Just where the hell is Little Rabbit, Australia and how can I get there?
For my father,
For as long as I can remember, every Christmas whenever I asked my father what I was going to get for Christmas he always told me, “ a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle, handmade in Little Rabbit, Australia.” And when I say every Christmas, I mean every Christmas, and my asking him usually started in August. As we grew older the date would get later and later each year, but I always asked the question and the answer was always the same.
Now, from two years old until around eleven, I usually asked every other relative what his answer meant, until that age when you learn that the certain facts of childhood morph into the myths of being an adult. That time of your life when you give serious thought to what you want to be when you grow up, not knowing the real answer will one day be “young again”. But I never stopped asking. And he never stopped answering. And the answer never changed.
“ a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle, handmade in Little Rabbit, Australia.”
This is my father.
Colbert Jackson Burris
This was taken sometime in late 1944 or early 1945, in San Diego, prior to shipping out to the Pacific Theater. He would have been around 19 years old. He was designated a Pharmacists Mate Third Class and would be stationed on a US Navy medical transport ship, near the Islands of Palau. He would return to Tishomingo in late 1945, just in time for Christmas. He was almost twenty one, and along with his older brother, Harrison, he had travelled farther from Oklahoma than anyone in his family had ever before. A fact that dates back for centuries.
He was born in Tishomingo, Oklahoma in August of 1925, a member of the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indian Nations. His father was Hindman H. Burris, Jr., whose father was Hindman H. Burris, Sr., whose father was Colbert Ashalatubbi Burris. My father’s mother was Minnie Belle Colbert, a descendant of James Logan Colbert. She could swing a tennis racket at a chicken and before you knew it dinner was served.
As a result of the time of his birth, my father was a child of the depression, living in Oklahoma. Christmas’s were most likely a humble celebration compared to what it has become now. My Grandparents lived on their original allotment of land; my father grew up within walking distance of Hughes Crossing at Blue River, south of Tishomingo. It was there, as a child that he learned to hunt, fish, and swim.
I was born when my father was in his late 30’s, the last of four children. I don’t honestly recall my father ever laying a hand on me growing up, not for discipline. Oh, he had to occasionally straighten my ass out but he never hit me. I might have been grounded once or twice but I don’t recall anything specific. All that I remember is a man who woke before dawn to go to work and usually arrived back home no later than 5:30, and that was when he worked within walking distance of our home. From fourth grade until I was a senior in high school I would occasionally work with my father.
This is important. These are the things that go to make up a life. My father never told me what to do; he showed me what to do. That might have been anything from how to bait a hook, cast a line, or press a shirt.
My father always did the best he could. And that was enough.
My mother, however, taught me to drive, which should explain a few things.
But in setting expectations, my father always poured oil in the water when it came to Christmas. Try for the first ten years of your life explaining to your friends that your parents are going to get you a “whim-wham for a goose’s bridle, handmade in Little Rabbit, Australia.” It does not translate well into the secret language of childhood.
As I grew older I expected the same answer and always asked the same question. I wonder how I would have reacted to a different answer.
During the time that a child receives those type of gifts that are put out after they go to sleep on Christmas eve and before they wake up on Christmas morning and the time when the gifts are wrapped days or weeks in advanced, I adjusted to the idea that I would get what I wanted and not get what I would be told, at least by my father.
I would ask my aunts and uncles, sisters and brother, what a “whim-wham for a goose’s bridle’ was, and just how exactly it was going to fulfill my wants and desires. I either never received an answer or if I did it was never the same answer twice. But I asked them all the same. I even asked my eighth grade geography teacher to show me Little Rabbit, Australia on a map. He was not much help. I checked encyclopedias and books on Australia with no luck. Searching for a “whim-wham for a goose’s bridle” seemed secondary to finding its point of origin.
Somewhere during that time when Christmas gifts gradually turn from what you want to what you need, from toys to clothes, and gifts to gift cards, the what I was going to get became less important than the where it was coming from.
