What struck me most wasn’t what he was saying, but what was happening behind me: a growing line of frustrated people, now patiently leaning in closer to earshot. For nearly ten minutes the old man recounted his story of survival. Like a fine artist, he remembered every detail; the way the small bits of food tasted like cardboard, and how the winter cold cut through the torn, shoddy fabric that hung loosely to his skeletal frame. The line behind us grew. Each person listening. Intently. Hanging on the old man’s every word. No one was in a hurry anymore. We were spell bound.
Years ago I worked abroad in Jerusalem. One morning, while standing in line at a local market with my daughter, I began to grow impatient with the snails-pace movement of the elderly crowd in front of me. I only had a handful of items, but the wait seemed to make them feel all the more heavy. “Old people.” I remember saying to myself. Not bothering to hide my contentment.
Lauren and I inched closer to counter. We were almost there. As the old man in front of us shuffled to the cashier, fumbling for the correct change with a shaky, unsteady hand, he dropped a handful of shekels. I watched the coins roll in endless circles on the floor. Rolling my eyes to the heavens, I exhaled loudly enough for all the West Bank to hear me.
With cash at the ready, I thrust my hand towards the cashier, ready to pay for both of us. Not to be kind, but rather, to simply expedite the process. Suddenly, Lauren, who had wedged herself between me and the old man, bent down to pick up his change. Pointing to a series of numbers tattooed on the man’s forearm, she asked, curiously, “What’s that?” The old man began to tell her what it was. How it got there. And what it meant. It was the first time my daughter had ever heard of the holocaust. And the first time I’d ever met a survivor from it.
When his story ended, he patted Lauren on the head. Taking his money from her tiny hand, he gave it to the cashier then turned to leave. But not before giving her a smile, and all of us standing in line a lesson in humanity, and humility. I never saw him again, physically. But I do catch a glimpse of him now and then. Every time I begin to get impatient at an elderly man driving slowly in front of me, or an old woman who takes too long to cross the street.
I remember that moment in the market. That impatient feeling I had. And the lesson I learned without even being addressed by him. He taught me about respect. And how listening to the elderly is caring. And how caring is all about maintaining dignity. Kindness and compassion goes a long way, I learned that day. And the elderly deserve more of it. It’s easy, I suppose, to think old people have lost their visual and auditory senses. But look deeper and I think you’ll find they see and hear better than us. Volunteer at an elderly center and find out for yourself. You’ll be amazed at the indelible mark that will be imprinted on your soul. Especially when it’s left there by a total stranger.