Commentary and Philosophy Fiction posted December 20, 2014


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About life and living

Robert White

by bhogg

Rob White Bennet was pissed. Not at anyone, or anything in particular, just at life. He lost his job from a company that he'd been with for thirty years. His wife left him two days later. He couldn't help but recall a conversation that he overheard from his wife at a recent party, "Rob's job is to bring home the money and take out the trash. Lately, he's screwing both up."

It was embarrassing that he couldn't find a job. The feedback most often received disturbed him.  Over-qualifed, crap, they just don't want to hire a sixty-year-old man.  His two sons weren't providing a lot of moral support. The only time he saw them was when both came over to help move their mom's stuff. They were cordial, but just barely. After all, why spend time with a failure?

At other down times in his life, he found it centering to visit the old family home place. No one lived there anymore. Ten years ago, he and his brother built and maintained a small cabin. It was located in heavy woods and far from anything. Hopefully it would provide a temporary sanctuary. It was located in a bordering state, so Rob got an early start and was there a bit after noon. After cutting the water on, checking things out and putting away groceries, it was near two. Putting on old jeans, a faded tee-shirt and a pair of broken-in boots he headed out for a walk.

Rob headed to the old cemetery, the place that his grandmother always took him.  Those from her time forward, were buried in the big cemetery downtown, not here. He just remembered going with her. "Now, Rob, there is your great uncle Harold, there is great aunt Maude and my grandfather, Robert White. You're named after him." The two would sit on an old stone bench and just do and say nothing. If there were a quieter place on earth, he'd never found it.

The cemetery was not as Rob remembered. Fifty years ago, the spot was maintained. Today, it was overgrown, but certainly beautiful in it's own way. Years ago, someone had possibly put a container of creeping jasmine on a grave. It was everywhere now, shooting out tendrils of a lovely multicolored shade of green. Spreading everywhere, it looked as the cemetery was shrouded in a blanket of green. There were massive pin-oaks, cedars and hickory trees. Some sixty feet tall.

Through the entrance, Rob turned right, toward the grave of his great-grandfather and the stone bench he and his grandmother used to sit on. Suddenly, he stopped. Not anticipating anyone, he was surprised to see an old man sitting on the stone bench. The man was in a suit that looked vintage or older; a suit in a subtle brown plaid, consisting of a sack coat, waistcoat and trousers. The left arm was empty, pulled back and pinned up. On his feet were a sturdy pair of boots.

"Excuse me, Sir. You startled me a bit. I just wasn't anticipating anyone being here."

"It's alright, Son. Since there's only one bench, why don't you come over and sit with me?"

Rob seriously thought about turning around and leaving, but the moment seemed so surreal, he wanted to go on. Sitting down on the bench, he turned to the old man and asked, "What made you come to such an out of the way place?"

The old man paused, seeming to weigh his response, before replying, "Well, Son, your grandma wanted me to talk to you."

Startled, Rob replied, "Well, that's not damn likely, my grandmother died over forty years ago."

Chuckling, the old man replied, "Don't I know it. You see, your grandmother was my granddaughter."

Rob bolted up and started to leave. The old man implored, "Now, son, I know this seems confusing, but if you'll just come sit a spell, I'll explain everything."

Rob wanted to leave, but curiosity shouted for him to stay. Tentatively, he turned and sat back down. "Okay, old man, explain what you meant about my grandmother wanting to talk to me? If she did, hell, maybe this is just a dream, but why couldn't she just talk to me direct?"

"That's a great question. Your grandma said you were a smart boy. The reason she can't talk to you is because she's in heaven."

"Well, if she can't talk to me because she's in heaven, does that mean that because you can talk to me, that you're in hell?"

Almost indignant, the old man replied, "No, no, no. It doesn't mean that I'm in hell. It's complicated.. All it means is that I'm not in heaven."

"Look, old man, I'm most likely dreaming, so I'm just going to head back to the cabin and wake up from my nap."

As Rob got up to leave, the old man held his arm down. "Look now, you know how focused and stubborn your grandma was. If you don't sit down and talk to me, she'll give me hell." When his face slightly reddened, he continued, "Not really hell, but, you know ...."

Rob sat back down.

"Your grandma knows you're having a bad time. I'm not sure what I can do about it. I can't get your wife to come back, and frankly, you should be glad she's gone. Excuse my language, but that woman was one more bitch. As far as the boys go, they'll come back around. This whole thing sort of hit them hard too."

"Here's the thing ..... Life ain't easy. Just look around. Right over there is my grave. What does it say?"

"Well, it says Robert White, Captain, Confederate States of America. The dates are 1830 to 1910."

"That ain't one hell of a lot. It tells you that I was in this world about eighty years, and that sometime in the period, I was unfortunate enough to be in the war. Let me tell you some more. In 1855, my father had pretty much turned the plantation over to me. We had a big, big place then, about three thousand acres. You know where the old home place was? Above there, we had five other small homes. Do you know what those homes were for?"

"No Sir, I don't."

"They were for slaves. You see, your family were slave owners. Does that bother you?"

"I have to tell you that I've never thought about it. In fact this is the first time I've ever heard about it. I suppose I'll have to think on it some."

"Anyhow, the farm was my responsibility and so were all the people on it. I made a bad decision during the planting season of 1855. I thought I was so smart and knew so much more than my father. The decision that I made wound up costing us a lot of money. To make up for that loss, I sold a little ten year old gal. She was crying, and the mama was crying and begging. I can hear her now, 'Please Mistah Bob, don't let my little girl go, please.' I did let her go though. Even my father was ashamed of me. We never sold slaves. For the rest of my life, I could hear that little girl crying and that mama begging. In fact, I'm quite dead now, but if I close my eyes, I can still hear them."

