Where else but in the banality of laundry does the mind rise above and consider those things that burrow deep in our souls and twitch like an uncanny beetle trying to claw its way to the surface. We recently took a cruise across the European edge of the Mediterranean spending seven days meandering from Greece to Spain. Vacation or not, some household chores won’t go away, and in need of a refresh of clothes, we found a tiny laundry room nestled in a bland room in the middle of one of the high decks aboard our ship. The interior beige room held two washers and two dryers wedged against a wall and two lonely seats stashed at the end. When we entered, two elderly passengers occupied the seats.
They were friendly, those two, with Southern drawls that matched the long summer days ahead of us. They began talking to us immediately as if they had been waiting for us to meet them. We quickly learned that they were from Fort Worth, Texas and that they were cruise ship aficionados. The gentleman, stately with his deep voice and steely blue eyes, quickly ran down his ranking of cruise operators. Holland America and Celebrity were the best. This cruise line, Princess, was decent but the food was bland. He liked spicy food, being from Texas and all. He took picante sauce with most of his food, or at least that’s the way he made it sound.
Later, as we switched our wash loads to the dryers, the conversation continued. We learned that he would be 90 years old in a few weeks. For an elderly man, he looked sturdy, determined, but a sadness filled his eyes. We commented that he didn’t look 90, but as I looked closer, I could see the wear and tear of age, the relentless debasing of his image of himself that had overcome him. He told us this was his last cruise. “There comes a time when a man has to admit his age,” he said. His solemn baritone lingered in the room until only the sound of the humming dryers remained.
During our conversation, we learned he had grandkids and that his wife wasn’t his long-time love, but his relatively new wife of three years. I don’t know if he had divorced late in life or if the mother of his children had passed before him, but in 90 years so many things can happen, so much can change. He had traveled widely for he mentioned several places that I hadn’t thought of as destinations as much as locations on this wonderful planet of ours. He spoke in a wistful tone, one that a parent often uses when reminiscing about their children when they were young. He seemed resigned to the end of a journey or at least content with a very different one.
I studied his face as he spoke, the lines deep and ragged. His eyes sat above dark circles, his lips strained across his yellowed teeth. He sat slightly hunched over with skinny, wrinkled arms protruding from an over-sized shirt, or maybe he had shrunk inside that shirt as if he were already leaving a shell of himself behind. We bid the couple farewell as we left our clothes to dry, but our conversation lingered in my mind.
I wondered what would become of him; although, I already knew. I wondered what I will think when I reach that point in my life. Will I be able to handle it with aplomb like this gentleman, or will I refuse to accept it, fight it, and spit in its face. Middle age has given me no answers only discontent, restlessness. We all have that clock ticking behind us, but we only become aware of it when youth fades away, when the faculties that we always took for granted in our youth slip away one by one and leave us encumbered with a sense of surprise, unbelieving.
Over 40 years separate me from this gentleman, but I feel a sense of urgency, a need to take as much in as I can before I too must admit my age.