For all the mothers out there who give us so much.
An innocent comment by the reverend at church sends 40 year old Ben Cartwright on a journey into his young son’s hearts.
Word count: 3427
Forty-year-old Ben Cartwright stood in the middle of his great room with his hands on his hips, listening. He was puzzled. He knew his three sons were home. It was late afternoon and they had just returned from town and church.
Come to think of it, they’d been quiet at church too. Not a normal occurrence, at least where Hoss and Little Joe were concerned. Adam, at nearly twenty, had matured into a respectful young man but even he had a tendency to make noise. Ben smiled. He still had to call Adam ‘out’ at times.
The boy would probably be thirty before he stopped shushing his little brothers.
Ben thought back over the ride from town. The trio had been unusually sober during their journey home as well. Come to think of it, he’d seen Hoss circle Little Joe with an arm, as if the boy was upset about something. He’d been so busy discussing business with Adam that he hadn’t done anything about it.
The older man pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Mister Cartwright ready to check Hop Sing’s list?” his housekeeper’ voice chimed. “Say he do so when he come home from church.”
Ben looked at the stairs and then at his friend. Before he could open his mouth, the Asian man spoke.
Ben nodded. “Do you have any idea why?”
Hop Sing shook his head. “Mistah Adam purse lips and sigh. Mister Hoss refuse offer of cookie, and Little Joe say he not want to eat.”
All sure signs that a disaster of Biblical proportions was in the making.
Ben scratched his head. “I suppose I should go up and talk to them.”
“Which boy you talk to first?”
That was right. He’d have to make a choice.
His eldest would deny there was anything to talk about and yet, in some ways, Adam felt things more deeply than his younger brothers. Hoss would dismiss it too though, in the end, he would open up and let him know what was wrong. Joseph…. Ah, Joseph. The boy would be on his bed, cocooned in bed linens, sniffling. When he went in, Little Joe would pretend to be asleep – still sniffling. Joseph was his most gregarious and expressive child and yet, in some ways, the hardest to reach. His mother’s tragic death two years before had left him emotionally fragile.
Ben drew in a sharp breath.
His ‘mother’s’ death.
Those three boys did have an old fool for a father!
A few short steps brought Ben to Adam’s door. At first, when he knocked, he thought his eldest was going to pretend to be asleep, but then he heard him stir and walk across the room. A moment later the door opened to reveal the boy. His son’s black hair was disheveled and his eyes red-rimmed. He must have been asleep.
“May I come in?”
Adam pursed his lips and shrugged. “Sure, Pa. Do you want something?”
“I was just thinking about what the preacher said today.”
His son’s hazel brown eyes flicked to him. “Oh? Revelation or Romans?”
Adam sat heavily on his bed. He ran a hand through his wayward hair. “Oh.”
The preacher had spoken from Proverbs three in preparation for the following week’s celebration of mothers. “I noticed you three were rather quiet on the way home today.”
Adam looked pained. “Little Joe was pretty upset.”
“It’s hard….” His son paused. Adam cleared his throat. “Whenever the reverend speaks about mothers, it’s hard…for Joe.”
Ben hesitated, and then he asked, “Just for Joseph?”
Adam remained silent for a moment and then rose and walked over to the window. Once there he leaned his hand on the sash. A sigh shivered through his lean frame before he spoke.
“I don’t understand it, Pa. It makes no sense. There’s a hunger in me for…something I have never tasted.” His son turned to look at him. “How can you miss something you’ve never had?”
He wanted to go to him – to put his arms around him – but this was Adam. If there was to be any physical contact, the boy would have to initiate it. His son’s wounds went deep and he had bound himself in aloofness to survive them.
“What do you remember of your mother?” Ben asked softly.
Adam’s brows winged toward the black locks spilling onto his forehead. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
“Are you sure?”
That brought a frown. “Sure, I’m sure. She was dead before I could remember her.” The words were short, brusque. The sound of them brought an apology. “Sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to….”
“There’s no need to apologize.” Ben paused. “Son, what I am going to say may sound strange, but you did know your mother. You spent nine months with her – as a part of her.”
