Snow covered our farm on Christmas morning and bright sunlight made the landscape sparkle like diamonds. I grabbed a biscuit with some bacon mom had prepared that morning and walked outside through our back-porch door into knee-deep snow that clung to my rubber boots.
Voices carried from around the corner of our old garage where a blacksmith once worked before converting the old structure. Model A Fords and tractors were serviced or repaired by my great grandfather and his sons. I stepped around the old, rotted wooden wall to find my dad, grandfathers and two favorite uncles, Leonard and Vinton waiting for me, their shotguns pointed safely at the ground and loaded with No. 6 shotgun shells for cottontail rabbits. I had just turned 14 and this was my first hunt with the family.
We started our trek across the snow-covered fields that were harvested a couple months before, mostly soybeans so the walking was easy. I looked ahead to the woodlot where generations of my family through the years had hunted generations of rabbits that always survived in thick cover.
The cold caressed my face between breaths of sweet, clean air. I stepped carefully to avoid tripping and falling, an embarrassing act especially with family members watching. This was our annual Christmas hunt and I was overjoyed to finally be big enough to join the men for this tradition.
Our goal was for each hunter to shoot two rabbits or enough for one meal and let the rest survive another year. Once a hunter had two rabbits, he continued walking to flush more for the other hunters – rules started by my great, great grandfather more than 100 years before in the old country.
We spread out and entered a point that jutted out toward our cattle-watering pond. Grandpa George kicked a snow-covered heap of grass and was immediately rewarded by a blur of rabbit that ran straight in front of his shooting area.
He took care aim and touched off his Winchester 16-gauge, rolling the rabbit to a final stop. He picked up his bunny and smiled at me before slipping it in his game pouch. I knew exactly how my grandmother would fry that rabbit to a golden-brown, accenting the succulent meat. I hoped to be there.
Minutes later I turned to watch as Grandpa Willie tracked a rabbit with his ancient 12-gauge hammer gun and let fly a hot load of No. 6 shot that dropped his rabbit. The dead hare rolled into a deep ditch at the end of a long creek.
Grandpa was not spry as he once was, so I climbed down and found the bunny. He lit his pipe while I stuffed the rabbit in his hunting jacket pouch. He thanked me with a stout slap on my right shoulder. His burning pipe tobacco smelled good.
The day went on and everyone had at least one rabbit in their pouch. We decided to rest on an old log and my uncles reached in their front hunting pockets and pulled out salami with a block of cheese. We passed the delicacies back and forth, each slicing off a generous portion. We had canteens filled with cistern water that was cool and good. I sat next to dad and he slipped his arm over my shoulders, making me feel proud to be there.
Everyone soon stood up to continue our hunt. I was surprised when my grandfathers almost sprang up, ready to go. They usually tired out quickly and walked back to the house.
Later Dad kicked a brush pile, flushing a large covey of bobwhite quail. The flock seemed to spread both directions and everyone dropped at least one bird, a great addition that would fry up nicely with the rabbits.
I dropped another quail farther down the woodlot and picked it up for a closer look. The men of my family were watching me and smiling. Their faces almost seemed to glow, yet seemed distant and I felt a tinge of sadness, but had no idea why.
Minutes later Uncle Leonard and I walked away from the others and over a hill to check a stock pond for ducks. He pushed me forward up the slick pond dam and I crawled up the bank, being careful to be silent as possible in the dried brush and crunching, icy snow.
I peeked over the bank and was rewarded with a beautiful sight; six greenhead mallards in shallow water about 10 yards away. I turned to motion for my uncle to come up, but he was gone.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and jumped up, spooking the ducks into flight. I took careful aim on one and somehow dropped two back into the cold water, then used a limb to drag the dead ducks over to my reach. They felt good and heavy against my back in the game pouch with a rabbit and two quail.
I walked back to the woodlot and found everyone had gone, so decided to walk back up to the house while noticing that dark clouds blocked out the sun. Big snowflakes suddenly filled the air. Walking through the blizzard was breathtakingly beautiful. I finally reached the farmhouse and could see bright lights from the kitchen.
I peeked in the window and saw my entire family sitting around mom and dad’s dinner table with platters of meat, potatoes, various vegetables in my mother’s green carnival glass bowls and Jell-O salad with cut up fruit and small marshmallows.
Suddenly the family all looked at the window and smiled at me – and then I woke up.
A horrible sadness set in while realizing that all my family was gone and now, I am the old grandpa. Being with those gentle spirits on our annual Christmas hunt had only been a dream – or was it?
I suddenly realized: I had received the best present of all, a Christmas card from my family in heaven.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.