"Gently Down The Stream"

Mom held out an envelope. “Here. Set this by Dad”s plate so he will see it when he comes in for breakfast.”Before I took the envelope, I turned my hands this way and that, to make sure they weren”t so dirty they would smudge the white paper.

Only a few minutes ago, I had been out in the barn carrying milk and cutting the long grass beyond the barnyard fence. Every morning and every evening we cut grass for the calves. Dad said it was good for them to eat some grass. If Dad cut the grass, he used the big scythe. If I cut grass, I used the little hand-held cutter that looked like a miniature scythe. When we gathered up the grass in big armfuls and put it in the manger by the calf pen, the calves acted like it was the best thing they had ever eaten. Dad said that to the calves, fresh grass was like the way we would feel about eating birthday cake with vanilla ice cream.

“What”s wrong with your hands?”my mother asked when I had finished inspecting my fingers.

I shook my head as I reached for the envelope. “Nothing. I just want to make sure I don”t get it dirty.”

Mom shrugged. “I don”t think it would matter if you did get it dirty. Dad will be more interested in the cash, anyway, I have a feeling.”

Even though Father”s Day was one whole week away, we were going to give Dad his present now. For a long time my father had been saying he would love to have a fishing boat, and over the past several months the surprise had been almost killing me because”we were getting Dad a boat for Father”s Day.

Well”we weren”t actually getting him a boat. We were giving him the money so he could buy a boat, although from the amount we had managed to save, it wasn”t going to be a very big boat. Nothing at all like the motorboats I saw out on the lake pulling water skiers.

Sometimes when we went over the bridge on our way to town, we could see motorboats on the lake. Dad said he would never be able to own one of those boats, seeing as they cost as much as a tractor. My father liked to stop at implement dealerships “just to look,”so I knew how much tractors cost, and I knew we didn”t have enough in the envelope to buy a tractor.

I never said anything to Mom, but I wondered if Dad was going to be disappointed because he couldn”t get a big boat.

Since April my mother had been setting aside a little cash every week, such as a couple of dollar bills she received as change when she went to the grocery store. “If I take out some now and then,”she”d said the first time she put money in the envelope “it won”t be so obvious.”

I had no idea why my mother was worried Dad would figure out we were saving money for his Father”s Day present. Mom wrote out the checks to pay the bills and took care of all the bookkeeping herself.

Besides my mother”s grocery money and the money Ingman and Loretta put in the envelope, whenever Mom paid me fifty cents for helping her clean the closets or for washing the windows or for scrubbing the basement steps or for cleaning out a cupboard, I would also put money in the envelope for Dad”s Father”s Day present.

All along, my mother said she wanted to give Dad the money before Father”s Day so he could go shopping and would have his boat by the time Father”s Day arrived. At first she had thought maybe Loretta or Ingman could buy the boat, but then she wondered where we would hide something that big so Dad wouldn”t see it.

I held up the plain white envelope. “Shouldn”t we write something on it?”I asked. “Like Happy Father”s Day?”

“Oh, shoot,”Loretta said.

My big sister was coming down the stairs. She had been sitting in her bathrobe, with curlers in her hair, drinking coffee and talking to Mom when I went out to the barn. While I was outside, she had taken the curlers out of her hair, and now she was dressed in a pair of light pink shorts with a light pink blouse to match.

I only had to look at my sister to know we didn”t have church this morning. Our parish had three churches. The big church in the country on the other side of town held services every Sunday. Our little church and the other little church took turns every other Sunday. If we were going to church this morning, my sister would not be dressed in shorts.

“I should have gotten a card for Dad after work on Friday,”Loretta said. “But I never gave it a thought.”

“Well, since we don”t have a card, we can write “Dad”on the envelope, and then, if you hurry,”Mom said, turning to me, “you”ll have to time to draw a picture to put inside. You can write “Happy Father”s Day”on the picture.”

“That”s a good idea,”Loretta said.

I looked at Loretta and then at Mom.

A picture?

I was not very good at drawing pictures”not like some of the kids in my class at school. A couple of them could, with a few strokes of a pencil or a crayon, draw a picture that looked just like the thing they were drawing. When I tried to draw something, the more lines I put on it, the worse it got.

“I”m not very good at drawing,”I said.

“That doesn”t matter,”Mom said. “It”s the thought that counts.”

