I have a thing for men. Not just any old men, but little old men. You’ve seen them, fiery eyes, white hair, mischievous grin. Some are tall, some are stooped, some are thin, some not. Most wear long sleeves in the heat of summer and carry some kind of stick–a sheleighly, a cane, an umbrella–anything they can poke you with to get your attention. Many have blue-eyes (does that come with age or wisdom?), but some have gray or brown. None of that matters. What’s important is the age: 75 is the minimum, but over 90 is best. I have a history with these men. They seek me out in the most unlikely places. Church was a hot spot back when I went to church. Hospitals, nurseries (the plant kind), Target, I’ve even been approached in nursing homes. I used think I emitted some sort of little old man beacon, one that shouted, at just the right little old man frequency, “Good Listener Ahead!” or “Geriatrics Welcome.” Today, I know better.
I met my first LOM when I was in my late 20s, separated from my husband (I don’t know if that detail is necessary to this story, but at this second it seems important.) and living in College Park, MD. Mr Helwig lived a few blocks down the street in a rambling brick house with decaying floors and no central air. Pulling up in front of this house was like stepping back in time fifty years. A gravel drive led to a lean-to garage with an ancient, rusting car parked beneath crumbling beams. The property, unique in a neighborhood of .25 acre lots, resembled a park more than a yard, with a long, deep lawn, rows of old-fashioned rhododendrons and flocks of birds fighting and calling in the enormous oak and maple trees planted when the Helwig children were small.
I’d read about Mr. Helwig in our church bulletin. No longer able to drive, he needed a ride to the doctor and the grocery store. The day I met him, on a sweltering day in July, he wore a white collared shirt, a brown canvas jacket zipped to his throat and grey dress pants. His hair was wild, white and straight and pouncing off his head in all directions, and he had those blue, blue eys. I was smitten. After that, I left work at noon every fourth Tuesday to drive Mr. Helwig to the commisary where he bought frozen dinners, Cheerios and milk for himself and Nicolodean tv dinners for my daughter. (Lauren had long begged for those toxic-stews in a box, but I’d always refused on the grounds that she’d be better off eating garbage from the street. When Mr. Helwig entered the picture though, I caved. If he wanted her to eat garbage, then by god she was going to.)
Always concerned about “not being a bother,” Mr. Helwig never accepted any other overatures (lunch, dinner, help in the garden) from me than our monthly drive. Over time, though, and dozens of glasses of warm lemonade or tepid tap water shared in his airless kitchen, I learned about his life–his wife of 60 years, who had recently died of cancer, his children, all living far away, and his career as an engineer. He’d attended Perdue University and was one of the smartest man I had ever met with a long list of impressive jobs and degrees to commend him. Nonetheless, except for his birds and a wiry neighborhood cat, who Mr. Helwig assured me never ate a single other critter, he was alone.
Two years later, when I decided to move to Arizona from Maryland, I had a harder time telling Mr. Helwig than I did my own parents. But he was nice about it, assurng me, as my father had, that this was the way of the world and wishing me luck. I cried when we said goodbye.
Next up: Herman