Rob White Bennet was pissed. Not at anyone, or anything in particular, just at life. He lost his job from a company he'd been with for thirty years. He’d made a mistake; hired a person who’d embarrassed the company. Someone had to be the ‘fall-guy’. It was him. His wife left him two days later. He couldn't help but recall a conversation overheard from her at a recent party, "Rob's job is to bring home the money and take out the trash. Lately, he's screwing both up."
Personally embarrassing, he couldn't find a job. The feedback most often received disturbed him. Over qualified. 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 loser?
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 temporary sanctuary. It was located in a bordering state, so Rob got an early start and was there a bit after noon. He put on old jeans, a faded long sleeve T-shirt and a pair of broken-in boots. His grandfather’s old pistol was in the top drawer of a small chest. He opened the drawer and stared down at the .38 caliber police special revolver. His thought, do I really need this? After a moment, he picked the hefty gun up and tucked it into his back pocket. Striding through the back door, he wanted to recreate the walk he and his grandmother made so many times in the past.
Rob headed to the old cemetery, the place his grandmother always took him. Family 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 its own way. Years ago, someone 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 though the cemetery was shrouded in a verdant blanket. 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 wore a vintage looking suit in a subtle brown plaid. He was outfitted with 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 a spell?"
Rob seriously thought about turning around and leaving, but the moment seemed so surreal, he wanted to go on. He sat on the bench as far away from the old man as possible. No one said anything, until Rob 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."
"Well, that's not damn likely, my grandmother died over thirty 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 sit back down, 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?"
"'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 it mean because you can talk to me, you're in hell?"
"No, no, no. It doesn't mean I'm in hell. It's complicated. All it means is I'm not in heaven.... right now."
"Look, old man, it's been interesting, but most likely, I'm dreaming. 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 shouted, "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 hard 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 your wife 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?"
"It says Robert White, Captain, Confederate States of America. The dates are 1830 to 1910."
"That's just pitiful. It tells you nothing about the man. I occupied this Earth for eighty years, and was unfortunate enough to be in the war. Let me tell you 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. Above the old home place, we had five small, three room, cabins. Do you know what they were for?"
"No Sir, I don't."
"They were slave cabins. You see, our family owned slaves. Does that bother you?"
"I've never thought about it. In fact, this is the first time I've even 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 daddy. Kind of like your boys, he seemed old and slow to me. Without consulting him, I made a decision that cost us a lot of money. To make up for the 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 the little girl crying and 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 it sounds like you made a decision you thought right for the plantation."
"Thanks for saying so, Rob, but there was more to the decision. I did it because I didn't want to admit my failure. I did it because I was weak."
Your company said you made a mistake and they fired you for it. What you done don’t hold cotton to my bad decisions. Your boys being awkward toward you, don’t come close to my stupidity and distance from my father.
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 cannons overlooking the town and the Chattahoochee River. Everybody knew the war was all but over. A group from Sherman's Army came by and saw we were dug in on high ground, so they just passed us by. You see, the old timers knew we weren't worth dying for. A very young, inexperienced, Lieutenant led a squad up the hill where we were dug in. We were tired, hungry and damn near out of gun-powder, but we fought them.
Son, you don't happen to have a pipe and tobacco, do you?"
“Sorry, Sir, I don't.” After a moment of silence, Rob asked, "What happened?"
“We killed every one of them. The young lieutenant wasn't nothing but a boy. In a fight, things happen all around you. Me and the lieutenant was fighting hand to hand. His sword is what caused the loss of my arm. I clearly remember rolling around on the ground with him. We was gruntin' and bellowin' 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'll never forgot the look in his eyes as he died. I saw sadness, deep, deep, sadness. The boy would never get married, never have children, and never have hope and grace."
"It was war. Looks 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 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 the grave stone 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 mama and daddy had given up on having a child. They had three before, each one still born. When the Mama was thirty-nine, she had little Ory. A bit unusual for 1882. Most women bore their children in their twenties. She was the apple of the family eye. We all loved Ory. She was small and petite with 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. She was dead. The doctor had no idea why. From that day on, the mama would stop you in the middle of the road and ask, 'did you know Jesus took my precious Ory as his newest little angel?' If she saw you the next day, she asked 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. For thirteen more years, she repeated the same question to anyone who came in contact with her. You feel you have problems with your two boys? They look pretty small compared to Ory's mama and daddy.”
"I want you to look at one more gravestone. It's three over from little Ory's."
Rob got up and brushed pine straw from the top of a plain looking grave. "It's inscribed somewhat like yours, though a bit shorter. It says Robert White. There is nothing else on it but the dates, 1860 - 1925."
"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 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. Given the circumstances, it would have been just dandy, but my son was weak. He also accepted favors from women; patients, wives of his patients or sometimes even daughters. You know what I mean?"
"Yes, Sir, I guess I do."
"His behavior came back to haunt him. He wound up coming down with a disease, syphilis, I reckon. Unable to handle his circumstances, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Your great-grandmother didn't really like him, but in those days you didn't divorce. She stayed with him, knowing some of his wandering ways. When he died, he put your great-grandma and your grandma 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 a while."
"Wow, you're telling me so many things I never knew. Thank you, I guess. The biggest surprise is the suicide. Grandma never told me."
"We've talked about a lot of tough things today. I have to tell you; my son's suicide was the worst. Not because he was my son, but because I thought it so gutless. You see, from the fact 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."
"I recognize the gun in your back pocket. It belonged to your grandpa. It's a beauty. Are you carrying it 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. Rob found it strange. He went through the motions of hugging his great, great grandfather, and he desperately wanted to, but there was nothing there.
"You're right, boy, we all run into snakes from time to time. Just accept they're out there and don't let them interfere with the rest of your life. I'm going to tell your grandma you're okay. Don't you dare make a liar out of me. You know how ornery that would make her?"