02 February 2010

Sunrise, sunset

(You do realize that I'm doing NaBloPoMo this month, right? The theme is TIES, if I didn't mention that. Not that I'm necessarily running with that, but I am following my own thread that ties in. Okay, we're good.)

History is easily rewritten. Spoils go to the victor, as does the writing of history. We talk about redaction, beyond its original meaning, or reinterpretation, or revisionism. Perhaps without meaning to, we rewrite our own histories, making ourselves or our motivations a little better than they were, or making those of others just a little worse.

There are reasons to reexamine history, though here, I'm not talking about history in the larger sense, not world events. Our own lives sometimes are worth reexamination from a more mature perspective, from a place of greater understanding.

Looking back, I did grow up in the Wild West, far more wild in the 1970s than it is today. I remember when I was 14 being so annoyed with my cousin T. who asked me, as I sat drinking iced tea in the infinitely more genteel suburb of Arlington, if we still had to worry about Indians. I told him sarcastically that yes, they were frequently a problem when we rode our horses to McDonald's.

(Okay, so we did sometimes ride horses to Circle K when we were visiting friends on what was then the Far East Side. Which today is roughly the center of town.)

Our childhood world was far more rule bound than what I see today, but it also seems that we had infinitely more freedom to run amok, through alleys and washes, up into the mountains and to our friends' homes, the only injunction, "Be home by dinner." If we were home by dinner, hands washed and bikes put away, whatever happened in between didn't matter. Much, anyway. The rules were made and enforced by adults who, far from dismissing us, guided us with iron hands and watched over us with eagle eyes.

When I was 10, I had a paper route. It was probably 60 or 70 houses all told, which to a 10-year-old carrying the papers on her bike, seemed Herculean.

Because I get bored easily, I worked on my aim and my arm. I wanted to toss papers effortlessly, with a wild grace, and not land them on the roof (though I did, a few times), or in a hedge (did that, too), or a tree (yup), or a mud puddle. I told myself stories about why I was doing this job. I sang songs peddling up the road. I got to know more of my customers as monthly collection time came around, and while a few were younger families, most were retirees, and I generally went to special pains to make sure that their papers landed in convenient places as the majority of them were kind.

One old gentleman in particular took to lying in wait for me every afternoon. It started in the spring as the weather began to warm and he would sit on his tiny front porch, in the shade. He called out to me as I approached on my bike, would I be so kind as to bring his paper to him? He had gout and a heart condition and arthritis, which was why he lived in this hot, dry climate, because his family made him, and it would be difficult for him to get the paper if I left it in the yard.

I didn't want to take it to him for any number of reasons. First, I'd been taught not to chat with strangers, and even if this man was a customer, he was still a stranger. Second, his house was early on my route, so the bag of papers hanging around my neck was full and very, very heavy, which made mounting and dismounting my bike a bit of an issue. But even from a distance, I could see that he had a cane, and his foot was swollen, and the weather beaten skin of his face was tinged blue beneath the handsome abundance of silver white hair.

This put me in a quandary. I'd been raised to be respectful of my elders, and to be obedient. At school, it was being beaten into me in religion class that it was up to me to singlehandedly make the world a better place in order to earn my place in Heaven, even if my mother would murder me for breaking her rules here on Earth. Ultimately, it came down to doing what I knew was right, and I staggered off my bike and took him his paper. He thanked me graciously in his heavily accented English, and asked if I would like iced tea, which I hastily declined, as nowhere in the Christian charity rulebook did it dictate that I needed break my mother's rules to that extent. I waved goodbye and rode off in the opposite direction of the sunset.

It was the beginning of a relationship of sorts. He would be waiting there for me every afternoon, full of questions that he leveled at me in his gruff but kind voice: what was my name? what grade was I in at school? did I do well at school? did I like throwing papers? would I like some iced tea? I would answer a few questions as quickly and politely as possible, decline the offer of tea, and hurry on my way.

When collection time rolled around again, a grey-haired woman I took to be the old man's wife answered the door of his house. She paid me without comment, but as I turned to leave, she said, "You know, you don't need to bring his paper to him. It's ok to throw it in the yard and he can wait until I get it. He's just lonely."

Oftentimes, it is so difficult for children to see outside of themselves, and this is the natural order of things. But in that moment, I recognized that this poor man looked forward to my daily visits just to have someone to talk to for a few moments. The fact that he waited for a not very communicative almost 11-year-old girl strikes me as unutterably sad, especially the part where the not very communicative girl took great pains to scuttle away as quickly as possible. The angel who kept score of charity points couldn't have thought too highly of this behavior.

