The Little Red Lunch Bucket


The Little Red Lunch Bucket

It was Christmas Eve. Grandpa had come down to our house to get Mama to cut his hair. He was going into town for a little celebrating, so he asked her to also trim his eyebrows. They were so overgrown that they looked like pyracantha at a vacant lot. Grandpa’s eyes were deep set and penetrating—mostly serious except when he was whistling “Strawberry Roan” or “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Grandpa had donned his best bib overalls with white and blue stripes. “They are a little classier,” he used to say. He wore his suit coat and red tie with matching handkerchief.

Grandpa Jode Howes was a sheepherder; but since this is going to be a Christmas story, let’s call him a shepherd. He was a good shepherd, too. He prided himself on a well-trained dog and a clean camp.

Grandpa had found Grandma in good shape when he got home from camp. There was still flour in the bin, apples in the cellar, jerky in the barn, and love in her heart. Oh, the farm wasn’t Grandma’s first love. When she met Grandpa Jode, she was an aristocrat—a red-headed, curly-lashed school mistress who came down to our parts to spend the winter; and well, she spent plenty of winters and had wintered well. Her hair had been mixed with white, and now that she was “pink haired,” some of “the girls” wondered if Grandma might be a phony. But Grandma wasn’t phony; she was real and had a real big heart. It had to be big to support her stature. We all called her “Big Grandma.” This referred to her “insides” as well as her “outs.”

In town during shopping, Grandpa heard that his friend Sim had some horses he wanted Grandpa to see. So Grandpa rode to the corrals, made a good inspection, and was about to throw a bale of hay out to the animals for the night when he saw a slight figure crouching behind the bale where a new lamb fed. It was a boy who seemed to be hiding.

“Come out, son,” Grandpa said. “What goes with you, lad? Can I help you?” The boy only shook his head and trembled. Sim reported that the last traders through town had left the kid and said they didn’t want him.

“Get rid of him for us, can you, Sim?”

“Well, by golly,” Grandpa Jode had said, “I can’t see much use for any of the horses, but I’ll take the kid.”

After a little coaxing, the boy got into the DeSoto with Grandpa and they started for home.

“You’ve got a name, haven’t you, boy?” Grandpa asked. “Where are you from? I’ve got a nice bed for a guy like you at home—for a guy with a name.”

After some warm pats on the knee and kindly smiles, the little urchin uttered, “My name’s Hady.”

“Hady,” Grandpa repeated, “now that’s a right good name. Where did you get that one?” He laughed, tousling the boy’s curly locks, with his gnarled hand.

Silence from the boy.

“From your mom, I bet,” Grandpa assured him.

Hady’s eyes dropped.

“Your dad read it in a story?”

“No, no!” Hady screamed and bit Grandpa’s hand.

“Well,” Grandpa said with a laugh, patting Hady’s little legs, “your name has as much snap as your bite, and I like them both. Hady is fine for me. And you know what? That’s what all of us at our house are going to call you.” Grandpa’s voice softened and dropped a few decibels as it often did when he got dead serious, and he whispered, “And it means something because I found you like a surprise Christmas package behind a bale of hay. And you know what else? You’re going to like that name and all of us, too.”

Grandpa’s DeSoto turned down the lane to the house. When the car was parked, Grandpa and the little fellow entered the kitchen. Hady ducked his head to avoid the blinding brightness of the electric lights and scampered behind the Heatrola in Big Grandma’s living room. It was there that he stayed, trembling like the aspen leaves that sheltered the sheep camp. But it was not the gentle wind that made him shake. It was there behind the Heatrola that he stayed during the festivities, occasionally popping his little head out (when he was quite certain that no one was watching) to survey the new family that was to be his. If his eyes met those of another, he quickly ducked away in retreat.

Most of the kids didn’t notice Hady during the first part of the evening, until we saw Grandpa rolling peanuts behind the Heatrola. They didn’t roll out the other side, and the shells didn’t pile up. It was a clean sweep; Hady had eaten them shell and all.

