“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…” Old Man – 1972 By: Neil Young.
It’s true. A trinket has lots to say. I believe the older one gets, the more this truth stands out. One of my old high school friends collects guitar picks, some from rock concerts of note from the past. For you, it might be a bigger trinket like a 1960 Chevy Corvette. If you were to visit my house and rummaged through some shelves and boxes, you will discover some valuable items. Sure, they might not appear valuable to you, but for me, they are treasures.
In Greenville, Texas, just one house over, and across the street from my grandparents old home, lived an elderly couple. I knew them as, Mr. & Mrs. Cook. (All of the houses there were built in the 1840’s-1860’s.) They were not just neighbors, but also friends from our church. My mom tells me the old folks there in the house became like grandparents to her, along with her two brothers throughout the 1950’s. Mrs. Cook was known to be very astute, a woman who could see clearly what was beneath the surface. She had the right last name, too. She was widely known for baking terrific pies. All the kids on the block were welcomed at their house, mainly after school before parents arrived from work.
Mr. Cook, could usually be spotted sitting in his rocking chair on the front porch just watching the neighborhood grow. I have one picture of him on his front porch, but at the moment I cannot locate it. Vivid in my mind is a derby hat, round Teddy Roosevelt-style bottle-lens glasses, a cane and a wooden leg. (The below is as close as I can come to generally representing him.)
Mr. Cook was a quirky, funny character with loads of stories to tell, usually with a punchline at the end. The kids would gather on his porch knowing they would hear of adventures, heroes, as well as, the old witch who lived in the large, unkempt, overgrown house some three doors down. (Actually, he might have been telling the truth. She was a spooky old lady, who once shot at someone walking in front of her house on the sidewalk.) His tales told of local ghosts to watch for, the old long-gone minor league Greenville baseball team, and how he lost his leg jumping off a mule wagon where his foot landed in a deep pothole in a dirt road. As he told it, the leg snapped off and ran away from him in the woods, never to be seen again. The norm would be that he would raise the cuff of his pant-leg, revealing his old wooden, rather rustic “limb”, so to speak. There, in the shin area, was a missing oval-shaped knot in the timber. He would invite the curious, wide-eyed kids, to knock three times on it to see if a squirrel lived inside. As I’ve been told, he offered the little ones to take a look inside the hole to find the critter in his hollow leg. Then he would dare them to stick a finger inside the hole just before the kids ran away from fright of the idea. His belly laughter was loud, so was his good nature. He loved to tease the neighborhood kids and they loved being teased.
In one of my previous posts, I have written of my mom who was barely 16 when I was born. Mr. and Mrs. Cook often cared for her when her parents were at work during her pregnancy. Mrs. Cook could’ve been easily mistaken for a midwife, right up to the day my mom went into labor. They were at the hospital to greet me when I arrived.
Take a deep breath. You may find this hard to believe, but you will just have to trust me on this. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are part of my very first memories. Although my memories come from my 3rd and 4th year of life, I have been told they often babysat me, gave gifts, including Mrs. Cook’s homemade clothing tailored just for me. By the time I was 2 years old, we lived with my grandparents, but the Cooks were very much my 2nd grandparents.
As early as 3 years old, I have memories of playing on the front porch by his feet. When I was 4 years old, I remember how he would grab his cane, walk me down the sidewalk and around the corner, to an old general store, about four houses down. (Long since gone.) To this very day, vivid is the limp, the cane’s sound as its tip touched the concrete of the sidewalk, as well as, his hard leather wingtips scuffing along the cracks of the pavement. His caring, rough, large hand held mine as we walked slowly to the old general store. He never let his handicap keep him from life.
