I’m a woman on a mission when I’m out shopping, especially in supermarkets. I like to get in, pick, pay and get out as quickly as possible. The whole concept of superstores with bright lights, shopping trolleys, screaming kids and endless queues, not to mention other shoppers, is hell especially in the current Covid pandemic.
Old people in particular are a frequent source of irritation. Like mobile chicanes they cruise through food isles, wavering over a pint of milk that will surely be out of date by the time they get it home.
As I reach out for a pack of butter or a carton of juice, one of them sneaks in front of me, running me over with their trolley, oblivious of my presence and disregarding social distancing. Branding and pricing differences are no doubt cause for confusion to an old person judging by the time needed to make their choice. I used to think all supermarkets should have a pensioners shopping day to free up the rest of the week for those of us who work. Then one day I had an experience that changed my thinking and attitude towards the senior members of our society.
One grey misty morning I was driving into town, at the tail end of the rush hour traffic, when I noticed an old man at the edge of the curb. His neck stretched out like a tortoise from his heavily stooped back. His knurled knotted knuckles draped over a walking stick that appeared to be propping him up. On one hand he carried a plastic bag with what seemed a few items of shopping. Slowly he turned his head as he gazed at the cars, looking for a break in the incessant line of traffic.
I slowed down; he looked up, noticed I had stopped, raised his hand in a sign of acknowledgement or gratitude and began his epic shuffle across the road supported by his walking stick. Occasionally he raised his hand as if thanking me for my patience. Halfway across the road as he raised his hand once more, the plastic bag he was holding split and its contents fell to the ground.
In my rear view mirror I could see a white transit van behind me with three young men. Their impatience was visible from their faces and the sound of the revving of their engine. One of the men popped his head out of the window and shouted ‘come on Granddad, give it some welly; some of us have a job to go to’.
I pulled over and grabbing a spare bag I had in the car, I went up to the old man who was rather flustered as he endeavoured to reach down to his shopping. I picked up a can of beans, a small loaf of bread and a pint of milk and walked with him the rest of the way. When we reached the pavement he looked at me with saddened eyes and with a distraught voice said ‘sorry love’.
Pointing in the direction of the van that had long since sped out of sight, he added ‘at their age I would have given them a run for their money’. He paused, gathered his breath, lowered his head, ‘at their age I was fighting the Jerry’s on Normandy beach… it was bedlam… my best friend was hit in the head and dropped dead right there in front of me’.
He raised his head and looking into the distance with eyes welling up, ‘I had to step over him and continue fighting for my life and for my country… that was June 6th 1944… it was my 21st birthday’. He continued staring into the now empty road that lay before us as if waiting for his friend to appear. ‘That day I made the decision that if I survived the war I would marry my sweetheart.’
He then looked at me with deep blue sparkling eyes that peered beneath white bushy brows. He had a broad smile that showed a perfect set of teeth; all his own of course, only the type that come out at night. His face was heavily wrinkled but every line told a story of a life lived. He spoke with vigour and enthusiasm about the woman he loved and married and with whom he built a happy home. He recalled his younger days when he had the ability to build, fix and mend. He talked about the four sons they had who were all grown up with families of their own.
Gazing into the distance once again, he said, ‘my missus passed away two years ago’. Tapping his walking stick he went on, ‘I’m just waiting for my time when I can go and join her, for now I take my daily stroll to the shops to make sure my pins don’t rust’. He took his bag of shopping I had been holding, thanked me for my time, turned and continued on his voyage. I never found out his name.
Returning home that day I kept thinking of the old man and the stories he had told me of his younger days. I imagined him as a 21 year old soldier going into battle, strong, fit and healthy; as a 30 year old father of four and devoted husband; and as a practical man at ease with his tools. I thought of the 65 million people that lost their lives during World War II missing out on the opportunity to continue experiencing life.
We celebrate Remembrance Day as a reminder of all those who lost their lives in battle. What about the men, women and children that survived? Some have carried the physical, emotional and psychological scars of war whilst trying to integrate back into family life and society.
They have lived through the end of the industrial era and the economic and social upheaval that brought. They have witnessed the dawn of the electronic information age – computers, mobile phones and the internet. They were in their mid-thirties when the Beatles became a music phenomenon and in their mid-forties when the first man landed on the moon. They are part of the 1.4 million people in the UK who are over 85 years old. Do we see them as a statistic and a drain on society?
As we commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for our freedom on Remembrance Day, let’s remember also those who survived and have helped build the free society we live in today, despite all the Covid restrictions.