The Old Man and the Little Girl

As I understand it, her mother’s father died a painful death of esophageal cancer when she was two. Being a sensitive child, she felt for his pain and tried to soothe him with the white blanket which brought her so much comfort, patting him gently and singing softly as she covered his lap. Of course, she was too young to understand about death, and was bewildered by his absence when he passed on to the next world.

Her eldest sister, eight years older than she, doted on her, relieving her mother by taking her little sister in the stroller for a walk about the neighborhood. Occasionally they made the expedition to the center of town where she released the little girl to run about the common and watch the trains arrive and depart from the elevated station across the street. On one such adventure the sweet little blond spied an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife, sitting on a park bench, and mistook him for her beloved grandfather. Climbing into his lap, she threw her arms joyfully around his neck.

In the days that followed, the little girl and her sister would often see him on their jaunts downtown and they grew to become friends. Finally, one day at church, the girls’ parents met the grandfatherly soul they had heard so much about, and from that day forward he joined the family for Sunday dinner and the afternoon. When it was time for the children to go to bed, he would say goodbye and go back to his lonely existence until the following week.

As the years passed, he became the young girl’s special friend, and she the grandchild that he would never have. They saw each other several times a week as she grew old enough to venture downtown on her own, and he continued to join the family on Sundays. After dinner the old man and the little child would walk hand in hand downtown. They would go to Brigham’s ice cream parlor where he would enjoy a vanilla shake as he watched her eat her ice cream, and then lovingly clean up the sticky mess before resuming their walk. They visited the other shops in town, picking up candies and trinkets along the way.

As time passed, the man joined her family for holidays and other special events as well. To her delight she discovered that he was able to reliably predict the weather a week in advance. He was an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox, and drew her interest to follow the televised games on Sunday afternoons . When she was in fourth grade, she was assigned a research paper on the state’s capitol. Given that he had grown up in Boston, he dictated the whole thing, incorporating his life experience of the city, relieving her of the research that had been the intention of the assignment.

In the summer he sent the girl letters and postcards through General Delivery in the town closest to the family’s current vacation spot. Upon their return, he would greet her with his favorite song, Hello Dolly. Once, upon returning from a two week camping trip, the family was devastated learn of their elderly friend’s admission to the hospital. The girl accompanied her mother to the hospital for visiting hours, but broken-hearted, she remained in the lobby due to the age restrictions placed on visitors. After he became well enough to return home, he occasionally stopped by the house to pick his young friend up for one of the church suppers being held in the area, for that was often where he found his evening meal. Then one day he took the girl, her three sisters, and their caregiver, to the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston, and it was with great alarm that the older woman reported that their friend was a danger behind the wheel.

As she grew older the girl became aware of the fact that she had him wrapped right around her little finger. All she had to do was gaze longingly at an object that drew her fancy and the following week it became hers: the beautiful orange and white gold fish, the adorable pink Easter bunny, the Kodak Instamatic camera in the drugstore. For her eleventh birthday, he presented her with a beautiful garnet ring.

As they each became older, he well into his eighties and she approaching puberty, their relationship began to change. Their Sunday afternoon walk became a game of hide and seek, the girl running ahead, hiding in a doorway or alley, heart thumping in suspense as he approached, peering into nooks and crannies along the block. It was terrifying.

He came to require a nap in the afternoon and sulked if the budding young woman wanted to spend time with girls her own age. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she lay on her bed while he napped on her sister’s bed in the room they shared. As soon as his breathing deepened she would sneak away to her friend’s house and guiltily, fearfully stay away until it was time for supper, coming home to find him watching TV or reading the paper, clearly upset by her abandonment. As it came time for him to leave, rather than accepting a kiss on the cheek as he had always done, he wanted a kiss on the lips. “Oh, that was just a peck,” he would chide as she brushed his lips with her own, and in her confusion and disgust, she felt obligated accommodate him. As he left he would place into her hand three Cadbury Chocolate bars.

One afternoon, because her friends were going to the movies and she was required to stay at home to “entertain her guest”, filled with resentment, she reluctantly walked with him deep into the cemetery as they had done on occasion over the years. They sat on a park bench and he pulled her to him, kissing her wetly on the lips as she attempted to pull away. She was deeply humiliated when a couple walking by looked on intently, and even more so when the cruiser pulled up, the officer telling them to get into the car, he was taking them home.

The next day, the child was sent to spend several weeks with friends in another state. Upon the girl’s return home, her mother informed her that their friend would no longer be spending Sundays with them, as she had forbidden him to see her daughters. She was at once relieved, angry with her mother for having hurt his feelings, and deeply ashamed that she had somehow caused each of these people whom she loved dearly further humiliation.

As the weeks and months passed, the girl became intensely fearful of running into the man on the street during one of her trips to the center of town. When she did catch sight of him, she turned to flee in terror, dizzy, her eyesight dimming as she felt the blood rush out of her head, heart pounding in her throat.

That fall, she was admitted to the local hospital for exploratory surgery, resulting in an appendectomy. While recovering from the operation, she looked up to see the white haired man in his damp wool coat looming in the doorway, a large armful of pink gladiolas in sharp contrast to his black coat. He started to sing Hello Dolly, as he had so many times before. Despite the familiar panic sensation, she had the wherewithal to ask him to go to the coffee shop to get a strawberry frappe, and then pretended to be asleep when he came back. The next morning before dawn, the flowers having been placed in a glass vase on the counter across the room, inexplicably crashed to the floor, shattering the vase and ruining the flowers.

The following spring, he attended a concert in which she was a choral and orchestral participant. With a frightful gasp, she looked up to see him sitting in the second row. She left the stage for the bathroom, refusing to come out until the auditorium had been cleared. Slipping out the side door she peered around the corner of the building to see him waiting out front, the familiar panic seizing her as she rushed to hide in the back seat of family car.

That was the last time she saw him, for after that she rarely left her own neighborhood.

Eight years later, the girl having moved with her family to another state, was walking up the hill to the post office, when a sob caught her throat and she burst into tears for no reason. The next day she received a call from the man’s cousin informing her of his death at the precise moment she had broken down the previous day. He died a peaceful death: looking at family pictures, they began to slip out of his hand onto the floor, and he was gone. He had left one third of his estate to her, his cousin explained in bewilderment.

She attended his funeral with her older brother and sister. The officiating minister, who had not known the man, said that his favorite song had been God Bless America. But the girl knew better.   – RDW 6-19-07