Adam moved to the chair by the window. He nodded as he sat down. “There was an article in one of the medical journals Paul leant me, about the possibility of fetal memory.”
Ben hid his smile. Of course. A journal.
“When you think of your mother, what comes to mind?”
It took a good half minute. When Adam was asked to think, he did so – deeply.
“Contentment. security.” A slight smile curled his lips. “And strangely enough, joy.”
“Not so strangely.”
He could see Elizabeth. She was standing in the window just as her son had done, facing out, looking onto the New England dawn. The coppery light spilled through the curtains turning her brunette hair to bronze. She had it unfastened and it fell about her shoulders. One hand rested on the windowpane and the other protectively on her midriff, which had grown great with child. His first wife had been one of those women maternity suited, infusing her with a new kind of life. He’d laughed at her, but she was certain from the moment she knew she had conceived that they would have a boy. She talked to Adam each and every day, telling him of the life he would have, but even more of how precious he was to her – of how much she loved him and would gladly give her life for him.
“I think – in a way – that your grief is deep because you do remember your mother and you do know what you lost. Your time with her was brief but,” Ben smiled, “she was an extraordinary woman and what she was, made you what you are.”
“But Pa…shouldn’t I have moved past it by now?”
“Son, the reality is that you will grieve forever. You don’t ‘get over’ the loss of someone you love, you just learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild, but you will never be the same.” He crossed over to the boy and dared to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Nor should you be the same. Nor would you want to be.”
Adam considered his words. Then he nodded.
“Now,” Ben said as he lifted his hand, “let me tell you what I remember of Elizabeth and you.”
A knock on the next door brought an end to sniffles – and it wasn’t Joseph’s door.
“Hoss, can I come in?”
There was a moment of hesitation and then his son said, “Sure, Pa.”
Hoss was so different from his older brother. He was as open as Adam was closed. His middle boy turned his tear-streaked, red-rimmed face toward him and said, with a shrug, “Sorry, Pa.”
“For what?” Ben asked as he came into the room and moved to take a seat on the bed.
“For upsettin’ Little Joe.”
This was new – and a surprise.
“You upset your brother?”
Hoss nodded as he sat on the other side of the bed. “Well, you know how the preacher was talkin’ about mothers and honorin’ them today?”
“Little Joe, well, you know how he is.”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“The preacher was talkin’, but he wasn’t listenin’. Adam and me, we figured that was a good thing ’cause Little Joe gets right upset when he thinks about his mama.”
Which was why Hoss’ sniffling surprised him.
“So what does this have to do with you upsetting your brother?”
Hoss let out a sigh. “There I was, worryin’ bout Little Joe, when all of a sudden…. Pa, I don’t know what hit me. Suddenly, I…” The boy dropped his head. “I missed my mama so powerful much I started cryin’.” He shook his head. “Little Joe asked me what was wrong and I didn’t want to tell him and he got mad so’s I had to tell him, and then he got all sad ’cause he was missin’ his ma…and we both just sat there cryin’ together.”
Where had he been that he’d missed this?
“In the service?”
“No. In the buggy on the way home.”
Hence the arm around the shoulder.
Hoss had his mother for a few months. Long enough to feel her arms around him and to hear Inger’s sweet voice singing softly to him and cooing in his ear. His beautiful Swedish wife had doted on her son. Inger had a special way with tiny helpless things – though Hoss had not been that tiny! He’d often wondered what the boy remembered about her – if he remembered anything.
“I was just talking to your older brother,” Ben began. “I asked him what he could recall about his mother.”
“All I know is what you told me, Pa,” Hoss answered honestly.
“There is that.” He’d filled the boys heads with many and marvelous images of their absent mothers over the years, speaking of them whenever he could. “But what do you remember?”
“Gosh, Pa. I was just a baby when she died.”
“But you miss her. You must remember something.”
Hoss stared at him and then closed his eyes and screwed his face up as if he was thinking hard. “I think I can hear her singing.”
“Your mother often sang to you, on the long nights traveling by wagon. What else?”
His son’s eyes opened. “Can you…remember a smell?”
