Most barns double as family museums. The vertical beams are riddled with the nails and hooks that hold history. Pieces of harness, rusted tools, license plates from old trucks, or a calendar from a bygone era--they all tell a story. It is the task of the curator to pick the right exhibits, to find the single pieces that sum up the entirety of a people, a place, or a time long past.
From the window of our old wooden barn, I could see my son Todd throwing the ball to our dog, a mature yellow lab he'd named Christmas. The engines of both his truck and my wife's car were warming. Todd's breath was condensing in the cold winter air. We were all preparing for another day's work. For myself, I had an unusual task, one that I had embarked on nearly fifty years ago. It was time to finish it.
I lifted Tucker's leather collar off a hook, the letters of his name faded but still visible. At six o'clock, one of our family's most important museum patrons was scheduled to visit. I wanted to put together that one exhibit that would make the past clear, not just for me but for her, too. To do so, I had to go back to a cold wintery place where I had been reluctant to travel. If I was to assume the curator's role, I had no choice.
Everyone has a winter like that one. A place and time that changes us forever. A place and time when the wind blew so cold that the memories still hurt. It was now time to walk straight through that hurt and excavate an important piece of my life. For her, I would do this work.
The sound of gravel crunched in the driveway as Todd and Mary Ann each pulled out, leaving me alone on our farm. I would have the entire day to focus on my project. It seemed that I had been way too busy the last few decades, often doing unimportant things, to take the time to do something this important. Now, the work had to be done.
With the collar in my hand, I walked toward the house.
Once inside, I collected the other pieces that would form the exhibit: an old tin cup from the kitchen windowsill; from the top shelf of a closet, a stack of letters carefully banded together and arranged chronologically, and a tattered puzzle box with hundreds of rattling pieces. I poured myself a cup of coffee, threw a few hickory logs on the fire, and settled into my old rust-colored corduroy recliner, the treasures assembled on my lap. This spot had always been a good place to think, to explore a few crevices and crannies, and, if things went well, rejoin parts of myself that had been split apart.
I picked up the tin cup and closed my eyes, waiting until I could feel the steely cold of that winter of 1962 blow across my face and hear the faint rumble of the old truck as it labored up McCray's Hill. . . .
The truck door creaked open and then slammed shut. The old man walked through the back kitchen door and took off his hat, exposing gray hair cut short. He had high, flat cheeks that were tanned in the summer from hours spent working outside, a Roman nose slightly large but proud, and a complexion that was surprisingly immune from wrinkles for his seventy-two years.
He was an inattentive shaver who apparently believed that using a razor on alternate days was good enough. His eyes were as blue as the Kansas sky and as sharp as a red-tailed hawk.
There was not a suggestion of fat on his frame, which was steeled by work too hard to imagine by today's standards. After fourteen-hour days in the barns and fields, he moved stiffly. The no-nonsense look on his face was as constant as the cuts, bruises, and scrapes on his body.
Now, he gently kissed on the cheek the tall, white-haired woman standing at the kitchen sink, and filled an old tin measuring cup with the cool rainwater drawn from their cistern. He tilted his grizzled head back, drained the cup empty, and then let out a long "Ahhh." He repeated this ritual several times a day during their nearly fifty-year marriage. It unfailingly brought a contented smile to her face.
Standing there together by the sink on that early-winter afternoon, they appeared a perfectly matched team, ready to plow through the prairie sod that sustained generations of McCrays. She was lithe, beautiful, and wore one of her ubiquitous flowered dresses, behind which radiated a calm goodness that was a wellspring of comfort to all who knew her.
In the summer months, he might fill and empty the tin cup four or five times before his thirst was quenched. Any water that remained at the bottom of the cup he would unceremoniously pitch out the kitchen window onto his wife's jewel-toned flowers, the blossoms for which she chose for one purpose alone: the nectar that best attracted her beloved hummingbirds.
But that day, one cup full of water was enough. My Grandpa Bo sat the cup down, clutched Grandma Cora's elbow, and pulled her close to him.
In a secretive way, from behind my book, I watched them from my reading spot on the living room sofa. For several months now, I had been hiding behind, or perhaps in, my books. That afternoon, I had to leave Tarzan stranded in a tree, so that I could pick up a few words of the conversation between my grandparents, two of the people I loved most in the world and whose house I'd shared every day of my thirteen years.
My grandmother's voice seemed surprised. "Not again. Oh, no. Bo, I'm so disappointed." After letting out a painful sigh, she continued, "I shouldn't be surprised, though, given his state of mind. The poor fellow practically had to raise himself with those parents of his, and he's lost more than he's gained in this life--so many jobs, his marriage, and now a friend."
There was a silence and I could not hear their words until her much louder, "You what?"
His baritone voice reassured her. "Don't be upset, Cora. This can work out."
"I'm just shocked, that's all. I never thought . . .??are you sure?"
He grunted. "I stopped being sure of anything on June 15, 1962."
When I heard that date, a sinking feeling came over me. Like December 7, 1941, it was one of a half dozen dates our family would never forget. After putting my book down, I got up and walked into the kitchen. The talk stopped when I entered the room.
They both looked at me expectantly, so I invented a question. "Grandpa, did you sell the cows?"
"Yes, I sold them, and had lunch at the Ox. Saw Hank Fisher and his wife." He hesitated and then just spat it out. "And I made a stop on the way and brought home a dog."
"A dog!" I had always wanted a puppy and I could barely believe my ears.
