Our geriatric landlords Norm and Evelyn live at the slow, sweet pace of the long retired. They wake up early, spend most of their morning chatting with friends at the bar/coffee shop two blocks down the hill, nap and do yard or house work in the afternoon, and go to bed before the sky is dark. They attend church events, go for bike rides, participate in meals-on-wheels and know every person who walks down their alley by name. They let my dog in to share their table food (and out, if they feel we are gone for too long,) admonish us to go hiking or get to work (depending on the day) and toast marshmallows for me over a hot electric burner whenever I visit.
They spend a lot of their summer days sitting on the back porch (watching birds & bunnies feast, watching flowers grow) or mulling over the yard with a trowel. Whenever we come and go (if its not raining) we are stopped for a minute (or hours) of conversation. I try to leave the house a little earlier if I see one of them through the kitchen window filling birdfeeders or picking up twigs downed in the last storm. I know I will be asked where I am headed, and before I answer, they will begin a careful dictation of whatever is on their minds: the weather, the dog, their granddaughter’s schedule, groceries, the War (as in WWII,) Norm’s heart surgery & recovery, “Those People” - the rowdy pot-smoking kids who live in the next building, their van’s transmission, the (lack of) mothering skills demonstrated across the alley, Mormon missionaries, the river in spring.
Today I stood on the sidewalk for almost an hour, listening to Norm talk about the state of the world. Several months ago, I joined them for coffee at the bar down the road. Several bar tables had been set up in a row, covered in a pastel table cloth and decorated with ceramic Easter Bunnies and plastic flowers. There were about fifteen retired folks sitting around the table, sipping coffee and detailing every local scandal, divorce and delinquent as morning traffic piled up on the main road through town. Several unemployed young men played a slow game of billiards, dark, sweaty bottles already in hand, flirting good-naturedly with the elderly women, cursing roundly when they missed a shot, then excusing themselves dramatically to the group. Someone’s granddaughter was visiting, and sat curled around a book on a bar stool, trying to avoid the questions peppered at her by all of these strange adults. I remember being taken to ‘morning coffee’ by my own grandfather when I was ten, squirming under the scrutiny of his boisterous friends, wanting to melt into the floor but also fascinated by their wild stories and weathered faces.
On the walk home later that morning, Norm stopped to look at the overflowing contents of a trash bin taking up the sidewalk across from a new construction site. Much to my amusement and Evelyn’s chagrin, he began pawing through the mess, picking out recycling and muttering about the waste, the idiocy of the non-recycling workers, the state of America’s landfills. Until that moment, I had never heard a person over the age of seventy talk about environmental issues (beyond, perhaps, how the winters just aren’t what they used to be) much less rant on a public sidewalk while pawing through someone else’s garbage.
This afternoon, I was privy to Norm’s entire philosophy of conservation, which is personal, practical and followed with a vehemence unusual for this laid back gardener and lover of birds. He talked about our culture’s demand for pre-packaged, disposable wares. He talked about buying sugar in bulk, cookies from a jar and TV tubes as needed, as a young man. He spoke of seeing almost-new appliances thrown on the side of the road, of the landfills, of his practice of taking yard waste to the woods above town. He told me about rinsing reusable diapers for his children, and his horror at generations of petrified baby poop piling up around the country. He reminded me to recycle, and said that if he were our age, he would reconsider having children. What, he asked, would my grandchildren be left with?
None of these lines of thought were new to me, but listening to them flow from a man on the other end of life made for a new voice, a new timbre to the growing chorus. Peter pointed out later how much this makes sense: The WWII generation is generally a disciplined, practical bunch. They lived through wartime and depression – the real thing, not voice-overed TV battles and high gas prices - and internalized the practice of sacrificing individually for the good of the whole. “They would be such hard-core recyclers!” And it is true. Our culture has changed so rapidly over the last two generations, shifting towards individual freedom, convenience and choice, and we are beginning to see where that shift is taking us. It is not a very pretty horizon. Just before I walked out to my car, Norman sighed and said, “I’m sure glad I’m not going to have to see where all this is taking us.” The anxiety in his voice was genuine. I have never heard a person who loves life as much and lives it as fully, look upon its timely end with such a palatable sense of relief.