On Sunday, Grey and I went caroling with our church. Our first stop was an assisted living facility our church has a relationship with. Grey was the youngest of the carolers by a good two decades. Faced with a room full of the pale elderly, my tired son demanded that I pick him up hold him. He shyly waved his jingle bells, his back turned to the foreboding crowd.
As I sang the old songs, I thought about my relationship with the aged, or, as they were known in my youth, “old folks”. Frankly, I always loved old folks. You want someone to pay attention to you, go to a nursing home as a cute young thing. When I was an adorable kid, I quickly discovered a great affinity for these folks. They had wonderful stories, kind faces, and lots of positive attention to devote to me.
I’d like to now, publicly, apologize to my parents for a deed I did in my youth. Here’s the story.
I wanted money to buy candy. Bonanza 88 actually had things you could buy for 88 cents, and coins represented true value. I, sadly, was lacking in coins and being 7 or so years old, also lacking in the means to earn them on my own. (Sometimes I helped worm-pickers harvest worms on the practice field behind our house, but this summer day was apparently short on worm-pickers.) But I, a budding entrepreneur, thought I saw a way out of dilemma of no-candy. I sat down and drew 8 or 10 very fine pictures, took my portfolio, and went door to door with my best friend as an art saleswoman.
Some of the houses had no one there. Some of the houses had shy Mexican immigrants, who peeked through the tightly-held door and shook their heads at us. But a goodly number of the 20 or so houses on the block had my target audience: old folks.
I remember sticky ribbon candy, “healthy” popsicles, linoleum floors, antimacassars in dim living rooms, and kindly old ladies offering a quarter for a drawing.
The last house I remember visiting on that sunny day was the best of all. It was in that house I met Ernie. Looking back, I suspect Ernie was a WWI vet. He was at least 80 back when we became friends, in 1985 or so. His house was a wonder and a delight, and so was he. He always stayed put in his arm chair, weighted down by age and frailty. But somehow he remembered and knew where every single thing in his house was. He sent me downstairs to gape at the mounted trophy buck head, the hand-cranked light-bulb, the medals and odds and ends that were the remnants of what must have been a fascinating life. He sent me upstairs for the popup books of gnomes and giants, and cluttered guest rooms that must not have known his tread for years. He gave me tigereye stones and spun the age-old tall tales about how these would prevent tiger attacks (I believe his version contained details about his journeys in India – God only knows whether they were part of the trope or true accounts). I wandered through a week of my childhood fingering the stone in my pocket and looking for the warded-off tiger attacks, as is right and good. Ernie and I had a fine old time.
It goes without saying that when I got home with my $2 in small change, flush with the afternoon of delights I’d experienced, my parents were, um, less than pleased. I believe I got quite a lecture on talking to strangers and inviting myself into their homes, selling my wares, eating their popsicles and scavenging their basements (although I must’ve managed to convince them that Ernie wasn’t a stranger because I knew him now! At least, that wasn’t the LAST time I visited him!). And of course, with the poetic justice of childhood, it was hardly a week or two later that I badly injured myself a mile from home and insisted on accepting no grownuply help from the kind folks who noticed as I trudged past my bloody, weeping face because “I wasn’t allowed to go to strangers homes” to call for help.
Did I mention, mom and dad, that I’m really sorry? And I’m sure I’ll get what’s coming to me?
But I still smile and think fondly of Ernie. With no pictures, or other folks in my family who knew him, my memory of him is dim, as if a dream. I remember his chair and some of the marvels I saw. I know I went to visit him several times, to hear the stories and have adventures. He must be gone by now — I know that 7 year olds tend to underestimate how old people are, but he was truly quite old.
I find I miss old folks. I’m much less irresistible to them now than I was then. Sadly, no one could describe me as waif-ish, and I have that bustle that parents seem to accrue to themselves. I simply don’t have a ready supply of old folks to delight. I certainly hope my sons will discover the delight of the company of the lonely and slow-moving. There is a great joy in that relationship between the very young and very old, that we middle-life-dwellers have either forgotten or do not yet know.
I hope my sons find their very own “old man” to tell them the traditional lies and spoil their dinners and to show them how to brighten lives.