I hear the sound of furniture sliding across the living room carpet, but it stops in time for my daughter to hear my footsteps coming down the hallway from the kitchen. “Don’t come in yet!” Steph pleads.
“What are you doing?” I ask from around the corner.
“Just a second,” she says. “I’m setting something up. Just wait right there. I’m almost ready.”
It’s January, 2001. Steph is eight.
I grin and lean against the wall and wait. Steph takes only another minute or so to finish her mysterious preparations, then she comes to get me. “Close your eyes,” she tells me. She leads me, my eyes closed, around the corner from the hallway into the living room. “Okay, now open them,” she says.
When I do, I see Stonewall Jackson sitting in a recliner in my living room. At least that’s the first impression. It’s actually an eight-by-ten copy of Jackson’s Chancellorsville portrait, encased in a black frame. Steph has pulled her child-sized mini-recliner into the middle of the living room floor and has propped the photo in the chair. An unlit candle sits on either side of the portraits.
“Can you light those for me?” she asks.
It takes a second for me to formulate any sort of response. “What’s this for?” I ask.
“Today’s his birthday,” Steph explains. “It’s Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. How old would he be?”
“I’m sure I have no idea,” I reply. Later in the day, I’ll help Steph figure out that Stonewall would be 177 years old. It makes me feel downright spritely at 31.
“We can’t light those candles there,” I tell her. “They’re leaning against the fabric of that recliner, so it’s not safe.”
She grabs one candle and plunks it down on the carpet, then the other. “There, how’s that? Just for a minute or two, please?”
I go back to the kitchen to grab some matches and a couple small saucers to put under the candles, and I light them for her. Steph breaks out into a rousing version of “Happy Birthday,” directed at the portrait. She urges me to join in, and when we finish, she blows out the candles.
“I made a wish,” she says. “I wished I could meet him someday.”
She’s not worried that maybe she’s jinxed herself by telling me her wish. She’s on to more business. “Where’s mom?” she asks. “I need her help.”
“I need to bake a birthday cake.”
So, after a quick jaunt to Wal-Mart for supplies, they bake. Later that afternoon, Steph sits us all down on the living room carpet around the portrait of Stonewall, and we all share the birthday cake. It’s lemon, with white frosting.
“You think he would’ve liked this?” Steph asks.
“With you as the baker,” her mom says, “I’m sure he would.”