Growing up as one of many siblings on a family ranch impacts one's life in many ways. Beyond acquiring an overly compulsive work ethic, learning how to cram six children and two adults into a 1969 Dodge Polara, and developing a keen appreciation for fresh milk, eggs and meat, other, subtler factors influenced my being.
Take birthdays for example.
Entering the world less than a week before Christmas has its disadvantages, especially in a family where the mother toils 14 hours a day to manage her share of the ranch work, tailors shirts from scratch and feeds a clamoring horde of youngsters without the aid of Chef Boyardee or a microwave. My birthday, always combined with Christmas, was lost in the shuffle. The last memorable birthday present on the ranch west of Three Forks came around the ninth anniversary of my untimely arrival. It was an oil-fired lantern with a broad, woven wick and shiny blue paint, an eminently practical present for a boy who did his after-school chores in the dark on the abbreviated days of winter. Sometimes there was a cake, sometimes not.
A keen anticipation of Christmas more than compensated for the lack of celebratory zeal related to my birthday as a child, so I was mystified later in life when adult friends informed me that birthdays ought to spawn the most heartfelt festivities of the year. The excitement continues to elude me.
I have no day-to-day sense of my actual age. When asked, I usually stop to calculate the span on earth based upon my birth year. More problematic is my seemingly ceaseless inability to remember the requisite cards and presents expected to accompany the birthdays of others, a factor that has frequently sullied past romantic relationships.
In the tradition of Freudian projection, laziness or sheer neglect, my three children also suffer from my boredom with birthdays. They usually get a phone call, sometimes a card. Always they have a present or two, but the items are seldom offered on the "real" day of their birth and less frequently wrapped.
I guiltily confess the same pathetic pattern with my sweetheart. Last spring, in celebration of her birthday, I gave her a hunting rifle the week of April Fools' Day. After graciously accepting the gift, Lisa sweetly reminded me that she had never hunted big game and her birthday is in late May.
But she seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the silvery .308 Marlin Express lever-action and its sleek Alpen scope that seemed to beg for a shot or two. I scattered a few cans around our picnic spot, and Lisa—the New Hampshire half of our long-distance relationship—shouldered the rifle and sent thin tin soup receptacles hurtling through the air like a veteran. Then her deep green eyes turned fixedly on the gift-giver.
"You've given me a rifle for my birthday," she said. "Now you have to take me hunting."
Though Lisa's annunciation of "birthday" seemed strained and slurred, "have to" reverberated in my ears as clearly as the commands of my hawk-like, austere grade school principal. That evening, at home in Billings, I filled out her application for a non-resident antelope tag, fervently hoping the "have to" might also sway the special-licensing gods that moodily brood over the Fish, Wildlife and Parks computers in Helena. In truth, the prospects of sharing an antelope hunt with her seemed as far-fetched as a weekend getaway to a private tropical island.