At the Library

My son Mateo and I stood checking out books at our local library when a very tall, elderly white man hobbled by using a cane. The old man stopped in front of the Returns slot, opened his tote bag, and began slipping in books. But in the process of negotiating tote bag, books, and cane, the old man lost his balance, and although he grabbed hold of the counter to right himself, his grip loosened on the cane and it clattered to the floor.

The old man sighed with a sound of frustration, as though wondering how on earth he was going to fold his six-foot-five frame into the shape necessary to bend down to retrieve his cane, and once successful, get back up. My parents are 87 and use wheelchairs and walkers, and because of that, I’m hyper-aware of mobility challenges. Quickly, I rushed over and scooped up the cane and handed it to the old man, waving away his thanks by explaining my folks are 87 and I was happy to help.

“Myself, I’m 94,” the man said, the twinkle in his eye showing he knew “94” was bound to impress.

“Good for you!” I said, and meant it. The man’s gaze traveled past me and landed on Mateo, who had finished checking out his books and was arranging them in an orderly stack. “How old are you, young man?” he asked.

“Eleven.”

“A marvelous age,” the man said, and left it at that.

I smiled because the old man, even at 94, was very tall, and Mateo, at eleven, hasn’t had his growth spurt, and in fact, may never be a giant. Recently, a woman in the paint department at Home Depot had asked Mateo his age, and when Mateo told her 11, the woman turned to me and said, “He’s short, isn’t he? I would have guessed nine.”

The episode confirmed my belief, solidified since becoming a mother through adoption, that people will say whatever they think, other people’s feelings be damned. I was grateful to the man for not mentioning Mateo’s height. He leaned over and looked at Mateo’s stack of books. “What are you reading?”

“History.” Mateo held up his books shyly. “The Revolutionary War.”

“History was always my favorite,” the man said. “Especially the Revolutionary War.” He looked at Mateo and then at me and back to Mateo. “I was adopted. My parents were English, and my birth mother was a Scot. Of course, I’m an American.”

Mateo beamed, and although I was tempted to tell the man we’re an adoptive family, I didn’t. At eleven, my son is old enough to share his story if he chooses. Besides, I was sure the old man figured it out for himself. Instead, Mateo told the old man we’d visited Lexington and Concord and the sites in Boston, and next were going to Gettysburg and Philadelphia. The old man said that sounded splendid.

We said our good-byes, and as Mateo and I walked to the car, he said, “Did you hear that, Mom? He was adopted too.”

I didn’t say, “He probably noticed we don’t look alike. He probably knew without our telling.” Instead, I held my son’s face in my hands and kissed his cheek. “I did hear, Mateo. That is so cool.”

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