Steve and I have just returned from bringing a copy of my book Fiat Flux: The Writings of Wilson R. Bachelor, Nineteenth-Century Country Doctor and Philosopher to a friend of ours. John and his wife Tina are pillars of the local Quaker community and have been extraordinarily kind to and supportive of Steve and me. We wanted to give them a copy of the book to express our gratitude for the kindness and support (and it actually does have some notes on the Quaker history of Wilson Bachelor's ancestors, who are also my own ancestors).
When we arrived at John's office, he had sitting beside two chairs two bottles of cold Mountain Valley water, an Arkansas brand that my brothers and I often drank rather than soft drinks as children. Each green bottle was on a white napkin beside each chair.
John's welcoming smile lit the room as we arrived. "A double pleasure," he said, "to see both of you"--as if he hadn't known we both were coming, since he had set out two bottles of cold water on carefully placed white napkins.
John wouldn't know this, but the building in which he has his retirement office is a block from my grandmother's house, which was for fifty years the center of my family's life and gatherings in this city. Just outside his office window is an old oak tree under which my grandmother sat down on a hot summer day in July 1947 when she experienced the first of a series of heart attacks that ultimately led to her death. There had been an awful scene at her house a few minutes before the heart attack. Her step-son, my mother's half-brother, was involved in some kind of row with his siblings, including my mother, whom he slapped across the face, ending the argument by snatching the keys to the family's car and their old house down the Arkansas River from Little Rock, in which they had lived until they moved into the city while he was away in the war.
My grandmother was beside herself with worry as her step-son sped away in the car headed, she knew, to the house in which he had grown up, the only house he'd ever known as home, which was now empty. She walked up the street hoping to spot the car. Hoping he hadn't driven off.
Hoping . . . .
And when she couldn't find him, couldn't make things right for him, that first heart attack struck and she sank beneath the tree as her daughters fanned her face and gave her cold water to drink.
That night, she, my mother, and several of my mother's siblings got a ride to the town in which they had previously lived, where their old house was. They stayed with a niece of my grandmother, whose husband walked down the road to the old house, spent time with my uncle, and came back to report that he was settling down and would surely be better in the morning.
The next morning the family found him dead in their old house. He had shot himself.
All these thoughts flooded into my memory today as Steve and I sat in our Quaker friend John's peaceful, light-filled office beside that old oak tree so portentous for me and for my family. An office lit by the light of our friend's smile, by his own inner light, and made so inviting by his friendly welcome . . . .
Sometimes bottles of cold water set out by loving hands on carefully placed white napkins on a hot summer day can be a sacrament.