The memory of a neighbor and friend thrives in stories, family and some transplanted crocuses in Jackson County, North Carolina.
Megan pulled up in the driveway next door with her baby Julie the other day. She came over to dig flowers and bulbs from the place where her Great Uncle George had lived in Jackson County, North Carolina, for many years.
George passed away a couple of years ago, and before that he had lived with his sister Julia over in Wayehutta, in the house by the river. But George continued to come by the old house and tend his garden and flowers. The house had stayed in the family with one of George’s nephews continuing to live there. It also served as a gathering place for family reunions.
It’s actually a pretty special house. It was the original Jackson County, North Carolina, jail going back to when Webster was still the county seat. George’s parents had moved here in the early 1940’s when their place in Clay County was taken as part of the Fontana Dam project. The house has 18-inch thick masonry walls, and the upstairs floor rests on an I-beam, the first in Jackson County, and has a poured concrete floor. For many years the family ran a small store from the house and the old Webster Post Office, a 12 X 16 building still sits on the property.
All told there’s about nine acres, a couple of barns and some outbuildings. George ran cattle on the land, tended bees and had one of the biggest, most productive gardens in the area. When I became postmaster of Webster in 1998, George and I took to each other right away, and I quickly became his gardening partner. George’s thumb was greener than most. He always had another trick for growing something better or smarter. He was also infinitely curious about learning new methods or trying new crops. My grape vine, a Fredonia, was one of the last things we planted together. It’s lovingly named “George,” and this should be the first year it really bears.
George was a quiet man with a halting way of speaking. Some folks took this for his being dumb, but they made that assessment at their own risk. George farmed most of his life but he had attended Western Carolina University. While we hoed out rows or fought a never-ending battle against Johnson grass he would recite Shakespeare’s sonnets from memory. He taught me as much about poetry as gardening; gifts I shall always treasure.
When I moved down off the mountain in 2007, George and I became closer than ever. We were both veterans. He served in the South Pacific in WWII in the signal corps. He’d never say much about that service, only to suggest that not much had happened. But the look in his eyes reminded me of my grandfather’s who had served in WWI – there was more there than he cared to tell. In my home I have a picture of George, and over it is a picture of a field of tulips we planted, an effort he called a conspiracy to shock some color into Webster. From the picture hang George’s dog tags and his “Veterans for Obama” button – he was never shy to tell anyone his politics: “I’m a pointy headed liberal.”
George didn’t say much, but when he did speak you knew what he meant. I recall one time we were discussing one of the scions of Webster, a fellow who claims to know all the history of the area. I was recounting one of the fellow’s stories, about George actually, and George looked up from his hoeing and said, “Well, Mark, don’t you know that J-P is just full of —-.” Another time, as we drove into Sylva to pick up supplies, I cautioned George about his speed, to which he replied: “I’m old. I’m in a hurry, still lots to do.” When the town board sent him a letter citing some minor zoning violation, George replied with a letter that began: Dear Nitpickers.
A couple of years before he passed George had a bad fall around Christmas. He was bruised from head to toe and looked a mess. He was confused, and his breathing, which hadn’t been good in years, was even more labored than usual. He was in the hospital for several days and things looked pretty grim. When I saw him he asked about the coming gardening season, and I sort of humored him. But George was insistent that we were going to garden again. It took a couple months of therapy and a stay in a nursing home, but George came out stronger than before the fall. The staff at the nursing home were amazed at his demands to attend every therapy or exercise session. He was going to get better regardless of what anyone thought. And he did.
We had a couple more years fighting ground hogs and Johnson grass. We didn’t grow much, but we still got out and puttered. George bemoaned the fact that his hips and back hurt too much to do any heavy work, but he tried. Eventually he weakened and, in something of a final act of independence, he found a spot in a veteran’s nursing facility across the state. We buried him a year ago last October, and last year spread some of his ashes around the gardens, flower beds and old chicken house.
George’s old house is for sale now. It’s quiet over there. Still the crocuses come up every spring and remind me of George. His handiwork is all around: the bulbs and flowers that come up, the asparagus bed we made, the garlic that has now gone wild and, of course, the grapevine named after him.
I’m getting older too, chronic health problems and a balky back slow me down, but I look forward to making a garden. I was working on a new garden place this year, a spot a little closer to the house and away from the groundhogs, when Megan pulled up. It did me good to see her and little Julie, especially when we got out a spade and some buckets and started digging up some of the crocuses to replant at Megan’s place in Caney Fork. She’s got a lot of her Uncle George in her, and it’s a blessing to watch the way she honors not just his memory but his life.
Whenever I’d see George, either when he came into the post office or when we’d meet to garden, I’d call out, “There’s my friend George.” He would chuckle and smile. Seeing Megan and Julie working in the ground made me think, “There’s my friend George.”
There was something inexplicably complete in that, perhaps a circle unbroken.
Mark Jamison is a retired U.S. postmaster who lives in western North Carolina.