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Chance encounter leads to unlikely friendship between 4-year-old and a senior citizen.

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This is typically an educational blog but sometimes events in the world are so touching and significant that I need to share them out. This is one such story. Plus I think it is a great way to start the new year.

A few decades ago I wrote a book of short stories. This story reminded me of one of the stories I wrote titled, Coming Out of the Dark. It was inspired by watching a man, probably around 80, playing with a toddler when I visited a San Francisco beach as well as my experiences leading an Elderhostel canoe trip for folks age 60 to 80 when I was in my 20s.

Coming Out of the Dark

When our son was born, I longed to raise him in a neighborhood like the one where I grew up . . . where its houses had big front porches and where, come summer, people lounged about in rocking chairs and drank freshly made lemonade. In the fall, there would be piles of leaves falling from the trees and the kids would play in them . . . a place where kids would know all of their neighbors, played ball in one another’s backyards, built forts in the trees, and played hide and seek in the shrubs.

After a lengthy search, we found such a place. The very day we moved into our new home, the neighbors greeted us with a homemade apple pie. The neighborhood brought back so many of my own memories along with that old familiar feeling of “home.”

After settling into our new surroundings, I found that one of my favorite things to do was to walk through the neighborhood at dusk. I loved the dull orange light that flowed from my neighbors’ kitchens and living rooms as they settled in for the the evening. I could hear bits of conversation and laughter floating out from their homes as I walked by.

When my son, Justin, was two years old, he began to walk with me in the colder winter evenings. We would see the Smiths next door gathered around their kitchen table for dinner. We watched as parents returned home to their children full of excitement and anticipation. “Daddy’s home! Mommy’s home!”  We walked by Mr. Cottle’s house during our evening walks. There he would be sitting in a rocking chair behind his front window watching the traffic pass by. One of my other neighbors mentioned that he had recently lost his wife of fifty years. “When you look into his eyes,” she said, “you can see his sadness. It’s pure grief, the kind that only comes from losing the love of your life.”

Justin and I made a special point to wave to Mr. Cottle each day as we walked by. He waved back but seemed to do so with great effort as though the deep sadness in his eyes and heart were contained within his hand, making it almost too heavy to move.

As spring approached, the days grew a little longer. Backyard barbecues and street football become daily events, and Mr. Cottle moved his rocking chair to the front porch. I took the opportunity to add a cheery, “Hello!” to my regular wave. Justin followed suit with the enthusiasm of a two-year-old beginning to master the power of speech.

On these walks, Justin, like any boy his age, loved to explore. One evening he wandered into what was left of Mr. Cottle’s garden. Trying to keep him from disturbing Mr. Cottle, I insisted he return to me on the sidewalk. Justin scrunched up his little face and looked like he was about to cry.

Mr. Cottle looked at me, smiled, and said gently, “It’s okay. My wife always welcomed children into the garden. She loved for them to play here.” With that, he got up, leaned over the banister and told Justin, “Son, you can come and poke around in our garden anytime you’d like.” Deeply touched, I smiled and thanked him. Justin and I turned back down the street to continue our evening walk.

“He sad?” asked Justin. I explained that Mr. Cottle’s wife died, and Justin nodded his head. He thought about that for a minute then ran down the street in search of his next adventure.

Before long, Justin and Mr. Cottle settled into a routine. Justin would run to the bottom of Mr. Cottle’s porch stairs, hand in a high salute yellling, “High five! High five!” and Mr. Cottle would get up from his rocking chair to slap hands with him. Then they would explore the garden together.

The long days of summer arrived along with the heat that came in full force. Since the beach was only 30 minutes away, I began taking Justin there on most days. One evening, Justin ran up to Mr. Cottle’s porch for their high five and demanded, “Beach tomorrow. You come. ‘kay?”

