The Mean Old Man and the Single Chair

The following story was inspired by a true story about a mean old man and his single chair.  My friend Don Johnson told me this story and I have put more details into it.  Nevertheless, I must thank Don for the basic outline and for the great way he told the story which as I said inspired me to write this tale.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Old man scowls, leans forward and shakes his cane

When I was a young boy my parents, two sisters and I lived in a mobile home or trailer as some would call them.  Though, we never trailer-ed it anyplace.  Villagers said we lived in a trailer park and kids at school would laugh and joke about us being “trailer trash.”  I got in lots of fights with other kids over these insults.

Every day, my sisters and I would walk to the pickup site for the school bus.  Back in those days, kids could still go to school without a chaperone.  We even went out trick or treating by ourselves and kept any food or candy that we collected.  The one house we did not go to for tricks or treats belonged to a mean old man.  My parents and the older kids in the trailer park warned us to stay away from his house.  They all said that he was very nasty and hated everyone.

Each day after coming back from school, school let out at about 3:15 PM, the school bus would drop us off and my sisters and a few of my friends would walk home.  We would go by the old man’s house.  He would inevitably be sitting on a makeshift porch in front of his trailer in an old rocking chair.  We would stroll by his home and occasionally wave but he would never wave back.  As we went by, he would fix a relentlessly hostile gaze on us which could put fear in anyone’s heart.  We imagined he was mad at the world and that certainly included us.  Inevitably, we picked up our pace and tried to hurry by his place as fast as we could.

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A few years passed and the mean old man simply seemed to grow meaner.  One day after the bus dropped us off, a few of my friends and I were walking home.  As we were passing the old man’s home, he was sitting in his usual place and just staring at us.  My friends started laughing at and taunting him with various insults.  “Hey grandpa, what’s it like being so mean?”  “Hey old man, can you help us find our cat?”  I told them to stop it as he had never bothered anyone.  They turned their taunts on me and said “If you like him so much, why don’t you go talk to him.  We dare you to go talk to him.  They cried out at me: “Chicken!  Chicken!  Chicken!”

I tried to ignore their jibes, but finally, I had had enough.  “I am not afraid. I will go talk to him.”  I started to walk down the path to where the old man was sitting.  My heart began beating faster and faster.  I wondered what I was going to say.  Nothing occurred to me.  The old man was staring at me intently.  I could hear my friends laughing and hooting behind me.

As I reached the old man, he looked very angry.  “Ok”, he said, “What do you want.”  I said the first thing that came into my mind: “Well, I was just wondering why you don’t have another chair so someone can sit and talk with you?”  “None of your business”, he answered, “Now why don’t you just run off and go back with your friends.”  I could not think of another thing to say.  As I turned to leave, I said “Goodbye, have a nice day.”  The old man mumbled something which I thought might be “same to you” but I could not be sure.

Saturday and Sunday passed quickly and Monday we were back in school.  After school adjourned, I decided that I did not want to be go home with my usual friends so I took the “late” bus from school.  I got off at the bus stop and started home.  As I passed the mean old man’s house, he was sitting in his chair.  Much to my surprise, he had a single chair sitting right next to him.  Somewhat emboldened by this turn of events, I walked up the path to his house and stood in front of him again.  He looked at me and asked me “What do you want.”  I said “Well, I notice that you have a single chair free, would you mind if I sat and talked to you for a while.”  “OK” was all he said.

black man in a rocking chair

I sat down and started to tell him about all the things that I was doing in school.  I told him about my classes, my teachers and my friends.  I talked about my parents, my sisters and my grandparents.  He listened intently to all I said and never interrupted or asked any questions.  Realizing that it was getting late and that my parents would be worried, I said that I was going to go home but I would see him again tomorrow.  He simply nodded and said “Goodbye.”

My trips and visits to the mean old man’s house continued for many days.  The days stretched into weeks.  Over time, we started to talk more about his life.  I found out that his name was Bill and that he had been married but his wife had died about ten years earlier.  He had not had any children.  Bill was a veteran and we talked about his wartime service and experiences.  Bill was always more interested in what I was doing and asked me many questions about my school and life.  Bill said that he did not have any friends and no surviving relatives.

I asked Bill if he did not have any friends in our local church but he said that his wife had been the church goer.  He had occasionally gone to church with her, but after she died, his stopped going.  Bill confided in me that he had never been a social person and had always found it difficult to make friends.  Most of the friends whom he once had were his wife’s friends and after she died, they stopped coming to visit.  He was all alone now.

Weeks turned into months and it became my habit to routinely stop by Bill’s house on my way home from school.  We talked and I told him about my day and he listened and asked questions which made me think a great deal about my choices and decisions in life.  I could share things with Bill that I did not share with anyone else.

