In The Shadow of a Lighthouse
The old man stood near the base of the lighthouse, proudly waving to his family as they shout for his attention from the upper walkway. His wife of nearly a lifetime sat on the bench nearby. Were this just a few years earlier, he would have walked those stairs with them, his children and grandchildren. He would have gazed upon the ocean from the top, surrounded by those who thought the very world of him. While the desire to join them still burned, the ability to climb so many stairs had left him. He still stood tall and strong, but his thick hair, once bleached nearly blonde from the sun, had grayed long ago. Every year he moved a bit more slowly, but his eyes still flashed vivid with life. Though his words occasionally slurred, his conversations still flowed with the same excitement they always had. From a distance, his silhouette offered nothing to belie the decades, eight and change at this point, that had passed in the liquid flow of time.
Life for the old man began in a small town in Southern Indiana, as the US was being dragged into the Great Depression. An only child raised by a single mother, he told few stories of his boyhood. Those he did share were exciting, speaking highly of family and friends, and never conveying the bleakness of hard times. His young life was nearly cut short several times, yet through the hand of God, happenstance or, as he would say, “just plain dumb luck”, life went on. Searching for work, his mother packed their belongings and followed her family to Cleveland, Ohio where permanent roots were planted. It was in this new town that young boy would meet young girl, and another chapter would be written in a wonderful story beyond imagining.
Nearly through high school, this intelligent young man was one of many whose educational pursuits were cut short by the attack on Pearl Harbor. His call to duty could not be ignored, and he left school before graduation to serve with honor in the US Navy. WWII was spent serving aboard a Destroyer Escort, a ship virtually designed as disposable, yet he lived to tell of his adventures. Though an awful time for mankind, for a boy not yet 18 becoming a man under such conditions was life-defining high adventure. Even today, the old man talks proudly of his service; minimizing, yet not excluding, the horrors- and he saw many, including the evacuation of POWs from the Philippines- while maximizing the excitement and creating an indelible picture for the listener. It was during his service that he took leave to marry his childhood sweetheart and begin their legacy. Word came of his first daughter’s birth while he was at sea and, like many who served, many months would pass before he would have the opportunity to hold his baby.
Unlike far too many of his generation, Faith and luck carried him through the end of the war, and the young man returned home to his wife and new daughter. He slowly came to enjoy the prosperity renewed peace had give the world. Hard work and determination earned him a place in the new Middle-Class, with a suburban home and three more children to complete his family. His children grew, driven by the same unwavering ethics and values that guided the aging man. He watched proudly as all matured to solid, educated adults who set off to make their own dent in the world. They quickly started families of their own, and a spark from the man’s flame glowed and ignited in every new member of his family. With grandchildren came an entirely new opportunity to shine. In the wonderfully unique role of grandparent, he was relieved of the daily discipline and responsibilities of parenting, and could freely share his knowledge, observations and the joy of life with a new generation. The greatest gift he shared with his family, a gift of inestimable value, was his time- a gift shared to this day, completely without hesitation or reservation.
Though life was far from easy for the man, it was usually good- nearly perfect in his humble estimation. But even a nearly perfect life has bumps, and his was mountainous. A horrific roofing accident brought his family to their knees and nearly took his life. Despite receiving last rights from his parish Priest, he decided through the haze of pain and painkillers that having survived WWII, this was NOT going to be how life ended. An arrogant young surgeon claimed he could rebuild the old man, and his skill teamed with the old man’s strong will to live proved a successful combination. Once again he had shaken hands with the reaper and sent him on his way alone.
Though he survived, his recovery required years of painful work and therapy, he still managed to turn an awful time to a bright spot for all. As a large part of his therapy, he returned to the open water he had grown to love while in the Navy. He purchased a small sailboat and gathered anyone in the family who would join him as he learned the art of sailing. His health restored and retired from work, the small boat gave way to a bigger boat, and members of his family continued to sail with him whenever possible. The old man shared his new skills and love of the water with the everyone, but particularly a young grandson who loved every moment he could spend with the man. Time flows on, however, and the old man’s crew gained different responsibilities in life and slowly drifted from sailing with him. As his crew moved on, age was creeping up on the old man and he knew single-handing the craft was not a wise option. So with much sadness, though little remorse, he and his beloved sailboat parted ways.
Life after his therapeutic sailboats remained full as the old man and his wife watched a second round of celebrations, graduations and weddings as their grandchildren grew. As in any family, there were moments of sadness as members passed on, but the loss of a young grandson to cancer brought the world to a standstill for his family. They were certain this couldn’t be right. The oldest were to leisurely shuffle off this mortal coil, never were the youngest to be yanked from it. His family gathered tightly for support, and the old man, his heart nearly torn apart, stood stoic and strong for his grieving son. Time, it is said, heals all wounds, but some wounds cannot be healed. Time merely stops the bleeding and closes the wound, leaving the infection of memory to fester beneath the surface for a very long time. But with time, the family moved on.
Soon there were great-grandchildren, and the old man and his wife continued with the newest grandchildren as they had with the children’s parents, smothering them with love, kindness and, again, so much of their time. Never intrusive, but always there when needed by any of their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-grandchildren and even friends . Never viewed as just “the old folks”, but rather as “cool old folks” with plenty to offer, plenty to share with family and friends.. A long lifetime of adventures, experiences, wisdom and love, great enough to touch so many.
Today, the old man and woman still share the home purchased what seems a lifetime ago. Still together and still in love, their inspiration now spreads to their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, many sharing this day at the ocean with them. The old man standing at the base of the lighthouse is as strong and proud as that structure, and his wisdom and love is a light that has kept his family off the rocks of many stormy journeys. As the woman walks to his side in the fading light of day, their silhouettes meld to one and a new picture emerges. The effectiveness of a lighthouse is from both the light and it’s keeper. The old man and woman, light and keeper, fade to one in the shadow of evening at the base of the lighthouse. To the family scattered on the sand around them, as well as many scattered across the world, they stand as tall as the structure beside them- and brighten the world in a way no mere lighthouse could ever do.
-This is my gift to my Grandparents, especially the old man who inspired this piece and so much more in my life. It was written for an essay contest (it did not win), but that was merely an excuse to put in words what I’ve wanted to say for ages- and that needed to be shared while my Grandparents were still here to share (they are!). I am much older than that little boy who lived for summers on the old man’s boat, yet I love him no less. Though much taller, I will always stand in the shadow of this old man. In my life he has been, and will always be, my friend, my mentor, my idol, my hero, and above all else, my Grandpa. He is the finest man I have ever known, and if genetics and environment have blessed me with just a sliver of him, I know my own life will have meaning and value- if only to a tiny part of the world.