December 8, 2012
My cousin is building a new place, the final home for him and his lovely bride, over in Shoaley Branch. So here I go to check it out. Cousin said I could rock with him on his new porch in his old age.
So I drive down the steep, wooded hill, cross the creek and turn off at the late Willie Baldwin’s old place.
Willie died a handful of years ago. I don’t come this way much anymore, and as I now pass his old house again I can’t help but think back.
He had a farm on the side of Shoaley Branch hill. He had a gorgeous tract of rolling, green pasture that descended from the picturesque white church at the top down to the banks of Big Elkin Creek at the bottom.
I remember passing by the place one time and seeing the old man silhouetted against a pretty, fading dusk. With his back to the road, Willie stood stoically among the remains of the old chicken houses and surveyed his pastoral domain. A beautiful scene. I’ve remembered it since as The Silhouette At Sunset.
What thoughts must’ve been running through Willie’s mind as his days were setting as well.
Willie’s ranch house looked spacious, a fine place in its time. Willie kept beef cattle for a time, and his cattle had it pretty good, too. Rich green grass covered the hilly slopes and the Big Elkin ran clear and clean.
I first met Willie at church. He and I began attending about the same time, me upon my return to the hometown and Willie following the loss of his wife.
There was a lingering sadness in the old widower’s shuffle down the right-side aisle of the old church house in his casual work clothes, his GI-style hair standing erect and at attention in its graying glory.
Willie became known for overly generous contributions to the church during his widower-hood. He bought the new church sign all by himself.
I began teaching the senior-men Sunday school class. Willie was in it. He would always take his seat on the back row, far left as you entered the right wing of the sanctuary.
He’d look up at me as I spoke, not down at his lap as did the others. I wondered about Willie. I could not read his silent, unchanging facial expression. It was a bit unnerving.
Then one day in a hallway Willie suddenly startled me with a compliment.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he told me. Short and to the point.
Hardly a finer compliment have I ever received.
Some time later I noticed someone had placed a sign with the name “Willie” on the handicapped-parking post in front of the church. Diabetes was robbing Willie of his ability to walk, so I took the opportunity to compliment him on the reserved sign.
“Yes, they did that for me,” Willie replied. He left it at that. The humility and gratitude struck me.
So the news sometime later that Willie was hospitalized for a planned amputation moved me. I would see The Silhouette At Sunset no more.
The next time I passed by Willie’s place I spied him in a wheelchair beside the driveway perched on two stumps. A For Sale sign invited passersby to stop and inspect some equipment, four-wheelers and the like.
I did not stop. I had no need of four-wheelers.
But the chief reason I did not stop was because I could not bear the sadness of the moment: a withered shell of a man placidly watching bits and pieces of his life melt away in an auction.
Even the essentials of our lives are only rented. Houses, cars. Spouse, kids. Jobs, hobbies. They will come and go, if not before we go as well, then after.
I thought back to The Silhouette At Sunset, then compared it to the sight of the horde wearing ball caps and heavy overcoats on a chilly, gray winter’s day and waiting for the auction to begin. The sight of Willie and his wheelchair and the horde were too much.
It all goes away, all the stuff we accumulate, all the things we do, all the loves we cherish. Finally, one day we move on as well.
The memory of passing by Willie’s place for the last time while it was still Willie’s place has stuck with me.
I doubt Willie was sad that day. I think he was appreciating all the good things he had had and how long he had to enjoy them. I was touched by the scene.
My time will come, too. The sight of Willie’s auction took me to a similar, future scene when a horde will gather on my front lawn and pick through the pieces of my life as well as those of my late parents because the place here in the hometown really is their place still.
Then the auction will end, the nick-knacks will be toted off, then perhaps a young family will move in and start the cycle anew as we did here back in 1966. And that’s OK.
I acknowledge the rules and do not resent that dust must return to dust and time waits for no man. I do look forward to the better place promised by Christ and do not fear The Reaper when he comes.
But in the meantime I will carry with me The Silhouette At Sunset and feel good about things, as I suspect Willie did.
Rest in peace, Willie.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.