The blackberries were starting to ripen on the bushes lining the gravel road that leads to our neighbors’ house. I noticed the smell: warmth and dust on sunlit berries under blue skies.
We often go back and forth to each other’s yards, the kids jumping on the trampoline or sliding down a small plastic slide into a waiting plastic pool, the adults talking and standing by to kiss scraped knees. This was a weeknight dinner, another part of a continuing conversation.
When we climbed the stairs to their patio, we found a new face at the table. He sat at the end, his legs crossed like a folded piece of paper, his hands in his lap. He rose to greet us, with a firm handshake and a small voice. Our neighbor introduced him the neighbor from across the way. She had told me the day before that his wife of almost 70 years had died 2 months before. It was his 89th birthday, his first without her. Of course she invited him for dinner.
What do you say to someone you don’t know? Someone whose beloved wife has died? Someone who wears his grief on his lined face and in his shaking hands? Is it rude to ask about her and how he is living in her absence? Is it rude to not ask about it?
I looked him in the eye and said hello. Happy birthday.
The table was laid with newspapers spread out over each other. I looked down to see the police blotter from the island: smashed mailboxes on a side road, a bicycle stolen, a prank phone call. There were cherry tomatoes from the garden, slices of lemon, some gluten-free crackers. Corn dogs for the kids. Cheerful daisies and purple rhodies. And in a big red bowl, Dungeness crab our neighbors had caught in their traps the night before. It was a crab feast.
We all reached in to fill our plates.
After a few bites, and murmurings about how good that crab tasted and what a wonderful summer it had been (sun! in June! what a surprise for Seattle!), I turned to him and said, “I’m so sorry about your wife.”
He looked down at his hands. And then he looked at me and said thank you. He started to talk about it and the anger spilled out of him. There was something about the doctors and a step-daughter and people taking over control and somehow politics became involved. I couldn’t really follow what he was saying. I nodded. I felt like he just needed someone to listen. We all did.
(Okay, the kids didn’t listen. They were having sword fights with their corn dogs at the end of the table.)
I asked him a few more questions about it but he seemed to have talked himself out about it. I didn’t want to push. I said again how sorry I was.
The conversation shifted to how our neighbors had caught their crabs. It wasn’t as big a catch this year as summers before but they still had been pulling live crabs from their pots every night. Their fingers grew tired of being jammed by bits of shells, late in the evening after the kids were in bed. They wanted us to eat the crab instead.
It was the first time our neighbor had ever eaten fresh crab out of the shell, on his 89th birthday.
The kids got up, weary of the adult talk, and began playing on the steps. Lu and her friend picked up the toy rifles waiting there and started playing bad guys.
Maybe it was the rifles that reminded him. Our neighbor began talking about his experiences in World War II. I leaned in, eager to hear his stories. He told us that he had been in D-Day (June of 1944!) after he lied about his age and joined the army young. I could feel him settle in, eager to share the stories that so few can tell anymore. He was in the third boat to make it to shores at Normandy. As he jumped out, he heard bullets whizzing by his head. He saw bodies floating in the waves around him. When we all exclaimed, amazed that he had made it through, he said, “I swear, it’s because I’m so short! They didn’t know how to hit me.”
He told us about the weeks of marching with the army up to Belgium, fighting until the Nazis surrendered. He remembered the summer in Paris, driving around senators visiting from Washington D.C., appalled by their drunken evenings. He waited to hear if he would be shipped out to Asia. He recalled his relief when he heard about the atomic bomb detonated in Hiroshima, because it meant he wouldn’t have to fight in Japan.
And he told us how he met his wife, who had been in a concentration camp for years, in the streets of Paris. They fell in love and they had lived every day together since, until she died two months before.
I wanted to know more. I wanted to know about her experiences but I didn’t want to push. At that moment, one of the kids walked into a pointy bit on the toy rifle and started crying. It missed his eye, thank goodness, but there was a gush of blood and everyone rushed into the bathroom to clean and console.
When we returned, everyone bandaged and calmed, our new friend folded his napkin on his lap. “Well, I’d best be going,” he said. He had left a tidy pile of empty crab legs and the cracker next to it. There was an awkward moment of silence as we all stood there, wondering what to say. All I could think was, He’s going to shuffle back to that empty house and settle into the silence by himself. I didn’t know him, really, but he had shared dinner with us. I didn’t think. I reached in to give him a big hug. He hugged me back, the two of us standing there for a moment, connected.
He had tears in his eyes when we stepped away from the hug. He thanked me. And then he said, “It’s not just that she died. It’s the absence. Where is she? How do I live without her here? How do I do this every day? I swear, I’d rather be in the middle of the war again than live through this.”
I wanted to invite him to dinner at our house every night. I wanted to invite him to move in with us so he wouldn’t have to sit in a silent house. But he clearly wanted to leave. So we all hugged him again and watched him slowly walk down the stairs, headed toward his empty home.
A few moments later, we all headed into the kitchen, to lean against the counters and try to talk about what had happened. A wave of sadness washed over us all. There wasn’t much to say.
And then the one-year-old, smiling and moving like a drunken sailor, walked for the first time between her father and mother. We all cheered for her and she grinned as wide as that sky outside the window.
I don’t know what to say about this, really. I mean, I could say a lot about that evening. I have. I’ve erased it all.
All I want to say is this. Lu has been watching The Princess and the Frog, a Disney princess movie set in New Orleans. The spunky girl’s father says to her, as they sit on the porch together with their neighbors, sharing gumbo, “Food brings folks together.”
If it had not been for that crab, those crackers, those spread-out newspapers, I would not have heard that man’s story that evening.
I’m so grateful for that food.