Mr. Cottle, a bit started at first, turned thoughtfully and said to Justin and me, “My wife, Nellie, loved the beach. We would spend hours there. Nellie made the best picnic lunches, cold turkey salad with her homemade relish, bread pulled from the oven the evening before, fruit salad, and fresh brewed iced tea. We use to go early in the mornings before it got too crowded and walk the beach, pick up shells, and play tag in the waves. We would come home only after we had eaten our picnic lunch together.” I watched as his bright eyes faded to ones on the brink of tears. “We wanted to have children to share all of this with,” he shook his head. “It just didn’t work out.” He smiled down at Justin who stared unflinchingly back at him.

Justin repeated, “Beach tomorrow. You go with me.”

I smile at Justin because of all of his childhood innocence and persistence. I looked at Mr Cottle and softly added, “Please join us. We would really like for you to come.” All kinds of emotions appeared to pass through his eyes, but he said, “Yes.”

As we left Mr. Cottle, I told Justin, “We need to go home so I can go to the market.” Justin squinted his eyes and asked, “No more walk?” I responded, “Nope, no more walk tonight.”

The next morning we stopped to pick up Mr. Cottle for our trip to the beach. He appeared a bit different, dressed in a light weight wind jacket and a New York Yankees baseball cap. Best of all, though, there seemed to be a slight bounce to his walk.

“Mornin’,” he said as he slid into the front seat.

Justin yelled from his car seat in the back, “Yea! Beach today!”

When we arrived at the beach, I asked Mr. Cottle to join us for a walk. As the wet sand silently shifted between our toes, Mr. Cottle watched Justin do what Justin does – peer under shells, chase after the sandpipers, and splash in the waves. His curiosity was contagious, and soon Mr. Cottle and I were following Justin’s lead, looking under driftwood, and digging under the sand, trying to find the crawly things that Justin so adored.

I watched as Mr. Cottle found a strainer and said, “Justin, Justin, come here.” Justin came running, and Mr. Cottle said, “Let’s strain the sand and see what we can find.” They became totally absorbed with their task. They were doing what boys do together, and I had the special privilege of getting a glimpse into their world.

Mr. Cottle showed Justin how to play tag with waves as I sat and watched. “Justin, follow the wave as it goes out, and when it comes back in, race away so it doesn’t catch you.” This game brought squeals of delight from Justin and Mr. Cottle laughed out loud. This sound caught us all by surprised.

“Wow,” said Mr. Cottle. “I haven’t heard that sound in so long. My wife would be so made at me. She once told me that my laugh was one of the reasons she married me.” He laughed again, and we couldn’t help but join in.

When it was time for lunch, we returned to our blanket, and I asked Mr. Cottle to unpack our picnic basket. He pulled out the food I made. He pulled out the fresh turkey salad with homemade relish on freshly baked bread. He pulled out the fruit salad with the season’s freshest fruit. Finally, he pulled out the fresh brewed ice tea. “This is just too much,” he said with a cracking voice.

I suddenly felt that maybe my good intentions might not have been such a great idea. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I just thought . . .”

“No need to make apologies,” he smiled. “No everything is great . . . . everything is fine  . . .  thank you.” His  last word fell out of his mouth without much sound. He sighed as Justin and I sat quietly. Mr. Cottle stared out to the ocean, his chest shook slightly and tears slid down his cheeks.

Justin touched his arm and asked, “What’s wrong? You sad?”

“Yes,” Mr. Cottle replied. “Very sad but very happy at the same time.” He looked at me through his tear-filled eyes and whispered, “Thanks.”

Justin crawled into Mr. Cottle’s after lunch. I noticed that they had the same kind of eyes – young eyes. “I don’t mean to be forward,” I said to Mr. Cottle, “but when I first met you, all I saw was an old person. And now, when I look into your eyes, I see a . . .  well, I see . . .” I stuggled to find a word that fit.

“A friend,” said Mr. Cottle.

I responded with a smile, “Yes, a friend.”

When we dropped Mr. Cottle at his home that afternoon, I said, “Beach again on Saturday?” Justin piped up from the back seat, “Beach again on Saturday?”

Mr. Cottle smiled brightly and nodded his head.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 1, 2017 at 9:08 pm

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