It was on one of those early-morning commutes that Gil first spotted him - the older man standing in the cold.
It was hard not to notice him. While other bundled folks might have been out walking their daily route, scraping ice off windshields, or hurriedly nabbing newspapers in slippers, he stood very still on the sidewalk. With rigid posture that bespoke of attention and pride, he took a long moment to stare up, not in a hurry to walk a pet or return indoors to drink hot coffee.
Then, with a sure swiftness that bespoke years of practice and belied his otherwise aging body, he raised his right hand and saluted the American flag proudly displayed on his flagpole.
After Gil mentioned the man, we all started to watch for him, to watch for his flag. In true disciplined fashion, he has not disappointed. My children have observed him saluting the flag sometime after sunrise, and they have observed him slowly lowering it at sunset. Other than the days of violent storms, he has yet to miss a day. When the body of a local marine was escorted back to our hometown, his American flag flew at half-mast. And on the days following the Fort Hood shooting tragedy.
We knew there was a history behind this daily routine. He had to be a veteran, we all mused. One day, while he was retrieving his mail at the mail stop near our home, our theory was confirmed by the bumper sticker on his truck.
And so, the idea started to take shape in my mind. A potted plant one year, a plate of cookies the next, homemade cards from toddlers... It would have probably been easier to just deposit the little gifts on the doorstep and push the stroller back to the safe confines of my own home. But my kids would never let me get away with that. What child can walk up to a porch and not push that illuminated, rectangular doorbell button?
"What do we say to him?" Punkin whispered. Always planning ahead, she was the one child who understood a bit of my nervousness. I had thought the same question. Would he be uncomfortable with our boldness? Would he be worried about little-kid germs? Would he even understand our gesture?
But then, I remembered the salute. If ever a person could understand our simple, symbolic gesture, it would be this stranger.
"You can shake his hand," I suggested. Punkin's eyes widened in panic. "Or you can just say 'thank you.'" That suited her much better.
Sugs had no such inhibitions, her face buried behind the small potted plant that first year. When he opened the door, she did not hesitate, shoving the gift into the one hand that did not hold the swinging door.
"Shanks," she said with a smile. "For hanging that flag with the stars."
A little dog yapped happily at his feet as the man's face crinkled into a handsome, wrinkled smile. A woman - similarly marked with laugh lines - joined him at the door, shushing the dog and peeking over his shoulder at their unexpected visitors.
That gave Punkin and I more courage. She smiled shyly and added, "Thank you for fighting in wars."
I gushed nervously, saying more words than needed to be said. Thanks...our freedom...your sacrifice...the flag... I shook his hand, his weathered, bone-crushing paw firmly grabbing my mother-practical always-busy hand.
"You're welcome." He grinned widely, and I had the distinct impression he had used those dimples more than once over the years. "And thanks for this," he added, holding up the flimsy little plant.
Then, we entered that awkward stage where you either start the small talk or close the door. I spared him the dilemma and moved off of the porch, herding my children along with me. Their little dog barked playfully, even after they yelled "Good bye!" and closed the door.
We went home deeply satisfied. Perhaps, for the first time ever, I celebrated Veteran's Day by thanking a veteran personally.
With the special day approaching this Thursday, the children are already talking about what they are going to do or say to our hero down the street. I've got flour and sugar on our grocery list for tomorrow, and a cookie recipe set out on the counter. Earlier today, Punkin wondered out loud if "that old soldier" would like chocolate chip cookies, then answered her own question. "As long as we don't forget to thank him, that's all that matters, right Mom?"
Thank you. The simplest but most genuine word to utter on Thursday. Surely we will not do it perfectly or without mishap - like the year our Little Man marched through their planter and tripped over a green frog statue right as they were answering the door. But by some mysterious working, saying thank you makes us exponentially more thankful! So, we will march down the street, this ragamuffin bunch with purpose and saran-wrapped paper plates.
Resting in the Thankfulness that He Gives and the Opportunity to Express It,