Deer Grandma, Story Five
Seldom did I drive down this road. I usually walked, often with the children, through fields and woods, to get to this neighboring farm. Today was different. Stub had invited me to come to their house because he “had something for me”.
The driveway was long, and it gave me a chance to think about the many times over the years I had come here. At first, I came alone on occasional weekend afternoons to work on shooting skills with like-minded women and men. As our two older children, Kate and Peter, developed their .22 rifle shooting skills, they would come with me. Not long after, our youngest girl, Valeska, joined us. Now that our first three children were off on their own, our youngest child, Paul, would be my companion.
Stub was very strict with gun safety and our children listened carefully to him. They, like me, learned a great deal from him; he was not only an expert at shooting and shooting instruction, but an honest and caring outdoorsman. Stewardship of the land, and care for all living creatures, was evident in his actions. He was businesslike in his manner and serious about the task of creating a respectful and competent new generation of hunters. Through the years, the children and I had been privileged to see the softer side of his personality, share stories and laughter with him, and witness the twinkle in his eye when he teased us.
As I drove along the long driveway, I looked at each of the targets in the field to my left. The 500-yard target up against the woods was always a challenge. At the end of almost every shooting session, Stub would grin and ask me if I wanted to shoot the “big gun”. After getting the gun and bullets he had hand-loaded, I’d shoot two or three shells at the 300-, 400-, and then 500-yard target. He’d watch carefully during each shot, telling me if I flinched, closed my eyes, held my breath, or did something else I shouldn’t have. If I shot well, he’d make sure to tease the children about how hard they’d have to work to keep up to Mom; if I hadn’t done well, he’d help me make up some excuses.
Soon I passed by the wooden frames for the 200- and 100-yard targets. If a shooter got an especially nice grouping, the target would be taken down and brought back for a souvenir. Most often, the holes would be taped with masking tape by the person who had most recently shot while everyone else waited with the guns laid aside and bolts open. After the shooter returned he/she would describe where the bullets had hit, making any minor sight adjustments, and get some additional hints from Stub prior to shooting again. After each shooting session, the guns would be cleaned and all supplies put away. Every step of the routine made sense and became automatic to us.
As I made the turn toward the house, the door opened and Stub walked down the steps to meet me. He wore his normal working clothes; dark blue bib overalls with a lined, dark blue, denim, barn coat. Although he hadn’t milked downs for years, he frequently worked outside in his gardens and wood lands; these clothes were comfortable and suited his lifestyle.
As I got out of the car and Stub walked to greet me, I could see changes in his normally robust physique. The smile and twinkle were still there, but he looked worn out. The heart problems he had experienced, and recent operation he had gone through, had taken a toll. He was thinner, walked slower, and his normal ruddy complexion was faded. We exchanged greetings and he motioned for me to come with him to the woodworking shed.
“I understand you have a birthday soon, and I have something for you,” he said matter-of-factly as we walked together.
“That’s great. I love presents,” I answered, trying to control my excitement.
As we stepped into his shop, I noticed everything was in order with all the boards, tools, and benches ready for his next work session. The wood he normally used was basswood; there were boards of various sizes stacked around the room. The router he used to engrave patterns into the wood and the carving tools which finished the artwork were in their proper places. Brass clasps, hinges, strips, nails, were neatly placed into boxes and jars.
“So this is where you make all the beautiful basswood ammunition boxes and rifle cases. Nice setup,” I said.
He answered, “It’s nothing fancy, but I have what I need. Haven’t gotten much done this year, though. Don’t have as much energy as I used to.”
As I looked around, I saw two boxes in progress and one rifle case that was complete.
“What are you working on now?” I asked him.
He showed me the unfinished pistol box and ammunition box and told me who they were being made for. Normally, Stub gave his woodworking to relatives and the members of the shooting club that he coached for state and national competitions.
