A few days ago, WordPress had a writing challenge about noticing details and how those details relate to each other. It got me to thinking a lot about some folks I’ve come across in the last few years.
My commute to work is about 20 to 25 minutes. I drive a long stretch of four-lane highway most of the way, much of which passes by fields and a few businesses. There’s a mile or so stretch of sidewalk along one side of that highway that has always struck me as being out of place. But every morning – rain, shine, snow, or fog – I see an old man walking on that sidewalk. He’s always in between the mortuary and the golf course (where the sidewalk ends). I wonder how far he walks to get to that sidewalk, where he’s going, and where he lives. It’s about three miles back up the road to any houses on that side of the road, and I’m sure he hasn’t crossed the four-lane highway just to walk down that stretch of sidewalk. I never see him turn off the sidewalk into either the mortuary or the golf course. I never see him anywhere but on that little stretch of road. I’ve even wondered at times if he exists anywhere but in that particular spot.
As I drive by at about 60 mph in my warm, comfy car, my first impression of this man is a stocky, ramrod-straight figure with short, bowed legs. His dark coat is a heavy, tweedy-looking type of fabric. He always has a hat – usually with ear flaps. Some days he marches along with a purpose, leaning into his stride and rocking slightly stiff-legged from side to side like a cartoon robot. Wherever he’s going, he wants to get there! Other times he walks slowly, shuffling along as though one more step might be his last. I wonder on those days if he will make it to his destination, but I keep driving to work; I’m on a schedule and don’t have time to stop and offer him a ride.
Part of my job is to pick up the mail from the post office. As I drive the 1.3 miles down to the post office, I often see an old woman who appears to be in her late 80s, walking slowly along the sidewalk. She pushes one of those walkers with a chair on the front, with a large cloth tote bag suspended between the handles. On days like today she wears a scarf of uncertain color, but on warm sunny days her white hair is flying wildly around her head. Her clothes hang loosely around her, bulky in places and bunched-up in others, the hems of her multiple layers hanging at various angles. I never see her sit down, although she does lean on the handles at times. Some days she’s moving slowly past my workplace; other times she’s making her way down the sidewalk near the post office. I never see her getting in or out of any vehicle. I rarely see her rest – she just keeps moving slowly and methodically down the street. Where does she live, I wonder. Where is she always going? Does she ever get there? Does she have any family? And if she does, why don’t they take her to the places she needs to go? I continue on to the post office; I’m on the clock and don’t have time to stop and give her a ride.
On the weekends we love to go for drives in the country. One road out of town is very winding and hilly and crosses another section of the four-lane highway about five miles out of town.
One day an old man, probably in his 80’s, was walking along that country road. He was tugging one of those fold-up shopping carts behind him. You know the ones; they look like a square birdcage with no top. The cage (or cart, to be precise) was full of bottles and cans. The old man had obviously been collecting them as he walked along. He was facing traffic, very wise in that area of no sidewalks and many sharp curves. We came across him at the bottom of one of the many hills on this road; he surprised us as we came around the corner. There is no shoulder on that section, so he had to walk practically in the road to avoid the drainage ditch about eighteen inches or so from his feet. Under the tattered raincoat that appeared to have once been yellow, his shoulders and back formed a question mark, asking how his body had gotten to this point. His head was protected by an equally tattered and very dirty ball cap, slightly askew – probably from wiping the sweat from his brow. He must’ve been much taller in his youth; now I could look down into his face from my 5’3″ stature.
My husband recognized the old man. “I pass that fellow just about every time I come down this road,” he said. “I wonder where he lives.” We were headed the opposite direction and needed to be in a certain place, so we didn’t stop – but I couldn’t help feeling like we should’ve turned around and gone back to help him. I pictured his life as a young man . . . no doubt a local farmer, sturdy and accustomed to hard work, standing tall and proud, too proud to be beholden to anyone for anything if he could do it himself. I wondered if he’d had a wife. Did he have any children? Did his children know he was out walking country roads in all manner of weather? I wondered if they ever came to visit him.
As we returned from our trip about three hours later, we again passed the little old man as he was headed back out of town. His cart was now laden with grocery bags, and instead of pulling it behind him, he was walking backwards and tugging it slowly up the hills. He pulled a step, rested, then pulled another. The grocery store is at least two miles from where we crossed his path, and I’m sure he still had another five to go, as we knew he didn’t live in any of the houses on that road. I wondered how he was able to cross that four-lane highway with his slow, halting steps, and tugging a fully laden grocery cart. This time my husband pulled over to offer him a ride. The old man shook his head and smiled, showing all three teeth, and politely refused. “If I take it, I will get old,” he explained. “There’ll come a day when I can’t do this any more; until then, I’ll keep walking. But thanks anyway.” With that, he turned and slowly trudged on down the road.
If I take it, I will get old.
The old man on the sidewalk . . . the old lady pushing the walker . . . this old man trudging up hills and around curves with his grocery cart – were they the old ones? Or was I??