Then one day when I was coming home and passing Bill’s house, I saw that someone else was sitting in the single chair.  Not wanting to interrupt, I waved and walked on by.  The next day we resumed our discussions as usual but the following day, the chair was again occupied.  Over time, the single chair was alternately occupied by myself and many other people.

two old men on a porch

I found out that Bill had started to go to church again and he had met people from all walks of life.  Some were retired and some were not.  The people who met Bill found him to be a very interesting person. They would stop by and sit in the single chair next to Bill and talk about various and sundry things.

High school came and went.  Bill and I had many talks but just as often, he had someone else sitting in the chair when I came by.  I went off to college and saw Bill much less except when I came home to visit my parents.  Bill and I discussed writing to each other but we both agreed that we were not writers.  I finished college and found a job in another city.  My times with Bill had dwindled to a mere pittance of what they once had been.

A few more years passed by.  My parents notified me that Bill had died.  I came home to go to his funeral.  It was well attended and nearly a hundred people were there.  Many nice things were said about Bill.  Everyone talked about what a good listener he was and how he always cared more about what others were doing or thinking.  He was one of the least egocentric people you could have met.

single chair on a porch

About two weeks after the funeral, a letter arrived in my mail.  It was from my home town but I did not recognize the address.  I opened it up and inside were two pieces of stationary.  I opened the one with the typing on it.  It read, “We were going through some of Bill’s possessions and we found this note on his bedside.  We thought he meant to give it to you but never got around to mailing it.”  I opened the second piece of stationary.  It was in rough scrawl which I recognized as Bill’s handwriting.  Bill wrote the following:

Dear Tim,

You are the best friend I ever had. 

Thanks,

Bill

I still keep this note.  It is perhaps the nicest compliment I have ever received.  Whenever, I miss Bill, I pull this note out to remember him and the many talks we had.  Bill in his rocking chair and me in the single chair beside him.

Time for Questions:

My writers group said that the “Mean Old Man” was iconic and that every neighborhood had such a character.  Can you think of someone in your neighborhood like this “Mean Old Man?”  Did anyone ever try to talk to him or find out what bothered him?  What happened to him?  Why do you suppose children are often likely to befriend such people?

Life is just beginning.

“My mother says that when Mrs. Rowley is mean, which is generally the case, it is really because she is just unhappy, and who could blame her with a husband like that . . . She says this is really the only reason people are ever mean–they have something hurting inside of them, a claw of unhappiness scratching at their hearts, and it hurts them so much that sometimes they have to push it right out of their mouths to scratch someone else, just to give themselves a rest, a moment of relief.”  — Laura Moriarty

What are the Myths and Realities of Marriage? — Part 2

Last week we looked at what I called the “Cons” or negative assumptions about marriage.  This week, we will look at some “Pros” or positive assumptions that one can make about marriage.  I offer both sets of assumptions with the thought in mind that “The truth will set you free.”  Marriage is not all sweet and sugar but neither is it all sour and vinegar.  A good marriage has its ups and downs but a really happy marriage will have more ups than downs.  Most happy marriages are based on a set of realistic assumptions concerning what marriage is all about and what it takes to make a good marriage.

  1. Marriage is a means by which two people can in time learn the true meaning of love.

Most of us are pretty young when we get married.  With the exception of second marriages, where naiveté can be attributed to a rebound effect, most naiveté in a first marriage is due to youth and inexperience.  Many second marriages show that often older people are no wiser than younger people.  Love in a first marriage is more about passion and infatuation than about true love.  Saying “I love you” about someone you hardly know means about the same as saying “I love my new car.”  You cannot really love anything or anyone until you have some history with that person.

Love is a learned trait.  Most of the time, we use love in a very simplistic and general manner.  Jesus said “True love is the willingness to lay down your life for another.”  I disagree with this definition.  I think this kind of love can be a form of courage or bravado even without any notion of love whatsoever.  How can you love anyone whom you do not know?  I might be willing to risk my life to save someone who is drowning in a frozen lake, but it would be ridiculous to think I love that person.

True love is closer to a passion that is based on respect and admiration and gratitude.  When you first marry anyone, all three of these traits may only exist in very rudimentary states.  Time and shared experience help bring more perspective to each of them.  Over time, we begin to respect each other as we learn more about each other and how we treat life.  We begin to admire our partners more as we see how they cope with problems and as we both sacrifice our own needs for the good of each other.  Gratitude is the highest state of love in a marriage.  When you are truly grateful for your partner and when you feel this gratitude in your entire being, you have arrived at the shore of true love.