"It's not exactly what you think, George, so don't get excited."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"He's not a puppy and you don't get to keep him. Frank Thorne has himself in a bad spot again. He has to leave his farm for a while. He was your dad's friend and our neighbor, so I guess it's up to us to help him out. I'd appreciate your help."
"You mean that mean-looking red dog that he keeps tied up in front of the house? The one that barks like a devil every time my school bus goes by?"
"That's the one."
My idea of a good dog was a friendly puppy. I let my feelings be known in a simple and direct way. "I don't think I want to take care of Thorne's dog."
Bo McCray had the same simple, direct communication style. "You'll do it anyway."
I looked to my grandmother for support, and she stared hard at me in a way that signaled this issue was not up for discussion. "Alright, then, where is he?" I asked.
With a tinge of annoyance, Grandpa set his battered tin cup down on the countertop. "In the truck," he answered, pointing toward the back door. "And if he has a name, Thorne didn't mention it."
The old truck was typically parked in the implement barn, but this afternoon it was left in the gravel driveway close to our farmhouse, so I walked out the back door, without another word. I stopped and stared at the truck for a moment, not sure what to expect and having no idea of the value of the cargo in the hold.
,as i let the kitchen door slam behind me, it occurred to me that, like an elephant or a giraffe, a dog was foreign to the McCray farm. The adult words, spoken frequently by my father and grandfather, too, came rushing back to me. Dairy cattle and dogs don't mix, George. Quit asking for a puppy.
For years I grumbled about it, as any kid would, but like hot days in February, I accepted that dogs were not part of the McCray landscape.
Now, this no-name dog was sitting in the truck and I didn't know what to make of it. Part of me was excited, but there were other unsettling feelings, too. At that point in my life, I needed the world to be arranged according to rules that I could count on, even when those rules were unpopular.
In my life, the one rule that children counted on most had been broken: parents don't leave their children. That rule I considered inviolate. For me, there was an obvious corollary, too: a boy doesn't lose his dad in a tractor accident on a hot summer afternoon. My father, John Mangum McCray, was here one morning as he had always been, ate breakfast, went outside to work, and by that afternoon, was gone forever.
Now this dairy cattle and dogs don't mix rule was being broken, too. Deep down, I was sure that I would never be allowed to have a dog, though I resented it, it was still one of the rules that I counted on to keep my crumbling universe in order. It was somehow frightening to see this rule broken. Which rule was going to be broken next? What had I done wrong to be the only kid in my school who lost a parent? I felt as if I were being punished but I didn't understand why. Somehow, my father's death spoke some dark truth about me. Surely, good kids don't lose their dads--only the unworthy and the undeserving are so fated. What had I done?
There was more swirling around in my mind, too. I put my hand on the stock gate release and hesitated before pulling the latch. Surprises had lost their appeal. I just didn't know what to do or how to feel about this most recent unplanned event. The latch release needed oil and it creaked as I opened the rear stock gate. I made a note to myself to squirt some oil on the hinge.
Standing in the truck bed, hesitant but with his tail wagging, was a beauty of a dog. I had never seen Thorne's dog up close. Though he seemed thin and needed cleaning up, he had long red hair and looked to be an Irish setter. I opened the door fully and reassured him. "It's okay, boy. I won't hurt you. Come on, jump on down."
He took very little coaxing. He ran at me full speed and jumped. Surprised, I scrambled backward and fell onto my backside. Instinctively, I raised my arms over my head to protect my face from an attack.
This assault was not, however, of a violent nature. In fact, it was more a matter of his smothering me with affectionate kisses and trying to nuzzle me to my feet. The dog put his cool, wet nose to my face as if we were the closest of friends, cruelly separated but now reunited. I laughed and pushed him away gently, "Enough!"
It was no use; he was back on me demanding attention. I got up and took a few steps, hoping to gain some separation, but he chased after me, nipping playfully at my feet. He seemed to take great pleasure in knocking me to the ground so he could jump back on me and pummel me with canine attention.
Trying a different tactic, I just froze. He backed a few feet away from me and started barking, demanding that I play with him. I started to run away, hoping he would chase after me, but he was so excited that he just set out circling the house at full speed. His big, floppy, red ears going up and down as he bounded by me, I wondered if doggie Christmas had arrived early for this pooch.
After two quick loops around the house, he decided to return his focus on running circles around me like an Indian war party, substituting yelps and excited high-pitched barks for war cries. I decided to take the offense and dove on top of him, knocking him down. Before he could recover, I jumped up and ran off. He rolled over, and we began a long game of tag, now both of us circling around the yard at a furious pace.
We wrestled, ran, and played for nearly an hour until finally the sun began to set. The dog seemed to have endless energy, so eventually I just collapsed on the ground and covered my face with my arms. He rested his head on my chest while I tried to catch my breath.
The back porch door slammed as Grandpa walked out and calmly petted the dog as he rested by my side. He shaped a homemade collar and leash by making a slipknot in an old length of rope and looped it around his neck. "Come on, boy," he said reassuringly.
The dog followed my grandpa obediently. He was a totally different creature now--alert, quiet, and respectful--like he was working and not playing. Grandpa walked him around the yard for a few minutes. Then he led the dog toward me as if to reintroduce us.
They stopped a few feet away from me and, as he was apt to do, Grandpa summed up the dog and my life in a few sentences. "He's a bit older for a puppy, but he has great potential. You can practice with this dog for a month or so. Maybe, after Christmas, when you go to Minnesota, your mom will let you get a dog of your own."
"I'm not sure if I want to go to Minnesota."
"Your mother misses you. She needs you."
Excerpted from Christmas with Tucker by Greg Kincaid. Copyright © 2010 by Greg Kincaid. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.