The first time I saw Carlos, I only
saw the exterior: a man with a white beard in his early 70s, dressed in a
flannel shirt with a wool cap pulled down tightly on his head to ward off
the winter chill.
It was almost closing time when he
entered Hingley’s At The River, the small retail furniture and
accessories store my husband and I own in
Urbanna, Va., a Colonial port town on the banks of the Rappahannock
River. I remember he asked about the decorative ironwork crafted by my
brother-in-law that provides a holder for the shop’s swinging sign.
That first encounter began a
friendship lasting nearly a year. Carlos became a regular visitor,
dropping by for a cup of coffee and conversation. He was a witty, quiet
man with a gentle, humble, unassuming spirit. I learned he was divorced
and had grown children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I learned
he was still employed at a winery, where he had forged wrought-iron works,
explaining his interest in our store’s iron sign holder. He told me he
was a cancer survivor and a volunteer with cancer support groups.
We talked about everything: world
events, the impact of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on our country,
furniture, the writing I do, books, health issues and God. Carlos was a searcher for spiritual truth, and as a Christian I
encouraged him to read the Bible. I still remember the day he dropped by
to show me his nicely bound, newly purchased Bible. I suggested he might
want to buy a cover for it, and he later came by to show off his newly
covered Bible and told me about a Bible study he had started attending at
a local church. There were several times I prayed with him, especially
about some troubling health issues that he said seemed to mystify the
doctors he consulted.
Winter turned into spring, then
summer. I had known Carlos about eight months when my husband and I took
him to dinner one warm July night. Carlos was always reticent when asked
about his life. I knew he was born in
and raised in Connecticut, but when I asked how he came to Virginia
he said, “Oh, you don’t want to know about that!” We convinced him
we’d love to hear about it. We learned that Carlos had once worked as a
fire lookout ranger in Montana. He had been an Air Force pilot and a glider instructor. He had navigated
solely by sextant a 1929 wooden sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean in the
1970s and cruised the
Mediterranean. On one U.S. sailing trip, his wooden boat needed work and someone mentioned that
Deltaville had world-class wooden-boat builders and experts. He found his way by water to
Virginia, a place he had never been, and never left.
When Carlos died suddenly in September, we attended his memorial service, met
several of his children and learned there was much more we had not known
about him: he held a master’s degree; he had taught high school science;
he had initiated a planetarium program for a Connecticut school system; he
had taught himself to sail as a boy with a dinghy fitted with bed-sheet
sails sewn by his mother.
My husband and I started volunteering
in nursing homes when we were in our 20s, and have always believed older
members of society have the wisdom of years and experience to share with
younger generations. Yet on that very first encounter with Carlos I only
saw white hair, white beard and an older man. Because I didn’t yet know
him, I didn’t know what to make of him. But I treated him with kindness
and courtesy and he became my friend, and my life is the richer for it.
In recent days I’ve thought a lot
about aging, concluding that
it often means invisibility. How often have you seen — and perhaps
dismissed — someone as simply “an old man” or “old woman”?
Everyone has a story to tell. Every individual life has meaning, beauty
Dig beneath people’s exteriors just
a little, and you might be pleasantly surprised. You might learn something. You might have your life enriched. You
might discover for yourself the Biblical advice that it is more blessed to
give than to receive.
You might meet a friend like Carlos.
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