They wore red wool pants with suspenders over woolen long johns. Red wool shirts with patch pockets that held packs of cigarettes and candy bars just right. Red caps, too. When they gathered at the kitchen table in the evenings, after they’d shed that layer, the men sat around the table in long-sleeved thermal underwear shirts wolfing down bowls of soup and homemade doughnuts and oatmeal cookies. They would linger there for hours, telling stories and smoking and laughing.
But mostly, I remember the color red. Pure, bright, perfect red.
I was a November baby. There have been more than a few years that I’ve shared my birthday with the start of deer season, though I’ve never spent a single one sitting in a tree and have no plans to do it this year. When my son asks why I don’t hunt, why I’ve never hunted, I tell him that I got the gathering gene, not the hunting one. The truth? I’m lazy and I get cold. And then I start to whine, which is never helpful in the woods. Ever.
The other truth? I belong to a generation of family members that is comfortable and too busy and for the most part, pretty far removed from the family rituals associated with hunting. It was different a generation or two back. Then, shooting a deer in the fall meant that there would be plenty of venison in family freezers until springtime. Killing a deer wasn’t considered a “sport” then. It was just what people in my family did.
They gathered. And then they hunted. More and more, we’ve become like the children of immigrants who grow up taking English for granted and have forgotten how to speak the language of their grandparents. We are proof that evolution in a family isn’t always a good thing and that comfort comes at a price.
One November evening long ago, I opened the garage door at the house at the lake and found it bustling with busy men and women dressed in red. I must have been seven or eight years old at the time. Two large bucks hung from the rafters, split wide and dripping blood onto the cement floor below. Their wide stares and long necks pulled taut by the ropes around them made them look more than a little surprised. I remember wisps of cigarette smoke wafting up, encircling their heads like halos while the hunters laughed and talked about the shots they’d taken. I remember smoke and sweat and wet wool and dinner smells from the kitchen. I remember the faces bathed in the light. People my children never met. Our people.
A wool shirt with patch pockets that belonged to my grandmother’s only sister hangs in my closet. It is tattered and has been mended on both elbows with scraps of red yarn. I wear it to run errands in November until the snow starts to fly and I switch to my down jacket. When I wear it, I remember her standing in that garage so many Novembers ago.
It is red. The color of warmth and hunting and blood and memories and love.