Summary: Alone with his newborn son, Ben reflects on the past and future.
Word Count: 3353
You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
And so become yourself, because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well…
…just look at them and sigh and know they love you.”
(“Teach Your Children Well”: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
© Graham Nash, writer
Late at night, long after the family had settled into blameless sleep and when only a few embers remained to spread a faint glow in the darkness of the hearth, Ben Cartwright crept downstairs, with a tightly swaddled bundle in his arms. Barefoot, and with a robe flung carelessly over his nightshirt, Ben moved so carefully that one might imagine he was transporting a precious structure made of delicate crystal. Having safely navigated the stairs, he pulled a chair close to the warmth of the fireplace and sat down, just as the bundle gave a determined wriggle. A small hand worked its way free from the confines of the blanket and grasped at the empty air with an almost triumphant delight. Extending his little finger, Ben allowed the tiny hand to clasp it with surprising strength for one so very young and so very small. As he gazed at the baby in his arms, a sense of peace and fulfillment suffused him. He loved this child so much; his heart was so full that it actually hurt.
There was just enough light cast by the fire to touch their faces with a flickering radiance. In the silent solitude, Ben eased comfortably back into the chair and began to talk in a low, conversational voice. Was it his imagination, or did Joseph’s eyes sparkle with infantile recognition? For a brief, magical hour, late at night while the world dreamed peacefully, a father poured out his heart to his son, drawing on the bonds which already bound them inextricably together and forging new ties of love, building a relationship that would grow stronger throughout the coming years.
My beautiful, perfect son.
You are not even one day old, yet already I cannot imagine life without you. You captured my heart from the moment you were born and now you will hold it in your tight little grasp forever. What power you have, my tiny boy, to stir such powerful emotions in a grown man, to unman me completely. I cried for sheer joy and absolute happiness when I held you for the first time. And now, holding you in the still of the night, when everyone else is asleep, I feel that same surge of emotion, of pure contentment. What power you have, to make me feel like this, my little son. But I will not cry, not now, for I there are so many things I want to say to you, to share with you…and who knows when we will have this opportunity again.
You are so small that I could balance you perfectly in the palm of one hand — if I dared. But it has been several years since I held such a tiny life, so, just for now I think I will cradle you in my arms, savoring the feeling of closeness, and keeping you secure. Maybe my memory is playing tricks with me, but I do not remember either of your brothers being so small or helpless. Of course, I was a different man in those days and I did not have much time for the small luxury of simply sitting and cuddling my baby. That was wrong: I should have made the time, I realize that now. I am determined not to make that mistake again. I will spend every moment I can with you, just enjoying my new son. Nothing is more important or more precious than spending time with you. Babyhood lasts for such a brief time, but it is shot with shining perfection and I want to treasure each moment of your life.
What lies ahead of you, my son? I yearn to be able to protect you and to keep you safe. I hope I will be able guide you through the tumults that undoubtedly lie ahead, no matter how hard I try to steer you towards a safe course in calm waters. But this is your life and you must make your own choices, Joseph. Just know that whatever you do, I will be beside you and I will always love you.
Right now, you are lying quietly in my arms, sated with milk and your eyes are starting to close, but you fight against it, staring up at me with rapt fascination. How long will that look of innocent wonder remain in your gaze? And for how long will you allow me to cherish you so unreservedly? There is nothing to compare with the joy of holding your son in your arms and letting the love flow from one body into another. I have longed for this moment and it is more wonderful than I could ever have imagined. I wish that it could last forever.
You burst into this world early this morning, just as the sun was breaking over the mountains, just as the first golden beams danced upon the polished wood of the bedroom floor. And you promptly screamed out your fury and resentment, making sure everyone knew you were here! From that first moment, I knew that my life was never going to be the same again. In that one instant, everything had changed. You came into my life and filled a void that I did not even know existed. Will you go on catching me by surprise?
Each of my boys has brought me joy, but your birth was so very special. When I think back to Adam’s birth, it is so inextricably linked with Elizabeth’s death…the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. I loved Adam – of course I did, but I mourned for his mother at the same time and I think that the two emotions were often in warring conflict. Sometimes I wonder if I did justice to either birth or death. I know that I stopped living for a while and merely existed in a numb haze, unwilling or unable to acknowledge pain or happiness. But your birth has only brought me joy — more joy than I could ever imagine.
