He was not at all like, as Jane Kenyon would say, “a wine glass, weary of holding wine.” During our recent time together, he was at one point on his hands and knees retrieving his confounded new hearing aid that still let him down. As he sat ajar at the table so that his one good ear was pointed my way, he told me that Mildred had said, “Don’t tell anyone.” His dear wife was forgetting too many things and was frightened of what was to come, although she didn’t want to talk about it.
As my wife Jody fixed lunch, Floyd told me about his days in the Army which began for him in 1943 when he was twenty-seven and Midge twenty-four. When he called her from San Francisco in 1945 after returning on a troop ship from the South Pacific, neither could say much. He choked a bit with emotion and said all he could manage was to tell her he would be home in a few days. She was also overwhelmed and was only able to respond that she looked forward to it. Their marriage lasted more than seventy years.
This past Sunday, Jody and I made our two-hour plus pilgrimage to visit the old boy in southern Pennsylvania, not far from the horrific Antietam battlefield. I had forgotten to remind him the evening before that the clocks would spring forward overnight, so Jody and I were laughing en route that he might greet us in his jammies and housecoat. He seemed surprised that we were still coming, since the snow was piled high outside his bungalow and he feared that we might not be able to make it.
These days of late winter seem to be almost over for Floyd, who suffered pneumonia just a month or so ago but is now well. Indeed, he seemed robust in his own way, especially for an elderly gentleman who had enjoyed pizza and ice cream at a neighborhood social that was meant to celebrate the birthdays of several residents in the retirement village where he and Mildred had moved in late 1990. He was special, though–he was turning ninety-nine and said he was looking forward to his last year of double digits. This decade had not been particularly good to him, but there was hope in the future.
On the small stand beside his comfortable chair where he liked to sit and read was Calvin Trillin’s book About Alice, an unabashed and walloping love letter to his muse and wife who died in 2001. Nearby was an ancient copy of the collected short stories of Ambrose Bierce. It was copyrighted 1929, although Floyd said this copy had no significance since he had bought it at a garage sale many years before. Mildred had used it to write a paper on the tough and satiric old critic who wrote An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, the anguishing Civil War story about a Confederate sympathizer condemned to death by hanging from the bridge. It is a story famous for its irregular time sequence and twist ending. Kurt Vonnegut described it as a “flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.” Floyd laughed and said he had a copy of The Devil’s Dictionary somewhere in his office where the old college librarian had a few treasures that not many people had seen. He has some macular degeneration, but still enjoys sitting in his chair taking in the words of Trillin and Bierce and others who bring him such delights.
Jody had fixed a delicious sour cherry crumble which she topped with her own home-made ice cream. He’s never had a particularly keen sense of taste, but he told her that sour cherries fixed in whatever way were his favorites. We always leave him with plenty of leftovers although he prides himself in fixing his own meals and is resisting the offers of a local lady whose business it is to feed men such as himself. When Jody asked if he would like her to leave the remaining ice cream, he simply smiled in a way we imagined Bierce would and said, “You don’t have to ask.”
Jody and Floyd like to talk gardening and she piqued his interest in her plans to grow this year’s tomatoes in straw, an idea she had recently read about. Floyd had always had a small garden, even here where he had nourished and tended a community patch for many years. Of the many changes he had seen in recent years, he was especially saddened to have had to give it up a few years back. His eyes twinkled, though, when Jody promised to send him a description of her straw bale plans.
Although the idea of freshly picked tomatoes warmed us all, we couldn’t ignore the winter which still forced him to keep his apartment close to greenhouse levels that could easily induce yawns of sleepiness. With thoughts of Spring, though, he said he was looking forward to joining a group in the community who liked to play cards. Although not a card player, himself, he said he enjoyed the company, especially of a few of the ladies who always made him feel welcome. We smiled and were relieved since we have been a bit worried that he was becoming too home bound and isolated since Mildred passed a few years back. At one point, he said he never wanted a pet to keep him company, especially a cat, since he was afraid he wouldn’t make much of a meal should he die in his chair and not be found for a while. It was pure Bierce speaking.
When it was time for us to leave, he gave Jody a vintage cake/pie “caddy” that had belonged to Mildred. He’s not bashful about talking about his death and said he was glad to give us something useful. He chuckled and then quoted Bierce again:
Death is not the end. There remains
the litigation over the estate.
He then walked us to the door to say his goodbyes rather than “do the three steps of decency” by walking us to our car as was his habit. His other steps were to greet one’s visitors warmly and to make them feel at home. Since there was still some shifty ice on the path, he felt he had to be practical and forego this last sign of decorum. Unlike Bierce, though, he said one could not be too careful.
We made another date for late Spring when the sun would be a bit warmer and we could catch up again on his relentless march into triple digits.