“True love doesn’t happen right away; it’s an ever-growing process. It develops after you’ve gone through many ups and downs, when you’ve suffered together, cried together, laughed together.” — Ricardo Montalban

  1. Marriage is a system for raising a new generation that will carry on the best values of the old generation.

Parents have a responsibility to raise children who have sound moral, ethical and personal values.  Each new generation builds on the shoulders of previous generations.   It would be foolish to think that the values of the past should all be the values of the next generation.  The needs of each new generation demand new values to cope with problems and issues that could not have been foreseen by previous generations.  Nevertheless, there are many values and ideas from the past that an emerging generation should have knowledge and insight of.  Lessons from the past can help to inform the future and mistakes from the past can still have meaning and relevance to issues that are current today.

Parents have an obligation to help insure that any children that they are responsible for, whether adopted, natural birth or foster children, learn a set of values that will help them to be people who understand the concepts of discipline and integrity.  Too many parents see their children as means to their own end or as “mini” friends.  Helicopter parents, soccer moms and sports dads are all manifestations of parents who have little idea about their real obligations towards their children.   Such parents want to be “best” friends with their children instead of fathers and mothers.  Even worse, are the parents who want to live vicariously through their children and dream that their kids will live the lives that they wanted to live.

“To let them go on believing that the world is safe, that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they remain stupid, shirk integrity, despise courtesy, and act only from self-interest, that they ought to rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able to solve their problems, would be the gravest disservice: to them, and to society as a whole.”  —  J. Aleksandr Wootton

  1. Marriage is a potpourri of passion, ecstasy, happiness, sadness, grief, anger and challenge.

I may be repeating myself here, but I want to emphasize that all marriages will have good days and bad days.  Some of the bad days will be due to poor judgement, selfishness and poor planning.  They are days that could have been in the range of your ability to change.  Other bad days will have little or nothing to do with you.  Friends will die.  Relatives will get sick.  Accidents will happen.  You and your partner will grow old.  You will have no control over any of these things.

Whether or not you can change things, what matters the most is that you and your partner can support each other through the ups and downs.  You need to expect that bad things will happen to good people.  When they do, how will you support the other person?

A number of years ago, my wife and I went scuba diving for the first time.  We had both received our PADI certification and done a few lake dives.  We decided to visit the Caribbean and do some scuba diving there.  We went to an island off the coast of Belize called Caye Caulker.  We found a dive shop on the island and scheduled a day of diving for a day or so after we arrived.   Karen had not had any experience with ocean diving.  I had done quite a bit of diving but it was many years before.

We suited up and went down.  We were partners on this dive and that meant that we would have each other’s back.  Karen has more problems with buoyancy control than I do but we finally got her weights adjusted correctly and down we went.  We descended with six or so other divers and the dive master.  We had a great time though Karen kept trying to bob up instead of down.  When it was clear that we had little oxygen left we decided to come up.  We signaled the dive master and most of the group also headed back to the dive boat.  We had stayed above 120 feet so the bends were not really a concern.  We still wanted to ascend slowly though as it always is a good idea to observe this protocol.  I rose with Karen until we reached the surface.  The water was pretty choppy on top.

When we hit the surface, I was feeling tired and I headed to the boat.  I totally forgot Karen and I took my tanks up and got on the boat. When I looked back to see how Karen was doing, she was still in the water. She was tired and having a hard time getting her tanks off.  Some of the other people were in the water and they came to help her.  She finally made it back in the boat very tired and exhausted and somewhat scared.  I felt really bad.  I had deserted her and thought only about myself.  It was somewhat hard for me to get out of the water and on the boat by myself but it was next to impossible for Karen.  I did not think about her and I felt guilty for the rest of the day.  I promised her and myself that from then on, I would make sure she was on the boat before I tried to get out.

It is not always easy to look after another person.  It is very easy to put our needs first and our partners needs second.   A key dilemma of marriage is how to put both needs first or how to know when one needs to go first and the other can go second.  Marriage presents us with endless possibilities to work on this problem.  Sometimes we will succeed and sometimes we will fail.  However, as with any worthwhile endeavor, the trick is to keep trying, keep working on things and when you fail to try again and to never give up.  The effort to care for another person builds trust in a relationship and this trust is the foundation for a good marriage.  Layer it with respect, admiration and gratitude for each other and you will live “happily ever after.”

“Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”  — I Corinthians 13:7

Time for Questions:

Have you ever been in love?  How many times?  What do you think love is?  What do you think true love is based on?  How does one create true love?

Life is just beginning.

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end.  And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you yourself keep it.  But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word.  We are your friends, Frodo.” — ― J.R.R. Tolkien,

 

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