Reaching back through the veil of time I can’t determine precisely when my feelings toward Mr. D changed. He’s there in my earliest memories, shining as a surrogate grandfather. Long before I came along, Mother took a college course from him during a brief stay in Laramie. An enduring friendship was born. Upon her return to Laramie, children in tow, he was one of her first contacts.
Mr. D was recently retired and I believe he and his wife were childless. Mother provided him with a ready-made family to dote over. Mr. D was one of those people destined to act and think young until the day he keeled over in mid-stride. He looked the part of an elderly Type A: wafer thin and concave, like a warped tongue depressor. His head preceded the rest of him as he rushed here and there like an inquisitive puppy. His grey hair was short and unremarkable. He wore wire-rimmed spectacles with dense glass, bisected by a line, behind which, startling white spots magnified the wrinkles under his eyes. I spent hours pondering what he saw through those mystical lenses.
|Braden Gunem: Dreamstime.com|
One of his many passions was fishing. Mother wasn’t terribly interested in fishing, but the opportunity to pile the three of us into his pickup and head for the hills was a treat she rarely turned down. The meadows Mr. D chose for fishing sites were inevitably mosquito infested swamps that tended to disappoint we three. Mother would hang around near the road with our lunches, slapping mosquitoes and trying to keep me away from the shoe-thieving muck along the stream bank. My sister huddled in the pickup, nose buried in a book. It was amazing to watch the old man in his element. He’d stand in waders in the middle of the frigid, slow-moving water, a swarm of mosquitoes and deer flies shrouding him like a black cocoon. While we slapped, swatted, and jumped up and down, Mr. D was the picture of calm concentration as he worked his fishing line. When he caught a fish, he’d release it from the hook and toss it into a basket on the bank. It’s presence there, with others of its fate—subdued and inching toward death—made me uneasy. But the solution made me queasy. Packing up to leave, Mr. D would retrieve his basket of fish and systematically grab each of his weakly squirming victims, smash its head between two rocks, and insert a knife in its belly. Gooey innards would slip out and he’d rinse the remains in the river before placing it in an ice chest in the back of the pickup.
Mr. D knew the country around Laramie like he knew the path to his own kitchen. With his guidance, Mother outfitted us for our own Eddie Bauer experiences. She purchased a sturdy tent, two zip-together sleeping bags that cradled the three of us, a camp stove, a lantern, and all the other gazillion gadgets that make camping curious. Although Mr. D was past camping age, he was generous with advice on great roads to adventure.
Another of Mr. D’s hobbies was building houses. On the outskirts of town, in what had once been a horse pasture, he had developed a subdivision of “starter homes” for a growing population of baby boomers. We often drove the freshly paved streets admiring his little neighborhood. Sometimes he walked us through the half-finished wooden boxes, pointing out each distinctive innovation. He was filled with ideas and excitement about the future. As soon as this project was complete, he had an idea for the next one, and the next one after that. It was not the money that sparked his interest. Mr. D loved to build things. He was a creator who needed to leave some mark upon the world to show that he had existed. He succeeded. A childhood friend of mine lives on a street named for Mr. D.
Besides fishing and building houses, Mr. D loved livestock and was well informed about progressive trends in agriculture. Mother tapped his knowledge in pursuing her dream of owning a horse ranch. With his guidance, she purchased a 70-acre property near town and a golden-tempered pony for me. Mr. D escorted us to the horse auction in Ft. Collins where he coached Mother in evaluating the conformation, bloodlines, and value of the animals that ran through the ring. On one of these excursions, we stopped for breakfast at a truck stop. Mr. D ordered a stack of pancakes. When they arrived, he grabbed the silver pitcher of syrup and dumped the entire load on his stack. The three of us gaped as his cakes nearly floated off the plate! My sweet tooth ached with envy. From that day on, Mother teased Mr. D about having pancakes for his syrup rather than syrup for his pancakes.
|The Horse by Delia:
Mr. D was a constant in our lives for at least eight years. I loved our adventures as much as Mother did. I even enjoyed our occasional visits to his home, a mere five blocks away. There was none of the boredom normally associated with “adult visits. I was fascinated by Mr. D’s collection of miniature horses. They were kept on top of a glass-doored bookcase behind the front door. The bottom three shelves of the bookcase contained agricultural textbooks, reference books, and trade publications. The top shelf enclosed the really special miniatures. As soon as we arrived, Mr. D would pat me on the head and ask which horses I would like to play with. I usually pointed to the large ones on top of the case. They ranged from brass piggy banks with slots in the top, to plastic molded horses in true-to-life colors that were the current vogue toy. Many had been awards or trophies.
Mr. D was generous with them and occasionally he would open the top glass case and ask if I would like a special one. I can’t even remember what features made the special ones distinctive. All I recall is the special feeling that enveloped me when he offered to share these special treasures. Hours of gab time slipped away while I played. When it was time to go, I solemnly handed each horse back to Mr. D so he could return it to its allotted spot on the bookcase.
The years passed. The miniatures became less important. I had begun my own collection. Besides, I was growing up. I had my own friends and activities. Mother’s excursions with Mr. D also began to decline. She was busy with her little ranch and her growing aquisition of rental properties.In addition, Mrs. D’s health was failing; she had become dependent upon her husband for her daily needs. When Mrs. D was eventually hospitalized, Mother began making casseroles and batches of brownies to take to Mr. D. I believe it was a batch of brownies that became the pivot point in my relationship with Mr. D.
The day Mother sent me to his house to deliver the oven-warm brownies was one of those golden summer evenings when the sun takes its time disappearing. I strolled to Mr. D’s house, enjoying the feel of the sun-warmed air on my arms and ruminating on the complexity of boys. Being a late bloomer, I was delighted to have finally sprouted a pair of tiny nubbins under my nipples. At first, I had been alarmed when the right one appeared with no mate on the other side. “Oh great,” I thought. “I’m gonna die of breast cancer before I even have breasts!” But recently the second one had appeared, alleviating me of my paranoia and confirming my slow but now almost visible progress toward adulthood.
I arrived at Mr. D’s house to find a terribly lonely old man. He practically begged me to come in and stay for a while. I was decidedly uncomfortable about this because by now I no longer had the refuge of the miniature horses to insulate myself from boring adult conversation. I wished Mother had come with me so that she could keep the conversation rolling. I felt inadequate as my brain spun for conversation material. Sitting stiffly on the edge of the couch, I did my best to be polite and sympathetic to the old man’s plight. He didn’t look good. It was apparent that a woman’s touch was missing. The house was dusty and dirty dishes were scattered about. Mr. D’s clothes were rumpled and stained. Grey stubble furred his wrinkled chin and his eyes looked rheumy. “When did he get so old?” I wondered.