by MCJ

"Memories of a very fond and much younger time," by Jefferson G. Tracy

This story won favorite overall in response to the 2006 Tracy Island Writers Forum's Silly Fic Title challenge as voted by TIWF members.

When I was young boy and growing up on the wheat farm in Kansas, I began to notice, as children do, that my Mother and Father shared a special kind of nightly ritual. It was something Dad always believed was important to Mother and something he made sure he never missed. It was something, he told me just before he died, that also gave meaning to his life and made everything he did worthwhile.

The ritual was simple.

You see, no matter how long the day was on that farm, or hard, my parents always made an effort to sit side by side on our old wooden porch swing and talk to each other.

Every night.

Thirty minutes after dinner.

It was always Dad who instigated that conversation. He'd smile at Mother and slowly offer her his often work-weary hand. "Nice night out, Josephine," he would say as he gently drew her to her feet. Mother would look up and smile at Dad too. "Indeed it is, Grant" she would inevitably reply. Then, without any more discussion, she allowed him to open the screen door for her before the two of them disappeared, hand in hand, into the darkness.


Back then every night was a nice night out in Dad's opinion.

Especially thirty minutes after dinner.

Sometimes the two of them would stay out there and talk for hours; especially if the season was rough and Mother was worried. I would watch from my bedroom window as Dad sat next to her on the old wooden swing and listened attentively. Sometimes what she said made him nod his head. Other times what she said made him lower it. No matter what it was she said, Dad never failed to wrap his arms around Mother, kiss the top of her head, and offer his quiet reassurance. Things would be all right, he would murmur over and over again. She ought to know by now she could trust him to provide.

Other times they would sit out on the porch together and say very little. On those nights, the silence between them was made obvious by the groaning and creaking of the old porch swing. Dad would look into Mother's eyes. Mother would gaze into Dad's. When the time came, so did their words; Dad's voice muffled and barely a whisper; Mother's voice stifled and hardly a whisper too. Then there would be silence again as he kissed her under the beautiful starlit sky. I guess those few whispered words of love said more to both of them than the longest conversation.

As I grew, I became rather intrigued not only with the ritual but also at the thirty minute interval between the dinner table and the porch. Why did it always have to be thirty minutes I queried? Why couldn't it be twenty or even twenty-five?

Believe me, once I started asking Dad questions about his private time with Mother I soon learned the hard way that it takes a lot more than thirty minutes to clean up a kitchen when you don't have any help, not to mention fumble about in the darkness without a flashlight trying to lock down a barn. After a week of experimentation I'd literally "learnt my lesson" and I was actually rather relieved when Dad asked if the answer to my questions had become apparent to me yet.

A fifteen year old could never have been more certain when faced with the threat of yet another night attending to the chores.

There were things a married couple needed to do in the first thirty minutes after Dinner, I told him without hesitation, and I would never forget that he was the one who said it.

Boy oh boy, my Father sure had a knack of making a point back then when he had to.

The years rolled on and it wasn't long before I became a man in my own right. Leaving the wheat fields of Kansas behind me, I began the pursuit of excellence in my chosen career. The Air Force left me little time to think about my old life on the farm but every opportunity I got I came back to visit my parents. When I did, it was comforting to see nothing much had changed.

The farmhouse was the same.

The wheat fields were the same.

And so was Mother and Dad's ritual.

They may have been noticeably older now but Dad still smiled at Mother and offered her his hand. Mother still looked up at him and smiled as he gently drew her to her feet. She still allowed Dad to open the screen door for her. They still disappeared together into the darkness.

And watching the two of them, hand in hand on the old wooden porch swing, it was nice to know Dad was still having "a nice night out".

With Mother.

Thirty minutes after dinner.

It didn't seem to bother him that I knew he kissed her when he took her out onto the porch. To be quite frank with you, Dad didn't care less what anyone thought when it came down to how he felt about Mother.

"One day you'll understand why I do what I do son." he said, his eyes not leaving mine. "And trust me when I say it couldn't be more important."

I suppose it didn't hit me that anything like that was important until a few years later when I fell in love with Lucy and became a married man myself.

Initially it didn't hit me at all.

Young and in love, I continued to have a good old fashioned laugh at Dad's insistence that married couples had things they needed to do in the first thirty minutes after dinner. Lucy and I blew that theory out of the water in the very first month of our marriage. We weren't about to wait thirty minutes for the opportunity to show each other how we felt. In our opinion cleaning up the kitchen could wait until the morning and we both knew for a fact there weren't any barns needing to be locked down in the vicinity of our Houston apartment.

But as I held Lucy in my arms, our bodies together as one in the darkness, I suddenly realised my whispered voice sounded exactly like my Father's. Lucy's was sounding surprisingly like Mother's too.

You can only begin to imagine how I felt when I saw what time it was on the clock to the left of our bedside.

"What?" Lucy frowned as I collapsed my body on top of hers and began to laugh and laugh.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Princess." I muffled into her beautiful chestnut hair. "And you really don't want to know."