After Elizabeth’s death, there was no real opportunity to simply sit in solitude and revel in the ephemeral joy of holding a new life, one for whom no boundaries are yet set, a child for whom the whole world sits ready and waiting, with welcoming wide arms. No, there was no such sensation when Adam was born. I fumbled around blindly, wanting only to leave the place that held so many memories, and to take my son and to start a new life, just for the two of us. The two of us. Previously, that had meant Elizabeth and me, but she went on ahead and alone, leaving me only memories…and our son.
So we left our old life behind and headed out west, making the journey without her. It was not an easy life; perhaps it was foolhardy of me to even attempt such a passage, but at the time I was almost beyond reason and I did not think of practicalities. All I knew was that I had to start afresh. Travel and constant change was the only life Adam knew for a long time. I always knew I could rely on Adam and he has never let me down.
Adam will look after you too, I know that. He is old enough to start being a real help to me on the ranch. And even though he is busy with own life: going to school and learning to ride, he still helps around the house and looks after Hoss. Adam will make time in his life for you too, I know he will. When Adam reads aloud to you, as I know he will, you will venture down imaginary paths with him and enter into wonderful, fantastical worlds. You listen to all that your brother Adam tells you, do you hear me, Joseph? He’s a smart boy, your oldest brother, and he works hard at his books. In fact, he’s quite the scholar already. Will that be your path too, little one?”
Ben looked curiously at the baby, who screwed his face up in momentary distaste and kicked his legs furiously against the confining folds of the blanket, almost as if he was trying to escape from the fate of an academic life.
You really don’t like that idea much, do you? Well, perhaps you will be like your brother, Hoss and prefer to spend time outdoors. Does that sound more exciting? Maybe you will the son who rides as far and fast as the wind, unfettered by care and seeking out excitement wherever you can? Perhaps that is your destiny. Well, you can try that, but when you are little older. I’ll keep you safe at home for a few years first of all. There will always be a place for you here, at home. This is where you belong.
You should also listen to your brother Hoss, and learn from him. Hoss takes the time to look at things, to really look at them and he understands nature with a deep resonance that is sometimes frightening in a small boy. He is happiest when outside, as befits a child born on the trail. When you are older, Hoss will teach you about the animals and plants that you find around Lake Tahoe. Listen to your brother and you will learn so much. Not all learning is found in books, after all. Sometimes all you have to do is to open your eyes and see the beauty and wonder that is all around you.
If Adam is the scholar, then Hoss is the child of nature, and he has a loving heart. Right now, he is rather resentful of you, but that will change. For your arrival has changed his life and altered the axis of his world, so he is feeling rather jealous at the moment. I suspect it will take Hoss a little time to adjust. Of course, it would help things if you are a good boy and a nice, quiet baby. I wonder if you will be?
Do you know that you are the first child born on the Ponderosa? The first child to be born in this house?
Unwittingly, Ben joggled his arm a little too vigorously and the sleepy baby glared up at him, his small face creased in frowning displeasure. Acting quickly, Ben soothed the child before any indignant bellows could wake the rest of the household.
I’m sorry, my pet. Papa won’t do that again.
You are the first child born in this house and that makes you very special. You belong here, more than any of us. This is your land – we just settled here, but it is your birthright and it is in your bones. Your birth has made our family complete. At last I am able to give to give my sons a secure life and a permanent home and I do not think we will ever move again. There is no reason to: the Ponderosa is so beautiful and it has everything a man could desire. So I hope you will be happy here. I traveled for so long to find this place, but the restless wandering is over now. I realized that it was time to settle down and make a real life, to build something of value, rather than searching for some elusive goal, beguiled by the thought there will always be something better over the next horizon. Sometimes you have to seize the moment, trust in your judgment and gamble that you are right. I think it is easier to wander aimlessly, never committing fully to anything, than to make a real, solid commitment.
From the first moment saw the Ponderosa, I knew I had found my heart’s desire – this was the ultimate goal, the place where I could build my home and watch my family grow. I have everything I want right here and I am content. I journeyed right across this great country and I found the perfect spot. Here, where there is room to breath and time to gaze up at the sky and rejoice. Yet, there was a time when all the wide emptiness filled me with fear. That was when your brother Hoss was born, when we were still on the trail.
His birth terrified me. There we were, miles from anywhere and I was so worried that something would go wrong, just as it had when Adam was born. Inger was calm and stoic, leaving me to do all the fretting for both of us. Of course, she was very different from Elizabeth and everything was fine. Mother and baby were both fine. I thought then that my life was whole again: a wife, two healthy sons and so we struck out westward once more, with new hope in our hearts. Now, let me tell you something — traveling in a wagon with a newborn baby and a young boy is an interesting experience! It is not one I would particularly care to repeat, I must say. But we were young, life seemed very sweet and I thought that nothing could touch us. I was wrong.
