That Old Man

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Back through years I sometimes ramble until I reach a time when I wore petticoats with a bell sewn into the hem that jingled when I sashayed.

The other day when I traveled the miles back to those days, I lingered for a moment on that old man. He wore always overalls with a red banana stuffed into the back pocket, a work shirt and a tattered brim hat. On Sundays, he put on the best overalls because he use to say, “Give the Lord your best.”

He owned not a car or a truck. Just an old mule that he struggled to keep fed and counted on mightily to keep up his ragged farm. That meant that on the two Sundays a month that his little church met, he had to walk the dusty road in hot sun, blinding rain or fluttery snow to make it to the House of the Lord.

I called him — I was four or five — “that old man.” Not my mama or daddy. They treated him as kindly and as grandly as if he were a Rockefeller.

“There’s Mr. Jarrard,” one would say, whoever spotted him first. He walked with a hitch in his step that caused him to lean to his left side. So, there he was in his overalls and sweat-stained hat, dragging himself along.

Daddy would slow the car, easing over, careful not to hit the ditch. That old man would turn to see the white Pontiac, smile, wave then put his hand on the hood, leaning on it as he made his way to back door then climbed in to sit behind Daddy. I always sat behind Mama.

“Howdy do, preacher,” he said.

“Mr. Jarrard, you doin’ alright today?” Daddy asked as he pulled back on the road.

“Mighty good. Mighty blessed. This cold air shore do feel good.” He’d turn to me. “Little girl, you shore are fancy.”

I smiled. “Thank you, sir.” I smoothed my dress then I studied his hands. His fingers were gnarled badly, the skin was old and dry. When he turned up his palms, there was a lifetime of calluses that had fed his family and paid his taxes. Of course, I didn’t know that then.

I didn’t how much history laid in hands like his.

Appalachian people take seriously their tithes to the Lord and to the preacher. If they had a dollar — and rarely they did — they gave 10 cents to the preacher. If they had 10 potatoes, they gave him one.

A couple of years before Mama died, I stopped by her house one day and found her side porch overflowing with bushels of fresh grown vegetables. Corn, green beans, tomatoes, crowder peas. As I opened the screen door to find Mama snapping beans, I asked, “Where did you get all that?”

She grinned happily. “The Dockerys from Town Creek brought ‘em to me. I’m so proud. That’ll do me through the winter.”

I teared up a bit. Daddy had been lowered to his grave 10 years earlier but, still, the congregants of one of his churches, wanted to see to it that his widow was fed.

That old man, Mr. Jarrard, said one day to Daddy as we left church, “Preacher, I got a litter of pigs just ready to get off their mama. I want’cha to pick out whichever one you want. Get the pick of the litter.”

We pulled up to his weary farm house. Daddy and he got out and walked to the hog lot. “I’ll take that one,” Daddy pointed to the runt.

“No. Get a better one than that runt.”

Daddy eyed him. “You told me to pick the one I want and that’s it.”

Shortly, Daddy returned with the runt squirming in a tow sack.

“Mr. Jarrard,” Daddy said as he backed the car out, “is a fine, fine man.”

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Let Me Tell You Something.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]