(June 22nd, 2015)
Ben and Pink lived on Ben street. It was a small house up a steep driveway. It was exactly halfway between our house and the Eight O'clock grocery where I would buy Mallo Cups. Ben often had the much less tasty candy, Necco wafers. They were, to us children, additional grandparents. Ben and Pink were the first non-family seniors that I knew (I think).
I learned many things about seniors by wandering down to their house. For example, I learned that seniors go to bed early. One summer evening - if you can call a sunny and bright 7pm evening - we called on Ben and Pink. Knocking on the screen door we startled Pink in her chair. Ben had long ago abandoned his chair and had gone to bed. Pink, normally the picture of a southern lady was sitting up and dragging on a large cigar. She was embarrassed to be caught. I'm not sure I'd ever seen a woman smoke a cigar. I definitely had never seen an old woman smoke a cigar. I will always remember how she tried to wave away the billowing evidence and the string of half sentences that came out.
Most of the visits to their house were solidly during the day. They had a little chair they would put out for us in front of the TV. They offered a coke and a sandwich. I always refused. In my short pants wisdom I thought this polite. Only later, and too late, did I realize they wanted to serve us and please us in this small way.
Ben was of another generation. (I mean this figuratively, of course. Though maybe all those of his literal generation were of the same mind. I don't know. Maybe it would be better to say Ben was of his generation. Either way, he was not of my generation, either literally or figuratively, and that is the point.) He often greeted my mother by asking how many "whippings" she had given me that day. Almost always (for I did earn a few) she would reply that I hadn't done anything wrong. He would look very skeptical and reply that she should whip me anyway. I had probably done something wrong even if she didn't know it. Kids in his mind, and often on his tongue, were hellions. That is, except for my sisters whom he loved. He would greet them with hug and the sing-song phrase "a sugar and a peck and a hug around the neck."
Ben loved Golf. Most days his pants were of shocking colors and patterns. Perhaps we only visited on days when he played. Or, more likely, perhaps his entire wardrobe was given over to bright greens and ugly plaids. Ben also loved to watch golf on TV. I can not imagine a more boring thing. Though at one point on this recent vacation I paused over the golf channel (the one channel they didn't have) in hopes that I could sit, turn my brain off, and promptly fall asleep.
Wherever Ben went the sound of jingling went as well. He carried two silver dollars in his pocket. He had done this for years out of mind. The coins were polished utterly smooth. Years of constant tumbling and fidgeting in his pocket had erased every last mark. Supposedly, back when my grandfather worked at his lumber yard, back well before I was thought of much less in short pants, Ben would come by from the bank and they would sit and talk and Ben would smoke his pipe. I assume the coins were already there, jingling.
I wish I knew more about their friendship. I wonder how it formed. I wonder how it aged. By the time I came along they didn't live nearby. I don't remember seeing them together though I guessed they must have visited from time to time. Even back then on Ben street I wondered about how often old people saw their friends and family. I realized how I had never seen Ben or my grandfather together. Similarly it was a weird realization that all of my grandparents had siblings, though I had never met any of them. When did they see them? Would I one day not see my brothers and sisters? Being old seemed potentially lonely.
It is funny to remember these thoughts now. It is all too easy for me to have another year threaten to pass without seeing a visit with a sibling or two. It is hard with many miles between us. And the natural course of life is to move out and create new bonds and form new families and make new memories and traditions. But of course I did not understand it then and barely do now. My life was static in my mind. There was no change or flow. My siblings and parents were ever present. How could it work otherwise? But enough of that. Back to Ben street.
Pink, her real name Margaret, studied French at the College of Charleston. As a child I liked the sound of Charleston. It was fancier than Greenville (where we all lived) and it was near the beach. I also like the idea of studying french. It too was fancy. I was shocked to learn that back when she was a student you were not required to learn to speak french to successfully graduate with that major. Therefore I was a bit disappointed that she could rattle off something in french. I liked Pink a lot. She never spoke about whippings and she had pretty wrinkles in her face. They were deep and for some reason, as a kid, I liked that. She seemed very happy. But besides her lack of french and her penchant for late-night cigars, I really don't know who she was.
One Sunday after our family had moved out of Town my parents invited them up for dinner. After dinner, but before the coffee and dessert were set, Ben announced that he remembered where he was that day 60 years before. It was D-Day and all those years ago were still clear in his mind. Ben was in a hospital in England and he heard it announced on the radio. I asked him why he was in the hospital. And Ben told me one of his stories.
Sometime prior the D-Day Ben was in a bomber on a run over the German forces. He was the navigator. On their return they got into trouble and were hit and going down. Two of the crew jumped out over France. "One was picked up by the Germans and was treated well." (I am still curious about that editorial note) The other managed to join the french resistance. Ben and the remaining crew member hung on a bit longer and were able to abandon the plane over the channel. He spent a long time in the water as there were extensive shooting and fighting all around them and they couldn't be picked up very easily. Finally, the British brought them back*.
It was a great story. Except I didn't understand what put him in the hospital. So I asked. Ben replied that he was incredibly nervous about jumping out of the plane. In his nervousness he pulled his ripcord so hard that he ripped the muscle in his arm. I can only imagine. And now I better understood something he said to me once years before in response to my announcement that I wanted to sky dive. "Why the hell would you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?"
Some time after retelling his D-Day story Ben died. The next time I was in town I visited Pink. She had recently moved into an assisted living home. It was well decorated. But it wasn't her home. I couldn't imagine her lighting up there. I'm very grateful that she had the resources to make that move. She needed the support. Still it was sad to see her alone and in a new place.
As a child I didn't know much about either of them. They were, to us children, extra grandparents. But that is to say that the same thing. They were many things to many people and still more to themselves. I wish I knew them more, or better, or differently. But I did not. I wonder if to them we were extra grandchildren. I hope.
Looking back with faded memories I can only enjoy what I did know of them. I can see each of them smiling. I can hear the coins jingling in Ben's pockets. I can almost smell their little living room and the hint of tobacco. And this time when they offer a sandwich and a coke I will gladly say yes.
It makes me even more glad to know that H.O.M.E. is providing support for seniors. Fortunately, when it was time for Pink to move she had help in the form of family and resources. I can't imagine how hard it would be to move as a senior - especially with very limited resources. H.O.M.E. provides housing maintenance and repair to help low income seniors safely stay in their homes longer. And when the time comes H.O.M.E. also has a moving program to help coordinate and facilitate moving from one home to another. - taking as much of the stress out of a move as they can. Please join me in supporting seniors by donating to H.O.M.E. today. Give in the memory of someone special to you!
*You can find Ben's story and more information on the 640th Bombardment Squadron on page 122 of this document.