Yes, my little son; your father was wrong. I failed to protect my family. That is something I will always regret. I promise you that I will try not to make that mistake again. So, if I am sometimes a little too overprotective, perhaps you will realize why and indulge me in my foolishness. It is born out of love and fear. I could not bear to lose you, Joseph. You see, right now you are safe here in my arms, so it will be a struggle to let you go out into the world with all its inherent dangers. All I want to do is to keep you safe, to shield you from harm, to make sure you are happy. If we are very lucky, maybe I will be able to do that for a few years. And yet I know I will have to let you go one day. That is the way of the world. But it does not mean that I will ever stop worrying about you. Of course, you will also have your Mama and your brothers looking after you as well. Together, maybe we can give you the golden childhood I dreamt of for my first two boys.
Every father wants to give his children the world, but all I have to offer is this small patch of heaven we call the Ponderosa. And a Mama and Papa who think you are the most special baby in the world and two brothers who love you. Well, Hoss will come to love you, one day…I know he will. He’s a good boy, but he is confused right now and I think he just needs a little time. There’s no rush. We can give him that time. After all, we have all the time in world.
I am so lucky, so very lucky. I have three boys, a beautiful wife and whole future on my doorstep. My dreams have all come true. I can ask for nothing more.”
By now it was growing very late, and the baby was, after all, very new. Ben watched in fascination as Joseph made a series of small snuffling noises and closed his eyes. The light from the fire was fading fast, as the last remaining embers started to die into ash and he gently stroked the curve of his newborn son’s cheek, marveling in the softness, even as he gazed lovingly at the little face. Ben felt he would never grow tired of watching this new son, brimful of promise and he longed to see how his baby would grow. What sort of a man would he become? What impact would he make on his surroundings? What challenges and what joys lay ahead? As he contemplated the sparkling wonders of life, the still peace of the night enveloped father and son, wrapping them in velvet softness.
My beautiful, perfect son.
Here you are, so tiny and helpless, newly entering into a brave, new world that is all ready and just waiting for you to make your mark upon it. What great things will you do? What dreams will govern your course in life? Whatever you decide upon, I will support you. I want you to be able to follow your heart. As long as my boys are happy and safe, then I can ask for nothing more. I will be at your side to help you achieve your dreams. And so will your mother and brothers. You have the love of a whole family.
All that I can wish for, I wish for you. I wish you a long and happy life, filled with love. From the moment you were born, you had all my heart. Be happy, my darling son, just be happy. My life began again the day I met your mother. She brought joy back into my soul and made the world whole again. And then she gave me you — the greatest gift of all. I have everything a man could possibly wish for. So that is what I wish for you: that one day, you will know true happiness and joy. And that you will have one perfect hour, like the one we have spent together tonight. In the course of a lifetime, it is the small things that make the most golden memories. I will never forget this special time we spent together.
My son. I have so many dreams for you, but all I really want is for you to be happy and healthy. That is all any parent ever wants.
Moving very carefully, so that he did not disturb the slumbering infant, Ben rose to his feet and padded back upstairs, raising Joseph gently onto his shoulder with familiar ease and cradling the small body against his chest. Halfway up the staircase, he paused and turned to look back down at the room below him. It was no longer just a house: now it was a home.
Be happy, my precious son. Grow in love. Tomorrow belongs to you.
Holding the baby close, so that his cheek caressed the small, warm head, Ben drank in the delicious baby scent and marveled at the perfection of this new life. Just ahead a door lay ajar and the room seemed to beckon him forwards. Ben saw the glimmer of Marie’s hair spread over the pillows, while silver moonbeams shimmered faintly on the counterpane and serenity and hope filled his soul. With infinite care and tenderness, he laid Joseph in the small cradle at his mother’s side and then turned to look out of the window at the dark purple radiance of the sky, studded with stars and glistening with the pale, kindly light of the moon. It was a night he would always remember, when he realized the magnitude and wonder of love, and when he celebrated the fragile perfection of a new life that gave him a new hope and purpose.
“Thanks,” Ben whispered and then pulled back the covers and climbed into bed. He had matchless gifts in abundance. He had all a man could possibly want.
And you, of the tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
they seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well…
…just look at them and sigh and know they love you.
(“Teach Your Children Well”: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
© Graham Nash, writer