expected it and had even hoped for a .270 instead. And I could not in any way have been as overwhelmed as I was on that earlier occasion, overwhelmed by the difference between what I expected from my family and what I received. Perhaps I learned from my eighth birthday that we do not always see ourselves as others do, and sometimes our self-perceptions are curiously modest.