Of the thousands of stories my late husband told me that I should have written down (but did not), a few recently have been rapping their knuckles against my brain. All are about his father and all truly make me wish that I had known the man.
Long before I met Charlie, his dad was just a memory. But we all deserve our little bit of immortality, so I will tell you a little bit about George King.
Charlie had three favorite stories: One about his father being stubborn. One about him being courageous. And one about George being loved.
I’ll start with stubborn.
When Charlie was young and leading a Tom Sawyer sort of life, his parents, George and Eleanor, bought a summer house on Long Island in an area rural enough for a child to ride his bicycle for miles and miles without encountering danger from man, beast, or traffic.
Living next door to their house was a cranky spinster I’ll call Bernice. Both George and Bernice had large backyards, separated by a row of boxwood shrubs that George had planted when they first moved in.
The scientific name for boxwoods is buxus sempervirens. Unimaginative landscapers plant them throughout North American, and they are practically unkillable. Their leaves are itty bitty things whose colors and shapes are monotonously uniform, which is why they can be clipped into phantasmagoric likenesses of birds, bunnies, and elephants. When not being grown in topiary gardens, however, boxwoods are boring.
In private homes like the one where Charlie spent his childhood summers, boxwoods are planted to become privacy hedges. And that, exactly, had been George King’s intent.
One day, about five years after he put them in, he was mowing his lawn and enjoying the sun when Bernice thrust her face over the hedge (which was about four feet high), glared at her neighbor, and snapped, “George, your shrubs are too tall. You have to trim them back.”
Well, you could ASK George to do anything. He would walk barefoot across broken glass to give you CPR; he would break all the crust off his favorite apple pie to feed you; he would make a tourniquet of his favorite belt to keep you from bleeding to death.
You did not TELL George what to do.
So, from that day forward, George continued to mow his lawn, fertilized his azaleas, and prune his lilacs. But he never, never, never again trimmed his boxwood hedges. Charlie told that by the time his father died, they were over twelve feet tall.
There is no dramatic ending to this story. Nobody got murdered, arrested, or dismembered. But it makes me laugh. So there you have it.
Next I’ll tell you about a strike that occurred when George was working for the NYC Housing Authority. I’m not sure if he swept floors or installed radiators, but I know that he was labor, not management, and that he took pride in his job.
Now, regardless of their virtues, unions can be scary things (where are you, Jimmy Hoffa?) Particularly when, by hook or by crook, they decide to make all of their members fall into line. In New York City, the Taylor Law grants municipal unions the right to organize, but it prohibits them from striking. Which George’s union decided to do.
George, however, did not believe in breaking the law.
“On the first day of that strike,” Charlie told me, “my father went to work with his shoes newly polished and his hat neatly creased. Hundreds of his co-workers were already blocking the Housing Authority entrance by the time that George – the “scab” (i.e. “strike breaker”) approached. He saw menace in their eyes and the potential for violence in their hearts.
“Instead of responding in kind, though, George raised his hat in greeting, nodded politely to those that he knew, and continued forward. Then, remarkably, as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea, the strikers grew quiet, pulled back, and created an opening in the picket line for him to pass through.”
My last story is short and sweet.
In the neighborhood where Charlie grew up, teenaged boys became criminals, priests, cops, or firemen. They drank beer on street corners and entertained themselves by throwing bricks at street lights. Just for the hell of it.
George King, who lived up the block from some of these hooligans, was a good father, a good husband, always a gentleman, and always beloved. But as he aged, his mind began to fail.
At times, he would forget who and where he was. He forgot his likes and dislikes, the names of his wife and children, and even where he lived. Time after time, he would open his front door (occasionally in his pajamas), and wander into the street.
And every time, Charlie told me, one of the neighborhood kids – the same ones who broke street lights and brawled with innocent bystanders – would gently, fastidiously, and faithfully, bring George home.
So, there you have it. A few stories about George and a little bit of well-deserved of immortality for a stubborn, courageous, and decent man.
I hope that you like him as much as I do.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2017. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com