In the summer, my brother put on his wooly brown bear coat and black ski mask, ran around in the front yard, and we took turns shooting at him with a BB gun.
I learned guns and hunting with my father and Sandy, our cocker spaniel. First with a paper target on a hay bale from thirty feet, then with real life targets on four feet, or wings. I stomped on pricker bushes with tall, green boots. I held my gun pointed up and away, clenching it tight enough to make my knuckles ache. Four giant steps behind my father, I knew I would not shoot until he said it was okay.
At my father’s urging, I took my first shot at something I would have taken home as a pet the day before. The thrill of a moving target became instantly more exciting than Atari. I smelled the gamey scent of warm dead pheasant and rabbit, and hardly flinched when my father shot final bullets into their brains to stop the tremors.
Back home, I showed my mother the swollen, red prickled skin on my shoulder — a result of the gun’s kick. She touched it gently and smiled, then turned back to the pot of boiling water on the stove.
“Rabbit stew,” she said.
I nodded, swallowing hard.
I am not ready yet.
“When you’re ten,” I replied, every time he asked.
Twice, three times a year, that question again. It seemed so far off. I shivered at the thought, displaced it. Until now. He’s ten.
“Be calm, don’t jump around.”
“When is a gun loaded?”
“Listen to Grandpa and Dad.”
“If you kill yourself, I’ll kill you, you know.”
“Mom!” He jiggles in too-large boots. “Can I go now?” Eagerness pools at the rims of his wise eyelids. He measures a proud 56 inches, only an inch and a half shy of his grandmother. I nod and he’s off.
I wonder what makes me so shy of guns now. Is it Columbine? Is it the man and child sniper team? Constant images of a war-torn Middle East? The media that drags us through every sickening action a hundred times a day from a dozen different angles?
Perhaps my shyness stems from apprehension. If my child touches a gun, perhaps he’ll be branded as a potential killer. If he speaks proudly in eavesdropped hallways at school about shooting a gun, will we be called to confer with the principal? Will other parents shield their children away from mine? After so consciously avoiding all toys resembling weapons during my son’s early years, have I talked myself into a state of such political correctness that I would consider stripping my child of a past-time I treasured?
Perhaps it’s his cool, soft boy cheeks and my own eyes staring back at me. I remember shooting at my brother in his furry coat, and imagine the tragedies that could have resulted, tragedies I never considered at the time. We were reckless and lucky. I think of the trust my father had in me, to allow me to walk behind him with a loaded weapon. I don’t think I have that trust yet for my child, not now, maybe not ever. I wonder if my parents should have had it for me.
I turn on the TV and blow-dry my hair, but I can still hear the popping sounds outside the window. I pull aside the curtain and see my son standing tall between his father and grandfather. My husband catches my eye, and assures me with a crooked smile and a nod.
When my boy comes in, I know he will proudly show me his battered paper target, and I will be impressed. And then we will have hot chocolate with marshmallows while he tells me in a suddenly deep voice about the coldness of the steel, the roar of the shot, the thrill of the bulls-eye. In anticipation, and to take my mind off the worrying, I search through the box of photos marked 1978. I find the right one just as I hear cheering from outside, and I pull it out. It’s fading, but clearly I see a long-haired girl standing in a yellow-gray field of plucked corn husks, wearing a baseball cap, a .22 at her shoulder, and a smile as wide as Tennessee.
Ten felt so much older back then.