The Secret of Life in one conversation with a stranger.

I’m convinced there is a secret to life, a little gem of wisdom carefully guarded. I’m always interested to talk to people who might know the secret, or at least have been on the earth long enough to give me a clue. So far my search has turned up nothing but several very good friendships with old people, and interesting sidebars from complete strangers.

I met Hugh yesterday. He had clear blue eyes and a sharp wit. I told my husband that, just maybe, I fell in love a little.  My husband wasn’t threatened though – the man I met was 92.  Fierce in memory, but frail in body.  We were sitting under a pergola in Foster City watching the boats row by.  He looked over at little E and said, “my son was about that age, seventy years ago”.  I raised my brows – he didn’t look a day over eighty himself. For the next 40 minutes we talked about life.

He’d been married three times. Not today’s version of three times, but three times a widower.  The first to cancer, the second to stroke and the third… well, the third he supposed, to old age.  It’s rare to hear of anyone dying from old age.  There’s always an underlying disease, and maybe there was.   But at ninety years old, it’s ok to say they died of Old Age.  He wasn’t bitter that he’d lost three loves, but said he was lucky to have found three loves.

He said he was living in Florida when his wife died. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, when his son called to say they had a spare room, and he could use some help in the office. His son was in finance, he pointed across the way, “in that building right over there”.  Hugh said that might be a good idea, he’d think about it.  Two days later a first class ticket to California showed up in the mail.

He packed up, sold everything and moved back to California. He’d lived in Michigan, South Dakota, and California before Florida.  He said when he moved to the LA area from South Dakota he almost turned right around and moved back, the smog was horrible, even back then.  But they’d found a little rental by the beach, and it turned out just fine.  I asked him what the secret to a long life was.  He said no secret.  He ate what he wanted, didn’t care about all the health craze they have now, GMO’s and  organics.  But looking at Hugh I could tell he had a secret.  Maybe it was just that he appreciated every day, and was grateful for what he had.  I don’t know, he never told me the secret.

Looking at his iPhone, he told me his son would be there any time. The gadget in Hugh’s gnarled, yellowed hands looked out of place, but he navigated twenty first century technology with no problem. When his son showed up he said “you’re one minute early”. It was clear that this was a tradition for them.  We chatted there for a few more minutes.  His son’s wife was over taking pictures, she took thousands of pictures he said, and never deleted any. I told them before little E was born my camera had about 250 pictures on it, but now it’s over 3000.  Being able to document life with a screen shot is one of those little things easy to take for granted.

At the end of our conversation they just wandered away. I wish I had taken a picture of the old man on the bench holding hands with my little E.  One gnarled and yellowed at the end of a long life, and one plump and pink and just beginning. But they sat there like old friends, maybe sharing some critical secret that I am still searching for. Or maybe there is no secret to life. Maybe, like Hugh with the blue eyes, you just live it the best you can, grateful for what you have.


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