I've been waiting to blog about this, partly because I've been formulating my words, but also because Phill has been gone since Monday (home tomorrow, though!), and I've been struggling just to keep our stupid kitchen table wiped down....but I'm going to see if it'll come to me now, and if I can write this thing that's been on my mind for two days now.
Since June of 2005, the summer that I was pregnant with Jaxon, busy with Reed, and lonely without Phill, there was the veteran named Lendon. I walked into our Wal-Mart, and to my left, there he was--sitting in the McDonald's. He caught my eye, saw my burgeoning belly and my bubbly Reed, and waved with an enormous smile. Then he beckoned me to come over. So, in my fascination with all people who will allow me to be fascinated by them, I went. There he sat, a very old man with tanned, wrinkled skin, white hair, and twinkling (though somewhat faded in color) brown eyes. And I noticed something else. On the dark green jacket he wore were medals. And next to him, placed carefully on the windowsill, were two pictures: One of the old man, and a black and white one of a man much younger, in full uniform, with a bright smile, holding a little black plaque with white letters on it.
He said some sweet things to Reed, told Reed that he was a soldier. Reed said with a gasp, "My Dad is a soldier!" And Lendon looked up at me. I said, "Yes, his Dad is in Iraq." And Lendon, pointing at my belly asked, "Is that one going to be a boy?" And I smiled and confirmed that yes, this one would be a boy, too. Lendon was very excited to hear this, and told me that boys are "wonderful." Then he proceeded to tell me that he was 87 years old, and very plainly stated (with a smile) that he is a WWII veteran. I have to admit that my response wasn't very articulate, given that I was trying not to cry. There are a million reasons why, and there are no reasons why....but every time I see him I feel like crying happy and sad tears.
Every time we went to Wal-Mart after that, there he was. Waving from the window at McDonald's, with a sad little breakfast and his two pictures on the windowsill. I've wondered several times if he doesn't quite have all his faculties about him. I've decided several times that he does. I have talked to him many times, and although he has told me every time that he is a WWII veteran, I don't think it's because he's forgotten my face or forgotten if he's told me this. I think it's because he doesn't want anyone to forget it, and I think it's because of course he can't forget it.
When I moved to Provo, upon first walking into Orem's seems-like-right-before-Christmas-all-the-time Wal-Mart, I involuntarily looked for Lendon, and then felt my stomach drop into my shoes. (Of course he wouldn't be there!) I didn't forget about him. I just put him aside for the time being. But when we moved back here, I realized with a start as we went to Wal-Mart again that I would probably see him. And then of course I wondered for a sickening moment if he might not be there, if he might have died in the last ten months that I had been gone. He hadn't. He was there, and he waved, and we went over to him. My eyes were watering when I said, "I remember you! I'm happy to see you!" And Lendon said something to Phill that still makes me cry even to write it--he said, "You're a soldier." And turned to me and said, "And you have two boys!" See? He remembers that. He doesn't remember it every time. But he remembered it then, the summer that Phill came home.
He's still there, Lendon Griffin. And he still says every time, "You know, I'm a WWII veteran." Every time I talk to him, if I can persuade him to talk just a little more, I learn a little more about him. This last time (Monday), he was actually in line behind me, buying Halloween candy. I learned this time that he is now 89, and takes medication for old age, and he's very proud of the fact that he doesn't shake. He showed me his steady hands. "Look! I don't shake at all." But he really surprised me when he said, "You have beautiful children! Did you know I was an orphan? I grew up in an orphanage, and when I met my wife--oh, I was not a Mormon, I was smoking and drinking, but she converted me--when I met my wife, I asked her, 'Will you give me a family? Because I don't have one.' Well, we got married, and my wife had four children, and she couldn't do anymore, and I told her that it was okay because she kept her promise and gave me a family." Not only that, but I got this from him, too: "You know, when I was in the War, we went to Italy, France, Germany....those Germans--not the Nazis, those good for nothing....--not the Nazis, the Germans. When we went there, they gave us hugs and spoke better English than we did."
Every time I look at his watered-down-brown eyes, I can't help but wonder what they've seen. And I keep hearing him ask, "Did you know I was an orphan?"
This might sound strange, but I feel blessed that he talks to me. That strangers often talk to me. Abby says I "collect" people. And it's true, in the most loving sense of collecting....people are my treasures. I love them--all ages. Their idiosyncrasies make me laugh, and sometimes I'm really laughing inwardly if it's a very strange stranger talking to me. But I'm still interested. And I still like most people I meet. That same Monday that Lendon chose to divulge such a priceless bit of information, there was someone else who happened to approach me. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I probably look rather dwarfed by my three children as I push the cart around Wal-Mart, continually saying, "Put that down. Please stop. I love you, too. No, you can't have that. I know you like it. No. NO." Or maybe I look approachable, amiable. (Or maybe my children are so adorable they invite comments from perfect strangers. Yes. I like that one.) Whatever the reason, a very old lady approached me and said, "Oh, you are so blessed. What beautiful children." And I smiled (while on the phone with Abby) and said, "Thank you." She wanted to keep looking, so I paused obligingly, still talking to Abby. Then this elderly lady began to talk to me. (I have to say I really love that she didn't care that I was on the phone. I really do. I'm not being sarcastic. I think it's great that she didn't have the sort of technology-fearing respect for it that some people have.) So I told Abby to hold on, because I knew she'd love to hear the conversation that was spontaneously happening between me and this lady. She proceeded to say, "I have a recipe for you. Are you ready? It's easy. You take three or four containers of yogurt, strawberry or something. You add a tablespoon of sugar to each container, mix it, stir it like this (and here she did the stir motion), and then put it in the oven. You spread it on a cookie sheet. It takes two sheets. And then you put it in the oven overnight at 175 degrees." I asked a few questions just to make sure I had it right, and then she told me her name. She told me her name, that I could find her name in the phone book if I needed more recipes, and lastly, "The homemakers love me. I'm a godsend."
I like these random conversations with strangers. But are they all really strangers? Certainly there have been people from whom I feel no sense of safety or friendship or kindness. Obviously I don't approach those people. But every now and then a seeming stranger will talk to me, and I get the feeling that there are those seeds of the same thing in all of us. I know what it is. We're all human, but it's much deeper than that. Don't you ever get that feeling that we come from the same source, that we shouldn't be walking around in our shy lives so oblivious to each other?
"Did you know I was an orphan?"