For many years, he made small ammunition boxes for adults and children who attended the evening shooting practices at his brother’s farm; whenever somebody would get a perfect score with ten bulls-eyes, he/she would get honored with a small ammunition box complete with brass fittings and an outdoor scene carved on top. We talked about those shooting sessions and the competition for the handmade boxes.
“I really wanted Katie to get one,” Stub said. “She could shoot well and got so close. Too bad I don’t have one left to give her.”
I responded, “I was thinking about giving her the one I have when I ‘get old’. Would you like that?”
His broad smile answered my question.
Stub pointed to the finished rifle case on the workbench. “What do you think of this?” he asked.
We walked over to it.
“It’s beautiful. I especially like the panels with the different woodland scenes,” I said.
There was a buck in each of the three pictures with oak leaves separating each scene. Stub used both the router and hand carving tools to bring depth and life to his drawings. There was brass trim protecting each seam and corner. The bare wood had been lacquered, giving it a warm, golden glow, through which the wood grain could be seen.
“Looks like some of the deer you have gotten, doesn’t it? Open it up and look inside,” Stub said.
I unclipped the brass hinges and looked inside. There were top and bottom foam cushions, covered by royal purple fabric, running the full length of the case.
“Lift up the bottom cushion,” Stub said in a quiet voice.
Under the cushion, written with a wood burning tool, was Stub’s full name and the inscription, Presented to Betty Wilkens on her birthday, Nov. 8, 1986.
“Do you like it?” Stub asked.
I couldn’t answer. My throat was tight, my voice wouldn’t work and my eyes were full of tears. I looked at the inscription again and then at him.
He said, “I hope I have the birth date right.”
My voice recovered enough to affirm the date and mumble something about how wonderful a present this was. As I looked at him, I could see his eyes were moist.
There was a moment or two of silence, and then he explained, “When I was in the hospital recovering from my operation, there were days when I hurt so much and felt so terrible, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on. Your letter came with the pictures of the young bluebird and fawn. It gave me hope. I wanted to get better and come home. I knew then that I wanted to make you something.”
The seriousness in his voice diminished. He started to smile as he said, “And that .308 of yours deserves more than that ugly, old canvas case.”
This teasing comment gave us a chance to escape the serious tone our conversation had taken. We talked about the pleasant things we both enjoyed: gardening, fishing, the river and woods, wild berries, family members, birds, photography, and of course, deer hunting.
We talked about times past, times when Stub felt well and lived without restrictions due to his health. It was a good conversation, full of animated stories and laughter.
“Time to think about the important stuff, don’t you think? Do you have your deer all picked out?” I asked.
He pointed at a stand built for him by his family out in the middle of a field where deer often came to graze, “I’m going to sit out there this year. I can walk that far without getting too tired,” he said, and then added, “How about you?”
“I suppose I’ll force myself to go most every day. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it,” I responded.
The light banter we shared turned into an awkward silence. It was time to say goodbye and neither of us knew how to end the visit. I put the gun case into the car and turned around. Tears were starting to form in my eyes as I tried to thank him, “I’ll treasure this present always. You are a caring and dear man.”
He smiled, his eyes moist. Silence again.
“I’ll call you and check to see how you’re doing during season,” he said as I got into the car and we waved goodbye.
I knew we would talk again. He always called me along with many others once or twice during season to see how his “students” were doing. Many times he called the women first. Boasting was something he did not like; it was not respectful of people, animals, or environment. However, he did get a kick out of letting the male hunters know that the women and children were doing just fine.
We would talk again. This year. I wanted to hold onto that idea and not think about what the future held. It was time to appreciate all the happy times of the past and gifts of the present.
For everything there is an appointed season,
And a time for everything under heaven –
A time for sharing,
a time for caring.
A time for loving,
a time for giving.
A time for remembering,
a time for parting.
You have made everything beautiful in its time,
For everything You do remains forever.
Verse reprinted from the Bulletin for Stub’s Memorial Service, October, 1987