"If there's someone looking to talk to someone, they find my mother. It never fails. People just come up to her and start talking"
These were the words my daughter felt compelled to use in explanation as soon as we were able to politely break away from our twenty minute stance near the entrance to the Natick Container Store. "Never fails. Crazy person sits down next to her on a bench and starts telling her the whole life story". The anonymous fellow shopper seemed to understand the humor and no further explanation was necessary. We continued our browsing and we smiled, Big toothy grins. Moments before, we all had been amused and now we were enjoying the after glow that follows a fun encounter made even more fun by the fact that a short twenty minutes ago, we were strangers. Some, stranger than others I might add.
He was sitting in a chair. An office style chair. He faced the back of the huge, high-ceilinged store and we weren't sure as we passed through the entrance and saw the chair for the first time, if it was in use by a store mannequin or a shopper who seized the opportunity to try out a potential purchase or simply borrow it for a little respite. It really was hard to tell at first glance. The back of a man wearing a seasoned sports coat, his arms splayed, resting on the sides of the chair. As we got closer, we noticed that both hands were covered by black cotton gloves. In his right hand he clutched several dollars in bills His seated attitude seemed to suggest that he was at a cocktail party, money held as if it were a dry martini, legs crossed as if he were poised and ready to tell a story. The sight caused both of us to share discreet giggle, this elderly chap, alone in an office chair in the middle of a wide aisle in the store. Our tee-hees seemed to have been captivating enough to result in as clear an invitation to the about to strart party as if it had come in the mail.
"Hello there ladies!" and we were off and running. His name was Fred. We quickly found out that he was ninety one and had proudly served in the Second World War. He was neatly groomed with hair the color I remembered my grandfather's to be after years of using "Grecian Formula". Naturally, he was wearing a shirt and tie. The only clues to his current sad state of affairs might have been the spots on his tie and the khaki pants that needed laundering very, very badly. Had he been dropped off here or did he drive on his own? My mind raced to find a logical explanation of how this person who clearly was showing signs of dementia, could be holding a current drivers' license. As he told story after story, his voice escalated without a moment's notice, catching us off guard each and every time. His excitement grew when he realized that he had an appreciative audience and the bellowing caused other shoppers to look and smile but none joined our little circle.
Each time we attempted to break away, we were stopped by "just one more story ladies and I'll let you go".
My daughter's curiosity about the handful of money was rewarded with an explanation. "The nice man has gone to get something for me and when he returns, I'll give him the money and he will give me my....." whatever it was, we could not determine. So, we stayed on and we listened to the story of the day he was in charge of distributing one beer each to his unit on Christmas. "IT'S CHRISTMAS, HAVE TWO BEERS!" followed by his own infectious laugh track He had clear eyes that sparkled with each anecdote. I could not help but notice the lovely skin tone on his face. He was proud of the fact that he neither smoked nor drank, ever, attributing this to the job of beer and cigarette distribution while in the army. Perhaps this was a man who lived a happy life and was still enjoying each day. No signs of stress, and with so few wrinkles he could have passed for a much younger man had he not given the secret away.
Following a few more war stories, a sales associate appeared and our new best friend shifted his attention to the transaction. We were free to move on and we said our farewells. Walking away, my forty year old daughter leaned into me and said "Now, THAT'S the kind of grandfather I wish I had". Despite the fact that I totally understood her craving for some family fun, I could not help but think that on that cold Christmas Day, during that war, her grandfather was very far away from the one thing he might have most wanted, that nice cold beer.