I visited Dad yesterday. I do that every Christmas and yesterday was the day. I did all the talking, as usual. He was the same. Nothing to report. There had been three new arrivals since my last visit for his birthday in late August. That number is unheard of for a time that brief. The neighborhood where he stays is not that large. The main thing its got going for it is that it is quiet. I like quiet. I think Dad does too.
We sang “Wayfaring Stranger” at church Wednesday night. That song, and my visit to Dad’s place, formed an image in my mind. I know I can be a bit eccentric, but that kind of thing happens from time to time. There’ll be some event. That event – it could be something someone said, or something I read (that happens with Faulkner a lot), or something that happens that reminds me of something else – whatever – but the event will cause me to imagine a scene so vividly that it seems I am there. Even the smells and feels seem to be present in my head – like the damp smell of a cold rain and the presence of the wind-blown raindrops stinging my bare face.
I promised (kind of) that I would write about the pictures in my head. So here goes. The time is now, the present, that is. Elijah Campbell’s heirs worship each Sunday at a rural church not far from here. It’s constructed of native limestone quarried a few miles from where the building sits on a ridgeline overlooking a valley of the Buttahatchie River where the old community of Campbell Springs was developed by Elijah and company in the 1800′s. There are twenty-something of his descendants assembled this Sunday. The Campbells are worth billions through the Shiloh companies. At least people assume that, but, no one actually knows for sure because all of Shiloh is privately held. Shiloh Financial – which supplies a big hunk of Wall Street’s investment money: privately held. Shiloh Transportation – whose trains and trucks regularly visit most every town in America: privately held. Shiloh Medical – whose pharmaceuticals are in most every medicine cabinet in the country: privately held. No annoying shareholder meetings for them – at least none that aren’t all family.
Before returning to their homes, The Campbells always gather at the cemetery adjoining the church at the old patriarch Elijah’s grave and sing “I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger” together. No witness to this event would ever guess the Campbell heirs were any different from anyone else in the matter of earthly accouterments. This Sunday it’s December. It’s also cold, raining, and windy. The Campbell group gathers resolutely near Elijah’s tomb rock. The wind sweeping the ridgetop, ruffling their clothing, and struggling to invert some of their umbrellas – is unknown to them. The cold rain droplets stinging their faces – unfelt. The numbing coldness of the moisture saturated chilled air that seems to penetrate to the very core of their bodies – unnoticed.
Micah, one of Elijah’s great-grandsons, starts singing the old hymn in his tenor voice. In a moment or two, his female sisters and cousins join him with their alto voices. Then the other males join in and the Campbell Family Choir is complete. The minor key melody is carried by the north wind southerly to the valley below and beyond. Perhaps it penetrates Wordsworth’s “narrow houses” where the ghosts of Campbells past slumber. Maybe it enters through a parlor window that was mistakenly left open. Maybe it imbues every molecule of the room’s air with an elusive, glowing, shimmering, pulsating link – present to past – and hovers there, for just a time, like the reluctant morning fog. Maybe unseen hands reach out for each other and clasp firmly, linger for a few seconds, and then release as present realities rudely reassert themselves.
Maybe. I guess you would have to be a Campbell to know. Or, maybe not. Maybe something akin to that happens with all of us. Our ridgetop may not be in Lamar County, Alabama. It may not even be a ridgetop. But it’s ours. And what goes on in our heads is ours too.
Maybe the Campbells are just our proxy. Maybe we are all in this together. May the peace of God rest with us all.