There seemed to be some quiet muttering about the child but nothing strained nor curious. Grandpa told us that he had brought us home a new friend. He did that quite often. Once it was a Collie dog; another time he carried home a little lame lamb and said he hoped that we’d take good care of each other.

I watched Mama’s face to see if I’d like the boy, and I did. I put my hand out to see if he was real, but Mama told me not to stare and please not touch the burrs in his long, snarled curls.

“And if you sniff a new sort of odor—well, sheep smell that way,” Mama carefully explained as she made her eyes twinkle and her nose wrinkle. Then she coaxed the urchin from his hiding place behind the Heatrola to be “spotted off.”

“How old are you?” I asked.

“None of your business.”

“Bet you can’t read,” I nipped, and Mama pulled me close under one arm and the kid under the other.

“He looks about the right age to try though,” Mama said, refereeing eye glances.

“Yeah, I’m about ready to be learning.”

Mama lifted up Hady’s long hair and washed his neck. It made the air smell like our kitchen when Mama presses Daddy’s wool suit with a wet rag, but her face looked happy and her nose kept straight out as she asked me to run for the Bon Ami. I wished afterward that I hadn’t said anything about stinking. Mama hated the word and always asked us to use smell instead. Hady must have found that word unwelcome also, for it drove him back behind the shelter of the stove.

Big Grandma, her pink hair freshly finger-waved and her silk blouse newly beaded, took her place in the chair by the glittering tree and turned out the lights. Grandpa, in his bib overalls, crisp white shirt, and bright red tie told the story of Christmas, using cutouts and a flash light. Then in black silence he gave a Christmas prayer.

“Oh, Lord, we thank thee for the blessings of this season, for the gift of thy Son, the Good Shepherd, who calls us all to his fold. We thank thee for our flocks and our fields and the bounties of life, for the sheep and the shepherd. Keep us safely in the fold we pray, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

When the lights were turned on again, we all knew that it was “present-getting time in the old corral,” as Grandpa joked.

During the prayer all was dark, and Hady crawled from behind the stove and stayed out by the side to see the Christmas story and watch the gifts being unwrapped. Big Grandma read the names out. “Merry Christmas to our fine missionary.” That was Paul, my cousin. “Merry Christmas to our little girl with Shirley Temple curls,” Grandma called. That was me, and I pranced forward with my curls like bed springs dangling down the back of my dress. “Merry Christmas to our new brother, Hady.”

This sound so frightened Hady that he retreated again to his cozy security, and Grandpa had to push the present behind to him. He looked pleased and grabbed anxiously for the gift; then he became suspicious, but mustered courage and walked to Grandma’s chair to return it. But Mama went to the tattered, beautiful waif, took his grimy little face in her kindly hands, and coaxed, “Take it, honey; you’ll like it.” She then patted his pink flushed cheeks.

Hady rubbed his fingers over the waxy glossed paper and fondled the tinseled bow, unbelieving. Carefully unwrapping the package to preserve its beauty, he revealed with delight a shiny, new, red lunch bucket. I was glad that he liked the bucket. I could tell that he did by his almost smile. But it was my lunch bucket with a red thermos and a snap cork, and I wasn’t sure that I was glad that I had said yes to Mama when she coaxed.

“But everyone here will have a present—everyone but Hady.”

“It’s mine. I bought it with my own weeding money (20 rows of corn) to take to school.”

“Well, next year they’ll be making better buckets; and we can get you another,” Mother consoled.

I really didn’t want to give it, but I couldn’t stand to see Mama’s face disappointed, so I did.

Hady clutched my lunch bucket, my shiny red bucket, like it was all his—his first personally owned, somebody-gave-you present.

Cousin Jimmy stared at the bucket, the tattered clothes, and the long, straggly curls and hissed, “You’re a girl, aren’t you?” and ran his fingers covetously over the edge of the opened bucket as Hady snapped the lid.

He caught Jim’s fingers and sent him yelping to Grandma. Realizing his mistake, Hady hastily retreated to the Heatrola where he felt warm, secure, justified, fortified, and even armed in the event that it became necessary to defend his possession again.

