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"Oh, indeed she was, young man ... I mean Greg. It IS Greg, if I recall correctly?"
"Yes. Or you can call me True Friend if you like." I turned to him and smiled, and he returned it, though he kept staring ahead. I reached over and gave his arm a little bump, to accentuate the friendly intent of the comment.
"She was a survivor," he said. "A NazI prison camp survivor. Lost all her family and friends to Hitler's SS, and though she was very young, she was strong and did her best to stay healthy while interred. It was only six months after her capture that the war ended, so she was freed by the allies and came here, via Ellis Island, at the age of eight. She didn't remember much about the camps ... that was a good thing, I imagine."
"Yes, I'm sure it was," I added.
He went on, "She loved to feed the birds and ducks, you see, because it reminded her of the little German girl who snuck food and soap to her at the camp. A little blond girl who helped her father, a baker, feed the soldiers at the camp ... she would collect scraps of food from the kitchen and soap, and sometimes even chocolate, and meet Grace every morning by the latrine. She would wait until Grace was alone and throw little bags over the fence, then wave and disappear. Grace never found out her name, but she remembered her face. She painted a picture of her some years ago - it still hangs in our kitchen."
"Wow ... what an amazing story," I said. "Such hardship each day, fighting to just stay alive."
"Yes," Clarence said. Then, much softer, "I get tired of fighting."
"What's that?" I answered.
"Oh, never mind that ... an old fool's ramblings." I let it go, but I knew I'd heard it correctly. "Anyway, that's why we came here, to remember that girl each day - the one that kept Grace alive - and to do her a bit of honor, in our little way."
I waited to make sure he was finished, then said, "I think that's wonderful! Paying it forward, so-to-speak, and keeping the memory of that girl alive at the same time as helping God's creatures ... not enough of that these days, if you ask me."
"Oh, there are still plenty of good folks around," he replied. "You just have to look a little closer, because the world is going by so quickly now."
"That is so true!" I followed. "Everything is too fast for me," I added, "Too fast and too loud!" Just as a teenager passed us with a blaster on his shoulder, scaring the birds off temporarily. We both chuckled a bit at the timing. "I've always wished that I'd been born much sooner - in YOUR generation, for example."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't have liked things back then, much too simple, and no cell phones!" He laughed at that, and I joined him, reaching in my pocket and flashing my iPhone at him, supporting his theory. "Besides," he added, "You'd be sitting here now wishing you weren't."
"Wishing I wasn't what?" I queried.
"Wishing you weren't." And his face went blank. I knew then what he'd meant by the comment.
We sat in silence after that for a couple of minutes, letting the weight of his last sentence dissipate. That was the third thing he'd said to me that wasn't quite ... right, and I kept mulling those statements over, hoping they weren't as tragically motivated as I thought they were, but knowing otherwise, deep-down. I didn't want to think on that long, so I let it go.
Some of the birds had come back by then, and I noticed that the ducks and geese had finally returned from the other side of the little island in the pond, (where their "house" was), and were headed our way. It didn't take them long to find out when someone was there to feed them, so the race was on, geese leading the way. The swans always stayed in the water, for the most part, but I had fed them to bursting earlier anyway, and I would save a little to take to them before I left as well.
The geese and ducks reached the edge of the water below us and bolted up the little hill to where we were sitting on the bench.
"You see that one, the duck with the little stripe on her leg?" Clarence asked.
"Yes, I do!" I answered. "That's kind of odd, isn't it? A mallard with a striped leg?"
"I've never seen another," Clarence replied, "And I've been feeding ducks for a lot of years!" He made a couple of clicking sounds with his tongue to emphasize the rarity of it. "That duck showed up the day after ...", and he hesitated as if wondering whether or not to finish, "Well, it was the day after Grace passed," he finally finished, though a bit more quietly.
"Oh ... I'm very sorry to hear that," I responded. "My condolences."
"Oh, don't give it no mind, but thank you anyway," He said. "It's been over two years now, and she was in a lot of pain, so it was a blessing, all-in-all."
"Still, that doesn't make it any easier ... those holes never fill, do they?" I asked, again, more rhetorical than anything.
"No, they sure-as-heck don't," Clarence said softly, "The pain of losing those we love never goes away ... well, not until WE do, anyway." Another long silence, then, very softly, almost under his breath, he added, "I've had enough pain now ... I'm ready."
"What's that?" I said quietly, not wanting to push too hard.
Another long silence, and then, so softly I almost couldn't hear, he said, "I'm ready ... Grace." And as he said this I noticed that he was staring straight ahead again, at that phantom he'd been focusing on earlier, when I arrived.
Just then the ducks and geese, (AND pigeons), had reached us and were bustling around our feet, a couple pecking at our shoes in expectation. "Well, we'd better get to work, eh?" Clarence declared in a new, happier tone, and I concurred. So we set to feeding the birds and fowl and enjoyed the silence for a bit. A couple of cyclists rode past, scaring our winged friends away briefly, but they returned right away, food being the priority it was, especially that time of year.
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