“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Ray Benson [1924-2006]
As the 2014 campaign runs its course, I recall our neighbor Ray Benson. Some of you do, too.
Rowan Oakes’ mother Rosalie lived next door to Ray Benson until she died in 1999, which is how we got to know him. We’d have dinner with her every Sunday afternoon at 3:00, then play Monte Carlo until “Sixty Minutes” came on and she’d announce that it was “Time for you two to head home.” Rosalie didn’t mince words any less than her neighbor Ray, however, and most of our Sunday afternoon conversations were seasoned with stories of their verbal sparing during the week. “Benson shook his fist at me Tuesday. Said I shouldn’t use pesticides on the tomatoes. What the #%$* does that man know of gardening!” That last sentence wasn’t a question. Then she’d chastise him about recycling and he’d wonder aloud why she hadn’t gone to “The Home” years ago.
But then Rosie would find that he’d cut her lawn while mowing his own (“Well it just saves gas to not start the mower twice”) or that her walk was shoveled or her leaves raked (“There weren’t enough to fill just one bag”). She never had him over for a meal (“He’d think it’s too salty and then ask for the salt.”) but I know that one-in-four of her canned goods appeared on his back steps on a regular basis. And that her magazines found their way into his mailbox with the mailing labels carefully removed.
Ray’s parents farmed north of Fahnstock, so he went to Fennimore high and graduated in ’42 or ’43, then joined the merchant marine. Going round the world a dozen times or more, he came back to Agincourt twenty-five years ago. Never inclined to pull his window shades, Ray’s accumulation of tchotchkes from Borneo or Shanghai or Tenerife or Trieste were shelved for all to see. I think Rosie’s carved teak elephant might have come from him—”anonymously,” of course, and with the greatest discretion. Wouldn’t want to leave a paper trail.
Ray’s politics were anywhere but Right. The rear window of his Chevy was an evolving mini-billboard of in-your-face observations, hand-printed on poster board: “Drive a Japanese car? Thanks for shipping American jobs overseas.” Or supporting a flat tax. Or simply “Buy American.”
Ray moved into the nursing home about the time Rosalie died, though it never occurred to me until today that those two events might be linked. Though love often manifests itself in strange ways, our acknowledgment and involuntary reaction to loss is far too predictable.