He was a tall man; somewhat morose, it seemed to me. His smile did not break out easily, but when it did, it changed his face from dark to light, like the snow crystals suddenly bathed in morning sunlight on Sheep’s Pasture at the Cataloochie Ranch.
I remember glancing out the window of the Bluebird one summer and seeing him at the picnic tables with the ranch hands, a sardonic, wide grin on his face, at ease, enjoying himself. His sunglasses wrapped around his head, and I thought, here is the man that his wife fell in love with, his daughter admires, his Cataloochie co-workers appreciate, for his quiet, unassuming way.
He was the ranch historian, running through the slide show dutifully every Monday night. Not a showman, but, telling it truthfully, animating now and then over a salacious detail, like the gun just visible in the photo, or the moonshine hidden in the background.
His passion seemed to be the Chestnut orchard. He explained how they had found a mature, disease-free tree on the ranch not long ago, then developed a mini-forest of cross-bred saplings, combining an Asian species with the original tree, an ongoing experiment of regeneration, restoration, and rebirth.
And he was the caller every year at the square dance. I wish I’d have been there for one of those.
Was he lonely, I wondered? I knew he was recently divorced. One time, the ranch ladies sat him next to me and my friend Melissa, single at the time. Were they hoping for a match, we wondered? We giggled a bit about it, later.
But that trip, he gave me a big hug before I left, his arms opened as wide as the fireplace mantle behind him, as broad as his frame was tall. Still bruised by my own loss, I only watched us from a distance.
“He’s terminally ill,” his mother told me this morning, when I asked where he’d been. “He’s not expected to last ’til Christmas.” Her eyes filled as my face registered the shock, and my eyes filled, also. “That’s where I’m going right now, to see him. Mary’s been with him all night.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“You have to deal with what you’re dealt,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“I wish they hadn’t put the Christmas tree up yet,” she said. “Let Thanksgiving weekend be Thanksgiving weekend, and then let it be Christmas.”
I saw her driving away later, into the cold morning, and my eyes and heart filled again, for a mother’s love, for a lost son.
In the garden.