Harold died last Friday. You don’t know him, but you know a guy like him.
For the last 30 years he has been the one constant face at the local hardware store. Ownership has changed. The name of the store has changed. Other workers have come and gone, but Harold stayed put.
“Mr. Paul,” he always said when I walked in the door. “What you need today?”
“I need a lock-nut to fit this bolt.” I would hold up the bolt so he could see it.
“Follow me,” he said.
Harold knew every square inch of that store by heart and every item on every shelf. He didn’t need a scanner to know whether he had something in stock. He didn’t have to go find someone who worked in the nuts-and-bolts department. He was the man.
If you needed to know how to replace a sink fitting, he could walk you through it. If you weren’t sure which size fuse you needed, he could ask enough questions to figure it out. If you had to bring something back to get a different size, he’d wink at you as he said, “I told you that was probably a 3/8 fitting and not a half inch.”
I know for sure he is going to be missed. I went in the store one day to have a piece of 1” galvanized pipe threaded on both ends. Three guys standing around. I told them what I wanted, and they all looked at each other.
“Harold left at noon today. He had someplace he needed to go this afternoon. He’s the only one who knows how to run the pipe threader. Can you come back tomorrow?”
I’m wondering how much things will change with him gone. Walking in that store will feel different for sure. We weren’t close friends or anything like that, but I will feel his absence. I will miss his sheepish grin. His bald head. No one could cut a spare key like Harold.
Then, on Monday, I got news that DeeAnna passed away. Again, not someone you would know. Yet again, exactly like so many wonderful ladies you have known.
When I arrived at Callaway Gardens in 1994 to start a new job, she was the one person that I really wanted to meet. I had been talking to her on the phone for months prior to our move to Pine Mountain. She was the Administrative Secretary for the horticulture department. Every time I called to beg for a chance at a job, she was the one who graciously took my calls and encouraged me to keep trying to get my foot in the door.
Over the years, she and I became more than just co-workers. I saw her as a valued friend. We shared the same birth year and she never forgot to reach out to me in October, even long after I left the Gardens. Only this past year we did lose touch. I was focused on my own changes in life. It didn’t occur to me to call her at her birthday in January. And now I find out that for the last year she had been battling cancer.
I think it was the summer of ’96. Our kids were staying with my folks up in Hampton for a week. The two youngest had gone shopping with grandmama. Laura stayed home with grandaddy. He went to take the neighbor some pears he had picked, and when he stepped to cross the road, he got hit by a car.
Laura was in the house and didn’t know anything had happened until a police officer knocked on the door. There were no cell phones back then. The only way she knew to get ahold of me was to call DeeAnna.
I have always wondered how that call went. A somewhat hysterical little girl on one end. The ever calm and courteous and professional DeeAnna on the other end.
That was the day we became more than just common employees. I think we both helped each other navigate the many changes at Callaway through the ‘90s. I sat in her office and let her tell me about her bad day. She came to mine and let me spill my guts about my frustrations.
But it wasn’t just me. She was that way with everyone. She had no children, but she would have been a great mom. She knew how to help without taking over. She was great at encouraging without criticizing. She was a shoulder of support for anyone who needed it. Just a terrific lady in every respect.
I’m telling you these two little stories because, even though you don’t know them, you have people like them in your life. Whether you see them every day, or you cross paths once in a while, it doesn’t matter. Your life is full of people whom you count on in ways that you can’t really define.
And the truth is we need each other more than we recognize.
I don’t need superstars in my life. I need more Harolds and DeeAnnas. I need the everyday kind of people that I can count on. I need that waitress down at the Whistling Pig who gives all the guys a hard time for fun. I need my buddy at Cook Brothers who puts a new set of tires on my truck and tells me to come by and pay when I can. I need Sam, the owner at the Super Value, who keeps me in pickled peaches because I asked him to do that. I need my neighbor who needs me to do stuff when they’re out of town.
And I’ll tell you, when one of the everyday people in my life dies, I feel it. Like a hole in my own little universe. What I feel is not so much a sadness as it is an emptiness, though I’m not sure I know how to separate the two. There’s a void now where they used to be. There’s a face missing. A hello missing. A phone call missing.
I’m smart enough to know that my own loss could be making my buttons a little touchy these days. But I don’t think that’s the real jest of the story.
The real point is that I don’t want to overlook the everyday folks in my life. Because I know that once they are gone, life moves on. Their memory floats away downstream like a leaf on a river current. Pine Mountain won’t change. The hardware store will still be open. The families will grieve for months, maybe years, to come. But the world will keep on chugging down the track.
That’s how it has to be. I get that. I understand the ‘moving on’ part. Life stops for no one.
I just have to do a better job of paying attention in the here-and-now-part. Be more appreciative of folks. Make the phone calls I should have made already. Say ‘thank you’ more often.
You know how I know? I had to go by the hardware store yesterday.
Harold was not there.