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People think I’m old.

I find that surprising.

Sure, the beard is completely white and so is what’s left of the hair on the top of my head. The aches and pains are significant, and on those rare occasions when I glimpse myself in a store front window from a distance, my gait is not reassuring.

Having said that, I was shocked to find that some people consider me high risk in case I catch the coronavirus. It just doesn’t fit my self-image. If I were to think of descriptive words about myself, “fragile” would not be on the list.

It made me think about my great-grandfather.

I never met him. In fact, even my father’s memories of him are faint; he died almost 90 years ago. I’ve seen only one photo of him, on his 50th wedding anniversary. He looked grey, grizzled, and, well, old.

It’s startling to look at that photo and realize he’s only about ten years older than I am now. Furthermore, if things go well, in the next week, my wife and I will be celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. As amazing as that seems to me, 45 years of marriage puts me in the ballpark of that beat up old Norwegian farmer I’ve only seen in photographs.

Last week, on the last day I was out and about before we hunkered down, a clerk in a hardware store called me “…young fellow,” and offered to carry my purchases for me, and a barista in a coffee shop called me “Honey.” Since she was roughly the age of my dress shoes, I’m guessing she wasn’t flirting. Now, I don’t at all mind looking like someone’s grandfather. I actually kind of like fitting in that category. I just don’t like the assumptions that sometimes go with it.

Here’s a story about assumptions. Years ago, I was going through some family papers and found a couple letters written in Norwegian, dated in the 1800’s. I had them translated to English and discovered they were love letters, written from my great-grandfather to the woman who became my great-grandmother. He was still a teenager, working as a laborer away from home, trying to scratch together enough money to get married. One of the lines that has stuck with me since I first read it declares, “…my heart is on fire for you, my love.”

It didn’t fit with the picture of the grim old man I saw in the black and white photo. Granted, he posed for the photograph during the Depression, and because it was taken at the end of his anniversary party, he’d been wearing his suit and dress shoes all day. I simply didn’t see a lot of joy in his face, let alone fire.

And there’s the lesson. I know what I look like. I’m not saying 45 years of marriage has aged me – far from it - but spending a lifetime farming on the edge of the prairie that can leave a mark, or several. With the exception of grey beards and worry lines on our faces, I’m not sure how much my great-grandfather and I have in common. When people see me, they might just see a beat-up old guy with a limp and a scarred head.

Inside, where not so many people can see, I burn.

Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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