The kids and I went to the park one day recently and I met someone. Honestly, it was kind of magical. He was a grandfather with shaggy gray hair, glasses, and a mustache like a silver comb. His granddaughter was a peppy little girl with icy blond hair and bare feet which were dirty enough to suggest they had been there for a while before our arrival.
The girl befriended my kids quickly and they began to play on the playground equipment. They played a series of incomprehensible games. Chasing each other down the tunnel slide, gathering kindling, practicing casting spells from Harry Potter.
The grandfather approached me gently, as if I were a frazzled and skittish stray. Perhaps he recognized that conversation wasn’t something I would typically be up for. I take my kids to the park several times a week, but I can’t remember the last time I said more than hello to an adult there. Maybe because it was day five of waiting for a hurricane to pass, but for whatever reason, this time I was ready to dance. And if he wasn’t up for doing the floss with me, I would settle for talking.
“So, how long have you lived around here?” the man said as he sidled toward me. I was seated on one of those black metal benches with little holes all over them watching my kids and fiddling nervously with my hands.
“Well, I’m from Florida. I grew up in Titusville and moved over this way about six years ago.”
We were off and running.
From there the conversation zigged and zagged. Slowing down and accelerating as we shuffled around the playground, helping the children tackle the monkey bars or reach the tall spinny thing when we were called upon.
Soon enough, he asked where I worked. The moment of truth. I processed the data I had gathered quickly in my head. The man was older but did not seem to be necessarily traditional. After all, his silver hair was not neatly manicured, and he allowed his granddaughter to come to the park without shoes. Should I risk saying stay-at-home dad? I decided to hedge.
“I work at home. I do writing and editing. And I’m a stay-at-home parent.”
He was immediately interested in the writing and did not seem at all judgmental about the stay-at-home parenting, so we had successfully cleared the first hurdle.
He asked me what type of writing I did, and I tried to explain. My explanation probably wasn’t too coherent, but it did the job. It moved the conversation forward enough so he could reveal that he was working on a novel that had the potential to be a best seller if he ever finished it. I like a man with realistic goals. I asked what it was about, and he said it had injustice, intrigue, and romance, so it certainly seemed to have all the makings.
Later, he told me about places he’d lived. His childhood spent playing in the woods in northern Maine. The old aluminum canoe that his dad got when he was just a baby that had to be seventy years old now but was still functional. The boat was still in Maine, but he was hoping to get it back one day and have it refurbished. His years spent working in Hawaii—the place he loved living the most.
I asked him if he surfed. (Look at me go!). He said a little, but he really loved watching it. I told him about a memoir about surfing that I had read by William Finnegan. I pulled it up on my phone to show him.
Thirty minutes turned into an hour and probably more. The kids were still playing. Hiding out under the playground equipment, arranging small sticks into piles. Running around holding palmetto fronds between their legs as brooms, pretending to be witches and wizards.
The grandfather kept saying to his granddaughter that they should probably leave soon. Who knows how many hours they had been there? Each time she replied sharply, “No!” He then immediately softened his stance by saying, “Well, we’ll leave when your friends do.” She summarily rejected this counter-offer, but he wisely didn’t press it any further. What can I say, my new soul mate is a grandparenting sage.
Eventually, as a light drizzle began to fall on the large canopy with the faded smiley face that shades the playground, I rounded up my crew and herded them toward the car. I said goodbye to my new friend, and we forced our children and grandchildren to do the same. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again, but I’m grateful for the hour or so we shared.
I guess there is something to be said for real-life interactions. I’m not going to get carried away after just one successful conversation with a stranger, but I think it’s safe to say I’m an extrovert now. I suppose I’ll still write to help me process my thoughts; however, if you don’t hear from me ever again, you can safely assume I’ve pivoted to the spoken word. Perhaps you can catch me at a local open mic or maybe sitting outside Walmart striking up conversations anyone and everyone who happens by. Once you experience the transcendent power of the gift of gab, it can be hard to turn back.
As we were walking to the car, a mom seated on a swing said to the grandfather, “Did I hear you say you were from northern Maine? Because that’s where I’m from!”
And just like that, my new friend was onto the next conversation. Come to think of it, it’s entirely possible he is still at the park. Maybe I should go check. I could use a nice chat.