Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lunch With an Old Man

Many years ago, while researching a film, I stopped in a small town called Truchas nestled high in the Sangre de Christo mountains, outside Sante Fe, NM, to have a quickie lunch. It was a languidly warm day and I was a little sweaty from rushing. I stopped at a local grocery store to buy a Pepsi and a sandwich, and exited the store and sat on the curb in front to eat. Running past me was the narrow two-laned highway that ridged the mountains, carrying occasional traffic between Santa Fe to the south and Taos to the north.

As I unwrapped a sandwich I noticed an old man seated on a blanket in a open, grassy field that lay across the highway. I saw him signal to me. At first I thought he was signalling to someone else. I looked about, but there was no one else near me. To be sure of his intent, I pointed to myself. I saw him nod affirmatively, smile, and pat the ground on the blanket next to him, gesturing for me to join him.

I slowly arose, somewhat reluctantly, re-wrapped the sandwich, picked up from the ground by my feet my also recently purchased can of Pepsi, crossed the highway to join him.

I remember the gravel that edged the other side of the highway that crunched beneath my feet as I moved toward him, and the soft, tall wild grass that covered the field. When I arrived at the old man's side, he gestured for me to sit down. He re-arranged his blanket to create sitting room for me.

As I settled only a few feet from him, he said, "I have too much to eat. We should eat together." His face was lined with experience. I noticed the homemade lunch that filled the small dishes and glass jars that lay next to him. They bespoke a loving wife or daughter at home, I thought. "We will share," he said.

I opened my sandwich, set it on the white paper wrapping, and he placed some of his food next to it; a piece of bread, some olives and cheese and grapes. "My wife takes care of me," he said. I offered him half my sandwich and he demurred. I offered him a drink of Pepsi. He took a small sip more from courtesy than from need, and placed the can on the ground again. I noticed his hands: they were gnarled, spotted with age, but beautiful, long, elegant and graceful.

We ate slowly. As the time passed, we talked, about the weather, the land, the town, and a group of religious men called Los Hermanos, or the Penitente. This was the mysterious religious group I was researching for the film I was preparing to direct. He spoke clearly of them, as he did of all things, softly and knowledgeably, his eyes sometimes wandering about the landscape, loosely focusing as they retreated into the past, recalling a memory or two as they came to him, relevant to the point, drawing a lesson for from his experience to underscore the conversation we were having. "They call the Penitente the 'silent ones'. One never hears them coming or going."

I finally became impatient; with myself. I loved spending time with the old man, but I felt guilty. I had wasted valuable research time, already having missed one appointment, having overindulged in the stolen pleasure of lunch. I gathered together the wrapping from the sandwich. As I moved quickly, the old man nodded at me. He saw what I did not say: I must go. The setting sun was striking the old man directly in his eyes; yet unblinkingly he turned to me, and said quietly: "See that tree over there." I turned and noticed a modest-sized, gnarled tree, filled with branches and leaves, leaning over, as if to embrace the earth. "When I die," he said, "I am going to be buried under that tree. Do you know what that means?" he asked. I paused. I had no quick answer. "It's a beautiful placed to be buried," I finally offered. He smiled, nodded. "That means for the rest of my life I'm going about twenty feet. Why rush. I am going to enjoy every wild flower and blade of grass along the way."

I left...the old man, but never the memory


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