For a long time, you could hear nothing. The silence and stillness of the cemetery became oppressive.

Finally, Rob, spoke, "I can't agree with slavery, but I'm sure that when you made that decision, you were doing what you thought was right for the plantation."

"Thanks for saying so, Rob, but that's not quite right. I did it because I didn't want to admit my failure. I did it because I was weak."

This was followed by more silence. Finally, the old man continued. "In the last few days of the war, I was commanding a small artillery unit in West Point, Georgia. We had a few cannon overlooking the town and the Chattahoochee River. Everybody knew the war was all but over. In fact, a group from Sherman's Army came by, saw that we were dug in on high ground, so they just passed us by. You see, the old veterans knew we weren't worth dying for. A very young, inexperienced, Lieutenant led a squad up the hill where we were dug in. We had no choice but to fight. Lord, I wish I still had my pipe."

After more silence, Rob finally asked, "What happened?"

We killed every one of them. The young lieutenant wasn't nothing but a boy. He and I wound up fighting up close and personal. His sword is what caused the loss of my arm. I clearly remember rolling around on the ground with him. We was gruntin and bellowing like a couple of animals. I finally worked my sword between us and up to his neck. I stuck him and holding on, watched him bleed out and die. I never forgot the look in his eyes as he died. I can't tell you what that look was, sadness, regret, or what. All I know is that I killed a boy, someone who never got married, never had children and never had hope and grace."

"It really does sound like you did what you had to do. Maybe he should have paid attention to the more experienced soldiers and passed you by."

"No doubt, he should have, but I didn't do what I had to do. I could have just surrendered. The war was over. We didn't know it, but Lee in Virginia had already signed the terms, ending the war in Virginia, which really ended it for all of us. You see, my decision caused his death, six of his soldiers and two of mine. A small thing really, but it also cost me my arm."

"Look at that grave stone that is on the ground, down a bit from mine."

Rob got up and walked the few feet to the grave. "It says, In Memory and Love for Our Daughter, Ory Elizabeth Smith. Born November 11, 1882, died April 13, 1885. She wasn't even three years old. Do you know what happened?"

"I do, but like so many things in life, it's not crystal clear. Her mother and daddy had given up on having a child. They had three before, but each one still born. When the Mama was thirty nine, she had little Ory. In 1882, that was very unusual. Most women had their children in their twenties. She was the apple of the family eye, and we all loved her. Ory was small and petite and had the cutest blond ringlets in the world. When she looked at you and smiled, her little dimples would crinkle up. For someone not to smile back, they would have to be blind. One day, her mother went in to wake her up and she was dead. The doctor had no idea why she died, but she did. From that day on, the mama would stop you in the middle of the road and ask you, "did you know that Jesus took my little Ory as his newest little angel?' If she saw you the next day, she would be asking the same question. She quit bathing, rarely changed clothes and practically had to be fed. After one year, her husband checked her into an asylum in North Georgia. Of course, she asked anyone who came in contact with her, the same question".

"I want you to look at one more gravestone. It's three over from little Ory's."

Rob got up and looked over. "It's inscribed somewhat like yours, though a bit shorter. It says Robert White. There is nothing else on it but the dates, born in 1860 and died in 1919."

"Did your grandma ever talk about her daddy? That's his grave right there,"

"You know, it's kind of strange, but I don't remember her ever mentioning his name."

"He was my son, I'm not surprised that she never mentioned him. He was a man of great potential, a doctor. In his prime doctoring days, folks didn't have a whole lot of money. It generally wasn't a problem, because your great-grandfather would barter. People would pay him with chickens, eggs, country hams and all sorts of vegetables. That would have been just dandy, but my son was weak. He also accepted favors from women, wives of his patients or sometimes even daughters. You know what I mean?"

"Yes, Sir, I guess I do."

"Well, that sort of thing came back to haunt him. He wound up coming down with a disease, syphilis, I reckon. He wound up putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Your great-grandmother didn't really like him, but in those days you didn't divorce. She stayed with him, knowing of some of his wandering ways. When he died, he put your great-grandma and your grand-mother in a world of hurt. Your grandma was a princess, a true princess. She wound up working at one of the cotton mills. She'd come home with cotton lint in her hair, tired to the bone, her hands red and cracked. She and her mother would sell a bit of land from time to time. That's why such a huge piece of property wound up a lot smaller. She married a very nice man, your grand-father, and things improved, but it was really tough for awhile."

"Wow, you're telling me so many things that I never knew. Thank you, I guess. The biggest surprise is the suicide. My grandma never told me."

"We've talked about a lot of tough things today. I have to tell you that my son's suicide was the worst. Not because he was my son, but because I thought it was so gutless. You see, from the fact that you're alive, you're going to have problems. How you achieve your measure in life comes from how you deal with those problems. My son was weak, and his cowardly action hurt people all around him. That's a tough thing to say about your own son, but do you understand what I mean."

"Yes, Sir, I guess I do. This has been an incredible day for me. Do you suppose we'll ever meet again?"

"No, Rob, I don't reckon so. Before you go though, I need to ask you one question."

"What's that, Sir?"

"Is that gun tucked into your back belt for protection from snakes, or what?"

Rob's face reddened. "Yes, Sir, you know how bad snakes can be this time of year, especially around all these stones and ground cover."

The old man stood up and approached Rob. Reaching around him with his one arm, he gave him a hug. "You're right, boy, snakes can be a real bitch. Don't let them interfere with the rest of your life. I'm going to tell your grandma that you're okay. Don't you dare make a liar out of me."











 


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