“Hey, you like cheesecake?” Elmer’s voice was hoarse with age, but spirited.
I had met him at this same cemetery in Parma one week earlier, on a sunny August afternoon. I’d come to visit my grandmother, who had died two years before.
Elmer was visiting his wife, who was buried nearby.
I nodded hello — we were the only ones there — and he took that as an invitation to shuffle over, his generous smile emphasizing how glad he was to meet me. After some small talk, I was anxious to be alone so I could have a silent conversation with my grandmother.
She had been my compass, always giving me perspective on where I stood and guiding me toward what mattered. At that point, I felt disoriented, having recently moved back to Cleveland after 17 years of living away.
I delicately told Elmer that I needed a quiet moment before returning home to my kids, and he obliged, walking away.
This second encounter at the cemetery seemed uncanny. Sorry that I’d brushed off Elmer the first time, I engaged the conversation, learning about his wife, who had passed in 1985, and his sons. When he jumped to describing how he liked making cheesecake topped with strawberries, his blue eyes brightened. I found him charming. As I left, I told Elmer I’d look forward to running into him again sometime.
On my next visit to the cemetery, I was startled: On my grandmother’s headstone hung a clear plastic baggie, attached with duct tape, holding a note. In sloppy cursive, above a phone number, it read: “I’m getting things to make cheesecake for you. Call me. Elmer.”
While Elmer’s eagerness took me aback, I sensed he was harmless. Besides, he wasn’t the first older person I had befriended.
During my undergraduate years at John Carroll University, I was drawn to Mr. Barbush — spectacled with white hair and a white walrus moustache — who sat quietly in the very back of Russian class, removed from the rest of us. I’d wait after the lecture to chat with him. For a few years, we stayed in touch, occasionally mailing each other postcards reporting on our travels.
Later, when I lived in Washington, D.C., my Argentinian next-door neighbor, Florencio — a debonair gentleman with broken English and a perpetual smile that reflected his joie de vivre — invited me to his apartment for dinners.
He proudly served me on fine china with crystal and silver as if I were Queen Elizabeth II, whom he once waited on during his years on staff at the White House.
Although I had never met an elderly man in the cemetery to receive a homemade cheesecake, I didn’t hesitate. Elmer’s generosity toward my family and me quickly progressed. He volunteered to plant flowers at my grandmother’s grave to replace my artificial flowers; it was difficult to refuse him.
“Heck, I got nuthin’ better to do,” he explained.
He started leaving surprise deliveries on our front porch every week: bags from the dollar store with miscellany, pumpkins for the kids, treats for our dog, homemade macaroni salad and countless packaged sweets. Our first winter in Cleveland, he bought us a snow shovel and cleared the path to our house while we slept in one Saturday morning. Often he brought random items, such as motor oil, birdseed and Elvis Presley commemorative coins.
Providing us goods clearly gave Elmer purpose, plans for his day, while for me, the influx of stuff was overwhelming.
More challenging were Elmer’s steady reminders to call him, which he communicated in person and on scribbled notes that he left with deliveries. I struggled with being needed by someone I hardly knew. Amid work and family duties, I lacked time to connect regularly with my existing friends.
But I couldn’t turn Elmer away. He had inserted himself in my life, so I made space for him, recognizing that my attention helped patch a bit of his loneliness. Sometimes, when he’d realize it was me calling, he’d cry, “Larissa Ba-by!” as if he had just struck it big on a slot machine.
Had my grandmother been alive, she would have baked bread for Elmer and encouraged my efforts. The thought of her often motivated me.
Gradually, Elmer scaled back on both deliveries and expectations. Now and again, he’d appear on our driveway in his silver Mustang, unloading bottles of root beer, small American flags and his homemade pickled eggs.
I’d invite him in and offer a meal, but Elmer enjoyed just a cup of coffee and some chitchat. He would visit only a short while and never kept me on the phone long. When he’d thank me for calling, he’d always say, “Honey, you made my whole night.”
Some people we pull into our orbit and others, like Elmer, make a surprise landing with flares. In either case, the ride together is temporary, so we may as well leave a bit of room for others, I figure. For five years, Elmer and I remained friends. A year ago, at 87, he passed away.
My mother tells me that my grandmother, when she was younger, also befriended lonely folks who crossed her path. Learning this makes me smile and leaves me uniquely content. I like being reminded that my grandmother and I were kindred souls, and I will continue trying to walk the planet in her footsteps.