I turned to look at the kitchen clock. Dad would be coming in for breakfast soon. When I had left the barn, he was in the middle of rinsing the milkers. I knew he would not turn the cows outside until after we had eaten breakfast, but he always scraped the manure from the back of stalls and fluffed the bedding before he came to the house.

Dad had probably already started to fluff the bedding.

I didn”t have any time to waste.

My mother tore a sheet out of the notebook where she kept the farm records. It wasn”t the kind of paper we used in art class at school, but it was going to have to do.

I went to the catchall drawer and got out my box of crayons. When school was over for the year, I would put the crayons in the drawer, where they stayed until the end of the summer, or until Mom decided they took up too much room”whichever came first. Then I would take them upstairs and dump them into the brown paper bag with the other crayons from other years.

I pulled out a blue crayon and started shading in the bottom half of the paper. The picture would have to have water. And a boat. And people in the boat fishing. And a round sun with long yellow rays on the upper half of the paper.

A little while later, the picture was finished. The people in the boat were only stick figures, but I could barely draw stick figures, so I knew better than to try to make them look like people.

I had no more than finished writing “Happy Father”s Day”in black crayon across the middle of the sky when Loretta spoke up. She had been standing watch by the kitchen window.

“Quick. Dad just came around the garage,”she said.

I folded the picture, stuffed it in the envelope, set the envelope by his plate, gathered up the crayons, pushed them back into the box and stashed the box in the catchall drawer.

I turned around in time to see Dad walk into the kitchen.

He stopped short by the door and looked at Mom, Loretta and me. My mother sat at her place by the table, a cup of coffee in front of her. I was still standing by the catchall drawer, and Loretta stood by the sink.

“What”s the matter with you?”he asked.

“Why?”I said.

“What would make you ask that?”Mom said.

“Nothing”s the matter with us,”Loretta said. “You look like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar,”Dad said.

He gazed at us and then shook his head and shrugged. “So. What”s for breakfast?”he asked. “I see you”ve already got the plates out. I suppose you want eggs or pancakes.”

Dad always asked what we were having for breakfast. If Loretta was not at home, he would make eggs or pancakes himself. If Loretta was home, she would make breakfast. It wasn”t that my mother could not stand up long enough to make eggs or pancakes”but it was much easier for her if Dad or Loretta made breakfast. And today, it was going to be Mom, Dad, Loretta and me at the table. My big brother was working the seven-to-three shift at the creamery this week.

“How about French toast?”Loretta said.

“Sounds good,”Dad said. “We haven”t had that in a while.”

As he turned toward the bathroom so he could wash up, he glanced at the table.

“What”s this?”he asked, taking a step closer to look at the envelope tucked under the edge of his plate.

“What”s what?”Mom said.

“This,”he said, pulling out the envelope.

“Oh, that,”Mom said. “It”s your Father”s Day present.”

“I thought Father”s Day was next weekend,”Dad said.

“It is,”Mom said. “Wash up first, then you can open it.”

Dad laid the envelope on the table by his plate. He returned a few minutes later smelling of the Ivory soap he had used. While he was in the bathroom washing his hands and face, Loretta had begun to mix milk and eggs and vanilla and cinnamon to make French toast.

My father poured a cup of coffee for himself, sat down by the table and reached for the white envelope with fingers that were as deeply tanned as his face. The tan extended all the way up his forearms and past his elbows to the point where the short sleeves of his blue workshirt rested against his arms.

“Should I open this now?”he asked.

My mother nodded.

I had only tucked the flap inside the envelope, and with one wide thumb, my father flicked open the flap.

“What”s this?”Dad asked as he pulled out the sheet of folded paper.

He opened the paper and held it up so he could see it better.

“Nice picture,”he said. “A boat and two people fishing.”He looked over at me. “I suppose you made this?”

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And it says “Happy Father”s Day”on it, too,”Dad observed. He looked over at me again. “Thank you very much.”

“You”d better look and see what else is in the envelope,”Mom said.

Loretta finished putting two slices of French toast into the frying pan. She turned away from the stove so she could watch Dad.

My father reached into the envelope and pulled out a couple of tens and a few twenties. My mother, I noticed, had exchanged the ones and the quarters in the envelope for larger bills.

“What”s this for?”Dad asked, holding up the money.

