Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mr. Gilmore

When I was a young girl, there was a very eccentric, older gentleman who lived in my neighborhood. His name was Mr. Gilmore. The trip to his house was a bit of a hike from mine. He had a lovely little cottage surrounded by woods on all sides.  It was rather secluded and I think he quite preferred it that way. Mr. Gilmore was English and had loveliest, most sophisticated accent. All the kids in my neighborhood loved to visit him and we would spend hours exploring his yard.  Mr. Gilmore was a gardener.  He grew vegetables and herbs and flowers.  He also had his very own working windmill. He taught us about gardening and the names and the wonderful uses of all the different herbs. He taught us to lovingly speak to the plants and flowers to make them grow. He said that was the secret to successful gardening.  He made us pick up the soil with our bare hands so we could experience the feel and the aroma of God's good earth.  He would send us home with bouquets of fresh picked flowers to deliver to our mothers.

Our parents didn't mind that we spent so much time with him. This was the 1960's. Times were different and people weren't as consumed with fear over single gentlemen entertaining young children. No adult ever spoke unkindly about Mr. Gilmore. In fact, they thought very highly of him. If they were suspicious, we never heard about it. We were just warned not to wear out our welcome with him.  In other words, respect his privacy and don't spend every hour of every day with him. It was impossible not to spend every day with Mr. Gilmore; especially for me.  He was just so fascinating.

My friends enjoyed spending time with Mr. Gilmore during the spring and summer more than in colder months. I preferred the winter because that meant we could go inside his home. My brother and I would traipse through the snow to his house. We could see the fire blazing from the tiny windows of his little cottage and when we knocked on his wooden door, his face would light up at the sight of us.  He would usher us inside and insist we warm up by the fire. He would take our gloves, hats and wet socks and hang them over a string stretched across the fireplace mantel to dry. Mr. Gilmore's cottage was even more delightful than his gardens. It reminded me of a Hobbit's house; warm and cozy. He had overstuffed, chintz covered chairs and sofas. You would sink into them when you sat and they swallowed you up; making it almost impossible to get out of them.  I always thought it was odd that a gentleman would have this type of furniture. It was not manly at all. I figured this was the English way and Mr. Gilmore was the only Englishman I knew.

The walls of Mr. Gilmore's home were lined with bookshelves overflowing with books.  In every corner of his living room he had stacks and stacks of more books. His collection was larger and greater than our local library. I was in heaven surrounded by all those old hard-covered and leather-bound books with the gold leaf pages. I would sit for hours in an overstuffed chair leafing through all of them. He would play classical music on his old record player and as I read, he would set up an easel for himself and my brother and they would paint. Mr. Gilmore was an accomplished artist. I had no idea at the time just how accomplished he was. They would paint portraits of me as I sat absorbed in a book.  He taught my brother how to mix colors together to create the perfect shade of green.  He taught him to paint lovely landscapes and how to draw the perfect face with charcoal pencils. Mr.Gilmore was a kind and patient teacher. He was simply amazing.

Mr. Gilmore was the epitome of a true gentleman. The only time he was not dressed in a suit and bow tie was when he was outdoors gardening.  Even then, he was meticulous in his starched, spotless white shirts and perfectly pressed pants neatly tucked in to his gardening boots . I was such a tom-boy back then, but when I was in his company, Mr Gilmore insisted that I act and speak like a lady.  And walk like one.  He would place a heavy, hard-covered old book on my head and instruct me walk around his cottage; keeping the book perfectly balanced.  "That is how a lady walks," he would say in his perfect English accent. "Head high, neck stretched, shoulders back, small, deliberate steps."  To this day, I still walk that way.

Mr. Gilmore taught me how to brew and serve the perfect cup of tea. He also taught me how to sit and sip a cup of tea. Like a lady. I would sit perched at edge of one his overstuffed chairs; back straight and legs crossed, balancing a delicate tea cup and matching saucer in one hand.  Slowly, I would lift the china cup to my lips, pinkie extended, and sip- not gulp- the sweet milky tea.

My brother was also required to act like a perfect gentleman. He was taught to bow, how to take a lady's arm and escort her in and out of a room, to pull out chairs and open doors, and most of all to always, always respect a woman.  Our reward for a job well done was a small square of Cadbury chocolate. It was the most delicious treat I had ever tasted; nothing like the cheap, artificially flavored chocolates to which I was accustomed.  There was nothing else like it in the world.  Even as an adult, I can never refuse a piece of Cadbury chocolate. It immediately transports me back to my childhood and all those wonderful days with most interesting man I ever knew.

Ah.... Mr. Gilmore. How very precious he was.  He never spoke of family, or a wife or children. I always thought it rather sad that he was alone. I did not want him to be alone and that's part of the reason why I spent so much time with him. He never said no. He never turned any of us kids away.  He was never too busy to share a cup of tea or show off his gardens or his latest work of art.  He always seemed genuinely delighted that we were there. It was always with a bit sadness, when the sun began to set behind the trees, that he would say, "Off with you now. Best to get home before Mum begins to worry."

How sad when things change and we have to grow up.  Our thoughts and our time eventually became consumed with school work, college prep, sports and dating. As we got older, our trips to Mr. Gilmore's became less and less frequent until eventually our time spent with him became a thing of the past. He died alone in his magical little cottage, surrounded by all his books and portraits.  I wept bitterly over the news. I felt so guilty that I preferred to spend my time with silly boys or playing with makeup rather than in the company of such a distinguished gentleman who had so much to teach me about life.

What I did not realize as a young and innocent child was that Mr. Gilmore was gay. The truth about that came out after he passed away. A handsome college professor took up residence in Mr. Gilmore's home to settle his affairs and sift through all his belongings. The whole neighborhood was talking about it. They'd seen this man discreetly come and go over the years. It was then I realized the secret our friend had kept hidden from us all this time. He never said a word about it and the thought never crossed my mind. I wouldn't have understood what it meant anyway.  He was just a wonderful, interesting man who lived alone. A man who loved children, but never had any of his own. My parents and all the other adults in the neighborhood had their suspicions, but they never stopped us from visiting him. Of course, when all those suspicions were confirmed, we were all asked if Mr. Gilmore had ever "tried anything." Of course not. NEVER.  I wonder, if we were growing up now instead of back then;  if trips to Mr.Gilmore's house would be forbidden. I wonder if our parents would have been consumed with fear. Mr. Gilmore might be viewed as a predator. Gay or not; why else would he want to spend time with children?  His carefully guarded secret about his personal life and sexual preference would have been the talk of the town. All of us kids would've been robbed of the joy of knowing this man and learning from him just because he was different. Mr. Gilmore would've been robbed of the pleasure of investing in us and watching us grow up to become fine young ladies and gentlemen. Isn't that sad?

I don't care if he was gay. What difference does that make? He was wonderful man who touched my life and the lives of so many others in so many ways. He gave us culture, a love for books, art and gardening.  He taught us manners and how to be gracious and kind. My brother and I often speak of him fondly and with great respect. That lovely, distinguished gentleman took the time to reproduce himself in us and we carry a part of him with us as adults. I am forever thankful I grew up when I did and was never robbed of such a treasure, otherwise known as Mr. Gilmore.

1 comment:

  1. It is nice that you got to see him in that light, instead of peoples' prejudices influencing you. I wish I had someone like that growing up, he sounds like a very sweet person. :)

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