Chester was standing at the stove frying up some bacon. It was still dark outside. Even though he had retired fifteen years earlier, old habits were hard to break. He enjoyed the quiet of the house in the early mornings. Rising early had always been his way.
The old farmhouse was warm against the cool spring chill. The wood floors creaked in a few places. Sagged in a few places. The latch on the back door didn’t always work right. But it was home.
He sipped on his coffee, a dish towel slung over one shoulder, as he turned the bacon in the skillet. He had never been much of a cook, but since Julienne died the kitchen had become his domain. Twenty years she’s been gone, and still in his mind he sees her standing at the stove, not himself.
“Morning Papaw.” The voice sounded sleepy.
Chester turns to see a set of nearly closed eyes that had not yet adjusted to the light. A brown head of hair that looked like he slept in the washing machine. The boy had his blanket wrapped around his shoulders like an Indian chief. His great-grandson, Robert, had come to visit for the weekend.
“Morning there, little buddy. You look like you had a rough night.”
That got a small grin out of the boy as he slid into one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table.
Chester tried to coax him to life. “The bacon is almost ready. I’m sure glad I’ve got somebody to help me eat all this. You want a glass of orange juice?”
Robert rubbed his eyes, nodded his head, and said, “Yes sir” all at the same time.
It was good to have company at the table, even if it was a seven-year-old. Chester had been on his own so long that he had grown accustomed to the solitude but not the emptiness. He was comfortable in his own life, but the sound of another human voice filled a void in the house.
He poured the boy a cup of juice and put the jug back in the fridge. “Let’s let that bacon cool down for a minute.” As he sat to watch the boy sip his juice, his thoughts went back to another time.
The images in his mind were of the past, not the present. The kitchen table was surrounded by the noise of children getting ready for school. Ray, the oldest. Penny and June. Then Charlie, the youngest. Chester trying to eat his eggs and toast. Julienne getting lunches ready at the counter. She would eat after everyone was gone and she could have the house to herself.
What a chore it was back then. To raise a family. Somedays it seemed like there was hardly time to catch your breath. Homework. Ball games. Yard work. A broken-down car. House payments. Prom nights. Late nights. All-nighters. He and Julienne survived it all.
He thinks about the time when the kids were getting older. The first three already out of the house. Julienne said to him, “What are we gonna do when the last one leaves?” He said quietly, “Celebrate.”
Chester’s memory within himself was interrupted by a child’s voice. Robert was standing next to him with a framed photo in his hand. The old man had not even realized the boy had gotten up from the table. The picture he was holding sat on the bookcase across the room. Chester thought, “How long was I gone?”
“What you got there, buddy?”
“Is this a picture of Mamaw?”
“Yes sir, that’s her.”
“What was she like?” Robert slid back in his chair and took a bite of bacon.
Chester didn’t exactly know how to answer. He had been married to the woman for 44 years, but he couldn’t think how to describe her. He knew her to be a particular woman. Always wanting everything to be just so, the way she wanted things to be in her own mind. Just the right colored sheets and pillow. Storage boxes labeled for everything she put on the closet shelf. Files made for every piece of paper she wanted to keep.
He also knew that she could never seem to find anything she wanted. In spite of all the organization, she had fifty piles of stuff that she intended to put away. She had a dozen pair of scissors because she could never keep up with the last pair she bought. After she passed and he started going through the drawers and cabinets to clean up, he found near about 30 pair of nail clippers. He owned one pair.
If a marriage is gonna last, there’s a lot of things you have to learn not to fret over. He had to learn that. Most of the quirks and habits that get under your skin fade with time if you let them. You learn to be grateful for the things that matter. Who gives a rip how many nail clippers she owns?
“She was a fine woman,” he said. “She had a kind heart. And she sure would have loved you if she was here. I wish you could have known her.”
Robert was deep into a piece of toast with muscadine jelly on top. He took a big bite and turned to his Papaw with a silly grin. Jelly on his nose and jelly on his cheeks.
“Slow down there, son. You don’t have to eat it all in one bite.”
He thought about their wedding day when Julienne smeared cake in his face. She reached toward his mouth and told him, “Close your eyes.” Next thing he knew he was wearing cake instead of eating it.
“You better watch out for that one,” his dad chimed in. “Looks like you’re gonna have your hands full.”
Chester could still see her in his mind. Laughing. Licking the cake off her own fingers. One of the things he was thankful for the most is that they never lost that sense of playfulness. Romance changes. Responsibilities wear you down. He could remember cross words between them only two times. Mostly because he was stubborn. Yet somehow, they always found a way to make each other laugh.
He moves over to the sink to rinse his coffee cup. Today would have been 64 years for them. In some ways it feels almost like any other day. But it’s never just another day. Not for him.
The boy is at last wide awake. Chester can tell that it’s only a matter of time before his little engine gets revved up to full speed.
“Mr. Robert,” Chester said. “How ‘bout you and me do a little fishing this morning?”
“Can we go out in the boat?” Robert caught himself a bream on a cane pole with a bobber and a worm the last time.
Chester took a seat at the table. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The boy crawled up in his Papaw’s lap to finish the last few swallows of juice. The old man scuffed his hair.
“You’re a fine boy. Mamaw would be proud.”
“Ya’ think so?”
“Yep. I know so.”