Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Prodigal

Thanksgiving was a quiet day for Billy Gilbert. Since his wife Del died he mostly spent Thanksgiving alone. It wasn't that he didn't have folks who invited him to come be with them, he had turned down half a dozen invites for Thanksgiving this year. Around the little mountain town of Beloved, Kentucky everyone knew "Uncle Billy" Gilbert. He had an abundance of friends, neighbors and kin within a few miles.

Uncle Billy was also sought after by just about ever' older woman in the community. Hazel Williams led the pack. She had proclaimed about a year after Aunt Del Gilbert passed that "William Gilbert Senior was gonna be her man one of these days".

When Uncle Billy heard that second or third hand he just laughed, shook his head an' said, "That ain't ever gonna happen, y'all. No one could ever fill Del's place, especially not Hazel Williams. She don't even know my proper name, for goodness sakes."

Her statement just rubbed him the wrong way for a whole bunch of reasons. First an' foremost was the plain ol' fact he weren't interested in her or any other woman. He was 78 years old, set in his ways, content with life an' just not lookin'.

Mostly Hazel was plain ol' aggravatin'. She was the worst gossip that lived in Beloved, nosy, a busybody an' not much of a cook. She would drop by his ol' farm up the little holler to pay a "social call" an' to check on "poor ol' Bill" way too often for Uncle Billy. He got to parkin' his truck in the barn just so she would think he was gone an' leave him alone. Now an' again she would catch him out in the barnyard or on the porch. She would get out without an invite, stroll up an' take over his time, stayin' for hours if he couldn't think of anythin' to get up an' go do.

An' he hated that she called him "Bill" or "William". That weren't his name. No one called him Bill an' never was he William! His name was simply Billy Gilbert. That was his given name. Actually since his son was born he was Billy Gilbert Senior. He was Uncle Billy an' his son became "Little Billy" or for many it was "Little Bill". When he got older Little Billy had asked to be called Will instead of Little Billy. It made sense to have their names a bit different an most folks did call him Will, though some of the older kinfolks still referred to him as Little Billy.

Uncle Billy had told Hazel that his name wasn't Bill or William a thousand times. He suspected she was just uppity an' thought Billy was too common a name.

Well anyway, Uncle Billy had plenty of invites, he just preferred to be alone on Thanksgiving. Actually he was only alone Thanksgiving afternoon. By evenin' his ol' cabin became the meetin' place for a dozen men an' boys who always showed up with plates full of leftovers from their family feast.

It had started spontaneously several years before, two years or so after Aunt Del had passed. Folks got worried that Uncle Billy was spendin' Thanksgiving alone an' more than a dozen men an' boys showed up carryin' plates an' bowls prepared by wives wantin' to make sure the ol' man of the holler had some good food in his belly. They all spent the evenin' sittin' around, sharin' leftovers, tellin' stories an' enjoyin' the good company of men raised together.

That had become an unofficial custom for many of the fellers in the community. By evenin' they would kiss their wives an' family goodbye an' make their way to the little holler where Uncle Billy lived. They would have hands full of good food as they headed in the door of the ol' cabin. No one knocked, they all just went in. They were expected.

Uncle Billy stirred a huge pot of soup beans as he thought of the get together that would happen later that night. He had already made two cast iron skillets of regular cornbread an' two skillets of cracklin' bread (cornbread with cracklin's baked in). He would make a couple more skillets of cornbread before all them boys got there later. That was what he had made himself the first year an' it had become a tradition. Actually, he hadn't made soup beans the second year an' fellers asked him where the soup beans was!

As he stirred the soup beans he heard the screen door slap as it shut. Strange that someone was there that early. He really hoped it wasn't ol' Hazel Williams.. She snuck around an' would show up on Thanksgivin' now an' again. He wiped his hands on a dishrag an' turned to see who had come in.

Imagine his surprise when his son walked into the long kitchen an' just stood for a minute. Y'see, since Will had married Jennifer he didn't come home much. They lived in Akron, Ohio where Will was a veterinarian. They had a fine home up there an' Jennifer didn't think much of the mountains. Didn't think much of the home place where Will was raised. to her Will was William, though it wasn't his name at all. His diplomas said, "Billy Gilbert, Jr", the big sign outside the vet clinic had "Billy Gilbert, Jr, DVM" but she called him William, never Will, Billy or even Bill.

Oh, and she was always Jennifer. Never Jen, Jenny or any other nickname. She made it clear the first time Uncle Billy called her Jenny that her name was Jennifer.

