George Locker is a buoyant 93-year-old man with twinkly raisin eyes behind wire rimmed glasses and large hands that are always reaching out to draw people in. I am lucky enough to be George’s neighbor. For reasons known only to George, he likes to call me Gorgeous.
George wakes up smiling after 9:00 a.m. each day and greets himself with a cheerful, “Good Morning Georgie Locker!” He wakes up late because he goes to sleep late. He’s out until 11:00 p.m. each night having dinner with his sister Ione, who is a youngster at 88. After a breakfast of coffee, oatmeal and the morning paper at his neat kitchen table, George steps out into the sunshine, ready to take the day.
His cheerfulness is legendary. Just a year after his wife’s death George is fond of remarking that every day is a good day. He says this with such conviction that one feels compelled not only to believe him, but to agree with him. He is the only person I have ever met who recalls the Depression fondly. As the second of seven children, George lived in a one bedroom apartment over a shoe shop and worked for pennies as a newspaper delivery boy. “Oh, but Mama was an angel. She made sure we were all happy.” It seems to me that Mama must have done some kind of job.
At least one day a week is dedicated to bowling. George is a crack shot bowler, the senior member of his league. “Come here, Zevi,” he calls to my son and from behind his back brings out a trophy on a pedestal that reads, ‘Best in League, 1969.’ “Found this in the attic. It’s yours now, ‘cause you always watch the driveway when I’m backing out. You’re my policeman. And I didn’t forget you either, Eitan. Here you go!” Out comes a golden figure kneeling with a ball in hand, ‘Bowling Champion, 1973’. “Now whatta ya say, boys?” he kibbitzes, “How about a handshake for Uncle Georgie!”
"Gonna get a hole in one, this time, Gorgeous.”
On warm days, George goes golfing. He steps out into the sunshine, bright and early, to wait for his friend Sam or sometimes his brother, Irving, to come pick him up. Long afternoons are spent practicing for these expeditions with balls and clubs in his backyard. He’s the Pied Piper, patiently lining up the neighborhood kids in order of size and showing them how to bend, how to swing, how to putt. Everyone gets a turn and everyone plays nice for George. When he realized that his clubs were too big for their little hands he took the irons to the blacksmith and had them soldered down to child size. At the sound of Sam’s horn honking, George turns to go. “Gonna get a hole in one, this time, Gorgeous,” he promises me and with a broad grin and jaunty wave he folds himself neatly into the car.
On odd days, George takes care of errands and household chores. Sometimes he goes to Costco, or to get a haircut, “Gotta keep neat, you know,” he says running a hand through his thick iron gray hair. In the spring he mows his lawn with his old lawnmower and cuts back tree branches. In the fall, he vigorously rakes the leaves into large crunchy piles and watches with pleasure as the kids jump in them. And when the winter snows come, George heads out with his parka, knit cap and his trusty old shovel. “Need help with the driveway?” he calls out to my husband, whistling, “I’m just about done with mine.”
When his errands are done George maneuvers his silver gray Buick Le Sabre back into the driveway. “George! George!” the kids all call as he steps out of the car. He rolls up the window with a broad dry hand and grins. Then he looks at the ragtag band of sweaty, sticky neighborhood kids and shakes his head in wonder. “How is it possible that they’re all so good looking?” he marvels. “Now tell me, kids, who wants to learn the cha-cha-cha?”
In the six years that I have lived next door I’ve noticed that George doesn’t walk, he waltzes. Sometimes he even shimmies. Life as George knows it is a dance, an endless pleasure, a cause for celebration. “Smell that clean air!” he says and suddenly I do. It smells green and crisp with the promise of flowers. Why didn’t I smell it before?
And George loves to share. On days when it is too hot or cold to stay outside he’ll invite the kids in for a tour of his neat, tidy house. With open hands he’ll give away the spoils of his 90 plus years, silky yarmulkas and black fedoras, gag gifts and postcards and pictures. With each one comes a story. “That’s the uniform I wore when I was a neighborhood guard during World War II. My job was to make sure everyone abided by the blackout hours so the Germans couldn’t spot us and bomb us. I ever tell you about the time...” he’ll say as little ears strain to listen and bright eyes alight upon his face.
I watch him with awe and puzzlement. Surely life has hurt George, too. No one escapes its ups and downs. So I ask him tentatively why I never see sadness on his face. “I don’t pay twice, Gorgeous,” he answers firmly shaking his head. “You’ve gotta be sad when you’ve gotta be sad. There’s no point being sad again, after.”
He loves to share stories of his large extended family, his niece the professional clown, his nephew who works for the circus, his great grandson the skateboard champion. He loves to tell jokes and he loves food, especially cake. In fact, at 93 years of age George has decided to learn to cook. “Well, first Mama cooked for me, then my wife and then my sister. It’s been a good run,” he says nodding his head, “but I think it’s time I learned to take care of myself.” Last night, George made tilapia with fried onions and mushrooms. "It was delicious," he says. I bet it was. Last night, I made fish sticks.
As he looks around smiling at God’s world I imagine God looking down and smiling at him.
But life is not always a waltz. Just a few months ago George fell badly, stumbling on the bottom step of a dance hall. He broke seven fragile ribs, suffered a cerebral hematoma and punctured his lung. It was bad. His injuries were serious and the recovery was bound to be a long one. All of us neighbors worried. We thought he was invincible but now he was weakened and slowed down. We remembered suddenly that he is old. How would he golf and bowl and dance? How could he stand being incapacitated, dependent? What would happen to our George?
We should’ve known better. It’s true what they say, you really can’t keep a good man down. After a few brief months of recuperation George astonished his doctors by walking on his own two feet back to his house, to his car, to his bowling and his golf. With his neighbors laughing and crying and cheering, he walked back to his life. “I’m a real lucky guy,” he says when he thinks of it, “That could have been a bad fall!”
Sometimes, I wonder what George would consider a bad fall and then I decide that I don’t want to know.
This is what I do want to know. I want to know how to face life with a smile, how to deal with good times and bad, difficulties and opportunities with the same bright face. I want to know what magic George possesses that makes everyone his friend, that has him seeing the goodness in people and then drawing it out of them. I want to know how one lives 93 years and determines that they have been good overall and that that is more than good enough.
I am not George. I was not given the gift of a sunny and easy nature. I don’t golf and I don’t kibbitz. I fret and analyze. I hurry and wait. But I too have been blessed. God has given me George Locker as a neighbor, as a friend and a teacher. As the cold grayness of winter come upon us, I will bask in the warmth of George’s happy smile. I will look at my children through his eyes and see past the crumbs and the ketchup to their bright smiles, their shining eyes. I will try to see the dance in every day, the vigor of play, the joy of a pile of crunchy leaves. Every day is a good day, George says. And I am learning day by day to believe him.