Symbols And Signs

Symbols And Signs

By Tracy McDermott


ErnestHemingway“There are some things that cannot be learned quickly. Time, which is all we have, must be paid for their acquiring. But because it takes a lifetime to learn them, the little new that each man gets from life is very expensive and the only heritage he has to give.”—Ernest Hemingway

An old truck sits in front of the house across the street from us in Ajijic. Four stickers on its rear window summarize a life: the U.S. Marine Corp insignia, a Texas flag, logo of the Minnesota Vikings football team, and a Christian fish. An oversized banner flaps against the house. “For Sale! Price Reduced!” A handwritten note taped to the gate says its owner is leaving tomorrow. 

We wander over to have a look. There are a few belongings spread out for sale on the lawn. The pickings are slim and I suspect they have always been slim. We spot the owner and shout a friendly “Hello!” He turns to watch us coming. He is a tall old man and his stooped shoulders belie the powerful giant he must have once been. His face is leathery, lined with bawdy stories, and his eyes are ready to laugh. He shakes our hands. “Come on in and I’ll show you around.” 

The house is rough around the edges and worse for wear. Just like him. He shudders with a ragged cough and pulls out a Marlboro. He tells us he is selling to raise a hundred grand to bail out his kids’ failing business in Texas. As we tour the place, he reels out lines of his story. He was born in 1938, the son of a Minnesota businessman. He married three times. He moved to this town, the finest place he has ever known, some 20 years ago. I ask if he came here alone. He says he lived here with his wife. “She died three years ago.” I respond with the expected, “I’m sorry.” He mutters flatly, “I’m sorry too.” 

As we walk through the house, I spot a few dirty dishes and full ashtrays. He says his maid takes care of things now and has become like his mother. I wonder if his own mother was as neglectful. We stand around the yard and trade stories. He shows us the tattoos he got in the Marines. We ask where he served. He says he missed being sent to Nam but grins wickedly about his service in Lebanon. We ask no more questions. He tells us he’s getting another tattoo in Puerto Vallarta next week; a Celtic Cross. He is obviously a man of symbols. 

As we start to leave, he gives me his card and asks us to visit again when he returns in two weeks. I am surprised to see a poem printed on the back. He doesn’t seem like the poetry type. He watches me reading it and tells me his father recited these words for him every morning.

“Be Strong. We are not here to play, to dream, to drift. We have hard work to do and loads to lift. Shun not the struggle, face it, ’tis God’s gift.” 

The words clearly sum up the man before us. I keep my head bowed as his words mingle with those of the poem. Their weight and value settle deep within me.  I gently tuck the man’s legacy into my pocket as we turn toward home.

(Ed. Note: Tracy McDermott is, in her words, “a painter of stories and a writer of portraits. She is currently writing a book on social sharing travel and occasionally resides in the San Francisco Bay area when not wandering in search of new material.”)


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