elderly man with stooped shoulders and a craggy face comes to my mind almost every
time I drive past the little park near the post office in Martin, Tennessee. |
the man I am reminded of, lived in a small apartment in a building that faced
Forty years ago, our two-year-old daughter, our infant son, my
wife, and I moved to Martin from Connecticut. Since there was no playground equipment
at the apartment complex where we lived, I began taking our daughter Mary to the
park near the post office. Mary enjoyed climbing the steps of the ladder at one
end of the park’s only slide and then sliding to the ground.
Mary and I were the only visitors at the park. One afternoon, however, I noticed
an elderly man standing at the curb. A few moments later, leaning forward, he
walked toward us, nodding and smiling. He was wearing limp khaki trousers, a denim
jumper, and a cap with the name of a local fertilizer company embossed above the
soiled brim. As the stranger came closer, I noticed there were tobacco stains
at the corners of his mouth.
After I introduced myself and gave him Mary’s
name, the stranger told me that his name was Zophar. He asked Mary, “Do you like
to slide on the scooter?” As is typical behavior of two-year-olds, Mary hardly
acknowledged the question, but instead continued to climb the ladder.
that afternoon on, almost every time Mary and I went to the park, Zophar walked
across the street to chat with me and ask Mary about her games, about Santa Claus
during Christmas season, and about the Easter bunny in the spring. Zophar told
me that he had worked in a neighboring town as a carpenter, but after he contracted
tuberculosis, he had to stop. As our son Bobby grew older, I was able to take
him to the park also. But if my wife could not accompany us, it became more and
more difficult to watch two toddlers. We stopped going to the park as often as
we had before. Consequently, we saw Zophar less and less often.
morning I took Bobby, who was then three years old, to the park. Within a few
minutes after we arrived, Zophar came across the street to join us. He asked a
number of questions of Bobby, who was too busy on the slide to respond.
several minutes, I suggested to Zophar, “Why don’t we go to the Hearth for breakfast?”
The Hearth was and still is a popular restaurant catering to families. Zophar
nodded his head in agreement. The bribe of treats from a restaurant was enough
to persuade Bobby to leave the playground willingly.
While Zophar and
I ate sausage and eggs, Bobby wrestled with a large honey-bun using a fork too
large for a three-year-old to handle deftly. Zophar chuckled at my son’s attempts.
“You should cut it up for him,” he said to me.
Going to the Hearth with
Zophar for breakfast on Sunday mornings became a monthly event. Sometimes only
Bobby went along, but other times Mary also came.
Each November before
the Homecoming game at the University, there is a parade with several bands. The
Fire Department shows off its three trucks with sirens blaring, and the policemen
and the county sheriff drive their patrol cars slowly down the street. From decorated
floats sorority girls throw individually wrapped pieces of hard candy and bubble
gum. For years each fall I took our children to the parade.
Early on the
Saturday morning of the Homecoming parade when Mary was five and Bobby three,
we stopped by Zophar’s apartment. I asked him whether he would like to accompany
us to the parade.
As we stood on the crowded sidewalk near the judges’
table, a colleague from the University where I taught greeted me. A few moments
later, when Zophar was out of earshot, he asked me, “Who is the man you brought
I explained to the colleague that we had met Zophar at the
park one afternoon when we first moved to town.
My colleague paused for
a moment. Then he said, “You know, it’s very nice of you to bring this man to
the parade with you.”
The remark took me aback. I had never thought of
the invitation I extended to Zophar as doing him a favor. I had considered that
I was doing my children a favor—and consequently a favor to myself—because I knew
that they enjoyed our outings much more when our friend came along. They had no
contact with other elderly people. They seldom saw their grandparents, who lived
hundreds of miles away. Our children and I needed the time we spent with Zophar,
as fleeting as it was.
12, 2011 column
Robert G. Cowser
Robert G. Cowser Columns