My family and I take different vacations together. I’m often up at the crack of dawn hitting the hotel fitness room or fumbling about in the dark making coffee or off on a walkabout. They sleep in unscheduled bliss. I love them and I love my mornings alone.
In Mackinaw City, Michigan, I wandered down the street near our hotel on Lake Huron, finding a locally sourced, organic coffee shop (I jest – it was a Starbucks). After ordering a luxurious, high maintenance coffee, I headed down to the pier. The concrete promenade was empty, save for the gulls swooping and diving along the shore and the occasional blare from a boat horn.
The footsteps behind me were soft and unhurried. Quiet morning, isn’t it? he said. My jaw tightened in anticipation of unwanted conversation. Or worse, some other intrusive maneuver that might require a ninja smack down. I needed coffee first.
I turned to see an elderly man wearing a Navy cap with veterans’ pins attached to it. He smiled pleasantly and I exhaled. I have a soft spot for old men, especially when they remind me of my grandpa. More often than not, they have stories and have never lost the art of conversation. We joked about being early birds. He commented that he rarely saw “young people” out at this hour.
His wife died five years back and he had been ‘adopted’ by family friends. They took him on trips and outings. It’d been nearly 30 years since he’d visited Mackinaw City. He was a retired machinist, after 38 years of working for General Motors in Flint, Michigan. Like me, he joined the military right out of high school because he didn’t have a plan. He loved to take things apart and tinker with them, which led to a job and eventual career working for GM.
He pointed to the Mackinac Bridge, remembering aloud when his parents crossed by ferry in the late 1940s, having waited for hours in their vehicle. With awe in his voice, he said “It’s really a wondrous thing.” We had driven it the day before, during high wind warnings and thought it was wondrous we had survived.
He talked about his strange career path and interest in learning more. In his 40s, GM decided to send him to a engine manufacturing plant in Australia for a couple of weeks. “Who would have ever thought that something like that could happen to a guy like me?” He shook his head in wonder.
At the age of 83, he took community college courses and chuckled about what a challenge it was, but he said he wanted to keep learning new things to fend off dementia. It seemed to have been working pretty well so far – he was a little sharper than I at that hour.
By the way, my name is Larry. We shook hands, as I introduced myself. As we strolled along the railed walk, we talked about curiosity and learning and how it makes all the difference in a person’s life. He laughed and said “You know, I look at this old mug in the mirror every morning and I wonder how I became him. I feel the same as I always have.”
I joked about my impending birthday and how every day some new ailment seemed to crop up. I told him how my husband and I were just talking about this very thing – how the road out of this life is made up of moments in between aches and pains. He nodded in agreement. “It’s the moments that count.”
We parted ways with good wishes for the rest of our journeys. At night, I slept through forgettable dreams, waking with a sense of loss. I missed my grandfather all over again. He was a man who understood that life was about the moments and the stories and the chance encounters with fellow travelers.