“Let’s have Jana play carols on her violin while we sing,” everyone demanded. Then Grandma served carrot pudding with caramel sauce, and the festivities were over. As we went into the chill of the night, Hady pulled on Mama’s coat to get her attention, and with downcast eyes too emotional and embarrassed to look up, he muttered, “Thank you,” pointing to the bucket held tight in his arms.

“Thanks for coming to our party,” Mama said. She always said things to make people feel right. “But I didn’t give you the present; Jana did,” and she pointed to me.

Bashfully I sidled up to the new one and whispered, “I like you to be here.”

“Oh,” was the quiet reply.

Left alone with Grandpa and Grandma, Hady looked about shyly and said to Big Grandma, who was gathering up crumpled paper, “Hey, you, where does a fellow hit the hay around here?”

Grandma showed him to the cold, east bedroom. It was the guest room where all us kids slept overnight with Grandpa. Later when Big Grandma went into the bedroom to check his sleep, Hady still clutched the handle of the red lunch bucket tight in his fist as it rested on the pillow beside him. Sniffles broke the silence of the room, and soft tender sobs indicated the sweet comfort of tears.

Hady’s identity was never really certain. He signed his name Hady Howes, but when he got angry, he’d yell at Grandma, saying, “Hey, you, I’m not your boy. I’m Hady Querry. Querry is my name.”

We never knew if that was really his name. We thought maybe he’d tell us when he turned 16 and got his driver’s license, but when he found out he’d have to apply for it in his own name, he never did.

Hady stayed with us for exactly ten years. I remember because he had come on Christmas and he left on Christmas, too. He left no note, not a word to Grandpa or Grandma. Their Little Boy Blue had gone as strangely as he had come, on Christmas.

We all missed Hady, but I did especially. We had herded cows along the ditch bank together, picked green apples from the manure spreader, ridden horses to the mountains to round up cattle, churned butter, made wire fly traps, plowed fields, bottled fruit, and watered lucerne in the dead of the night.

Hady had become a part of me, and the cold, east bedroom echoed with emptiness. But the passing of 20 years eventually eased the loneliness into forgetting.

I was stringing twinkle lights on the entrance sign of our newly acquired business, “Pleasant Way Trailer Court.” This year the pines on either side of the neon sign were large enough to be decorated impressively. The tenants had agreed that the entire mobile community should be connected with long strings of lights, and I liked that cozy, friendly feeling. Music ran through the courtyard.

Peace and goodwill filled my heart as I rang the bell of trailer No. 15. It was answered by a slightly grayed, handsome man with wavy hair. He smiled shyly, apologizing for the Christmas wreath that had fallen as I knocked. His eyes were soft and blue.

That voice, that man—could it be! It was! “Hady!” I cried. “Aren’t you Hady?”

He looked with a strange but certain recognition; then he threw his arms around me. “It’s you—you’re Jana!”

“Do you remember?” I asked.

“Jana,” Hady’s voice trembled, “how could I forget? You’ve come at Christmastime. How did you know?”

Holding me in a warm embrace, he recalled, “You were the first person ever to offer me love and the first to ever give me a present.” Then, laughingly, he added, “Remember that most wonderful shiny red lunch bucket, the first possession I ever called mine?”

Then still standing in the doorway with the Christmas music from the court ringing out, he remembered nostalgically, “You were the first to offer friendship to me—a kid who had never known love, love of any kind, Jana.”

As the music of the court swelled, so did the love in the hearts of two who knew the meaning of the words:

“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: … thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” (Matt. 25:35.)

A blithe, beautiful 16-year-old slipped shyly into the room, her long curls sweeping the table top, her violin under her arm.

“I’m ready, Daddy,” she said, and then in recognition of me added, “Are you Daddy’s friend? Merry Christmas, I’m Jana.”

“Oh yes, my darling,” I exclaimed thrillingly, tears suddenly swelling, “and so am I.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Diane Pierce