In the fourth grade a teacher told my class that all human beings need three things to survive; Food, Shelter, and Clothing.
She later threw a curve ball by adding a fourth; Love.
Try buying that one off a store shelf, try stocking up on that in case of emergency. But I don’t hold a grudge against her.
An author once stated that all great art reflects life and thus the subject matter is always about the Three L’s.
Love, Loss, and Loneliness.
Turns out they were both right.
I never stopped asking the question, he never stopped giving the exact same answer.
I have never stopped wanting and looking for the answer.
To My Father.
You died on a Thursday.
It was a cold day in January, 2004, two weeks short of my 40th birthday. I was just a year older than you were when I was born.
I received a call at work telling me you had been in a wreck. I left work to pick up mother and to take her to the hospital. I knew nothing about the wreck. On the way to the hospital, I drove over a large spot of oil and water, and glass near the exit of the grocery store you always shopped at. Everyone there knew your name.
I got to the hospital as they were about to transfer you to the heart hospital next door. You were awake but in pain.
You told mother you loved her.
It was four months shy of your 57th wedding anniversary. You were married on a warm day in May, 1947
They had to transport you the 200 yards to the heart hospital in an ambulance in case your heart stopped. There was not enough room in the ambulance for the two doctors caring for you. They ran outside just behind the ambulance in case something happened. It was just above freezing and beginning to rain.
A nurse in the emergency room pulled me to one side and told me that an x-ray showed that one of your main arteries was split from your heart and filling your chest with blood. She told me that this was what happened to Princess Diana; I guess she thought I did not remember how that story ended.
At the heart hospital I was the only one they would let in to see you as they prepped you for surgery.
I held your hand.
And in those times that God gives you to accomplish those things that need to be done, I just stood there and held your hand.
I could not find the words.
I did not tell you about how you were the greatest man I have ever known. I did not tell you about how all the good things that happen to me are because you showed me how to do things and not told me how to do them.
I did not tell you how much I loved you.
I was the last person to see you that you knew by name.
You told me to take care of mother.
I did the best I could.
The nurses told me later that just before they started to give you anesthesia you had started to tell them all jokes.
When you are in the waiting area of the heart hospital, they give you a vibrating pager to track you down if someone needs to speak with you.
We waited in the main lobby of the hospital; the pager would vibrate several times every 30 or 40 minutes. I would always leave my mother pretending that I needed to use the phone and call someone, each time expecting the worse.
This lasted for four hours.
Finally I got a call from the surgeon. No matter how hard they tried, they could not keep your heart beating. I asked if he could come and tell my mother. I went back to her and sat and waited unable to speak a word. It was a while before he came down to us. He told her the news that I could not.
She would cry everyday from that point on, and near the end, in the haze of her last days, she would ask me when you were going to come see her again.
I did not have the words.
What do I have left of you? A real silver dollar from the year you were born. Some pocket knives. Another coin with the image of a horse’s head on one side, its tail on the other. A few photos and a flag. And your chair….
Later that night, after we left the hospital, I got her home and into bed.
I sat in your chair.
I still have it. Sometimes it is the only place in the world that I can find peace. I sit in it and look out the window. Nights that I cannot sleep I sit in it and read.
No matter how much you think you are prepared, there are times when you are not.
No matter how much joy you find in the world, there are times when there is none.
And sometimes you must search and search, when there is nothing to be found.
Every Christmas I still ask what I am getting, and inside I hear the answer.
“ a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle, handmade in Little Rabbit, Australia.”
The voice I hear has become my own.
What is “a whim-wham for a goose’s bridle”?
It is that thing you need most that you are least equipped to handle.
And just where the hell is “Little Rabbit, Australia”? And how do I get there?
Where is the map?
What are the coordinates?
The longitude and latitude?
They are etched forever on the map of my heart.