They were always there: that cute little couple, holding hands and watching the world from their rusty old lawn chairs. I could imagine that they were lonesome and tired of the homely view, but what else can you do when you’re 95?
I am a shy girl, a very shy girl; a teenager who would prefer imagining perfect worlds and desperate situations I create and cater to my individual talents and abilities rather than facing the real world and real people. So as I skipped by on my routine preamble each morning I considered stopping in to say hello to my elderly neighbors and then scuffled onward, sure that I would be nothing more than an aggravating disturbance to their routine. “What routine?” I sometimes reasoned — they sat outside all day and waited tirelessly for their adult children to drop off food. Grandchildren were a rare treat of entertainment although a weak heart and recent knee replacement made it impossible for them to do anything but watch their grandkids hop around and (on a good day) catch them over the knee for a few minutes of storytelling. Fearing an innocent old couple sitting peacefully on their front yard doesn’t seem reasonable until you’re at the end of a long driveway — trying to walk towards them.
I watched other neighbors stop by, older neighbors who know exactly what older people were supposed to talk about. I gave myself many excuses and continued to hastily pass, feeling the guilt of a subpar neighbor.
Then one day I told myself that enough was enough. They wouldn’t shoot me for introducing myself would they? I stared down the driveway and sucked in a gallon of air.
I could do this? Why be afraid?
Whoever invented the long driveway must have been very unsociable. As I walked toward their peaceful spot on the lawn I noted their kind but confused faces staring back at me. Doubts and thoughts of turning back ran through my mind a hundred times before I reached the end of that walk. I convinced myself how silly and babyish retreat would be. Sooner than expected I was staring the couple face to face and apparently they expected me to say something:
“Hi, I just wanted to introduce myself, I live two doors down from here.”
The couple smiled and asked me to pull up a chair. I smiled back and nervously seated myself.
“What’s your name?” the old man asked.
“Oh I’ll never forget that, it has a song… what’s that song honey?”
“She was coming ‘round the mountain.”
I quietly hummed a line to help him out.
“Oh yes, ‘Oh SUSANNA’! I’ll never forget your name!” He said with a smile. His wife smiled back at him and agreed.
Fifteen minutes later they’d shared a plethora of great old stories, I felt like I’d known their family for generations: all their children from Billy to Barbara, probably grandparents themselves by now but still seen as young children in the eyes of their genial old parents.
I chatted for a while; our conversation happened in bits and pieces. I’d comment that the weather was real nice or that the summer had been extraordinarily humid this year, then they would ask me what I’d said. After a few exchanges, I’d manage to shout out the gist of my original sentence and they would make a simple reply. They would be reminded of the summer that “their Billy” was just 10 years old and star of the little league team, then I’d hear a favorite story that they’d already told me before, but it just got better with every telling.
There were pleasant spaces between stories and fragments of conversation, we’d all sit quietly and watch cars drive by, and then someone would break the silence by pointing out a busy squirrel mother building a nest in the rafter of the house next door.
Talking with Tom and Betty (as they insisted I call them) was a very different social experience for me. I did not feel pressure to constantly entertain; they were satisfied enough by the presence of a rare newcomer — and a young one at that. The silence in between dialogue was pleasant, not awkward. Every time they asked me where I lived I would challenge myself by trying to create a new way to tell them that I lived two houses down the street. I enjoyed every story they told, no matter how many times they told it, as well as all the words of age-old insight they shared.
“What time is it” Betty asked and I glanced down at my blue sports watch.
“Four-thirty” I replied.
“Already?” Tom raised his voice in surprise and Betty added, “Time just marches on doesn’t it, honey? Time just marches on. I remember the year our Billy was 10 years old and top of his game. There was this one particular little league game I’ll never forget…”
“I’m sure you won’t,” I added.
“Billy was 10 then, boy, I don’t even know how many of them guys is still around anymore.”
“Time just marches on, honey, time just marches on.”
“Then there was Sally.”
“Is Sally alive anymore, honey?”
“Nope. Not anymore.”
“That’s sad, honey, but time just marches on.”
“What’s your name again? I apologize, I’ve plum forgotten!”
“Susanna? There’s a song for that name… let’s see.”
“Oh Susanna! I’ll never forget that name — I’ll never forget.”
I spent about an hour chatting away on their lawn. As I got up to leave they made me promise to return assuring me, “We’ll be here,” with a mischievous grin. I did come back, and although each time I got a few of the same stories and the same questions, I never regretted it. I’ve learned so much about life from my experience with them, and greatly value the relationship we share.
As insignificant as it seems I still look back to that first moment — the moment in which I stood at the wrong end of that seemingly never-ending driveway staring awkwardly into their faces — and decided to walk forward. By breaking through my shyness for just a second, an opportunity of a lifetime sprang forward, a relationship that has and will continue to change me greatly. I’ll never regret that long walk.
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