Many have been the autumn Saturdays that the pop pop pop of shotguns and the yells of “There! There!” and “Over you!” have awakened me from a sound sleep. The field to the east of Sandhill, flat and broad, is the perfect place for a dove shoot and generations of the men in my family have gathered there with their friends for what is to them the quintessential social occasion.
Rain made the harvest late and hurried this year and, as a result, it looked like dove season was going to pass without a single gathering of hunters just outside my back door. This past Saturday was the last possible opportunity. And that last possible opportunity turned out to be the best possible opportunity for Jackson to experience his first shoot.
His daddy took a spot just behind the house at the edge of the branch, close enough to that back door that when it got too cold or noisy or boring, Jackson could simply come inside. And that's what he did after a while – marched himself in, proclaimed that he was cold and thirsty, and announced that he wanted popcorn and SpongeBob SquarePants.
I popped the corn, found the Nickelodeon channel, and sat down on the couch to continue a conversation with my cousin who was home for the holidays from South Carolina. “You’re talking too loud,” Jackson offered. We lowered our voices, but apparently not enough for him to hear Spongebob and Patrick because, within seconds, he turned and looked at me with the stern expression I suspect he has learned from his father and said, "I'm putting you on the naughty list."
JJ and I lowered our voices even further and both activities continued to the satisfaction of all participants. And before you could say Krabby Patty, Jackson had warmed up enough that he was ready to rejoin the menfolk, who eventually, one by one, camouflage-clad and rosey-cheeked, made their way to the house to offer their identical, mono-syllabic responses to my question of how the shoot had gone. “Good,” each of them said.
I suspect that Jackson will have little memory of his first dove shoot. I suspect that he, like his great-grandfather and grandfather and father, will spend so many hours, mornings, afternoons, wandering these fields and fencerows that the individual moments will eventually meld into one single tableau, a revolving mural, sort of like the Cyclorama, with scene after scene of men in earth-colored clothing.
I, on the other hand, will remember his first dove shoot. I will remember that it was on the Saturday before Christmas. That I was still trying to get the tree up and the house decorated. That I was fretting a little over the fact that I hadn't done my grocery shopping for Christmas Eve and that I had been less than diligent with my Advent wreath. And I will remember that he told me that he was going to put me on the naughty list not because it hurt my feelings, made me feel guilty, or bothered me at all.
I will remember it because a couple of days later I realized the power of that statement. Santa isn't the only one with a naughty list. Each of us has one. And we add people to it every time they disappoint us or fail to live up to our expectations, every time they behave in a way in which we don't approve or make choices that are different from the ones we would make. We put them on the naughty list and withhold the gifts of attention and acceptance. We put them on the naughty list and deny them our respect and appreciation. We label them as “other” and justify it all.
That kind of revelation is especially powerful at Christmas, the holiday centered on the story of a baby born in a barn, whose parents will soon flee an evil government and become refugees.
I don’t want to be on the naughty list. But more than that I don’t want to be the person making the naughty list. I don’t want to be the person keeping track, keeping count, keeping score. I want to be the person standing at the back door and handing out popcorn to anybody that wants to come in out of the cold.