Roses, yoga and water for the dogs
HOWARD COSTELLO ponders the bike path on the bench dedicated to his wife, Marge, beside the roses he planted for her.
Passersby delight when they see 87-year-old Howard Costello making his way along the bike path, a cane with a carved bear head handle bracing one arm and a rolled blue matt under the other, headed to his morning yoga class at Vintage House. Moms pushing strollers, recent retirees walking at a decent clip and runners whisking by likely share the same bubble thought - "Good for him. That's how I want to be when I'm his age."
Six-foot-two and ever the athlete, Howard bends and stretches as ably as many of his classmates, most of them 10 to 20 years younger. Treasuring his well-working body and clear mind he appreciates yoga's benefits, but warned his instructor Carol Allison, " You're not going to make a pretzel out of me," and accepted her answer, "You do what you can do."
Four months ago, he says, he barely knew what yoga was, and now, "I find I'm a little more tired on Monday and Friday, and it's fun."
Besides yoga twice a week, he walks a couple lengths of the bike path four times a day -- first thing in the morning, after lunch, mid-afternoon and again after supper - and advised, "If you're not out walking at my age you'll soon not be walking at all." For good measure he also rides his stationary bike a mile and a half twice a day, five minutes each time at 18 miles an hour.
Strolling the bike path, Howard smiles and chats with anyone he meets, and is as friendly a fellow as you're likely to pass, making the most of a life now lived alone. A year has gone by since Marge died. They were married almost 64 years, and when she "walked on," as he puts it, it left him with an ache that will always be sharp. He's a little less lost now than he was a year ago, but he will always be heartbroken. "She was full of spirit and a lot of fun," he said as he wiped his eye with a red bandana handkerchief. Yet every day he learns a bit more about serenity. Most of all he's come to value the good old-fashioned comfort that comes from sitting out on the front porch.
Not long after Marge died, Howard's only son, Don, noticed his dad needed new outdoor furniture. So he bought him a handsome wicker seating set and gave it to him with a proviso - it had to go outside the front door, overlooking the lovely garden in one of the best locations in town, right at the end of the bike path on the East Side. When Marge was alive they had always favored sitting in the backyard, where they had buried five cherished dogs in the 60 years since they bought their house from the Sebastiani family.
"I told Don, there's being alone and there's being lonely. I can't do anything about being alone but I'm sure going to do something about being lonely. Several things have helped, and one of them is this furniture." Howard sits on his porch almost everyday, a large bowl of water for dogs strategically placed on the sidewalk at the edge of this front path. "Thanks for the water," dog owners will call out when their pets have enjoyed a drink, often hearing Howard's teasing response, "You're welcome. I'll send you a bill in the morning."
He knows the names of all the regulars. Sometimes there are have-a-nice-day exchanges and other times people walk up the short path, sit down on the wicker armchair and chat. Howard favors the loveseat, with the perfect view of the hummingbird feeder and the vineyards across the street. He reads the newspaper there, "And I don't want the sun to set without the Jumble being done, including Sundays." Sometimes he does the crossword puzzle, too.
"One thing each and everyone of us has, that's exactly the same as anyone else, is time. And the greatest gift people can give one another is their time," Howard said. "Steve will track me down on the bike trail and walk with me and I don't think he could give me anything more valuable." And his friend Jack comes by with his dog Sadie, too. They sit on the porch and shoot the breeze and in those moments life is good. "The rich don't have any more hours in a day than I do and I don't think some of them enjoy it. A lot of things that are simple in life are often the best."
Occasionally he'll return from a walk to find his favorite Basque Boulangerie cookies, or a rotisserie chicken, sitting on his porch table. Once there was homemade raspberry jam. These surprise acts of kindness make him feel good to be alive and immeasurably appreciative.
Don and his wife and Howard's adult grandchildren all live in Oregon, but Don visits about once a month. Sometimes they'll head down to San Francisco and take in a Giants game. The Giants winning the World Series last season was definitely a high point in an otherwise sad year. Howard played baseball at Cal, which he attended after serving as a weather forecaster during World War II, then moving to California from his native Minnesota and marrying Marge. He graduated with a degree in physical education, and insists that P.E. is not an easy major.
After he graduated, Howard heard about a job at Sonoma High School, coaching football and teaching math. He taught math for 32 years, and coached football, baseball and basketball. When he retired he went back on a contract basis, administering tests and generally helping out, spending a total of 57 years at the school. He even had Don in his math class. Don went to Cal, too, and he and Howard enjoy rooting for Cal teams together.
Howard often sees former students around town. He remembers them all and still loves to hear, "Hi Mr. Costello!"
"I used to tell Marge that I loved teaching so much if I had another source of income I'd do it for free."
Cindy Scarborough, now the executive director of Vintage House, was once in Howard's geometry class. In recent years she'd try to get him to join the senior center and he would always tell her, "Maybe when I get older." When Howard finally joined so he could take his yoga classes for $3, she teased him, "Well Mr. Costello, I see you've gotten older."
"I don't like the word old," he said. "I don't feel I am as O-L-D as I am. When they ask me if I want help out with my groceries at Safeway, I tell them I hope that day never comes." But he also admits, "I'm a 19th Century man. People lived well then. I haven't got a computer or a cellphone or even an answering machine."
What he does have is a red Radio Flyer wagon he uses to pull three large watering cans over to the bike path. He waters the rose bushes he planted next to the bench dedicated to Marge's memory. In the beginning he needed only one can, enough to quench Marge's roses. Then he planted roses for neighboring memorial benches, and started tending some that were already there as well.
Marge, known as "Sonoma's Volunteer" in her day, would like that. She surely smiles down on Howard's unending love and generosity.