You see, seconds earlier, the earth had moved for both of us.

Exactly thirty minutes after dinner.

It wasn't long after that night that I had a final conversation with my Father on the importance of his little ritual.

I remember every word of it as if it were only yesterday.

I'd managed to score myself a couple of well-deserved days off and decided to make the drive to Kansas to visit Mother and Dad. Lucy had discovered she was pregnant and I wanted to be there in person when we broke the happy news.

As expected Mother couldn't have been more thrilled. She made such a fuss of both of us she completely forgot to cook Dad's dinner and for the first time ever in my memory "Dad's nice night out" looked in serious danger of being cancelled.

I looked at Dad as he smiled and shook his head at Mother racing around the kitchen. Her selfless energy and love for her family never ceased to amaze him.

Irrespective, it was clear he still intended to instigate an conversation of some sort and it soon became apparent the conversation was about to be with me.

Heaving himself out of his favourite armchair, he looked over to where I sat and motioned me to follow him through the old screen door.

"It's getting dark out." he said. "I'd sure appreciate some help locking the barn down for the night son."

I threw a smile at Lucy and immediately rose to my feet.

"No problem, Dad." I shrugged not even realising the significance.

My tall frame followed his as we stepped outside into the darkness.

It was hard not to notice the old porch swing as we descended down the stairs of the farmhouse. Dad had sat with me on that swing for over three hours when I informed him I was intending to marry Lucy. The memory was still fresh, too fresh. We'd only been married a couple of months. I shoved my hands in my pockets and prepared myself for the inevitable. I bet Dad couldn't believe there was a baby on the way so soon and he was about to deliver a set of guidelines on the importance of being a parent.

"Nice night out, son." was all he said as we walked together towards the barn.

"Yes it is, Dad. Very nice." I replied, waiting for the talk.

The silence that followed made me pretty nervous and I was even more nervous when the barn loomed up in front of us and he stopped and began to eye me carefully. "Uh oh," I thought to myself. "Here he goes."

But Dad somehow surprised me. Once he started, it was obvious nothing was further from his mind than giving me advice on my upcoming parenthood.

"So..." he began jovially, "... do you still think it takes less than thirty minutes to lock this thing down, Jeff?" .

I was never more grateful for the darkness than I was at that particular moment. The last thing Dad needed to see was me blushing at the thought of my past foolishness.

"Come on, Dad, you know I'm not fifteen anymore." I protested.

"No you're not." he acknowledged. "I was just wondering if something or should I say someone might have changed your thinking over the past few months."

I shook my head and laughed.

"Dad, you made it more than clear eleven years ago there are things a man needs to do for the first thirty minutes after dinner. I don't think I'll ever need to be reminded about that again."

Dad smiled. "I'm glad to hear you admit to that to me, Jeff."

I smiled too. "I have to, Dad. I'm a married man these days myself you know."

With that Dad put his arm around my shoulders and suggested we return to the farmhouse. Ignoring my confusion at why we hadn't made an effort to lock down the barn for the night, he went on to agree that yes, I was a married man these days, and before many more months had elapsed I was also going to be a Father. With that in mind I needed to listen very carefully to what else he had to say.

The best investment I could make in my children was to raise them in an atmosphere of love, and if I wanted to do that, it was up to me to make a concerted effort to keep the spark alive with my wife. It didn't have to be thirty minutes after dinner. Hell I could do it in the middle of the night if I wanted to. Just as long as I made sure I did it. He himself just happened to pick thirty minutes after dinner because he hated cleaning up the kitchen almost as much as I did.

"Dad!" I exclaimed almost in a state of shock. "I can't believe you take thirty minutes to lock down the barn every night just so you get out of helping Mother with the dishes!"

Dad laughed. There were a lot of things about him I didn't know, he grinned, and he wasn't about to admit to any more of them right now.

"You know what, Dad? "I said to my Father, shaking my head at him in amusement. "You really are something special you know."

As we neared the farmhouse Dad paused one last time and his weathered face grew serious. His eyes met mine under a starlit Kansas sky. No; he wasn't all that special. He was only a Farmer. He'd only ever be a Farmer. But what he did have in his life was something a heck of a lot of important men in this world didn't have and never would have because they didn't think it was important enough.

"The love of a good woman." he said. "And while there's breath in my body Jeff, I intend to keep it that way."

You have no idea how those words affected me and how hard it was to emulate my Father in the months and years which followed.

But I tried.

And once I did, it wasn't only Mother and Dad who had a "nice night out."

Thirty minutes after dinner.

You know, three years to the day of that wonderful conversation, my Father suddenly died.

He died without warning and without saying goodbye to the woman he had loved for over thirty years.

Mother said the night before he left her, he made a real effort to make their "nice night out" something very special. Somehow he must have known it was going to be his time, she said, because for the first time in his life Dad stayed back after dinner to help her with the dishes.

"Guess I just want to be with you." Mother said he told her. "Not just thirty minutes after dinner Josephine... but for always."

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