I was born on the fourth of July at Naval Medical Center Oakland in California (formerly Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, and since demolished in 2011). At that time, my mom and dad were serving in the Air Force. Soon after, we moved to Pontiac, MI. And, soon after my brother was born two years later, my dad split. He left my mom with only Justin, me, a house literally robbed of everything they had (even our fucking diapers) and an empty bank account.
Yep, I was raised by a single mom. She worked her ass off on the assembly line at General Motors, from where she eventually retired. In the ‘80s, she struggled through getting bounced from 1st to 2nd to 3rd shift every few months. Making ends meet was not easy. Quality, reliable child care was an expensive amenity that sometimes could not be a luxury. As a result, my brother and I were latchkey kids from a young age. With limited resources, my mom was left with having to parent on the essentials and the faith that we’d make it out safe and sound.
If she taught us anything, it was the only thing we ever needed to know: right from wrong. That included manners. “Please,” “thank you,” “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” were instilled in us as a natural byproduct of being raised by a woman who had a standard that her two boys were to grow up to be responsible men with an understanding of the value of respect for others.
To this day, I get stopped often by strangers and complimented for my manners, but it's usually by those older than me. Those visibly younger than me look at me like I'm speaking a foreign language. Kids these days... My mom deserves the credit while I suppose I’m subconsciously trying to undo whatever lazy habit has made it socially acceptable for people to start requests with “Let me get…” or “I want…” instead of “May I please…,” and reply with “Yep” or simply no acknowledgement whatsoever instead of a sincere “Thank you.”
It was maybe two months ago when I made a quick stop at a grocery store on my way home from work to buy flowers for Katherine. It was for no special reason other than I just wanted to have a bouquet on the counter for her when she got home. That, and she simply deserve them every day.
As I walked from my car in the parking lot to the entrance, I noticed an older gentleman, probably in his late 60s/early 70s, in my peripheral. He was a few steps ahead of me and also going in. My youth caught up to his matured, slower pace so that our timing was such that it created a precise awkwardness where we would’ve collided trying to walk through the automatic doors if one of us didn’t alter our stride. I made eye contact, smiled and halted my step. I nodded, casually extended my arm with palm facing up and said graciously, “Sir, please, you first.” I didn’t even have to hold a door - their sensors did all the work. All I did was give the right of way to a stranger.
Of course, as we’ve all been in a similar situation, we transitioned into a quick laughable game of reverse psychology courtesy. He politely declined my offer. He responded with a short, swiping hand gesture and said “No, you first.” It was innocent enough, probably because he could tell I was on a mission with a clear purpose and legs a few decades younger than his. And, in all fairness, I could tell he just didn’t want to hold me up even if it meant for just a couple seconds, which it had now already become. I don’t know what it was at that moment, maybe stubbornness because I already had it in my head that I was committed to allowing him honors, but I then politely declined his counter offer. I replied, nodding my head in the affirmative, “Please, sir, I insist.” He finally accepted.
I walked through the slow door right behind him. As soon as the store opened up to us to where he could comfortably turn to me, now side-by-side, he asked, “Young man, what branch did you serve in?” “Sir? I wasn’t in the military.” “No?” “No, sir, but my mom was.”
At that moment, he extended his hand. That was an offer I was morally obligated to accept, without hesitation. Our handshake lasted long enough for him to honorably recite his rank, where he was stationed and an abbreviated list of where he had been deployed.
And, before it was his decision to let my hand go, he told me: “Young man. Please call your mother tonight and tell her that she did a fine job raising you. From one vet to another, thank her for her service - to our country and to her son.”
I was humbled. I maintained eye contact, grabbed his hand, thanked him, promised him I would and wished him well. With tears in my eyes, I picked out the nicest flowers Family Fare had, and on my way home I called my mom.