“Al was one of the kindest men I ever have met,” said my mother over the phone on Sunday night.
When I was born, my parents lived on a two-house street in Worcester. Their only neighbors were Algot and Lilgren, a couple in their sixties, both of them the children of Swedish immigrents. (Worcester has the highest population of Swedish-Americans outside the Midwest.) In their little house the walls were decorated with tinted photographs of blond children, blue dala horses, and lots of history books. Christmas time brought out the straw horses, red-hatted tumtes, and pepparkakor cookies. There was a birdfeeder attached to the livingroom window next to the big chair where Al used to sit. My brother and I enjoyed playing with the stackable leather ottaman cushions which made good lilypads for leaping. I think the house looked the same in 1976 as it did when I was college in 1996.
I don’t know if Al and Lil’s marriage looked the same in 1996 as it did when they were married (I think in the late 1930s), but I imagine the heart of it did. They enjoyed each other immensely, even when Lil took away Al’s air rifle a few year ago. More or less housebound, he’d been keeping the birdfeeder clear for the birds by shooting at squirrels out the window.
This Christmas, I went to see Al and Lil. They had been living apart for the last two years, with Lil in assisted living and Al in a nursing home just up the street. This didn’t really keep them apart. They talked on the phone every day the way that I remember talking to my high school boyfriend – talking for hours and still having something to say. We picked Lil up and went to the nursing home (she gamely transferred herself from wheelchair to front seat of the car, and was amused to discover she had been sitting on her cordless phone), and then we rolled them down the hall and sat around and chatted. Al is a longtime baseball fan so he and BVG discussed the Red Sox, and Al joked around with me about the experience of going West and confirmed to BVG that he had indeed been to California. Of course, that was during the Depression and he had driven out there with some friends–in a model-A Ford.
When we left, Al was looking forward to his 98th birthday on Friday. He saw us to the elevator, and he waved cheerfully at us as the elevator doors slid shut. He passed away this weekend.
The nursing home had an outdoor balcony where Al liked to sit outside in good weather and monitor the progress and flight pattern of a hawk. I was home for the long weekend last October and we went to visit. When I walked out onto the deck and called out his name, his whole face lit up. It was a kind of shock when that happened, to see the sheer pleasure of seeing me so openly present on his face. We sat and talked, and we watched the hawk soar lazily up, and then watched the slow contrails of a plane drag across the sky.
“I guess I won’t ever go in a plane again,” Al remarked. It was a sad comment in a sad tone, out of place for him. It is a hard thing to be in a nursing home — perhaps even more when your mind is sharp and engaged.
“When was the first time you went in a plane?” I asked, and as always, Al had a good story about growing up in Worcester. When he was a teenager, he’d come across a man with a biplane selling rides for a quarter, and taken him up on the offer (no going home to ask his parents for permission!), and they had flown up over the long narrow length of Lake Quinsigamond and across Worcester, the city where Al lived his whole life.
When you rang the doorbell at Bjorkland Ave, Al would come to the door and bearhug you up off your feet. My dad is not a large person, more given to puns than piggybacks, so this swing up while being simultaneously squeezed was always great fun for me. As I got taller and Al got older, my feet stayed closer and closer to the ground. But even when I eventually had to reach down to him in the wheelchair, the hugs were as strong and kind and open-hearted as I’d imagine they’d been for nearly a hundred years.