MCLEAN, VIRGINIA - June 21 -- When I was in middle school, my mom would buy groceries at the store and deliver them to the home of the oldest woman I ever knew. She even took Viva out for a birthday dinner a couple times. I think my mom was the only friend Viva had.
Sometimes I would ride along to help carry the food into the house. One day Viva handed me some acorns that had fallen from her tree with instructions to plant them in my yard and watch them grow into tall trees. I thanked her and immediately began gardening after we pulled into our driveway.
I watered the bare spots where I had buried the acorns, but nothing ever happened. They eventually became forgotten failures beneath the dirt. The next time I tagged along on a trip to Viva's house, my mom told me to tell her they had sprouted and were growing strong. I understood why I was to do this. I even included the fact that 'I loved them.'
Viva died not long after. I never regretted lying to her.
I'm pretty sure Bill Smith is the oldest man I've ever met. A year or two past 90, he's known around his neighborhood as the guy who walks all about the sidewalks every day and mows his own lawn. As Denny, Jerry and I gave Bill's tomato garden a makeover, I wondered if the old man was watching from the window, or if he was even aware of what we were doing. I was hoping to have a chat with him, but he was nowhere to be found.
Bill had told his neighbor Jerry that he didn't know whether he had big tomato plants and small weeds or big weeds and small tomato plants. When we inquired to our new friends Ross and Anna that we'd like to help some folks out around town, they directed us to Jerry, who looks out for Bill on a regular basis. It was Jerry who helped Bill get his new hearing aid. It was Jerry who led us to Bill's tomato garden.
The plants needed help. We spent the afternoon pulling weeds down to their roots, tilling the soil, stabilizing the vines with stakes and twisty ties, taking compost from Ross' yard and placing it around the roots, and finally letting the tomatoes chug some water.
Jerry, a retired scientist, nearly made our heads explode with the information he injected into our brains about subjects I don't feel comfortable trying to regurgitate in fear of Jerry reading this and being extremely disappointed in our lack of ability to understand the universe. We sat in his front lawn during a break while he quizzed us about what the sun is made of and the basics of the atom - stuff a 7th grader would know and stuff I've since put low on the priority list of knowledge I felt it was important to retain. To Jerry it was life. I felt stupid, but I knew Jerry only had good intentions.
Jerry went to get the hose. As we dug at the dirt in the backyard of an old man I had yet to meet, Denny observed our situation and laughed. 'What are we doing here?' he said. I knew it was more of a comment than a question. This is our way of describing the situations we get ourselves into as surreal in a wonderful way. Jerry returned. 'With the elements our sun is made up of, we shouldn't even be here,' Jerry went on. 'So what are we doing here?' Denny and I had absolutely no idea.
Jerry told us what he knew about Bill, much of which remained a mystery. A favorite story was the day Bill, in his 80s at the time, got sick of not seeing the plow trucks come by so he decided to begin shoveling every one of his neighbor's driveways. The people on the street felt so guilty seeing the elderly man breaking his back that they all began to join in.
Jerry explained the rusty, green swing set remained a prominent feature of Bill's backyard because he didn't have the heart to take it down, remembering the days his children used to play on it. The wooden bird that acted as a wind gauge used to have two wings but now it had a half of one. Jerry promised to rebuild it. He was extremely adamant about this. 'The bird will fly again,' he said, choking back tears. Denny and I said nothing, trying not to make Jerry feel embarrassed. He explained it had been an emotional year. I stared into the wooden bird's eye.
While adding the finishing touches to the garden, I looked up to see Bill standing in silence, looking at his new garden and smiling.
'The garden didn't look like that this morning,' he said.
When Denny and I explained our adventures, Bill told stories from his days as a traveler. Despite being nearly 70 years apart, we chatted away like old pals.
He paused long and hard between his delicately delivered thoughts. I could have listened to him talk for hours.
'If you climb up any mountains, make sure you get down by walking,' Bill joked.
After a half hour, Bill said he'd better go back inside. I was a better person for having met the man. I suppose I feel that way about everyone I meet, but I remembered thinking this thought at the very moment we parted ways.
Jerry left us with a few final pieces of knowledge that pushed the earlier stuff out of our brains. I was surprised when he had a thought that began with physics and somehow eventually connected back to No Stranger Land and our mission to strengthen interpersonal relationships around the world. Denny commented that he wished he had recorded the theories on video.
'You don't need to recite the words,' Jerry said as we walked away. 'You need to live the reality!'
I hope Bill's tomatoes grow bright red and juicy. I guess I'll never know. And I guess that's not the point. My mom once taught me that. More importantly, I really hope he gets to enjoy them.