On the first leg of my ride home from a (wild) wedding in Santa Rosa, Calif., last weekend, I sat next to an elderly couple from East Knoxville, Tenn. They were short, gray-haired and nearing 80 years old. The wife pulled pills from a baggie early on and gave them to her husband, who dutifully took them as he coughed. “He has chronic bronchitis,” she said as she leaned to me. “He’s not contagious. We had to take him to the hospital earlier this week.”
And so began a 2-hour conversation with two of the nicest people I have met.
I never did learn their names. I learned that they have three grown children, including a professor at UCSF and an artist who lives on a ranch without water in the woods in Montana. The husband is a retired Presbyterian minister who ran camps all over the country. They live on a 5-acre farm with her sister, who is a widow, and the three of them have dinner together every night. The couple met at Maryville College in Tennessee and have been married 57 years.
“My parents have been married 36 years,” I say. “And every year, I say, ‘Yay, keep going!'”
“Oh, that’s nothing! They’re still young in their marriage,” the woman said with a glint in her eye. “After 50 years, you don’t know any other way of living.”
The couple laughed together and fed off each other. At one point she said, “That tickles my funny bone.”
I told them what I do, and they said, “We’re grateful for you and your work.” The husband was reading a book on how to be more considerate. He chuckled that he was reading it, then said seriously as he peered through his glasses: “You never do stop working at it. People often don’t listen to each other because they can’t wait for what they’re going to say next.”
As the plane got ready to land, the husband said something, but I couldn’t hear him. The wife said, “We’ve really enjoyed visiting with you. We’ll think of you every time we listen to NPR.”
I said, “It’s nice connecting with nice people.” I had the urge to give her my card. I had to urge to ask them if I could visit them on their farm and talk about what it was like living in the ’30s and ’40s. But the moment passed, and I took the experience for what it was: connecting with nice, wise people on a trip across the country.