For well over a year, as I walked my dog, I passed a curious little old man sitting alone on the same park bench every day both in the morning and the evening. Did he stay there all day? Was he someone’s husband, father, or grandfather? Did he live alone? Did he have friends? Was he stiff and sore with the aches and pains of old age? Could I have occasionally brought him a nice hot cup of coffee or a morning pastry? What if he was lonely? Would he have enjoyed a friendly chat with someone just passing by? What did he eat and where did he go for lunch? I never found out, and now, too little too late, I’m sorry I didn’t.
The seasons came and went but he remained a constant. On hot summer days he appeared to be enjoying the welcome shade provided by the huge Maple tree behind the bench. The Fall offered a sweet cushion on the hard bench and under his sneaker-clad feet . Over his head and behind him a blanket of nature’s spectacular brilliance of Fall foliage danced around him with each gentle gust of wind. I walked my dog along the same route day after day and he and I had reached a certain familiarity over time. Allthough we never actually spoke, it had become a morning ritual for me to smile at him and mumble a “good morning.” He, in turn, would smile back and courteously tip his hat and respond with “and a good morning to you too.” In the evening the ritual was repeated.
He was always dressed neatly and looked very well cared for. His ever present hat changed with the seasons but always sat with a certain dignity upon his head. Some times a few gray hairs peeked out from beneath its brim. In the summer he wore a tan canvas fisherman’s hat. As the weather begin to chill, he changed to a dark green corduroy one with a little brown and gold feather tucked into its band . He wore tan chino slacks in the warm weather that seemed to be staples in his wardrobe . They were always clean and pressed with a sharp crease down the legs. The difference in cooler weather was that the slacks were a dark charcoal or a deep forest green. Some even had a touch of plaid flannel visible from beneath a turned up cuff. He wore colorful red wool socks under his immaculate white sneakers. Finishing off his dapper dressing was an obviously hand-knit wool scarf wound neatly around the neck of his heavy canvas jacket.
Even his posture as he sat in his special seat was consistent. He sat up straight, with one arm over the back of the white wooden bench and watched nature change daily in his little slice of heaven in the park. In the spring, he fed the ducks crumbs, tossing them from his gnarled arthritic hands. Some he had even given pet names and he called
them softly by name, … “here Sadie, here Max, here Junior.” As they waddled toward him he admonished them to share and play nicely; not to grab and squabble over the crumbs; he told them he had enough for everyone. When the crumbs were gone, he would shoo them away and caution them to be safe. In the fall, he simply sat silently and watched the leaves turn color.
He had captured a little slice of heaven for himself and it was a peaceful and gentle gift to those of us who witnessed it. The sight of this old man made me hesitate for just a minute to take a deep breath and thank my God for all the beauty sourrounding me that I fail to notice. It became my morning prayer for all of us who rush frantically through our busy days not taking the time to see that beauty, love and compassion all around us.
And then, suddenly the day came when my friend wasn’t there. I didn’t know his name; had no way to find out where he lived; or whether he was alive and well. Yet, after a few days of missing him I stopped at his spot on the bench and sat in his special place. The leaves had all fallen from his tree and some were now lying curled and crunchy on the ground beneath my feet. I did this for a few days and it has become my morning chapel. It’s a special place to think, to meditate, to heal, to laugh and to cry. It’s a haven for me to look at and evaluate both the good and the bad things in my life. I sit there in his special place on that white bench in honor of this friend and stranger. I have slowed down, I take deeper breaths and I appreciate the beauty around me and take the time to “smell the roses.” What a treasured gift indeed.
I cherish his memory and hope that wherever he is, the sun shines brightly on him and his beloved tree . I will always feel its warmth sifting through the summer fullness and the bountiful autumn leaves. I have a deep sense of sadness for the loss of my special friend.
But then I have my happy tree!