Mr. Housman was a crusty old man with gravel in his voice.
A stubble of white dusted the sides of his head. His skin was a map of liver spots and blotches. When he stood his tallest I could look him square, and his belly looked like he had swallowed a watermelon whole.
Mr. Housman was never in a hurry. Even if those stubby legs could’ve shuttled him faster, he wouldn’t have bothered. He had lived long enough to learn that getting there quicker wasn’t always better. Better than most, he knew life was less a straight shot and more a tangled road.
If Mr. Housman were a book, you’d do yourself wrong to judge him by the cover. He was much, much more than meets the eye. Slipping out in a wink or slight nod, mischievousness might’ve been his superpower.
He had been with the company longer than I had been alive.
When I first met him, I was intimidated. I was fresh out of school and he was a walking institution. I thought I knew something until I was around people like him. When in the presence of a sage, I became aware of how little I knew, how brief my life had been in comparison. People like Mr. Housman had trudged the history I had only read about in school.
My perception started shifting as soon as the stories began. His prickly veneer masked satin.
Mr. Housman had one son and one wife. He’d say he got it right the first time. Among a pile of surprises I’d learn about Mr. Housman was finding out he and his missus fostered children. More than you can count on your fingers and toes. That’s something.
That’s great love.
When I got engaged, the company I worked for hosted a bridal luncheon a few weeks before I left to start my new life. I remember sitting around a long table full of people, most of whom probably came for the good eats more than the good-byes. Mr. Housman wasn’t among them.
A few days later he stopped me in the hall and squired me to a quieter spot. He handed me a beautifully wrapped gift, heavy and easy enough to guess what was inside–a set of flatware. Though I would never admit it to him, I knew we weren’t going to use it. I had bought a good set of stainless when I moved out on my own a year earlier and I had registered for “nice” silverware when we engaged.
Soon enough, however, I would discover Mr. Housman’s gift was a seed for a dream…
…but that’s another story for another time.
When he handed me the gift, he winked and said something like, “This is just a cover…” and I was confused as he reached to shake my hand, an odd gesture even for an odd man. He withdrew his own hand leaving a small slip of paper in my palm, or at least that’s what it felt like until I looked down.
It was a yellow post-it note with three words in his familiar script. One of those surprises about Mr. Housman you wouldn’t have anticipated was his beautiful penmanship.
“Go, and quietly.”
I turned it over and it was stuck tight to a neatly folded $100 bill. (In today’s dollars, about $212, a very nice gift.) I quickly glanced up to challenge him – it was much too lavish a gift – and, without a word, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand as he turned to walk away.
Twenty-eight years later, the flatware is still unopened in its original box, still a dream’s seed.
Twenty-eight years later, Mr. Housman’s wedding gift is the one I remember best.