Letters to the Editor

Remembering Old Man Gordon

   - Bob Niles
— image credit: Bob Niles

“911 what’s your emergency?”

“ The neighbour next door has fallen off a ladder on to the sidewalk! 6580 Elm Crescent. He’s in and out of consciousness, knows where he is... He’s 85! He was hanging Christmas lights. Same old single string of lights he hangs every year... His name? Ah, Gordon, Mr Gordon. Don’t know his first name, never did. Lived in the same neighbourhood all my life never new his first name. Just Old Man Gordon. ........He’s  having trouble breathing! Hurry! ........Yes I’ll wait.”

That was when Mr. Gordon was taken to the hospital. He died two weeks later, just before Christmas, due to complications because of  his advanced age and failing health. Doctor said he would of died right on the sidewalk had I not seen him fall and called 911. Big deal. Three extra weeks of life, barely conscious, alone in a hospital at Christmas. And your only visitor is a man that has know him all of 58 years and only by Old Man Gordon.

In my defence, he never took to anyone. He and his wife stayed alone. My Mom said they never got over the tragedy of their young son dying. And after his wife died he was barely seen at all. Outside of cutting his lawn, the only time he was seen was going for groceries, to church and to put up his, ‘every year the same’, Christmas decor.

One old energy sucking, fire starting string of 14 multi-coloured lights that he hung just over the front door. And in the yard, year after year he placed the first Christmas, manger scene. Ever since I was a boy, he set up and arranged his plywood Christmas scene. And year after year it got more and more faded, chipped and warped. He just let it age. Never bothered to refresh the paint or nail the pieces that were separating from his Biblical characters that were parting like the Red Sea.

And as long as I can remember the Baby Jesus was not even part of the scene. It was just three wise men, a shepherd, one cows, one sheep, a camel, Joseph and Mary. All looking at the ground!

As kids we would always find something to place on the ground that was drawing their attention. An old bike, a wheelbarrow, a basketball, my sister’s Barbie, or one time a baby snowman. Us kids all got a good laugh as to what had drawn this collection of plywood people to ‘Old Man Gordons’ yard.

It became tradition for kids in the neighbourhood to carry on the sinning we had started as kids. Old Man Gordon just left there whatever we left there. If he had of removed the baby snowman we would of replaced it with something just as stupid.

And then about 10 ago  Mary never made it out to the front yard to look at an old red lawn mower the kids had dragged there. Now it was just a bunch of faded, warped guys and farm critters hanging out in the front yard. Could have been any front yard in Alberta. (sorry Alberta I couldn’t spell the province on your right)

At the funeral I had mentioned that very fact to Old Man Gordon’s  (who’s real name was Lloyd Arthur Gordon) sister. She clasped my hand and with a pained smile thanked me for my help tomorrow.

It was early that next day I had walked over to find a car in Mr. Gordon’s drive. It was Myrtle’s ( Mr. Gordon’s sister) car. I had promised her to help clear out her brothers house and yard.

We started on the carport and yard. She had rented a large dumpster to clear away a life of  living. Memory after memory, item after item, garbage after more garbage started to fill the giant bin.

Carport complete, I started with the plywood guy-fest in the front yard. It fell apart in my hands! The camels head ripped off. Joseph’s staff crumbled into tiny pieces. A sheep with no legs, and ancient men of wisdom, minus heads, and gifts we’re all cast into a dumpster of Mr. Gordon’s life.

This is how I’m going out too I said to Myrtle as I sipped my coffee in the carport. We had stopped for a break in what was going to be a long day.

My house is filled with so much of my stuff that I should throw out, but,  just don’t. She shook her head in agreement and accused us all of the same crime.

This was followed by a long uncomfortable pause, broken only by lips vibrating over the top of hot coffee.

“Why did he never replace the Baby Jesus in his Christmas scene?” I asked (to fill the carport with something other than silence).

She turned and bent her index finger several times and said “Follow me.”

She opened an old screen door and then even an older back door, that both had something to screech about. Then she picked her way down a cluttered hallway of books and papers. We passed rooms filled with his old belongings and now forgotten memories. Ben-Gay, old carpet and cat urine filled my nose. I didn’t even know he had a cat! Now I’m thinking a dead cat! Is this what I’m going to become? An old man with a cat, in a stinky house.

“Watch your first step down the stairs here. The basement  is where he spent most of his time. His wife Effie had the main floor for her needs and Lloyd kept to the basement, even after she died ten years ago.”

Each stair mentioned its age as I tread carefully down a steep incline, all the while thinking, I’m going to have to carry Myrtle back up this ladder disguised as a staircase.

“Let me get the lights.” Myrtle said from somewhere in the dim.

Before she could say ‘There we go.’ out jumped a  four-foot tall artificial Christmas tree, electrified in bright happy splendor. Kneeling to the right side of the tree was our long lost Mary from the front yard. And placed at her knees just under the tree was Baby Jesus. Both beautifully painted and cared for. Our once faded Mary, all tattered and torn, now shone with what looked like a new purple cape and beige dress. She’d dyed her hair and got new head gear too. All thanks to a new coat of paint and glue. The Baby Jesus whom I’d never seen, but was neighbourhood legend to have been, was as if brand new. Both Mary and her baby lovingly cared for by an old man who seemed to care about nothing.

What...Why said my face and hands as I tried to make sense of such a loving well cared for scene.

“Effie and Gordon’s baby was taken from them at a very young age.” Myrtle started. “He died a crib death in his first year. After that, Lloyd was never the same. It was to be their only child. It was that next Christmas he removed Baby Jesus from the front yard.”

“ If I can’t have my baby, God can’t have his.” I blindly stated.

“Not in any way!” Myrtle pointed out. “It was more... God, I know you’re taking care of my only child in Heaven, so I will care for yours here on earth. And then when his Mary died, he vowed the same thing again, for his Mary. I’ll promise to take care of yours, and you take care of mine.”

A tear that was cleverly disguised, and past off to my allergy  of cats, was wiped away with the back of my hand. I choked back an out of place chuckle and marveled at the love he must of had for his only child. And again silence filled a space we both shared.

I thought the moments silence was appropriate.

It was after some time, and several failed attempts, that  Myrtle and I got out of the basement, and then back to ridding the neighbourhood of the memory of a man nobody knew. A man that cared for nothing here on earth. Someone I felt sorry for, because he had died alone in a hospital. But, I now know he is where he always wanted to be, holding his only child and wife together forever.

When we die our families and friends treat us as Mr. Gordon treated Mary and Baby Jesus. They take our cardboard cut outs (pictures) and place them in books held with high esteem. Displays of our lives, that are so cared for that  if the house were to catch fire, they would be the one thing that would make it out safe. We guard and hold strong to that memory, knowing with certainty that God is now taking good care of them in heaven.

I asked Myrtle if I could keep Mary, Baby Jesus, Sparky ( the string of Christmas lights) and the stray cat, that I named Gordon. She, I guess also allergic to cats, clasped my hand and mentioned that her brother would have liked that.

There was one more thing I took of Mr. Gordon’s. A film reel marked Christmas 1963-1969. It was most of the ’60s documented by Mr. Gordon of the neighborhood kids trying to fill the void in their Nativity scene. He and his wife would film from a darkened room in his home, but, because of suppressed laughter, it had the appearance of a film produced from a quarter horse from in front of a grocery store. Jerky film, narrated  through clenched teeth, trying to hold back an open faced laugh. He knew all of us kids names and every year wished his boy David could of been part of the shenanigans. Old Man Gordon remembered His only Son every Christmas and kept Him in his heart all year long.

Bob Niles

Richmond

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