The Family Rules – A Short Story

Bob’s Foot-Stompin Barbeque is the place to be. Or at least it seems that way given the overflowing lunchtime parking lot and the buzz of the dining room. Being near the busy Branson strip Bob’s customers come from many backgrounds. The locals, the sophisticates fresh from a round of golf, the shoppers taking a break from the local craft and outlet malls. There are tables of work buddies, young families, older couples, and a few generational tables. Our table may be unique however since we’re a honeymoon table.

Debbie and I have only been married a few days. And sure, there are other more attractive places for a honeymoon. But when you barely have two nickels to rub together and your aunt gives you a free week in her time-share condo, well it beats a weekend at the Motel Eight by a country mile.

Around Bob’s tables memories are created over plates of ribs and pulled pork. Plans are made for the next show, the next adventure, the next round of shopping. It’s in that noisy, busy, wonderful place that I meet Frank.

Frank is an old determined soul. I watch as he slowly walks across the parking lot with a cane in each hand. His wife, evidently knowing that Frank is ok walks ahead and waits in the shade by the door.  Once inside they search for a place to land and wander to some tables near us. They are obviously waiting for a larger group and struggle to pull tables together.

“May I help?” I ask.

“Would you please,” the white-haired woman answers. “We need enough space for seven.” I help them push a couple of tables together and set some chairs.

“So where are you from?” I ask. Not the most original question but probably the most common one in the touristy town.

“We’re from Little Rock. I’m Frank by the way, thanks for helping out,” the older man says.

“We’re from Illinois, near Peoria. I’m Daniel. Are you meeting up with family?” I ask.

“Yep, four generations all told,” Frank answers with a smile.

“It’s just the two of us,” I reply pointing at our nearby table.

Debbie and I soon gathered up our leftovers and leave Bob’s foot-stompin Barbeque while Frank waits for the rest of his family. That was the last time I expected to meet Frank, but it wasn’t.

The next evening we decide to take in Presley’s Country Jubilee Show. Well, we didn’t decide, it was another gift. The Presley’s show is a blend of country music and comedy that has entertained audiences for over fifty years. And yes, they are shirt-tail cousins to the best know Presley of all time. During intermission, the emcee calls out the birthdays and anniversaries in the audience while a video camera shows them on the big screens flanking the stage. The emcee calls out another name I don’t recognize and congratulates them for their 65th wedding anniversary. I look up at the big screen, and there are Frank and his wife sitting across the auditorium.

I pop out of my seat and work my way toward them. “Hi, remember me? Congratulations,” I said once I arrive at their seats.

Frank looks up, “Peoria, right? Bob’s Barbeque? What was it? Dale?”

“Daniel,” I reply with a laugh. “Sixty-five years, so what’s the secret?”

“I keep her locked in the fruit cellar and only let her out for holidays and vacations,” he replies with a twinkle which earns him a sharp elbow from his wife.

“You’re so ornery, now behave,” Frank’s wife says.

“I’m sorry mam, I never caught your name.”

“Maribelle, but most folks just call me Belle.”

“Nice to meet you Belle,” I say shaking her hand.

“So, Belle, what is the secret for staying married sixty-five years?”

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seat. The second half of the Presley’s Country Jubilee is about to begin.” The announcer calls out ending our conversation.

There are some people you meet that are quickly forgotten. Chance encounters you don’t expect to be repeated. But there are some like Frank and Belle that seem to take a life of their own. I lost them in the crowd after the show and figured that was that. But it wasn’t.

Along the Branson strip are numerous restaurants, some well-known chains, and a few local favorites. Several have live performers. Some of the performers used to be a part the shows on the strip but many are hoping for their big break. One of those places is the Hard Luck Cafe. A hamburger and shake joint with a 50’s look that hires wait staff hoping for their break into show business. One moment your waitress is taking your order the next moment she’s singing with a microphone in hand.

We decide to take a break from shopping and hit the Hard Luck for lunch. As the hostess leads us to our booth, a cane suddenly shoots out, and I almost have 15 seconds of embarrassed fame. It’s Frank and Belle.

“Well that’s one way of getting a guy’s attention,” I said seeing the twinkle in Frank’s eye. “Nice to see you again.”

“Why don’t you sit with us? We just got here too, and I still owe you an answer,” Frank suggested.

Debbie and I exchanged quick glances. I’m still learning to read her face, so I think she’s ok with this. “Sure,” I reply and convey our desire to the hostess. “Frank, Belle, this is my wife Debbie,” I say by way of introductions as we slide into the red leather booth.

“How long have you two been married?” Belle asks.

“Three and a half days,” Debbie answers hugging my arm. “How about you two?”

“Celebrating our Sixty-Fifth,” Frank begins.

“Wait,” Belle interrupts, “Were you married on the fourteenth?”  We both nod. “That’s our day too,” Belle says with a chuckle. “Who would have thought.”

“May I take your order?” a waitress says.

“We were hoping to run into you again,” Frank begins once our orders are in. “Truth is I wasn’t sure how to answer your question about staying married. Never really thought about it.”

“Frank and I have been talking and thinking about it ever since Presley’s,” Belle adds.

“We had two basic rules when we got married, never mention divorce and never go to bed angry. And those are good but don’t really cover all the things we’ve done or learned along the way,” Frank continues.

“So yesterday we were slowly wandering around a craft store,” Belle says.

“It’s the only speed I’ve got,” Frank adds.

“And we found this sign that I think says it all. I know you’re not supposed to, but I snuck a picture of it,” Belle said quietly while handing me her phone as if it held state secrets. “Family Rules” the rustic sign in the picture announces. “Be kind, love one another, laugh together, do your chores, tell the truth, say your prayers, be forgiving, celebrate life, encourage each other, be respectful, share blessings, have fun, live well.”

“I like it,” I reply and hand the phone to Debbie.

“Mind you, we haven’t been perfect in these things,” Frank said. “But I think they sum it up better than anything we could come up with on my own.”

Between songs, hamburgers, fries, and shakes we get to know more about Frank and Belle. He’s a retired factory worker and she’s a retired school teacher. They have three children, two of which are in Branson with them. And have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren so far. But more than just their surface history I watch closely as they interact. How they tease each other, correct each other, and love each other.

“Say, could you tell me where that craft mall is at?  The one with the sign?” I ask as we get ready to leave.

“Let’s see.  It’s on the yellow route just past the winery, Julie’s I think,” Belle said.

“Judy’s, its Judy’s Craft Mall, just south of the winery,” Frank corrected.

“Thanks,” Debbie replied. “I think I know where that is.”

And that is the last we saw of Frank and Belle. Later that afternoon we find Judy’s Craft Mall and the sign about family rules. It stretches our budget a bit, but we decide to get it anyway.

“Kind of crazy running into them so many times,” Debbie says as we walk out to the car.

“Yeah, but I’m glad we did,” I reply. Carefully placing the sign in the back seat.

“What do you think, come back to Branson in sixty-five years?” Debbie asks.

“Well, we can come back sooner than that, right?”

“Sure, if you want too,” she replies.

“Well, whether it’s Branson or somewhere else I hope and pray that in sixty-five years we’re just like Frank and Belle.”

“Amen to that,” she says reaching for my hand.

Dale Heinold
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