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My Tuesday With Morrie (Or, What We Can Learn From Our Elders)

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All I knew of the next-door neighbor was that he was gay, a gardener, and a weaver of beautiful tapestry rugs.

Kitty, my friend and hostess (or, more accurately, my landlady, as she wasn't actually at the house while I was there) told me that he had a partner who'd died some years earlier. She also said I must see his gardens. With something of a green thumb myself, I was intrigued.

I Googled his name to find out what I could before picking up the phone to call. I learned he was born in 1937, the same year as my late father. I also learned that his work was currently on display at a gallery in nearby Rockland, Maine.

I left a message. A couple of hours later, the phone rang. A deep, resonant voice stated the caller's name. He asked if I liked food. Yes, and I love to cook, too. He suggested that we have dinner that night at Primo, the farm-restaurant in Rockland known for top-shelf quality (with prices to match).

I was anxious about the prices. Back to being a "struggling writer" at the advanced age of 53, expensive restaurants are no longer part of my usual fare.

I emailed a friend in Portland for advice. He said there could be an assumption that because I knew "fancy people" who had a summer home in "exclusive" Spruce Head, I might be taken for a fancy person (spelled = having disposable income), too. He said Dear Abby would advise candor, so I should simply say I can't afford dinner at a restaurant whose version of "surf and turf" goes for $42.

By the time we toured his gardens and compared his view of the cove with the one I'd been enjoying just down the road, and certainly by the time we sat in his kitchen for a cup of tea and biscotti ("I like sweet things," said Morrie), my anxiety was gone. This man was genuine and humble, too.

It turned out Morrie's not a fancy person, either. Making lots of money hasn't been the driving force motivating his work.

I was eager to hear about his years in Provincetown, in the 1960s, long before I began going there in the '80s. It's where he had met Bob and launched their 32-year romance. He'd started as a dishwasher at Sal's Place, in the West End, before moving up his second year to waiter and, eventually, head waiter. Like many painters, musicians, and writers, what he did for a living was very different from what he felt called to do.

"You're easy to talk to," he told me, a couple of times. So was he. He took it in stride, a part of his new acquaintance's unfolding narrative, when I told him about the "real story" behind my stories: my own biography, including the big, unexpected bump in the road seven hears ago next month, when my doctor said, "I have bad news on the HIV test." No judgments, no arched eyebrows like I've seen too often on my peers' self-assured faces. Morrie simply said I was fortunate to have been diagnosed when there was finally effective medical treatment. So many, so very many of our brothers were not so fortunate.

I invited him to join me and two friends I'd invited to dinner Friday night. My favorite thing in the world, at least one of them, is to cook for friends. If they stay until midnight, I count my dinner party a success. They stayed till after midnight, having eaten every course despite the threat of burst belts and exploding bellies after each one.

Morrie was the hit of the party. I'm lucky to have friends who, as I do, revere our elders and soak up the drops of wisdom woven like pearls into the fabric of their stories.

We thought afterward that we had offered Morrie something, too: listening ears, real questions. How's it been since Bob died? Is there another love left in him? Most unlike the nurse at the hospital he volunteers at, who asked, "Do you have children?" and asked nothing more when he said no.

Of all of Morrie's stories that I've enjoyed so far, the one about a long-ago visit to Puerto Vallarta touched me deepest, choking me up.

At the end of a two-week stay, about to leave the next day, he said to a woman who had little in the way of money or material goods, whose daughter was joyfully feasting on a juicy ripe orange, "I'm so sad I have to leave tomorrow."

"Why be sad?" she said. "It's a beautiful day today."