At first it seemed my UK adventure had accomplished everything I had hoped it would: I no longer obsessively checked my email to see if my beta readers had contacted me with feedback on my novel; I didn't even care to check my Facebook or Twitter accounts, but just uploaded everything in the morning and let the tweets scroll on by. Whenever customers would corner me in the store to chat, I didn't offer them a fake smile and a, "Nice to see ya," while slowly slinking back into the office. For the first time in a long time, I truly wanted to visit with them, to see what vegetables had been planted and what grandchildren had been birthed in the two weeks since I'd been gone.Then, slowly but surely, the post-adventure euphoria wore off, and Life crept back in. Laundry, tossed into the nest of a hamper, started multiplying like rabbits. Ants began marching across my kitchen floor with all the pomp of The Rose Bowl Parade. I started researching (and, okay, I couldn't help it) writing a new novel. My husband informed me that I needed to pick out cabinet knobs, light fixtures, backerboard trim (?), and tile for our house. Our store also needed some extra TLC since our main employee, my amazing sister-in-law, has been out of town.
So, I gritted my teeth and bore it. I jammed laundry in all shades of the rainbow into the washing machine (it's not your fault, Mom; you taught me better); I attacked the ants with Clorox wipes and an I'll-show-you! supply of elbow grease; I spent all day Saturday in a stifling warehouse, purchasing items for our store from a business that was closing down theirs.
Without realizing it, I had allowed myself to get drawn back into the rat race of the daily grind, and my love for people -- my patience for people -- was getting devoured in the process.
That is, until a visitor clomped up the stairs into my office and changed everything; a visitor unlike any I have ever known before. Renea Winchester, author of the memoir, In the Garden with Billy, had her life changed when she had a visitor of her own. Actually, the person she met on that hot summer day in 2008 wasn't a visitor at all. Billy Albertson had been living in those Atlanta suburbs long before every property in the area was "three-stories, covered in three-side-brick, with a three hundred thousand dollar price tag."
But Renea was too busy to stop by the '60s-style rancher that sold different goods according to the season and meet its seventy-seven-year-old proprietor. Every weekend she was driving four hours to North Carolina to tend her mother "whose ovarian cancer had returned with a vengeance," and she did this in addition to being a Mission Leader during vacation Bible school and taxiing her daughter to and from various summer activities.
So when Renea's daughter, Jamie, begged to stop at the '60s-style rancher and look at the goats described in the "Goats 4 Sale" sign, Renea was exhausted but eventually gave in. Pulling into the yard and parking, Renea and Jamie walked beneath a carport and saw the vision of Billy Albertson:
"[He] wore pale blue overalls patched at the knee. Unbuttoned shirtsleeves flapped as he sped across the carport with a stooped-over gait that was a combination sygoggle shuffle and lope. A frayed hat shielded his face from the sun. Bent pieces of straw had unraveled from the brim and cast haphazard shadows across his cheeks."
If Billy Albertson reads just like a character, that's because he is one, and Renea -- who offered to help Billy in his garden several times a week -- discovered this very soon after their unique friendship began. If he wasn’t fixing his truck engine with a few wallops of a two-headed hammer, he was working circles around Renea who, with a nickname like “Zippy,” should’ve been able to keep up with a man thirty-five years her senior but this was not your typical seventy-seven-year-old man.
Not only did working alongside Billy teach Renea the benefits of a simpler, stress-free life, but he also taught her about the "honer system" (“I like to trust people, and I believe people like to be trusted”), and how true love has the power to withstand anything--even Alzheimer's, even death.
But the best lesson Renea ever learned from Billy was as simple as the man from which it came: “Folk matter."When that visitor clomped up the steps into my office, “folk matter" was certainly not the first thought that came to mind. All I was aware of was that my visitor smelled; that his eyes were a painful, pinkish red, and whenever he made his unnatural noises, spittle sprayed from his contorted mouth.
The boy -- he could've only been eleven or twelve -- gestured toward the door that led from the office into our apartment.
I shook my head and said, "No, No," as firmly as I could, but this did not deter him. Giving me a defiant grin, he lurched toward the door and turned the knob. He walked into our apartment, as calmly as you please, and I found myself in a quandary: I did not want to follow an eleven or twelve-year-old boy into our apartment because I didn't think his parents would appreciate that, but neither did I want that boy to go into our kitchen and find the knives.
I yelled down at our cashier, "Susan! You know where this boy's mother is?"
She shook her head, but the mother must've overheard this, for she hollered, "Aar-ron! C'mon, now, son…getch yourself on over here."
Glancing around at the apartment, he said, "Wow” (it probably seemed like Narnia after coming up from a grocery store), then walked back into the office and took my hand.
I was startled at first, because of the gesture, but also because this child's hand was far larger than my own. Tugging on my hand, he led me down the steps into the store and walked me over to his mother as if for her inspection.
I waved and smiled to let her know that everything was all right, told Aaron goodbye and went back up into the office.
He followed two minutes later.
I was replying to some emails and he pointed to the computer screen, then pointed at me.
"Yes, yes," I said. "I'm typing."
He grunted and watched for a bit. Stumbling over, he put his hand over mine, pressed down hard, and scribbled the mouse all over the desk.
Dropping my hand, the boy came over and put his arms around my neck. I tried to remain calm, but he really did smell quite bad and the noises he was roaring into my ear were punctuated with spittle. I was just about to call for help when the boy's mother hollered (there's no other word for it) for him to "come down ’ere or else."
The boy squeezed me into an awkward hug, then gave my neck a sloppy kiss. He was plodding down the office steps when he suddenly stopped and turned around. I was bracing myself for who knew what, but the boy just held out his fisted knuckles.
I started to smile as it dawned on me what he wanted. Seeing this, the boy smiled, too. It transformed his whole face, and I saw that his eyes beneath the pinkish tinge were a dark, chocolatey brown.
Holding up my hand and making a fist, I brushed my knuckles against his. His grin widened, and he switched hands. I brushed my knuckles against his other set, then he waved, clunked down the steps and rejoined his mother.
I sat there -- it must've been five minutes, at least -- without answering an email or scheduling a tweet. All I could do was picture that child who was living the simplest of lives, yet a fulfilled, stress-free one; and I realized that I shouldn't feel sorry for him, for he was the one who had shown me with a hug, with a sloppy kiss, with a brushing of his knuckles against mine the same lesson that Billy Albertson had taught: Folk matter; they really, really do. To learn more about Renea Winchester, author of In the Garden With Billy: Lessons on Life, Love & Tomatoes, click here or here. As always, thanks for reading!