Saturday, December 22, 1973.
“Why are you wasting your time?”
“I’m not wasting my time,” Benny said.
“Nobody’s going to want them,” his older brother Sammy chided. “They look old and ratty.”
“I don’t care,” the ten-year-old boy sparked back. And with that, he walked out of the house, and placed the last wooden birdhouse on the porch..
“They look ugly,” Sam teased. “Nobody’s going to want them. Not even the birds.”
“Stop teasing me,” Benny piped, wiping away a small mound of snow from the porch ledge and placing the hand-made bird house – a box made of scrap wood, with two chunks of wood for the roof, and a small hole drilled into one of the birdhouse sides – next to the other two birdhouses he had built earlier in the week.
“Those things look terrible. What a waste of time.”
Benny wiped his nose. “I have to make a sign for them. Or else nobody will know how much to pay for them.”
“Pfft,” Sam snarled. “Nobody’s going to leave money for you. They’ll take them and leave you nothing. Heck, you should offer to pay people to take them away.”
“Take that back or I’ll tell mom you were mean to me.”
“Go ahead,” Sammy smiled. “Just see if you get anything for Christmas from Santa Claus for snitching on me, you little baby.”
Benny thought for a moment. It was only a few days ago when he and his older brother Sammy all left the Pines of Iverhill trailer park, on a visit to ShopCo for Christmas gifts. And when Benny saw the shopping mall Santa – the same Santa who wore the sunglasses in the Christmas parade the day before – he asked Santa to bring him anything and everything for Christmas.
And he remembered Santa’s words. “I’d be glad to get you everything, little boy,” he laughed, “but are you going to give any gifts to your family?”
“I can’t, Santa … I don’t have any money.”
“Well, my boy, Santa will tell you a secret. The best gifts aren’t those that are bought, my child. Maybe if you made something special, it would be just as special a gift on Christmas as one that came from the store.”
And Benny thought about what Santa said.
That afternoon, as he and Sammy went outside to play in the snow, Benny found, in a nearby yard, some old wooden planks. They were wet and cold planks, pieces of wood from an old, broken pallet.
The pallet was next to a trailer in the mobile home park. Benny knocked on the trailer door.
An older, slender man opened the door. “Yes? What do you want?”
“Sir, my name is Benny Larcer and I live down the road in the mobile home park, and – ”
“Yes, I’ve seen you around. What do you want?”
“Sir, would it be okay if I took some of your wood from that old pallet next to your house?”
“What do you want that old wood for?”
“I want to – I want to build a birdhouse.”
“A birdhouse? It’s December, little boy, all the birds have gone South for the winter.”
“Yes, but I want to build one so that when they come back, they’ll have a home to visit.”
The man thought for a moment. “Take a few planks, but be careful. Those nails are rusty and you could cut yourself.”
“Yes sir, thank you.”
Over the next few days, Sammy gave Benny some old tools from their father – a hammer, a saw, some nails and some glue – and Benny cut the wood away from the pallets. And after a while, he stopped worrying about how cold it was outside, as he sawed the wood and nailed it together as best as he could.
He thought about making a birdhouse – something that would encourage the local songbirds to visit and sing and make his mother happy. Mom hadn’t been happy for a while, not since Dad left the house a few months ago and never came back. Maybe the birds would sing and chirp and tweet, and Mom would smile again. Just once. For Christmas, maybe.
The first birdhouse he made was rough and ragged, but to Benny it was a masterpiece. So much so, in fact, that he wanted to make a second one.
Another knock on the trailer door. The slender man opened the door.
“Yes – oh it’s you, the Larcer kid.”
“Yes sir, it’s me.”
“Did you make your birdhouse?”
“Yes I did sir, but I want to make another one.”
“Yes, can I use some more of your pallet wood?”
The slender man glared down at what was left of the pallet. “Okay, but be careful. Don’t break the wood, you might leave slivers in the snow and that wouldn’t be good.”
“I’ll be careful, sir.”
More wood from the pallet. More cutting and nailing and hammering. And maybe this one would be for his older brother Sammy.
It was hard for Benny to tell Sammy how much he really appreciated all that his big brother did for him. All the times when the kids at Black Oak Elementary School would pick on him and bully him and taunt him, it was Sammy who came to the rescue every time. Especially the Soutière brothers, Isaac and Joshua. They frightened Benny, even threatened to beat him up if he tried to sled down the hill at the school with the other kids. Sammy put a stop to that.