“Your Father”s Day present,”Loretta said.

“I”m sorry, but you”ll have to buy your own present,”Mom said.

“My own present?”Dad said.

“Don”t you get it, Daddy?”I said, pointing to the picture.

My father frowned. “Get”what?”

Mom drew a deep breath. “The money is for a fishing boat!”

Dad”s eyes widened with surprise.

“A what?”

“A fishing boat!”I said.

“A fishing boat?”Dad said, as if he had never heard of such a thing.

“You”ve always talked about how you”d like to have a fishing boat someday,”Mom said.

“We thought maybe you”d better buy it yourself, so you can get the one you want,”Loretta explained.

My father loved to go fishing. He did not often have the opportunity during the spring and summer and fall when he was busy with fieldwork, and if we did go, we fished from shore in one of several spots by the river, sometimes for a little while after milking in the evening and sometimes on Sunday afternoon. Although the lake was not far away, there was no good place to fish from shore because either the bank was too steep, or someone had built a cottage. You couldn”t very well just walk into a person”s backyard and go fishing, Dad said.

As I sat there looking at Dad, all of the possibilities seemed to dawn on him at once.

“A boat!”he exclaimed.

“We were so poor for years and years that we couldn”t have even thought about it,”Mom said. “But now we can.”

“A boat!”Dad said.

“We saved money for a long time,”I said.

“Since April,”Mom said.

“April!”Dad exclaimed.

“We wanted to buy one and surprise you, but we didn”t know what you wanted. And besides, we had no place to hide it,”Loretta said.

“A boat!”Dad said.

Loretta turned and flipped over the two pieces of French toast.

“I guess I”m going to have to go shopping tomorrow then, aren”t I,”Dad said.

“Why can”t we go today?”I said.

“It”s Sunday,”Mom said. “The stores are closed on Sunday.”

I had forgotten that it was Sunday.

“Can I come along when you go shopping tomorrow, Daddy?”I asked.

“If you want,”he said.

Loretta put two more pieces of French toast on the plate in the oven so the toast would stay warm.

“Do I get to go out for a boat ride, too?”she asked.

“Sure,”Dad said. He took out his billfold, tucked the money inside, and then pinned his shirt pocket shut again. Some of Dad”s workshirts were so old that the buttons wouldn”t stay buttoned, so he used a safety pin to keep the pocket closed. After the billfold had been safely pinned back into his shirt pocket, Dad looked at each of us in turn.

“I”ve been wishing I had a boat for a lot of years,”he said. “And I know just the one I want!”

The next afternoon, when Dad had finished cutting hay after dinner, he was ready to buy his fishing boat.

“What”s it going to look like?”I asked as I pulled the pickup truck door shut and settled against the seat.

“Small enough to fit in the back of the truck,”Dad said.

“Why does it have to fit in the back of the pickup?”I asked.

“Because then I won”t need a trailer for it. We can put it in the truck and go when we want to, after milking or on Sunday afternoons.”

None of the boats I had seen on the lake could fit the truck.

Several hours later, just in time to put the cows in and feed them before supper, we returned home.

“I”m going outside to see your boat,”Mom said after we had come in the house.

Dad had left the truck parked in the driveway, and we both waited in the kitchen while my mother made her way down the steps.

“Look at that,”Mom said as she stood behind the truck and inspected Dad”s new boat. “It”s so shiny and clean,”she said, reaching out to touch the smooth aluminum surface.

“And we got two oars!”I said.

The oars rested in the back of the boat. I leaned forward and picked one up so Mom could see it.

“And,”Dad said, opening the pickup door and reaching inside, “we got two life preservers and two floating cushions.”

The life preservers were bright orange. One cushion was blue and the other red.

“Are you going to take it out of the truck before you feed the cows?”Mom asked.

Dad shook his head. “No-sir. It”s staying right where it is. We”re going for a boat ride tonight after milking!”he said.

Later that evening when the milking was finished, Dad and I drove down to the lake in the truck while Mom and Loretta followed in the car. We asked Ingman if we wanted to go, but he said he would rather rest because he had to get up early for work at the creamery tomorrow.

Loretta parked the car so Mom could see the boat landing. The sun had started to drop toward the horizon, but it would be a while yet before dark. Overhead, the sky was a crystal clear blue, and from the trees on the lakeshore came the trilling songs of red-winged blackbirds and the twittering of robins.