“Certainly. Sometimes those memories are more powerful than sight.”
“Mama smelled…fresh. Like….” He frowned. “You’re gonna think this is funny.”
“Well, like linens after they hung in the sun to dry. Clean. If you know what I mean?”
“I do indeed.”
Inger had been a clean breath of air – a fresh breeze – that had blown into his life. After losing Elizabeth, he’d lost his way, like a ship set adrift in a gale. It was only a matter of time until he foundered and sank. The saddest thing of all was that he wasn’t alone on that ship. Adam was there and he nearly took the boy down with him.
And then, he met Inger.
He could see her, the sun’s light turning her blonde hair to gold. Whenever she went missing, he would find her in nature, usually with a bird perched on her finger or a tiny bunny tucked in the crook of her arm. She was tall and lithe, and it had been amusing to watch the small bump at her middle grow each day with the promise of their Norse Viking of a son. She wasn’t as cautious as Elizabeth. He’d even chided her a time or two for taking what he considered risks while she was carrying the child they would name Eric, but call Hoss. One day he found her sitting on a branch several feet above the ground. When he demanded to know why she would take such a risk, Inger had smiled and told him life was a risk and if one was afraid to take it, then they would never truly have lived.
She had been a ray of sunshine in his life, come into that storm to let him know that a new day had dawned.
“Pa? I hope I didn’t upset you.”
Rising, Ben moved to the other side of the bed. Hoss might be thirteen, but he was still a boy – even if he was nearly as tall as he was!
“No, son, you didn’t upset me. You gave me a gift.”
“What gift was that?”
“A memory of your mother I had forgotten.” He circled his son’s broad shoulders with his arm. “Would you like to hear it?”
Hoss smiled. The tears were gone.
“I sure would, Pa!”
His third stop would be his hardest. Of all his boys, Little Joe was the most like his mother. He had her beauty in a masculine form and seemed, from all appearances, to be as small-boned as she had been. Time alone would tell if he would approach the stature of his brothers. Joseph also felt things deeply and was more than ready to let you know just what he felt. Without warning his emotions would swing from one end of the spectrum to the other – and do it fast as lightning!
Just like Marie.
Ben placed his hand on the latch and braced himself. He had no way of knowing which child would greet him – the brooding one, the angry one, or – most likely – the one consumed by sorrow and drowning in tears.
So it was to his complete and utter surprise that when he opened the door to Little Joe’s room, his son’s curly head popped up over the edge of the bed and he smiled at him.
It was a smile with a shadow of sadness, perhaps best described as a wistful one, but it was a smile nonetheless.
“Hey, Pa,” his youngest said.
“Hey, yourself,” he replied. “Joseph, what are you doing sitting on the floor?”
Little Joe hesitated. “Do I have to tell you?” the boy asked.
“No,” Ben said as he took a seat on the bed opposite where his son was, “but I’d like to know.”
Joe winced. “I feel kind of…well…silly.”
“Silly? And why is that?”
The boy rose slowly to his feet. He glanced at him and then bent down and picked something up.
He recognized it instantly and the sight of it cast him backwards in time. He could see Marie, standing by the window in the room where she would later give birth to their son. She had something in her hands. He’d been aware that a delivery had been made earlier in the day and she’d been excited about it. The business of the ranch had called him away and he’d failed to find out what it contained. When he asked, she placed one hand on the elegantly crafted wooden box and opened the lid to reveal a fine set of handmade and painted horses. There were a dozen in all, so lifelike he half-expected them to rear up and dash across the room. Marie explained that she had ordered them from France shortly after she found out she was expecting. Like Elizabeth, she was sure their child was a boy – and a high-spirited one. His wife loved horses. She loved their spirit, their beauty and their strength. Petit Joseph, she said, for she had named the child before it took its first breath in the world, would be the same. Their child would be the sum of the two of them – fiery, but self-controlled, with a steely determination and a high sense of justice.
And of course he would be handsome, since his papa was handsome.
Ben reached out and lifted of the fine horses from the box. There were only eleven now. Hoss had stepped on one and broken it a year or so back, shortly after Marie died.
