By: Shan Ashby
My husband and I were traveling in July, through what I call, “my south” when we stoppedto eat at a popular fast food spot. We picked a table and sat next to a window looking across a steamyparking lot. Both of us are people watchers. I guess that's the school teacher that comes out in us. It's a skill one develops after a lifetime in the classroom, that allows one to hear conversations and read body language of an entire room full of souls while appearing to be doing something entirely different.
There was an older man, probably in his late 80's or early 90's sitting across from us eating ata table with a much younger but look alike fellow, I surmised he was probably the gentleman's grandson. He wore faded denim, bib overalls with galluses over an ironed blue and gray plaid shit. He was clean, shiny clean and hiswhite hair with a speck of grey looked soft as it fell away from his hairline part. The young man across the table was eating hurriedly, it was after all mid-day and they probably had errands to run.
A family soon filled the table behind us - parents with three grade school aged children. They were modestly dressed – no name brand clothes, no cell phones, no walking and texting. They were quiet as they pulled the chairs away from the table across the tile floor and seated themselves. The father carried food on one tray and the mother carried the drinks on another. The oldest child had napkins and straws which she passed around.
Our three families continued to dine in the midst of the noise from the soda machines and orders numbers being called – lunchtime patrons, coming and going. I watched the elderly gentleman finish his sandwich and drink as he glanced often toward the familybehind me. And for that monumental moment I could read his thoughts. I've done it so many times with my own Grandfathers and Dad after they shared stories about their lives during the depression, as well as, the stories they dared share about the horrors of war.
I knew as he looked at the family, the gentleman could see himself as a young father, The children, reminded him of his own and he thought about his wife, now gone, and how she had cared for their little ones in the prime of her young life.
He remembered the struggles of his childhood and his responsibility as a Daddy to feed a hungry family. He had insight. He had a pleasant expression as he watched them enjoy their meal. The young man who sat across the table from himfinished his meal and motioned for them to leave. With little conversation, the young man rose from the table and walked toward the trash and placed his tray in the appropriate place and then waited by the door.
The elder also stood, but much slower. He scooted his chair under the table, picked up his tray and turned toward the young family. Without hesitation he approached their table. He stood as tall as his frame would allow and he spoke directly to the father,
“ Would your family care for my fries?” There was a momentary silence between the two men as my husband and I listened and watched this noble act of southern kindness.
“I haven't touched them and I'mfull, I can't eat them, I don't want them to go to waste.” he spoke softly.
In those brief seconds I felt my heart begin to pound and a lump tighten in my throat. I couldn't continue to eat. I held my breath and hoped the tears in my eyes would not draw any attention in this moment – I leaned over my foodto avoid eye contact with my husband.
We were in the presence of a private moment, a historical moment that only a people of our age in the south canunderstand and appreciate. This was a hospitable southern offering from this elders generation but might likely bring giggles, smirks and laughter from some of the “ insensitive, self serving” youth of a more modern generation.
Sadly, the time is quickly coming when this southern offering like so many other unselfish treasures of giving will no longer bemade by a generation of people. I may never witness an act of this genuine kindness again in my lifetime.
This was a gentile, southern man. I'm sure his eyes had seen too much that he'd like to forget, his body marked by age but his generosity beyond reproach. He was old enough to remember the “great depression”, to remember as a child, days with no food, to remember cold winter nights with nowarmth andshoes soles reinforced with cardboard, but he endured. He was old enough to have served his country in World War II and perhaps seen starving children and adults through barbed concertina wire in the concentration camps in Germany or witnessed his comrades in arms die on the blood soaked battle fields of France or England, but he endured.
He is a pattern of many many southern men whose ghosts grace sacred places of our world in honor of freedom at Valley Forge, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Normandy, Pearl Harbor, Germany, theSouth Pacific, Iwo Jima and Korea. He is an American son, still a father for his countrymen who still remembers the pains of poverty, the sick and down trodden. And as long as he has an ounce of strength, he will volunteer on their behalf to insure their welfare.
The young father, replied with respect as to allow the older gentlemanhis dignity and sincerity.
“Thank you, Sir. I think we are fine and have plenty.”
“I wanted to make sure your family hadenough food. You are welcome to my potatoes, I didn't touch them, really, I didn't touch them at all.”
The young father answered humbly,
“I appreciate your offer, thank you Sir, we are fine.” The elder walked away feeling better for his inquiry and concern butlifted the flap of the front pouch of his bibs and carefully tucked the paper sack of fries into the pocket.
Life has shown me, that the older generation, the “generation who saved the world” is often ignored. Our aging fathers and mothers have much wisdom to share. They do not have face book accounts, send many text messages or surf the web. Their knowledge came from the feet of their parents and grandparents instead of CNN. Their life lessons and common sense have served our country well.
You may be reluctant to speak to someone with white hair, stooped shoulders orbib overalls assuming they are not aware or they do not notice you, but don't fool yourself. Their bodies maybe old and worn, but their spirits are still young enough to see more about you than you know about yourself.
For they have seen our country beforein troubled times and made sacrifices so that we could have what many of ustake for granted. I can remember my mother often cautioning me,
“be sav'in now, you never know when hard times are com'in.” and I fear she is right.
They are our wisdom keepers, our historians and they should be cherished and revered. For they endured and seldom questioned – but they endured.
So if your walking down the street sometime and someone looks at you with hollow ancient eyes and you fail to speak or respond, you have lost more than you may know. As John Prine, the Kentucky born songwriter/singer sang, “Please don't just pass 'em by and stare, as if you don't care, say, hello in there ” and smile with some down home southern respect – and a treasure will be opened to you, especially if you are somewhere in my south.