Uncle Billy stood in shock for a minute, not know what to say, what to do. He nodded at Will, "Hullo youngin'. How you been?"

Will stood quiet for a bit, "Howdy, Pappy. Them some soup beans?"

"Yep, they are. You wantin' some?"

"Wouldn't mind a bowl, Pap. Any cracklin' bread?" Will asked.

"Better believe it. You allowed to have some?" his Daddy asked with a grin. Uncle Billy knew Wil snuck a bite of good ol' mountain food when he could. Jennifer didn't approve, of course. She didn't approve of lard, bacon grease, soup beans, corn bread, fatback, bacon, ham, fried chicken or most of what Will ate growin' up in the mountains. Because of Jennifer, Will's diet was almost that of a vegetarian with only a little fish or chicken thrown in.

That was all it took. Uncle Billy didn't know why Will was there, but knew somethin' was wrong. His boy just didn't come 'round on holidays, didn't come round much at all. Jennifer didn't like the mountains, didn't like the little holler, didn't seem to like mountain folks. Strange that she would marry a mountain boy. she did her best to wring the mountains out of Will.

Will grabbed the back of an ol' ladderback chair that sat by the table an' dropped into it with his eyes already wet. "Oh Pappy, she left me. Jennifer up an' moved out. I went to a convention to get some continuing education classes an' when I got back she had mostly cleaned the house out. Most of the furniture was gone. Divorce papers were on the kitchen counter an' a letter."

"Son, didn't you know? Had things been that bad?"

"Pap", Will looked up into his Daddy's blue eyes. His eyes were the same shade of dark blue, his features a younger reflection of the older man. "Pap, I thought things were OK. Jennifer was never much of romance, huggin' or warmth. I thought things were OK. She left me for a lawyer, Pappy. He was the one who drew up the divorce papers!"

His Daddy didn't know what to say. He just pulled out another chair an' sat down, waitin'. He knew Will wasn't done. "Pappy, she took all our bank account. She took the car, took most of the furniture, even my basketball signed by Adolph Rupp! She is askin' for half of my retirement fund. She couldn't take that without the courts or she would have drained it too. She wants the house to be sold and wants half of the proceeds. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Uncle Billy stood, went over to his son and wrapped his arms around his boy's shoulders. Will cried hard as he leaned into his Daddy. "I don't know either, son, but I'll help you any way I can."

"Can I stay for a while? I can't go home right now. I don't want to go home right now."

"Of course. You know you don't have to ask."

"Oh Pappy, I haven't been much of a son." Will cried. "I am so sorry. I was to worried about pleasing her that I stayed away, I pushed you away."

"Yep, you did. No doubt, you did."

"I am so sorry, Pappy. So very sorry. Will you forgive me?"

"Son, Will, Billy Boy, I already have. No need to even ask."

"Why Daddy? Why would you forgive me already?"

"Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son? I know y'all don't go to church, but do you remember when I read it to you, when you learned about it in Sunday School?" Uncle Billy asked.

"Of course I do. But I am not the Prodigal. I didn't ask for my part an go away to some foreign country and waste it. I haven't come back asking to be your servant." Will was a bit indignant, thinking his Daddy was being a little judgmental at the wrong time.

"Of course not. That ain't the point at all. Y'see, that Daddy forgave his son before he ever showed up, walkin' toward home. It is a Daddy's nature to love his youngin's in spite of what they do, of what they are. A good Daddy forgives, loves an' waits, not because of what they do, but in spite of anything they do. He loves them because they are his."

"Oh." was all Will could say.

"Now Will, I need to go down the road to Hap's to make a couple calls or we'll have a dozen or more fellers comin' in after while. I need to tell them not to come this year. Me an' you will sit, eat some soup beans an' cracklin' bread an' just visit."

As Uncle Billy got up he hugged Will once more, went over an' turned down the soup beans to a simmer. "Stir these a couple times while I'm gone. Don't want our supper to burn."

Will sat for just a minute before he stood up, "Pappy, don't make them calls. I want those men to come over. I need them to come over. I need to laugh, to hug the necks of a few cousins and old friends. I need to be around mountain folks right now."

"You sure, Will? What if they ask questions? What if they get nosy? What you gonna tell them?"

"I'm sure, Pap. After all, wasn't there a feast at the end of that story? I'll just tell them the truth. I'll tell them the Prodigal Vet has come home." Will laughed.

"That's fine, boy, but I ain't killin' my cow."
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