What a day that had been!
“What’s this one’s name?” he asked. It was a beautiful brown horse with a mane of gold.
“You won’t be mad?” his seven-year-old son asked.
Ben shook his head.
“Marie. I named that one after mama because it’s the most beautiful.”
The older man drew in a breath as he fought back tears. He placed the horse in his son’s hand and then said, “Joseph, come here. Sit with me.”
Little Joe took the horse and reverently returned it to its place before closing the lid and then sliding the box back under his bed where he apparently kept it. Then he came to sit with him.
Ben circled his small form with an arm as he asked, “What do you remember of your mother?”
Joe looked stricken. “I don’t remember her, papa.”
He inched in closer so the boy was leaning against him. “Oh, yes, you do. Don’t think with you head, son. Think with your heart.”
Little Joe frowned. He bit his lip. “Do sounds count?” he asked softly.
“I remember…I remember the sound of her skirts when she came in to kiss me goodnight. They’d brush against the side of the bed when she leaned over me.” His son grinned. “Mama always thought I was asleep, but I wasn’t.”
“Why didn’t you want her to know?”
Joe looked at him. “Cause I wanted to smell her.”
“Smell her?” he laughed.
The boy nodded. “Mama smelled like…lilacs.”
It was a French cologne Marie preferred. It cost an arm and leg to import, but it had been well worth it. “So see, you remember something else about her.”
Little Joe looked startled and then that smile returned – the wistful one. “Papa, can I ask you a question?”
“You won’t get mad this time either?”
Ben cocked his head and pretended to scowl. “Should I?”
“Yes. No. Well, maybe.”
“Joseph, you can ask me anything. Anytime. There is no such thing as a bad or wrong question. It’s how we learn.”
The little boy squared his shoulders. “Okay. Here it is. How come God lets mamas die when we need them?”
There were pat answers. Because God knows best. Because it’s the Father’s will. Because your mother is better off out of this weary, wicked world.
The little face staring up at him would have none of that.
“I don’t know, son,” he said honestly. “God has a reason, I firmly believe that, but I don’t know why.”
His son’s green eyes were narrowed. He was thinking hard.
“Maybe…maybe it’s ’cause we have such a good papa. God knew you could be both ma and pa to Adam and Hoss and me.”
Ben sucked in air. The tears were threatening again. And then he looked at his innocent child and let them flow.
“Don’t cry, Papa,” Joe said as he reached up to brush one of them away. “I’m sorry if I made you sad.”
“Oh, Joseph!” he said as he drew the boy close. “You didn’t make me sad. These are tears of joy. God gave me three beautiful intelligent women to love and when He took them, He left a bit of them behind in each of you. In Adam and in Hoss,” he touched his boy’s cheek, “and in you. I couldn’t have asked for a greater or richer gift.”
“Is this a private party or can anyone join in?” a familiar voice asked.
Ben looked toward the door and found his elder sons standing in it. Adam as usual was reticent. He took a chair by the desk. Hoss plunked down beside him and Little Joe, making them both jump with the resulting linen wave.
“So, Pa,” Adam said. “What do you think about attending the banquet in honor of mothers next Sunday?”
That was, after all, what had set this off.
“I think we oughta go, Pa,” Hoss added. “I mean, our mamas may be gone, but we can still honor them. Can’t we?”
Little Joe was nodding.
“I…don’t know why not,” he replied. “And you know what? I’m going to thank the reverend.”
“Thank him?” Adam asked. “For what?”
Ben put his arm around Hoss’ shoulder. He already had one around Little Joe’s. “For tonight,” he said. “For the laughter and tears. For the memories. And for giving us an opportunity to stop and remember the angels who gave birth to the three of you.”
“Amen!” Joseph proclaimed.
Hoss and Adam looked startled. Then the two of them laughed.
“Amen!” his eldest echoed.
“Amen, amen!” Hoss added.
Ben looked from one boy to the next and then to Heaven where he knew his three beautiful wives were watching.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Devil’s In the Details (by McFair)
- Target Practice (by McFair)
- Never Quote Me the Odds (by McFair)