I was inside when he pulled up to our yard sale. My son and husband were outside with him but I stepped out to see if he had any questions about the items he was looking at. He did but only about a film camera I was selling, which turned out to be his launching point for telling stories about his life.
“I took photos a long time ago, when I was in Korea in the service. Of course I traveled other places too. I have a box of color slides at home. My son takes photos, he knows more about these things than I do. You say it still works?”
It did, that I knew of, but had been passed down to me from someone else. I always told myself I was going to learn how to shoot film, but I’d never got there and had decided it was time to give up and sell the cameras, one of which had a broken lever.
Before I knew it and without speaking much at all myself, I learned the hunched over older man was 88, had flown planes for years, had traveled the world, had lost his wife in 2009, and had almost remarried two years ago.
As we talked I realized I knew the man but thankfully he didn’t remember me at all.
It was one of those times I was happy to see someone suffering from the ill mental effects of old age. I had written a feature story on him in my old life as a small town newspaper reporter and had been quite proud of the story of a war veteran and local hero who had established a fundraiser for cancer research with his wife in memory of their son. He wasn’t as impressed. His lack of praise for the article didn’t come from inaccurate information I had presented but the fact I had made him look “too good.”
Apparently I had idealized him too much and given him so much positive coverage he felt embarrassed and humiliated, as if he had been bragging about himself. So there I stood one day, in the front of the office of the small town paper I worked for, listening as he scolded me for saying too many nice things about him. I didn’t even know how to respond, other than to silently consider digging up some nasty dirt on him to balance out the portrayal.
This annoyed response to a positive article actually wasn’t the only of its kind for me. A few years before that the mom of a friend had told me the same about an article I wrote on their dairy farm. My personal affection for what I saw as an idyllic rural upbringing transferred the story, in her opinion, into an unrealistic view of their world and made it appear that she and her family were perfect, when she knew they weren’t.
Again, I was stumped. After these incidents if I began to second guess positive feature stories I wrote, wondering if should throw in some negative antidotes about the subject or ask them to provide me with some personal failings to flush out the story and make them look less appealing as a human being. I tried my best after those complaints to never make a person look “too good” again.
The man at the yard sale talked away, saying my name sounded familiar, thought he knew someone with my last name (he does and it’s me and my husband, who he’s also been interviewed by for another story about the fundraising event held in memory of the man’s late son.).
“I used to have one of these. Took photos when I was in the Air Force,” he says, the camera strap hooked around his neck now. “I’ve got some old color slides in my attic. Korea and Greece and places like that. My son knows about cameras. He takes photos. He lives over in South Waverly. Just down the road here.”
Each item he looked at seemed to trigger another thought.
“I almost got remarried a couple years ago. I knew her in high school or course. We used to go to the roller rink. She got married and has some kids and so did I. My wife, Joan, she died in 2009 and her husband had died. She would pull up in front of house and I’d go out and we’d talk. Well one night I went to hug her and she pulled away and said “what are you doing? I’m not a hugger.’ I said to myself ‘well, that’s that, because I’m a hugger.'”
He talked away, about nothing and everything.
I listened because I knew he needed someone to listen.
Even though he didn’t remember me or know that I knew him, I did remember and I did know.
I knew he was alone in a tiny little house he’d once shared with his wife and his twin boys and a daughter. I knew one boy had died from cancer as a teenager.
I knew his life had been hard, full of pain, but also joy. I knew he was humble and didn’t like anyone to think he thought he was better than anyone else.
I knew he needed to talk and he needed someone to really listen because really it’s what we all want – someone to really listen when we talk and not just listen, but really hear.
I told him to stop by and show me the photos he took with the camera. He said my address out loud a couple of times, to commit it to a memory slowly failing him and promised he’d stop by again.
He crossed our busy street, back to his van, and we waved our goodbyes.
I didn’t know if he’d remember me later, or even the conversation we’d had that day, but I was glad to have been someone who listened to stories of his past on that summer day.