"It's ok," I told the woman. "I don't mind bringing it up to him."

Spring was passing into summer, and the days were growing hotter. The next time the old gentleman offered me iced tea, I accepted. He asked me to come into the house, but I declined, telling him it was better I stayed and watched my bike. In the balance of my mother killing me for going into a stranger's house vs. acts of charity, going into the house was really pushing it. As he entered the house, I watched him touch a small box on the door frame and kiss his fingers. He returned a few moments later with a tall glass filled with ice and tea. It was cold and sweet.

When I finished I thanked him and handed him the glass and he seemed so delighted I'd finally accepted his hospitality.

"Now," he told me, "it's getting hot, and they are getting fussed if I am outside in the heat." He tapped his chest. "If you don't see me out here, please, please, open the door and put the paper here."

He beckoned me closer and pointed to the small bookcase inside the door. I wrestled with discomfort--opening the door of someone's house without knocking for permission was so many miles outside the boundaries of what I'd been taught was acceptable behaviour!--but finally, I nodded miserable assent.

"Thank you, thank you," he said in his heavy accent, clearly pleased that he was not going to have to figure out some other way to collar me every day. My eyes strayed upward to the little box he'd touched earlier, and I tried to make out the design on it.

"The mezuzah," he told me, following my gaze. "I am a Jew. It protects the house and the family."

I nodded, having already noticed that he periodically wore a yarmulke.

"You're not a Jew," he continued. "You are what?"

"Catholic," I replied.

"Catholic, ok," he smiled.

And so it went. I delivered his paper on the top of the bookcase, always tapping gently at the door to announce my presence, and would be beckoned in to where he sat in expectation in his easy chair by the door. I would be given iced tea and told about his family fussing over his bad heart ("but they don't visit!"). He would tell me small stories about his life.

One day, he gestured to a series of black and white photographs on a small strip of wall.

"I was a Jewish cowboy!" he exclaimed with pride. "Nobody ever hear of a Jewish cowboy. You hear of a Jewish cowboy? No. See? That's me."

He was unmistakable in those photographs, tall, slim and movie-star handsome standing before a saguaro, dressed in leathers, on horses, next to horses, carrying a lasso, with other cowboys. The photos could almost have been stills from a film made a very, very long time ago. I looked at them while he talked about what hard work it had been.

The day I opened the door and found him sleeping in his easy chair, I quietly left the paper and went away. Next day, I showed up to a tremendous ruckus.

"You didn't wake me up!" he cried. "You left the paper while I was sleeping! You got to wake me up if you ever see me sleeping again."

Fortunately, the issue never arose because I would never in a million years have dreamed of awakening him. But daily we would chat about this and that: what I was studying in school? did I like it? He wished he'd had more school. He wished his grandchildren would visit more. He wished everyone would fuss less about his health.

One day, he did have visitors, and he introduced me to them with a certain pride. This was his paper girl, and she brought his paper every day, just so, and she would visit with him. He beamed. They stared at me like the interloper I felt myself to be, and I fled.

When the time came for me to give up the paper route, I told him that I wouldn't be delivering his paper any more with real regret.

"But you'll still visit, yes?" he asked. "You'll visit."

Of course, I intended to. I wish the happy ending of this story was that I was the gracious and charming child that I'd have liked to have been. But with the self-centeredness of youth, I worried about my schoolwork and dreamed about boys and didn't think too frequently about the old Jewish cowboy who talked to me the way he'd have talked to his grandchildren, if they'd only visited more.

A year or two later, I was taking my younger siblings out trick-or-treating, and we were near his house. It occurred to me that it would be nice to stop, and that Halloween was a good excuse for doing so. As we approached the house, I could see the inner door was open, and through the screen door it was evident that the living room was in disarray, half-filled boxes scattered about the floor. I tapped at the screen door, and his wife, the woman who'd told me it was ok just to toss the paper in the yard, answered, holding a picture in a frame. She recognized me immediately. Her husband had died a few weeks earlier, she told me, and she was moving soon to another state, closer to her grandchildren.

"He missed you so much," she said, without accusation. "No one ever made time to talk to him the way you did."

And to my everlasting shame and sorrow, I hadn't made enough time for him either. But I've never forgotten him or his stories. Some piece of his history is tied to mine, and I can still see him, standing tall and strong and young in a faded photograph on the wall of a little desert house.

Go listen to some good music: "Sunrise, Sunset" from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein. Yeah, this story still breaks my heart. I wish I'd been better than I was.

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