He Went “Bye-Bye”
On a bright day in October 2006, I attended the funeral of Walter Lee Lewis in Columbia, SC. We had been friends since we both wore diapers. His entire family was like an extension of ours, in those days when all adults acted as surrogate parents. If I had kept records, they would probably show that his daddy, Mister Ernest, disciplined me almost as much as my daddy did. But honestly, Walter was more frequently the guilty party, but he had better punishment avoidance skills than I did – then.
As children we often had some physical characteristic or talent which generated a nickname. One day, as we walked home from grammar school, he observed my height and he called me, “Short Dog Shorty.” He reserved that as his personal name for me, never sharing it with other classmates. Following an accident in high school in which he lost at least two teeth, his face was rendered suitable for a nickname, which he accepted as affectionately as the entire school applied it. He became “Gate Mouth.”
After our graduation from Dasher High School in 1951, he, like at least a dozen of us, turned to the typical employer of those with limited choices – the armed forces. Most of us proudly served our country in uniform for two decades. