There Was An Old Man

It was Friday afternoon when my son and I returned home from the video store, part of a typical pre-weekend routine. My attention shifted automatically toward a little green house along McKee Road. The house was small and sat on a patch of farmland that had not yet succumbed to the advance of the city. The large trees provided shade and seemed to stand guard over the house. My eyes searched the porch for him, but he was not there. His chair was there, but he in his denim overalls, his hat, and his wave were not. He had not been there for almost two weeks. Along with him, part of me was missing.

The trash bin perched out front stood empty of the mounds of discards and plastic trash bags left there several days ago. The front door was closed tightly behind the screen door. Being mid-afternoon, it should have been open.

I never met the old guy, but I felt like I knew him. I felt this way because he always had a little time for me. He always had the time to raise his hand and offer a friendly wave when I drove by his home. The whole family became conditioned to expect a wave. My ten-year-old daughter would crane her neck to see out of the car every time we drove by on the chance she could wave back.

I would always wave back to him, secretly thanking him for being so generous to recognize me with an unsolicited greeting. I wondered if his eyesight was good enough to tell who was driving by, or if he was just waving at the sound of a passing car. I wanted him to know I received and appreciated his wave, so I tooted my car horn twice every time when I passed.

 

There never were any cars out in front of his house unless someone was visiting. Usually it was a Social Services vehicle or possibly a car of a family member or friend. It comforted me to know somebody had the time to stop in and check on him from time to time. But now the house was closed up and he was gone.

I suspected something serious had probably happened because he had not been on the front porch for a couple of weeks. “He“, was Ernest “something“. Driving by, I could never read the faded last name printed following the “Ernest” on the mailbox. This day I slowed down to read the last name just to satisfy my curiosity, but the mailbox was gone.

It was at that moment that I realized I would never know who Ernest was. I felt as though I had blown a chance to know somebody that maybe I should have taken the time to meet. I am not sure what knowing him would have meant, or what it would have led to if anything. I only knew I had lost the chance to stop by and say thanks for taking the time to share a friendly wave. The absence of the mailbox was the most blatant reminder of all that I was too late.

“Too late for what?” you might ask. The truth is, I am not sure.

Reflecting on what Ernest meant to me really was not about Ernest at all. It was about me. It was about my life and what it had become. The hustle and bustle of day-to-day living kept me from meeting a man that might have been significant blessing to me…or I him. His welcoming wave consistently given to me, while accepted and appreciated, was never returned with the added substance of any of my time. Oh sure, I waved back and tooted the horn, but I never stopped to say, “Hey, my name’s Gary! How are you getting along?”

I am not sure what part of me would have been satisfied by doing that. Stopping may not have even been appropriate. I do not know if stopping would have been perceived as a friendly gesture or an invasion of his privacy and peace. Certainly, it could have been perceived as a threatening thing to him.

The significance of who Ernest was is something I will never know. I will never know whether he was a good man, had a family, and lived a good life. But then, I do not have the authority to make judgments of good or bad, and those other things about his life are probably none of my business anyway.

What about the roles each of us played in the other’s life? Granted, we never met, but in my mind, there is still something special about sharing a greeting on a daily basis. Something feels unfinished when it does not happen. Maybe my role was to let him know that he played a part in making the round trip to Harris Teeter more than just a round trip to Harris Teeter for us all. Maybe his role was to help my kids understand that sharing a greeting with another person is OK, even when you expect nothing in return.

Maybe his role was to remind me that there is a parallel world of people and things that are flashing by outside of my rapid-paced world every day. I probably would not be any more or less successful by missing things like Ernest sitting on his front porch waving to everybody who drove by. And as significant things go, Ernest played only a small role in my life.

So why do I feel a sense of loss when I drive by that little green house on McKee Road? Why do I always look for the little man on the porch? Why does lifting my hand to wave to an empty chair bring a tear to my eye? Why should something so insignificant have such an impact on me?

I wonder. I wonder how long it will be before the little green house is bulldozed into another housing development. I wonder when McKee Road will be four lanes wide and there will be no trace of what once was there.

But I will know. I was just lucky enough to look up and see his wave.

“Hey Ernest! How are you getting along? It’s good to see you too!” God bless you wherever you are, old friend!

Toot, toot…

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Thanks for reading my words.
 I hope you enjoyed this piece!

Gary G. Wise
gdogwise@gmail.com