“It looks like you need another hand.” Those were the first words I heard from Mr. Williams. We had purchased our first home for our small family and hadn’t had time to say hello to neighbors or even unpack from the move earlier in the week.
The old chicken coop that was to serve as a garage for our car was leaning so far to the south I was afraid to park our vehicle in it for fear it would be crushed by the falling building immediately thereafter.
I borrowed my father-in-law’s ancient tractor and pulled it back plumb. With a little bracing inside, I knew I had won the immediate battle but the rear two-thirds of it was going to be a loss.
Two days of shoveling chicken manure out of the collapsing sections left a bare cement floor covered by old but serviceable barn wood. Our two toddlers couldn’t be exposed to the slivers and shivers in the barn when the spring winds blew, so a teardown rose to the top of the fixit list.
Early Saturday morning, I crawled up on the corrugated metal roof and started pulling nails. It didn’t take long to fill an old rusted coffee can with roofing nails comprised of equal parts rust and corroded metal.
It took less time to slide the 10ft sheets of roofing down to the ground. One look at the top of the rafters told another story though. There were rusted off pieces of nails sticking up everywhere. I couldn’t start knocking the framing apart and leave them sticking out of the wood to embed themselves into the shins and hands of our three wee ones. Saying that we’d keep them away from the stacks of wood was a foolish claim. These little scamps were faster than their mother and I combined, so the salvaged wood had to be free of all snags, pokes and scratches before it hit the ground.
“Yeah, I suppose I could use some help” I said when I looked over my shoulder at the short rolly-polly man looking up at me all decked out in an ancient pair of overalls. By the color of his hair and wrinkles in his weathered face, he must have been in his 70’s. I didn’t want him up on the roof with me and didn’t really want to be slowed down by the distraction of having to listen to an old man tell tales about his life all day long.
Turning to position myself across a couple of stringers so I could talk to him was all of the time he needed to scramble up next to me and apply his hammer tines to the nails on ‘his’ side of the string. I guess I had help whether I wanted it or not.
“Are you going to keep these nails?” “Keep them?” I thought, “they are so bent, so rusted and useless, I’m just hoping they are all emptied from the garbage can when the garbage is picked up and not falling out to cause grief with kids and cars.”
“No, I’m going to throw them away.”
“Can I have them?” “Do you really want them?” I asked. “What would you do with them?” “Well, I’m going to add a room onto my home and I don’t have the money to buy nails.”
The tear down went a little slower than I’d planned because I spent quite a bit of time pounding the salvageable nails straight so they could be used again. Fortunately, new lumber is of so much poorer quality than the wood in the old building that some of the nails would actually be useable if you pounded them in straight with careful taps.
That started our friendship with Mr. Williams. He always watched across the picket fence for any problems with our kids or to offer his help whenever he’d see me outside working to resurrect our old manse. Of course we returned the favor, but it seemed like we always came out better off at the end of the day, enjoying lessons on storing and planting gladiolus bulbs, splicing pieces of wood to replace sections of the old fence and turning ten dollars of basics into meals that would stretch for the biggest part of a week.
We rejoiced when he introduced us to his sister-in-law and they announced their plans to marry. Her husband and his wife had died years before and they had always been friends. The girls were sisters. After years of being lonely, they decided to share a roof to mitigate quiet nights, long days and the ever decreasing purchasing power of their social security checks.
Our young family continued to expand and grow under the watchful eye of their pseudo-grandparents, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Williams. My wife and oldest daughters always slipped over to fix the hair and ‘prettify’ Mrs. Williams early every Sunday morning so she’d look her best in church meetings that day.
They were always there offering to help with the things that really needed an extra hand without being intrusive. How to you pay folks like that back?
Then word came that I was being promoted in my job and we would have move far away. Grandma and Grandpa Williams cheerfully congratulated me on the promotion and had encouraging words for our children who were leaving their friends and family, but when when we pulled away for the last time, there they were huddled together on their little front porch waving goodbye and trying to hide the tears that were rolling down their faces. I suppose I should admit that my cheeks were wet too.
We only saw them a time or two after that. They passed away while we moved on to new locations and new opportunities in life.
I’d always wanted to tell Mr. Williams how much I appreciated his help that first day we’d met and how much his friendship, guidance and humor had meant to me over the years. You always think that you’ll do it when you get the ‘chance’. “Maybe next time, the kids will be playing farther away and we’d have a couple of minutes of uninterrupted chat time across the fence.”
That effort on my part never took top precedence and so the words and feelings were never expressed, at least not when Mr. Williams was alive.
One cloudy fall day, I took time off work in a Pay-It-Forward effort and spent the day in the local cemetery taking photos of headstones to post on Find-a-grave for the folks who couldn’t travel there to photograph them themselves.
Fall leaves and bundles of grass from mowings during the summer and fall months covered many of the stones, so the whisk broom in my back pocket was frequently in action cleaning them to ensure that the engraving was clearly visible in the photos.
All of the leaning over took a toll on my back by late afternoon. I started spending a lot more time down on a knee at each stone than I had earlier in the day. Sweep, brush, dust, wipe. Clean the engraved channels with my finger or the edge of the now filthy rag …. let the stone dry for a few minutes so the text would be legible in the photos …. I’d read the names, dates and places while I waited and make up stories in my mind of who they were and what their lives were like to help pass the time.
One after another. The rows seemed to get longer. Getting up and down was becoming a much slower and much more painful process at each stone. “I’ll just do these last few today.” “I hope my back will let me finish even them” I thought as I read the names on the stone at my knee. Mr. and Mrs. Williams! Not the Mrs. Williams we knew, but the Mrs. Williams who had died before we moved into the home next to hers, but it was OUR Mr. Williams! There they were, side by side. I thought I heard chuckling at the creaking bones exhibited by the fellow at their grave right then.
I never knew where the Williams were buried and had often wondered. Now I was kneeling at their graves. A quick look around told me that I was alone in the cemetery. I was finally going to take the time to tell Mr. Williams how much I appreciated his friendship, mentoring, love and help during my early years as a husband and father. We talked for quite a while reminiscing about the old barn, digging ditches, trimming fruit trees and turning an old Plymouth 4-door into a garden commando pickup truck. He didn’t say much but he was still a good listener.
The conversation must have gone on for quite a while, because when I looked at the west mountains, they were in silhouette and all of the color on them was gone. It had gotten cold too. I found that my knees and back knew that fact far better than the awareness of my conscious mind to my surroundings for the past half hour or more.
More brushing. More tidying. Even some trimming of grass with my Leatherman and then a final “Well, it’s been great talking to you, but I’d better leave while I can still move and before my wife sends out a posse to find me.” “Thanks again.”
I’ll stop by their graves for a brief “hello” in a few weeks when we are out visiting the graves our our ancestors and families on Memorial Day. Maybe while I’m there I’ll even show them a little cemetery soft shoe when my wife isn’t watching … not that she doesn’t know what I’m doing. Friends like the Williams can laugh with you, not at you. My wife already knows I’m nuts. Mr. and Mrs. Williams might as well get a good chuckle out of watching her roll her eyes at me one more time.