A cop mentioned something fairly unusual the other morning: He’d run across an old man who spends all day - every day - at a Boston cemetery, sitting in front of his late wife’s grave.
“Every day?” the cop was asked.
“Every single day,” he replied. “Rain or shine. Cold weather, warm weather; doesn’t matter. He’s there. Like it’s his job. Go find him. It could be a story.”
Now, because you must hold a master’s degree in cynicism to work for newspapers these days, I waited for a day when the wind chill was the equivalent of downtown Vladivostok before deciding to seek the guy out. Kind of a test to see if the guy might simply be one of these fair-weather mourners.
Monday was pretty cold. There was a snap to the air. It moved across the open, treeless grounds of the cemetery like a hawk, cutting and biting.
And he was there!
He sat on an aluminum folding chair he keeps in the trunk of his car. He wore a thick, green winter parka, a black knit cap, work boots, gray flannel pants and gloves.
There was a tape recorder on the ground alongside the marble memorial where his wife’s name and the dates had been chiseled into the stone. Next to the recorder, there was a photograph of several adults with five smiling children.
The guy was in the snapshot. Standing with his arm around a woman who was holding a kid with red hair and freckles.
At first, he reacted to an approaching stranger the way someone on the subway responds instinctively when they figure they’re about to get their purse snatched or their pocket picked; he stood up and glared, saying nothing but his body language was explicit: Don’t bother me.
“What you want?” he asked in a thick accent.
The question - a rather simple one - provided one of those testing moments of truth. Do you try to kid the guy, telling him you were merely wandering around an empty cemetery as if it were one of your hobbies? Or do you admit you’re there because some cop told you he’d be there and you were curious about who he was and what his ritual involved.
“Nothing,” I lied. “Just taking a walk.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes wary.
We stood there for a few seconds, almost like a pair of prizefighters sizing one another up prior to the bell. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to because his eyes did all the talking for him and the message was clear: Leave me alone.
Finally, I told him the truth. He listened, offering nothing other than a nod to indicate the outline of the story was accurate - he was indeed there every day - and when I finished with a question - “Why?” - his response was crisp and succinct.
“None of your business,” he told me.
I accepted his opinion, turned and began walking back to my car when I heard him shout, “Newspaperman, hey, newspaper man. Come back here.”
“Why you want to know this?” he wondered. “I don’t do nothing wrong here. Why you put this in the paper?”
It’s easy to forget the fact many people view the press as an invasive, intrusive, irrelevant, unsympathetic weapon often held in the hands of smug elitists who eagerly, often unthinkingly, aim it straight at the heart of one of the few things citizens still hold dear: their privacy, the right to live their lives in hard-earned anonymity.
The old man was afraid somebody might view his nice love story as odd and do something to stop his daily routine: He and his wife were both refugees from Hungary, having arrived here 40 years ago. All they had was each other. Until she passed away.
“The cancer,” he said. “Two years ago.”
The tape recorder contained a cassette with the voices of their children as well as their grandchildren, the people portrayed in the photograph. The old man spends all day sitting by the headstone, playing tapes and talking to his wife about things the children are doing, things he’s doing, because he doesn’t want her to be lonely.
“I love her forever,” he says, shyly. “You understand why I come here now? You think I’m strange?”
The old man stood there in the cold, a sentry guarding sentiment. And even the wind, fierce and biting, could not invade the warmth of this lasting affair of the heart.
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