The old couple… A Love Story

I’m getting ready for a road trip to see my old friend who lives on a ranch near Santa Fe.  I’m hoping there will be ample opportunity to do make some photographs along the way.  But one lasting “image” from the Alabama Hills trip remains cemented in my mind and, as though it is not a photograph, I wanted to share it. 

I know you are used to posts here mostly about photo trips or such, but let me see if I can paint a word-picture for you that might be more important in the long run than pretty photos.  A scene played out before me on the last field trip (the previous post) that was not meant to be photographed, only to be experienced and hopefully I can share it with you via a different kind of image than I normally do.

We had just had a great field trip to Alabama hills, an incredibly unique geological area just west of Lone Pine, CA at the base of Mt. Whitney.  So on Sunday morning, the day to return home, I did a dawn shot and then returned to town to check out and then went into the Alabama Hills Café & Bakery, for breakfast.

While I was waiting for what turned out to be the largest plate of French Toast I had ever seen, an old couple came in and set down.  Customers from local ranchers to young hikers had come and gone while I was there so I’m not sure what made me notice them so keenly.  But there was something… something about them that made me take notice.

I am terrible about ages, probably because it is something largely irrelevant to me.  But to capture the picture with finer resolution I would guess the lady, and she was most definitely a lady, was in her 80s.  She was dressed in “tourist elegant;” casual stylish, clean, pressed, bright colored without being garish.  Her hair was brushed in a soft wave with every strand knowing its place and staying there as if it were their solemn duty to make this lady look grand — like she had just stepped out of a salon.  Her makeup was lightly but perfectly applied; just right for a day of travel. 

She walked straight and with purpose.  It was the proud, smooth, balanced walk of a lady who as a child had been taught how to walk properly complete with lessons that included going up and down stairs with first one then several books on her head… and had never forgotten it.  And when she sat down her posture remained perfect: back straight, no slouching.  This was someone with class.

However, the man presented a different picture.  He appeared to be somewhere between 90 and 265.  He was also a little more disheveled and sort of shuffled in looking frail and not altogether in top form even for someone nearing 200.  His hair had been combed at some point in the not too distant past, but possibly without benefit of a mirror.  In contrast to her well-trained hair, his thinning strands looked like they had just awakened and were trying to figure out where they were.  His shirt and slacks sort of went together but were matched more by the suitcase wrinkles than by color or fabric.  He sat down heavily and then, once in place, seemed to move little and appeared disinterested in the surroundings.  In fairness, his back was to me but it did not look as if he looked around much at all.

But she was a different case entirely.  Her eyes sparkled as they swept the room and she inventoried the paintings of the fantasy rocks and various curios on the wall. Her interest was obviously piqued by several items and she smiled broadly, sometimes silently laughed at some of the bizarre child-like paintings.  She soaked up the place from tables to bakery case to a rack of hand carved walking sticks crafted by some local resident.  I would have bet good money that she could probably have passed a pop test on the layout.

But when she looked at him… oh my, she was transformed.

Her bright eyes softened, but widened ever so slightly when they settled on him, and the gay, amused smile from the trinkets turned into a soft, warm, contented smile, a connected smile.  It was clear to anyone willing to look that she was so deeply in love with this old gentleman that just looking at him changed her demeanor in the most positive way.  It was as if the wrinkles, nature’s well-earned medals for all the years, softened too.  And as if by magic, under the perfectly coifed white hair beat the heart of a young woman, seeing her lover almost for the first time.  The age melted away from her eyes, wrinkles masked by a glow from within; head slightly cocked as she studied his familiar face and held it close in her mind.

At times something else caught her eye, but every time her gaze returned to him that look of tenderness and profound affection returned instantly.  It came over her seamlessly and naturally.

I was transfixed by it.

Wow… to be so deeply in love after all of those years… it took my breath away.  And it made me wonder what he had done to deserve it? 

Has he told her daily that he thought she was beautiful?  Had he not let a night fall without telling her he loved her and then showed it to her in little and big ways every day?  Had he provided a life for her in which she was free to find her own core of happiness?  Had he respected and cherished and honored her so preciously that she still carried that love in her eyes and face?  Was their love so powerful that even now, with him frail and not the handsome young swain of so many years ago, she still was able to see that love flowing from him to her… and now reflect it back with a glance?

Again, silently to myself I had to say it again… “Wow!”  To be honest, it made me a little misty around the edges and sent a thrill down my spine.

But then suddenly, to quote the song, it was as if a lighted match had been tossed into my soul.  A thought fell heavily on my spirit like a black storm of basalt from the Volkswagen sized chunks of lava strewn all around the local countryside as reminders of an era of volcanic activity. 

What that old couple had was what I had expected – had assumed — would happen with my life when I got to that age.  For years my certainty of such an outcome was an article of faith that I came to take for granted.  Clearly, however, I failed where the old gentleman had succeeded.  And with that failure I obviously did not deserve that look from someone. 

But, “deserve” be damned, at that moment in time watching that grand lady pour her love onto the old gentleman with a look, I wanted it more than I have ever wanted anything in my life.  I wanted someone to think that down the road there would be someone to look at me as she looked at him and I would have traded years off of my allotment to see it just once.

The really sad thing is that I’m not sure now, after my own experiences, that I would believe it or trust it if I actually saw it; but I would like the chance to try. 

So all you folks out there, trust me on this one…  If that is the way you would like to ride off into the sunset; arm in arm with someone still desperately in love with you, then you have to earn it, work for it, treasure it, polish it, never, ever, ever get complacent about it or take it for granted.

It is so easy when you are young and in love/lust to get starry eyed and convince yourself that this moment is so strong it will last forever just on its own inertia.

Listen to me!  No… it won’t.

They finished their meal and got up to leave.   She then did one more amazing thing.  She took his arm in that wonderful old-fashioned way of sipping her hand through the crook of his elbow.  But she did it with an alteration so slight as to almost be unnoticeable except in how she reached just a little farther and gripped his arm.  She was not using him to steady herself.  She was, in fact, helping to support HIM but doing it in a way that made sure, to the casual observer that HE was the MAN she still saw when she looked at him. The shuffling gait he used to enter the cafe became more sure.  His shoulders straightened a little and he walked out a little younger than when he entered.  What a gift!  What a love.

Darn dust blew in my eyes and I needed another napkin.

Don’t wait until you are my age to discover the distressing truth that even a strong love will die under the crushing weight of assumptions and expectations, languish and wither waiting to hear the words or see the proofs, and sooner or later it will become something else, something unpleasant… and then something gone.  

Don’t discover too late that a love you take for granted has to be maintained.  Oh, by then you’ll probably have learned how you should have worked to preserve it, but it will be too late.  Some line drawn by a sword of loneliness in the sand of unfulfilled need will have been crossed and there will be no going back.

Faith lost in your love can be forgiven but it can never be forgotten or truly put behind you… or them. You may think you can get back on track and pick up from the good times and go on…

No… you can’t. 


So, I leave in the morning for Santa Fe.  Warp engines of my little velvet rocket are tuned and filled with dulithium crystals, and ready to launch east.  I don’t know if I will be in a place I can post but if not will do so when I get back.  See you then.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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