I can’t remember exactly which unfairness so infuriated me the Thanksgiving I was fourteen. It may have been my parents’ refusal to let me hitchhike to Rapid City over Christmas vacation. Somewhere in those days I had read Nikos Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco—like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, one of the great books that can be read only at a certain age—and I had become infatuated with Kazantzakis’ description of the time he had gone off to the mountains to isolate himself, taking along only the Bible and Homer to read. My grandparents had a cabin up in the Black Hills where I wanted to spend Christmas by myself in the snow—and my parents wouldn’t allow it, for reasons that now are obvious but then seemed raw oppression.
So I responded the way adolescents always respond: glowering, sniping away in sarcastic comments, affecting exhaustion, being unpleasant (in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be unpleasant) to my sisters, to my parents, and, that Thanksgiving, to everyone in the family. It must have been around two or three in the afternoon, while I was mocking my little sister for wanting me to play a game with her or sneering at the food my mother and grandmother were preparing. With a sudden growl, Aunt Eleanor rose from the living-room couch to glare at me for a moment over her glasses.
“Stop that at once and come with me,” she commanded, picking up her coat and stalking out the door. She was the kind of person who never looked back to see whether her orders were being followed. It may have been something in her face, or the ramrod straight way she held herself, or the absolute confidence she had that no one would refuse her, but everyone obeyed Aunt Eleanor.
I found her in front, with the car running, and she took me in silence down to the river, below the dam, where the Missouri runs in open water all winter between its cold banks. The defroster blew up against the windshield, barely keeping out the cold as the car idled, and I waited and waited, hunched in protest, dreading the lecture I was sure she was about to give. But she sat there for a long while, looking out at the river, minute after minute, until at last she sighed and began:
“You know Waller Johnson, don’t you? The rancher from out toward Philips. Your father has done some work for him, over the years. Lord, I remember Waller when he was young, a big, good-looking boy off the range. Your great-grandfather brought him to Pierre, found him a place to stay during the school year—partly so he could finish high school, but mostly, I think, so he could play baseball and Pierre could beat Yankton. Charlie loved baseball.
“I want to tell you a story about Waller Johnson. Back in the early 1930s, his mother and father died, the mortgage payments stopped, and the Land Bank repossessed the ranch. Waller must have been eighteen or nineteen, in those days. Somehow, he talked the Land Bank into letting him try to bring the herd to market. We gave him what help we could, but those were hard times all over, and no one thought he could do it—not with four younger brothers and sisters to feed at the same time.
“But he was a tough young man. He kept the herd together through the winter, fattened up the cattle, sold them, and reclaimed the ranch. Then he put each of his brothers and sisters through school and saw them settled, here and there. Finally Waller settled down himself, marrying a girl named Nancy Trike from, oh, I don’t know—Spearfish, maybe. I remember she was a pretty thing, but thin and a little sickly.
“One winter—it must have been ’42 or ’43, during the war, anyway—their furnace broke down in the middle of a blizzard, and their baby began running a fever.”
Aunt Eleanor watched the cold water as it murmured past, skinned with ice along the edge. “You’re too young to know what it was like in those days,” she said. “Most of the ranches didn’t have electricity. None of them had plumbing. The roads were bad, and the nearest doctor was at the hospital in Pierre, maybe fifty miles away. The adults could have built a fire, cuddled up for warmth, and outlasted the storm. But the baby was sick, and he had no chance to make it through the cold. So Waller and Nancy loaded up the car with blankets and coats they’d warmed in the oven, and started off through the snow to Pierre.
“It took them three, almost four, hours to make that drive. The blizzard was pounding down from the north, swirling across the prairie, the way it does. If they missed the road or slid off into a gully, they would die—not just the baby, but all three of them, left there frozen until somebody came along and found them.
“I want you to picture this—really see it, as clearly as you can: the blinding snow, that old car creeping along the icy road, the sick child wrapped up between them, Waller and Nancy straining to see, rubbing their breath off the windows—knowing they were probably going to be killed, but knowing they had to try.”
“Why didn’t they stay at the ranch?” I asked, growing colder and more confused every minute we sat there in Aunt Eleanor’s car by the river. “I mean, that way, at least two of them would survive. If they really thought they weren’t going to make it, then they were just throwing themselves away.”
“They did really think they weren’t going to make it,” she answered. “But they had to do it anyway. It wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t something to be calculated, weighing their lives against their baby’s. They couldn’t choose their own survival against a chance, however small, of his.”
Aunt Eleanor turned to look at me directly, and her face was hard with something I couldn’t quite understand. “And do you see why? It’s because they were parents. And that’s what it means to be a parent. They had already given up their lives for their child’s, from the first moment he existed.”
She sighed again and looked back out at the river. “In that blizzard, the bill finally came due, and they knew they had to pay it—the way you will pay it, when your time comes. The way your mother and father will pay it, when they have to. That’s what I want you to remember the next time you’re angry with them, the next time you want to scream because they won’t let you do something, the next time you feel as though nobody understands how grown up you’ve become.”
She glanced over at me and smiled, pulling her cloth sleeve up over her hand to wipe the windshield. “Come,” she said, “it’s time to get back home.”
Years later, I came to see my great-aunt’s story as the answer to utilitarianism and the ethics of calculation, the solution to those “lifeboat cases” we were supposed to ponder in freshman philosophy courses. But at the time I knew only that she was trying, in her way, to let me in on the secret, the mystery of adulthood. We turned away from the cold, gurgling river and drove back up the hill to the house on Elizabeth Street. Dinner was just beginning, and the arguments were already starting to swirl around the quarrelsome table. But my father winked at me across the half-carved turkey. And just as I realized how hungry I was, my mother set before me a plate filled with bright orange yams, green beans, the dark drumstick meat I loved, cranberry sauce, sage dressing—the kind of meal a fourteen-year-old boy imagines every meal should be. My parents were happy that Thanksgiving, I think, and why not? They had each other, they had their children, and they had their family, however much it squabbled and fought, gathered around them.
I am not a father, but this seems to be a piece of wisdom.