By Wayne Allensworth
The old gentleman had told me that he was very grateful. Grateful to God for all the blessings he had experienced in his long and eventful life. Grateful for the friends he had made, and grateful for his family.
I had sat across from him and watched his eyes soften and then twinkle a bit. He was pale and declining, but for a moment he almost seemed hale and if not hearty, at least displayed a hint of his old good humor. His love of life. He didn’t speak much about his cancer, though he voiced some frustrations about his fading cognition.
I wished him a Merry Christmas, and he smiled. His son and daughter and their families were coming to see him. It’s a blessing, he said. And I felt humbled by the old gentleman’s simple faith.
I was thinking about him on a rather blustery day a week before Christmas. My car was in the shop, and I was afoot, heading to talk to my mechanic. The only thing I felt sure about was that this was going to be a costly trip, one I could ill afford, but that’s the way it was. The sidewalk ahead of me was lined with trees that had lost their leaves for the most part, tree limbs vibrating in the wind like the arms of a conductor leading a mysterious silent orchestra.
I pulled my collar up around my neck and eyed the gray sky.
I had told the old gentleman that feeling, much less expressing, gratitude was something very hard for a lot of us. We forget, or take the better things in our lives, especially life itself, as a given. Pain seemed to leave a more lasting impression.
Then he told me a story about an old woman who had lived near his family’s farm a long time ago. She lived alone and drew water from her well herself. On some days, she would wander the county roads and show up unannounced to visit, then walk on. His father called her “grandma,” and would joke with her. Somehow, she had seemed quite content. Her name was Lula, he said.
And I thought of my relations from an earlier time. I had known some of the older ones when I was a boy. They were dreadfully poor by the standards of post-war America. Sons had been lost in that war, others maimed, and some bore invisible scars from events known only to them, for they did not talk about such things. My grandmother had lost a baby sister who was killed by a rattlesnake bite. And some of them had travelled West to look for work during the Depression. Some drank too much, and a few met bitter ends. The lines on their faces suggested stories I never heard. But what I had left of them was the lasting surprise of how content they seemed. Maybe they didn’t expect anything else, and they certainly had no sense of being owed anything. It was gratitude. They were grateful for all the small things people in a more prosperous society no longer noted. And I envied them. As a boy, I had no words for it. I know now that the small things are actually the big ones.
My mechanic is a worn looking man who looks older than I am, though maybe it’s the mileage, not the years, as they say. I picked up the keys to my car on the way out of the garage and stopped. I wished Jimmy a Merry Christmas and gave him a package of candy my wife had made, as she does each year, affection’s gift, a small personal gesture that I had learned was much appreciated. The hardness in Jimmy’s face slipped just a moment and he silently thanked me with a sincere nod, then put his arm round my shoulder, something I hadn’t expected. I thanked him for being someone I could trust. I told him I was grateful for that.
I had paid up and tried not to think about the bill. I drove home and smiled a little when a sliver of bright sunlight came peeking through a crack in the wall of clouds, and I thought that maybe those vibrating limbs I had seen earlier had been singing.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.