The sunset was soul-stirring Tuesday night—a canopy of delicate orange-tinged white clouds against a spring-blue sky. I watched it through the open window to a soundtrack of twilight birdsong and peepers in play. The realization hit me that there will come an evening when I will watch my final sunset on this earth. One never knows which one that will be.
My friend Braxton Harris had his last sunset a few weeks ago. I don’t know if he actually saw it or not since he lived hours away from me. His health had confined him at the end, so he may have been unable to stand at a window the way I did.
I got the news on Monday. My hubster and I had been out all day for our seventh anniversary, savoring spring at the Greensboro Arboretum. As we pulled into our driveway to get the mail, he dropped a handwritten envelope into my lap. The return address was Braxton’s wife—she who had never written to me and would have no need to unless……
I gasped and cried out, “Oh, no!” Ripping open the letter, I read the first line that stated Braxton’s date of death, and I couldn’t read any more for the sudden tears flooding my eyes. I still haven’t read the entire letter; every time I attempt to, the words blur once again.
You see, somewhere in the world there is a beautiful sunset every evening, but true kindred souls are rare. The ones I have found in my life I can count on one hand. Braxton was one of them. Since one can never be sure of encountering very many kindred souls, the loss of one cuts deeply.
I met Braxton via the U.S. Postal Service in 2008. As the new editor of The Stokes News, I was working at least 60 hours a week trying to learn the ropes. Nights were long, days seemed endless, and I was wondering if I was too old to cut the mustard in that demanding job.
That’s when the letter appeared on my work desk…..an envelope addressed to me in a lovely, old-school handwriting. Inside was an exquisitely-crafted letter in which Braxton introduced himself to me as a kindred soul who loved Walnut Cove the way I do. He had been reading my columns in the newspaper which he subscribed to from his home in far-off Henderson County and said that he had become so entranced with “The Old Paths” that he simply had to write its author.
Such was the start of a lovely friendship between an overworked, middle-aged mother of five and a retired Professor Emeritus at Appalachian State University. His frequent letters encouraged me to keep writing about the old
paths and covering the news of Stokes County. He always noticed the alliteration I loved using and other literary devices that most readers would skim right past.
Ah, those marvelous letters—page after page of memories of his days in Walnut Cove when his father was the pastor of Stokesburg UMC in the 1940’s. Braxton was salutatorian of his class at Walnut Cove High School where he also served as editor of the news magazine and played basketball. He later taught English and history at Francisco High School before leaving Stokes County to distinguish himself in myriad ways, including serving as Dean of Brevard College before rising in prominence at ASU.
But no matter where life took him, his precious wife and their five children, the biggest part of Braxton’s heart never left Stokes County—in particular, his beloved Walnut Cove. Even in his 80’s, he would still make the long drive to eat the chicken salad at Sam’s, where I finally met him face to face in 2009. He’d visit periodically, and we’d relive his memories of “The Cove,” as he called it.
His memories were so fascinating that I asked him to take over my column for about a month to share them with our readers. We called it “The Older Paths.” I had always hoped he would write some more columns for me about his high school class taking field trips down to Sallie Pepper’s Stokes Record newspaper office in the annex of the old Dodson Hotel or how he worked measuring tobacco allotments all over Stokes County.
Now there will be no future columns by Braxton—a prolific and well-published writer who authored several nonfiction books as well as three trilogies of novels. There will be no more handwritten letters from him to me—works of art brimming over with old paths memories. We won’t traverse Stokes County together anymore, stopping by Priddy’s to get a jar of purple sweet potato spread or riding up to Francisco where he still dreamed of buying a few acres to build a rock house.
The last time I saw Braxton was the day after Thanksgiving 2016. He called to say he was coming to “The Cove” and wanted to see me. We shared a Bojangles meal as he regaled me with stories of how he used to drive Walnut Cove storekeeper Harry Davis’ car to deliver groceries—even to the sheriff who knew Braxton was only 13! He told me about the atmosphere in our town after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But more than anything, Braxton wanted to talk about the bidding war for the old Dodson Hotel property, in which my ministry was engaged. He had been passionately supporting me via his letters, encouraging me to keep
bidding and being so positive we would get the land that he was giving me suggestions of what sort of structure to build there!
As we said our goodbyes that November day, I realized that at age 87 and with declining health, Braxton might never again see his beloved Walnut Cove. I took his hands across the table and prayed for him. Tears filled his eyes, and I will never forget what he said to me: “There is a word I don’t use very often at all. It is the word ‘anointed.’ But I will use it today because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are anointed to have the land at the gateway of our town and to do with it what God has put in your heart. I am SURE that this will come to pass.”
At that point, it was MY eyes that teared up. I thanked him fervently and hugged his frail body as we bid each other farewell. I couldn’t resist looking back at him one final time, in case our paths never crossed again on this earth.
And now I know they will not. His final letter to me was dated January 28, 2017. I had written to tell him we had indeed won the bid on the old hotel lot. His final words to me were: “Hip, hip hooray! You have done it, Leslie…I am so proud of you.”
That was the sunset of my friendship with Braxton Harris. Until I, too, reach that eternal land where the Lamb is the Light, with no need of sun, I will remember how God blessed me with a kindred soul who loved Walnut Cove mayhap as much as I do. And I will oft think of him whenever I savor a Stokes County sunset…..and wonder how he’s doing on the new paths.
Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her blog is at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com.