It’s hard to tell your older brother that you’re glad he’s there for you. Especially those nights when Sammy coughed and wheezed all night and couldn’t sleep. How do you tell your brother that you’re worried about him, that you want to protect him as much as he protected you every day at Black Oak Elementary School?
Maybe the birdhouse will help.
And by Thursday, Benny completed his second birdhouse. It looked better than the first – not completely perfect, but according to Sammy’s old Scouting handbooks, the finished product sort of looked like a birdhouse.
Maybe, Benny thought, I can make one more.
Another visit to the trailer. Another knock on the door.
The slender man opened the door. “Yes, who is – oh, it’s you again.”
“Yes sir, I came to ask if I could have some more wood to build another birdhouse.”
“There’s not much left,” the slender man noted.
“Please, sir, I made a birdhouse for my mother and for my brother, and I think I should make one more.”
“You made birdhouses for your mother and for your brother?” the slender man asked. “Are you planning on living in birdhouses?”
“No sir, I’m – ”
“All right, all right,” the slender man scoffed. “Take what’s left. It was an eyesore in my back yard anyway. ”
There was enough wood left on the old pallet to make maybe one final birdhouse, so long as Benny didn’t waste any planks. Nails. Hammers. Hand saw. A little here, a little there.
And after Benny used a hand drill to carve a hole for the birds to pop in and out of the birdhouse, he added, in pencil, one more feature. He drew, in small letters, next to the hole, the words, “God loves all of you.”
Every time he and Sammy and their mother went to Sunday services at Iverhill’s Church of Most Precious Blood, Father Aloysius would always end each Sunday sermon with blessings and peace, and reminding the parishioners that “God loves all of you.”
Benny thought that if God loved birds as much as He loved people, then surely the birds need to know this. And since Benny didn’t know how to speak bird, he hoped that the birds could at least read English.
By Saturday morning, he had completed his third birdhouse.
But what to do. Benny could give the birdhouses to his mother and to his brother and to Father Aloysius …
Or maybe he could sell them and use the money to buy something at ShopCo for them. Something to think about.
And in the end, Benny decided that if Santa was right – that people love handmade gifts as much as they love store bought gifts, then he would leave the birdhouses on the porch … with a sign taped to a little plastic cup.
“BIRDHOUSES – FIVE DOLLARS EACH.”
Then he went inside to warm up.
Every hour, Benny would peek outside the window, hoping that someone would walk by and purchase a birdhouse. Three birdhouses still remained on the porch ledge.
By 3:00, Benny was getting discouraged. Not one single person had walked past the porch, not a single interest in the birdhouses.
Benny sighed. Maybe Sammy was right after all.
Just one more glance outside.
He peeked through the curtains.
The porch ledge was bare.
The birdhouses were gone.
Did someone buy them? Benny put on his coat and went outside.
He looked in the plastic cup.
The cup was empty.
Sammy WAS right, Benny sighed.
“Hey, Larcer boy.”
Sammy turned around.
It was the neighbor – the slender man whose pallet wood Benny had used for the birdhouses. “I saw you’re selling those birdhouses you made.”
“Yes sir, I am – or I was, they’re gone now. I think someone took them.”
“Mmm,” he replied. “That’s a shame. Too many people take things without asking.”
“I know,” Benny said, trudging back up the steps.
Benny turned around.
“At least you asked before you took.”
And with that, the slender neighbor handed Benny a $20 bill. “Keep the change,” he smiled. “Consider it a bonus for taking that ugly pile of wood out of my back yard.”
“Really?” Benny smiled.
“Yeah. And the birdhouses you built – if they show up on your porch on Christmas day, make sure you give them to your mother and to your brother and whomever else the third one is supposed to go to .”
“You mean that you – you’re buying the birdhouses?”
“Who, me?” the slender man smiled. “No, no, I have absolutely NO idea where those birdhouses are. Not in the least.”
“But – ”
“Go in the house, kid. Stay warm. And remember one thing.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“God does love you.” And with that, the slender Brother Aloysius – almost unrecognizable outside of his vestments and Sunday frock – walked back to his mobile home, where the birdhouses were stored inside the trailer.