I remember him.
I was 8 years old and he sat in class with me. Haunting eyes always focused on the black slate that covered the better part of the wall in front of us. He was quiet, thin, obviously not from a wealthy family and his clothes were impeccably clean and starched to a frightful stiffness. He never went to any parties - never was invited I guess. I cannot remember ever seeing him at the beach or in the water. Some kids didn't like the ocean , I am told.
I remember him and remember making a million excuses as to why he was so alone and not one of us. "Us" who ever or what ever that is. "US?" How odd life is.
And then it happened. Our teacher had us each write our names on small pieces of paper and put them in a jar. He shook the jar and we each individually took out one piece of paper. with a name on it. Who ever got your name, had to invite you to their home for Christmas dinner. I got the name of a girl I knew and it would be just fine. He - the thin boy, got my name and he came to me with the slip of paper. He said - I got you. Odd what kids say.
It was a Sunday, after church sometime in the afternoon and my mother drove me to his house. It was on the outskirts of town in an area called Dakota. His home was small but so very well maintained - by his grandfather I was to find out later. He lived in this small little house with his mother and both grandparents. We never discussed his father. I know now he had one - a scoundrel at best. We sat at a small table made from wood covered with a plastic table cloth. It was full of white and red squares. Odd I remember that - but I do. I remember that none of the silverware matched. Some knife handles were from wood and others not. The drinking glasses had rims with screw cap edges. The dishes had plenty of pictures on them. My plate had a picture of a pack of Camel cigarettes.
The family all sat at the table and a chicken on a plate was placed in the middle. So were several potatoes along with mountains of white rice and some funchi (Kind of a maize batter cake). I ate so very well. After dinner, I had the first cup of syrupy sugary black coffee of my life along with toasted pieces of pan dushi. (Sweet Bread) . I was hooked for eternity. To share his life with me, he first showed me all of his report cards going back to kindergarten. they were in a neat pile by his bed. Also by the small table in his room were thousands of comic books. I had never seen them before. I looked at his collection of marbles and two sling shots. He mostly showed me things but never said something like "Look at this! It is my ....." He just silently took things from small shelves in his room and placed them close to me to look at - or not. As it started to get dark, his grandfather came to us and called us to the living room (SALA) where he had a small nativity scene made up from little figurines. We sat, the entire family, and the grandfather told us about Jesus and his birth. About his trials and tribulations and his final days. We all held hands and prayed and I remember thinking that it seems as if I did this all the time, however it was the first time - ever. I realized things then that a kid perhaps need not realize.
My mother came to the door and briefly entered the small home to be proper and polite and after the required thank you, we left. I sat in the car and looked at the family. They were so impeccably clean and starched and in touch with themselves in a most humble and silent manner and it gave them something I saw for the first time - it gave them dignity beyond my comprehension. It was poverty level pride that had shared much food with a boy they did not know and did so because their son picked a piece of paper with my name on it.
Once home, I could see our Christmas tree and the splay of presents under it. That night, my two brothers and parents had eaten some sort of beef and the scraps in the garbage can were of greater quantity than the entire table I had been graciously allowed to sit at some hours earlier. I showered, put on the PJ's and went to bed to cry myself to sleep.
Monday followed (Mondays have a habit of following Sundays) and I went over to him after class to say thank you. He said that it was OK and that I could come for sandwiches on white bread some time. I said that would be great. He awaited my invitation but I spared him the gaudiness he would have to suffer and invited him to the beach. He accepted.
Forty three years later I sat with him as he tried to find the right way to tell me that his bank could not grant me the loan I had applied for. The venture was too risky. (He was right) We went out for coffee and I asked for a cup of syrupy sugary black coffee with a slice of white bread. He had the same. His children know mine. Life is funny that way.
I received his call after the bank encounter and he asked me to join him to see something. I did. We went to Dakota to his old home. His mother still lives there and she remembered me. She is frail but hugs ever so wonderfully. We sat and discussed the elections of 1996 - Dementia has its lighter side.
She remembered me.
I was 8 years old and I sat in a class with her son. She wished me a Merry Christmas and reminded me to go to church.