When I was 7 years old I made a trip to England to meet my grandparents on my fathers side for the first time. It was a special trip for many reasons, including meeting my friend Tom Spriggs.
Tom was a trusted neighbor and friend of my grandparents. He and his wife were the first to welcome them to Sway when they relocated there to retire. Sway was and still is a quaint and lovely village in Hampshire England, large enough to have a grocery store (or maybe a few by now), but small enough to formerly qualify as a village according to English standards – larger than a hamlet, but smaller than a town.
My grandmother told me that Tom was a soft-spoken and private man made even more so after the loss of his beloved wife a few years earlier. She had taken it upon herself with characteristic British cheerful dutifulness to include Tom in her day-to-day life and social engagements. My grandfather, who I called Grandpop, built a doorway in the wood fence between their houses to make this easier and encourage visits for afternoon teas’.
I met Tom the second day of my trip while swinging on the fence in front of my grandparents’ house. I don’t recall our first conversation but remember that his gentle manner made me trust him immediately. For the afternoons that followed, he’d invite me for tea or show me his green room with rows of thriving tomato plants or we’d walk the two blocks to downtown Sway where there was a bed and breakfast and pub with pigs and chickens in the backyard.
It may seem odd that a 7 year old child and 60 year old man would have enough in common for a conversation, but we did, and we had many of them. We’d talk about all kinds of things. I told him about the dirt farm I made back home for lizards and slugs that despite its 3 inch mud-clay walls, failed to stop the creatures from escaping after an hour or so. I shared my love of sitting amongst the cornhusks in our garden, munching raw corn while dad hacked down the dead dry grass in the summer time. And that the reason I pressed wild flowers was so I could look at them when I felt sad to remember feeling happy.
Tom, a retired train conductor, told me about his travels throughout England and the interesting people he met along the way. He confided about his life before, when he was a soldier in WWI and how he endured trench warfare for an entire month without food. He was a teenager, one of 250,000 volunteers under the age of 19 to answer the call to fight. England had only 700,000 in the armed forces at the beginning of the war, compared to Germanys’ 3.7 million. He didn’t say much about his experience, just that it was hard to say anything at all.
The thing I remember most about our conversations, more so than what we talked about was how they felt. I was free because Tom was never in a rush. He always had time to chat, or at least, he seemed to. Not just for me, but anyone who crossed his path. Talking with him gave me the same feeling I had when watching the ocean or looking up at the sky through the branches of a cherry blossom tree.
I felt this calmness in nature all the time, but rarely in conversation and almost never in conversation with adults, with their agendas, and assumptions, and hopes and interpretations. With Tom it was different. I remember saying something, then waiting for his response and having the distinct impression of him reflecting on what he was going to say in a way that was both connected to our conversation and me and simultaneously connected to something within him that was also impersonal, infinite. The pauses between our interactions and even his tender and authentic delivery of his words gave me an entirely new experience of what conversation could be like.
Before leaving England, Tom and I agreed to continue our conversation through letters. Decades before the internet existed and at a time when long distance phone calls could get expensive, this was about the only option we had. Thank goodness…I doubt email would have been an equally satisfying replacement to the experience of reading a good letter.
We would write one another for many years to come until Tom’s death at 78. I was twenty-five.
Our correspondance of 18 years taught me about the power of consistency in love and friendship. In a word, patience.