They told me my wife's looking better today," said the aged man sitting next to me. His deep voice carried just the barest glint of hope. "Yesterday she slept through my whole visit."
"That's good news," I replied. "Maybe today you can show her those pictures of your newest great-grandchild."
I knew my customer was quite old but was floored when he told me earlier in the week he'd just turned 96. "Good stock" is as good a phrase as any to describe these stouthearted elderly Vermonters. Cedric's wavy white hair was still thick, and he stood tall, stooping only slightly as he walked to and from my cab. When I came around to help him in and out of the vehicle he always insisted, "Nope, I'm good," but I told him to humor me, and helped anyway.
Cedric and his wife have been married for 71 years. In all that time he never slept apart from her for more than a couple weeks. But a few months ago she suddenly became disoriented and unsteady on her feet, and had to be transferred from their senior living apartment in Shelburne to the Starr Farm Nursing Home. Cedric visits daily, though at this point he often finds her asleep or in some drifting state of consciousness. My sense is, she's not long for this world, and I think he knows it.
"Cedric, what kind of work did you do when you lived in Barre?" I asked as we tooled down Shelburne Road. "Your family was in the granite business, do I have that right?"
"Yup, my dad and most of my uncles and cousins all cut and carved granite. My father came over at the turn of the century along with nearly half his village from outside of Naples. First they worked in Boston; then they moved to a quarry in southern New Hampshire. Finally, they all settled in Barre, where he got married and I was born."
I thought I was following this history, but needed some clarification. "Are you saying that the folks from this Italian village of their origin, they would stay together and move as a group from quarry to quarry when they came to America?"
"Yup," he said with a crinkly smile, "that's the way it worked." He then grew serious. "Of course, all of these men are now long gone. Very few made it past middle age. Back then, the granite dust was everywhere, and they really didn't know how to control it, with proper masks and venting. Everybody got silicosis; it was just a matter of how severe. I'm still around because, early on, I got out of the cutting sheds and into sales."
"What about the war?" I asked, moving the conversation out of the quarry pits. "Did you see any overseas service?"
"Barely not, by the skin of my teeth," he replied. "When it was my time to be called up, I had just passed the cut-off age. I had been in ROTC in college at Ohio State, though, so the Vermont Guards used us fellows to guard facilities throughout the state. I remember a bunch of us were called in to guard the bridges at White River Junction. They housed us about five to a room at this old hotel. It was the middle of the winter and about 20 below zero. I can still remember waking up and going outside to find our stack of rifles completely coated with frost."
Everything about Cedric's stories intrigued me. Myself, I was too young - also by the skin of my teeth - to be called up for Vietnam service; this man had been too old to serve in the Second World War! And his story about the bridges was a slice of Green Mountain history I'd not heard before - the fear that the Germans would slip a U-boat up the Connecticut River to sabotage a Vermont-New Hampshire bridge seems so farfetched 60 years after the fact. But back then . . .
We came off the Northern Connector and onto the Starr Farm Road, and I pulled in front of the rehab unit. Many of the patients in this facility are receiving rehabilitative care; for others, like Cedric's wife, the care is more in the nature of hospice.
I scurried around the cab to offer my right hand to Cedric. As he lifted out of his seat, he looked at me and said, "I don't think she's going to make it."
I couldn't imagine how he was able to utter those words without breaking down. It would be easy to call it stoicism, but there was no repression, no sense of holding back. In his warm brown eyes - Neapolitan by way of Barre - shone a full lifetime's measure of squabbling and forgiveness, tenderness and strife. It was all there. Seventy-one years.
When it's my time to leave this world, I thought, I hope I have someone looking down at me with similar eyes, filled with love.
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