As usual, I was in a hurry. So when he made eye contact with me in the aisle at Walgreens, I shifted my attention elsewhere. I hoped touching the bags of Christmas candy would indicate that I wasn’t in a chatty mood, but he approached me anyway.
“My grandchildren love those.” A shaky hand pointed to the bag on the shelf.
“My kids do, too,” I replied with a smile.
“I have eight grandchildren. Two sets of twins.”
It was too late. I was in.
“How old are they?” I asked.
“Oh, they range in age from two to twelve.”
“Sounds like a lot of love.”
“It is. It is.”
I picked out the candy I wanted and smiled again as I turned to leave. Then I dropped the whole mess on the floor. Clumsily, he bent down to help, and our smiles met again. For his generation, a gentleman always helped a lady. And a gentleman he was.
As I gathered up my things – purse, gloves, and candies, I noticed his hands. Chapped from the unseasonable cold, their thin skin revealing bruises and old scars. His face looked much the same. On his head he wore a knit hat, the kind most folks who live in the balmy South don’t even own. In his hands he clutched a brown paper bag. He had a grace about him.
They don’t use brown paper bags at Walgreens… I started to wonder what he was doing there.
“You know, 68 years ago, I was freezing my can off in France. I was in the war.”
“Wow.” I paused to think of what to say. “Thank you for your service.” These words pop out often these days. People say it often to my husband when they learn of his military service. They seemed safe enough.
Then I looked at his face, and his eyes filled with tears.
“In all the years since then, you’re one of only a handful of people who’ve ever said that. Who thanked me.”
I had no words. So I did what I do. I hugged him.
“Merry Christmas,” was all I could say.
“Thank you, young lady,” he replied. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
And he turned and walked toward the door without purchasing anything, the brown paper bag still clutched in his hands. He pulled on his collar as the cold air hit him, and walked toward the adjacent neighborhood.
I paid for my candy and left the store a better person.