When I was very young, our neighborhood was a safe place. There was a cross street missing on our block, and there were about thirty kids within a few years of me living on both sides of the street of the double-long block. The grade school I attended was three blocks down the street, and we all walked to school and home every day. Most of us walked home for lunch and back as well.
About five doors down the street from our house toward the school, on our side of the tree-lined street, was a white-sided frame house with a front porch. The spring I was seven, I think — so that would be 1960 — an old man started sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of that house during the warm part of the day. Walking back and forth to school at lunch, or home in the afternoon, I would wave at him and say “Hi!” because, well, because that’s who I was. He would wave and say “Hello there!”
School let out for the summer, and I missed saying “Hi!” to him, so I walked down there of an afternoon to say “Hi!” He was out on the porch, and I walked up the walk and introduced myself, and he introduced himself. He asked me how things were going, and I told him, but the doings of a seven-year-old weren’t terribly interesting. I asked about him. He had nothing much going on right now either, but he told me some story or other of his life.
This set a pattern for the summer, and, when the weather was nice, I would walk down there, and he would be on the porch, sitting in his rocking chair. I would sit on the steps, and he would tell me his stories. The lady of the house, his daughter-in-law, would often bring us out some lemonade and cookies, but she would retreat back into the house and leave us to talk.
Late in the summer, he stopped appearing on the porch. I went down there to look, and, though the weather was nice, he was not out. The second or third time this happened, his daughter-in-law came out and asked me if I wanted to see him. Of course, I said. So she led me into the house. In the dining room, the table and chairs had been pushed to one side and there was a hospital bed in the bay window. He was there, in the bed, with an oxygen tube in his nose. She pulled up one of the dining room chairs for me, and I sat by him.
He told me he was dying. His heart was failing. Apparently his son and daughter-in-law had taken him in for his last months, and his time was now short. I told him I was sorry, and must have looked terribly sad. He told me not to be sad, that he had lived a very long and happy life. He had had a wonderful wife and they had been tremendously in love for many years until she had passed. He had children and grandchildren who were all healthy and happy. He had lived a full life, the stories of which he had shared with me that memorable summer.
He said not to grieve for him, but to celebrate the wonderful life he had led and enjoyed so much, and to remember him.
We said goodbye for the last time that day. It was only a few days later that I saw the hearse parked in front of the house. I watched as they wheeled out his body on a gurney for the trip to the funeral home down the block.
I told my parents this story decades later. I had forgotten his name, but I remembered him, and I remembered that last talk in the sunny bay window of the dining room where he died. My parents were surprised, as they had known nothing about our relationship, but they knew his name. They called him “Old Man Shelley.”
I do remember you, Mr. Shelley, as you asked, even now, six decades later. I find your memory comforting as the years pile up.
When I see you next, maybe I can tell you some stories.