“How come we”re going out in the boat here, Daddy?”I said.

The boat landing was not very far from our farm, but it was the not the boat landing where we went ice fishing in the winter or where Loretta and I sometimes went swimming on hot Sunday afternoons. This landing was little more than an open spot along the shoreline.

“We”re going out here because it”s closer to home, for one thing,”Dad said. “We really don”t have all that much time this evening.”

“What”s the other thing?”I asked.

“No big speed boats on this part of the lake,”Dad said, “so we can take our time getting used to the rowboat.”

“Why won”t there be any speedboats?”Loretta asked.

“Too shallow. But it”s just right for us,”Dad said.

Dad, Loretta and I pulled the aluminum boat out of the back of the truck and carried it to the edge of the lake.

“Have fun!”Mom called out from the car. She was sitting with the window rolled all the way down. “Don”t forget your life preservers!”

“Nuts,”Dad said. “I forgot about the life preservers. I suppose you”d better wear them.”

“What about you, Dad?”Loretta asked.

He pointed to a blue cushion sitting on one of the boat seats. “I”ve got the cushion,”he said.

Loretta went back to the pickup truck and retrieved the two orange life preservers. She handed one to me and put the other one on herself.

“You get in first, kiddo,”Dad said.

While the back of the little aluminum rowboat bobbed around in the water, I crawled over the seats to the other end and sat down. Then Dad got in. And then Loretta pushed us out a ways farther before hopping in herself. “And awaaaaaay we go,”she said.

The evening air was cool and calm, without a breath of wind. Dad picked up one of the oars and used it to push the boat out a bit farther. He fitted first one oar into the oarlock and then the other into the opposite oarlock. He began to row with just one oar, and when he did, the boat turned around. When he rowed with the other oar, the boat turned the other way.

“See how that works, kiddo?”he asked. “When you pull with one oar, the boat goes one way. When you pull with the other oar, it goes the opposite way. The next time we go out, when we”ve got more daylight, you can learn how to row the boat.”

“Can I, Daddy? Really?”I said.

“Yup, really,”he said.

Dad straightened the boat out and rowed away from the landing. The marshy smell of the rushes growing along the edge of the lake mingled with the scent of warm air beginning to cool off as the sun dropped toward the horizon. The oars creaked in the oarlocks in time with Dad”s rowing”creak-crock, creak-crock, creak-crock.

“This is so peaceful,”Loretta said.

“Tis, isn”t it,”Dad replied.

As for me, I could only look around with wide-eyed wonder. I had never been in a boat, and I couldn”t decide which I liked more: the way the boat slid through the water or the swirls made by the oars.

All too soon, we headed toward the boat landing, and a few minutes later, we were all back on shore.

“How was it?”Mom asked as we walked toward the car.

“It was heavenly!”Loretta said. “So peaceful.”

“I didn”t know Daddy could row a boat so good!”I said.

“Of course he can row a boat,”Mom said. “He”s an expert. He won a rowing contest once.”

I could feel my eyebrows creeping up on my forehead.

“You did?”I said, turning to stare at Dad.

“And as soon as Dad got into the boat, Aunt Othilia said she knew he was going to win,”Mom said.

Aunt Othilia had been my mother”s aunt, my grandmother”s sister. I did not remember her, although there was a picture of me when I was a baby, sitting on her lap. Aunt Othilia had come from Norway when she was a young woman.

“How did Aunt Othilia know he was going to win?”I asked.

“I wondered the same thing myself,”Mom said. “She just kept insisting that by the way he handled the oars, he looked more at home in a boat than any of the others.”

My mother smiled. “It took me a while to figure it out,”she said. “Aunt Othilia grew up in a seaport in Norway, so I”m sure she saw boats of all kinds.”

“And Daddy won!”I said.

“Oh, yes,”Mom said. “He was the best of any of them.”

“Nothin”I like more than a row boat. You can go where you want to with it, and you can take your time,”Dad said. “But this is a better boat than that one was. Much better.”

“Why is it better?”I asked.

Dad grinned. “Because it”s mine.”

I looked at my father for a few seconds before I grinned back at him.

And here I was worried Dad would be disappointed if he couldn”t have a big motorboat.

Then again, I never knew he had once won a rowing contest.

And that, of course, made all the difference in the world.

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