Yes, I’m a fan of the book A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines, but I’m also a fan of old men in general. Before that comes across as creepy, allow me to clarify.
There is a raw honesty and knowledge and realness that seems to be fading as the members of The Greatest Generation fade into oblivion. I count myself as particularly fortunate that my lifetime intersected with theirs, and I regret that my children won’t interact with this particular generation of people.
My grandfather, Clarence “Foots” (due to his gargantuan feet) Lay was one of them. While I know we’re all too aware of how irresponsible it is these days to take up smoking, humor me as I say that I miss sitting near him as he methodically rolled his Prince Albert and the sweet smell of unadultured tobacco drifted into the air. He talked about his time with the CCC (the Civilian Conservation Corps – you should read about it if you’re not familiar), the War and the Depression.
These were times and struggles and people we can’t even begin to understand, and I think many would understand and agree when I say that far too few of us listened intently to those stories, much less recorded and preserved them. Maybe that’s why works such as Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers (read James Bradley’s story of how he was rejected 27 times as a writer here) appealed to so many of us – it provided a clarity that is difficult to convey, and growing immensely more difficult as more and more time passes.
From the roadside farm stand owners in Missouri to a country beekeeper in Texas and dozens more, I’ve found myself richly rewarded when I’ve slowed down to listen to and talk with older folks. I imagine that when I’m more than eighty years old and many of my loved ones have left my side, I’ll have the same desire to have someone sit a spell and visit with me. Apparently my empathy shines like a beacon, because grandparently types come out of the woodwork to find me.
In a past life, there was a man who would come almost weekly into the business where I worked. He had a walker, and he drove a gigantic maroon van – of course, he had no business driving at all. He wore flare in the form of various pins on his clothes and a hat with an American flag, and he often had a terrible body odor about him. Mr. Brown was sweet and loved to visit, and we knew he came for the companionship more so than any business. Rightfully so.
Every year around Christmas, he would stop by and hand deliver little creations to everyone in the building. He fashioned toothpicks, marshmallows, rubber bands and sticks of gum into little airplanes with stickers carefully placed to read “Merry Christmas.” They were not consumable, and yet I had trouble parting with them. Once, he came in nearly in tears because he admitted he was not so good at keeping paperwork anymore and had inadvertently failed to pay some tax or assessment, and he was frantic because he thought what few possessions he still had might be taken from him. When our organization began a $3 million plus capital campaign, he proudly brought in $5 and was the very first contributor. His support meant as much as the six figure checks of large businesses.
I saw Mr. Brown in a church parking lot with his trademark van earlier this week, and I was both pleased and a little sad that he was still going strong. I speak to him by name when I see him in the post office, and he always looks surprised but grateful. I hope there are family members who still visit him. We’ll all be there far too soon, and I suspect if our wits are about us we’ll wish for someone to sit with us for a while, just to visit.
My mom understood this, and stood firm when telling my sister and I to play the piano or visit the residents of nursing homes, whether they were related to us or not. Now I know and understand, and I pause when I walk through our church hallways because my happy-go-lucky daughters bring a smile to so many older people.
It seems to me as though one of our highest callings is to offer love and support and a listening ear to those who’ve gone before us to fight wars, raise children, overcome hurdles or simply be. Whatever your political penchant or life outlook, take time for them, and thank them if they’ve served our country or just our communities.
The greatest generation, indeed.