Mr. Cooper’s General Store was a small, old wooden frame, neighborhood store. Way before large grocery stores were available for small towns, there were “neighborhood” stores and shops. When the neighborhood was new, merchants would set-up shop near, or in the central area, of the houses built. One hundred years later, there were some of these old stores still open for business for the very local patrons. As I recall, we would walk into Mr. Cooper’s store, with burlap, sugar and the scent of old weathered wood wafting through the air. Creaking sounds came with each step on the old planks of the floor. There, on the counter-top, sat large thick jars of hard candies. A ring would reverberate through the small business as the heavy lid was removed from the jar. I wish I could recall the sound of his voice when he said, “Al, how ’bout that candy cane right there? A broken cane won’t do.” No doubt, I didn’t hesitate in confirming. I do remember walking back to his house with a peppermint cane sticking out of my mouth. You guessed it, each time we went, I expected to get a candy cane.
There was also a counter-top curio case filled with small items. Among the shelves was a hodgepodge of assortments like, a children’s slingshot, Indian head nickel, small coin pouches, tiny glass dolls, etc. One item that stuck out was a small black glass pepper-shaker, in the shape of a baby elephant, Dumbo-style, about 3″ tall. (In retrospect, it must’ve been a mismatched item, as there wasn’t a salt shaker with it.) At this point, my memory has faded. However, a few years ago my mom presented it to me. She had kept it in a box of little treasures for some 50 years. She told me Mr. Cook had given the tiny elephant to me while he had taken me to Mr. Cooper’s store on an occasion. Instantly, I recalled him picking it out for me. Mr. Cooper placed it in a small paper bag with my candy cane.
As times and circumstances changed, sometime in 1964, my mom and I moved to a boarding house a few blocks away. Yet, we still spent lots of time at my grandparent’s home, and always looked across the street to see if Mr. Cook was sitting out on his front porch. His chair sat empty more often as time went by. When he did appear on his porch, he always waved and yelled out a greeting of some kind. Visiting him was always a highlight of that time period.
On May, 18th, 1965, Mr. Cook let go of this life. It happened to be my 5th birthday. In those days, it was customary to have a wake, with an open casket in the house of the deceased, for family and friends to visit and grieve together in familiar surroundings. Food would be brought and shared, along with lots of conversation about the one honored. My mom was heartbroken. When we arrived at the house, after greeting Mrs. Cook, we approached the coffin. It was my first experience with death. Watching my mom cry, I told her something I had obviously been taught in Sunday School at our church. Although I do not recall doing this, they tell me I looked up at her and said, “Don’t be sad, mom. This is only the house Mr. Cook lived in.” She tells me she squeezed my hand, chuckled, choked back the tears, and told me I was absolutely right. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. It would be easy to say, that 5 year old was talking about the old structure, the house we were in, constructed of wood and paint. However, I was taught well. The body in the casket was only the cocoon, the shell, or the “house” Mr. Cook lived in. The spirit of the elderly man we knew, with all his stories, laughter and kindness, had exited to live at the feet of his Creator.
Through the decades, we have seen multiple families move in and out of the old house on Jones Street. There’s never been a time I didn’t want to walk up to the front porch, introduce myself so I could tell them of the magnificent couple who resided there. There’s never been a time I didn’t look over at the old porch, imagining Mr. Cook sitting in his chair waving at me with a gigantic grin on his face. There’s never been a time in my life when unwrapping a candy cane, I didn’t think of him. Isn’t it odd how an item, or a place, can bring back visions of old love from long ago?
Today, a small trinket, that insignificant little glass elephant, sits on my bathroom shelf. I see it several times a day. It makes me smile.
As for Mrs. Cook, she was a strong, healthy woman. There was no reason why she couldn’t have lived another 10 years or more. From May 18th, to July 22nd, she lived alone in her house. As you can see by the dates of their tombstone, she wasn’t without him for very long.
Over the Christmas holidays, I visited their graveside. There are two flower vases, one for each side of the tombstone, not seen in the picture. I went alone. I stood there in the chilly Texas wind, spoke to him of my gratitude for helping to teach me, early in childhood, more of what love is. Before walking away, I placed a peppermint candy cane in his vase. I hope it’s still there. More than that, I hope he was told what I did there.
A trinket has lots to say when filtered through fuel for the race.
“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” – St. Paul – Romans 14:7 (NIV)