Indelible marks

"Did you hear about my mom?"

I nodded, a little embarrassed I didn't ask before he mentioned it. "Yeah, I'm sorry," is all I could get out.

The man shifted his feet. The gray hair around his ears was a little less obvious than the gray I have. He's a few years younger than I am, yet our families intertwined for decades.

"Me, too," he said. Despite the noise around us, we sat with the silence.

We had carpooled to Holy Souls School back in the early 1980s. His older brother was my older brother's age, his sister the same grade as I was, and he was one of the little kids. We both lived in what passed for west Little Rock back then, my middle-class neighborhood of Colony West to his Sturbridge.

I guess our parents became friends because of us, the kids who shared the same era at school and bordering neighborhoods at home.

His grandfather, Edward Rhein, was the famous necktie maker who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and ended up in Little Rock. Mr. Rhein started making and selling ties out of his home, then grew his company to employ almost 50. The man's father, George Yakoubian, opened a haberdashery, which I learned was a fancy name for a guy who sells men's clothes and tailors them to fit. The store's name was Rhynecliffe Fine Men's Wear, after his grandfather's tie company.

My memories took me to getting one of those handheld Mattel electronic football games for Christmas when I was about 7 or 8 years old. In my excitement, I had put the battery in wrong, then tried to disconnect it real quick. The little wire that held it in snapped. My favorite Christmas present ruined.

As I sat in sadness on that Christmas day, my dad said, "You know, Mr. Yakoubian has all sorts of electronic gear. I bet he has a soldering iron and can fix it. I'll call him after breakfast."

Sure enough, we drove to the house in Sturbridge and Mr. Yakoubian welcomed the interruption to the holiday. He fixed my game with an easy smile.

I snapped back to the present. "How's she doing?" I finally asked my friend. "Do y'all need anything?"

The words felt empty as soon as they left my mouth. That's what people say when they want to do something but really don't know what, so they say something to make themselves feel better.

He shook his head. "No, she has everything she needs. It's just not looking good."

My mind moved to the year after I graduated college. I was going to a wedding and realized I needed a suit. My usual teacher attire wasn't going to cut it, so I headed to Rhynecliffe. Mr. Yakoubian greeted me like an old friend. He treated me like I was important.

I told Mr. Yakoubian what I wanted. He listened patiently, nodding, holding his chin as if to concentrate. Then he told me what I needed. We went through a few versions, he took my measurements, leaving little soap marks on the suit I'd picked out. A week later, I picked it up.

"You look like a million bucks," he said genuinely. "Now, go grab a tie on me." He pointed to a rack in a corner.

For the life of me, I can't remember why I picked the tie I did. It was soft, deep red silk, tailored expertly. It also had an image of Santa Claus on it. I know Mr. Yakoubian wanted to comment about my selection, but he simply wrapped it in light paper and placed it in a nice bag.

Later that night, I wore the suit to the wedding and, at the reception, I struck up a conversation with a pretty blonde. She complimented my tie. We've been married almost 30 years now.

In the silence between us, I thought about the man's mother, how she had become a dear friend to my mother and helped my mom through dark times in her own health. Mrs. Yakoubian baked lasagna for those who needed a pick-me-up wrapped in steaming foil and melted cheese. She made sure even the residents of our high school alma mater, a priest and a Franciscan friar, had their share.

She mothered her brood long after Mr. Yakoubian had passed, and she embodied that quality so few have: She made everything look fun.

"I'm not sure how long she has left," the man said. His eyes looked tired.

I nodded again. Finally, I found the words. "You know, growing up in neighborhoods like ours and schools like ours had unique benefits. I realize that a handful of families was somehow involved in just about every good memory I had from my youth. Your family was one of them. I think that's important."

He smiled wearily and nodded his assent. "Yeah, that's important. Those were good days."

We parted ways and I was left with that overwhelming realization that simple things, simple kindnesses, leave indelible marks. Repaired games, new suits, and pounds of lasagna act as glue that holds memories of that kindness through the years. That's the glue that keeps families who spend just a few radiant moments together connected.

That makes life worth those awkward moments of silence in search of right things to say.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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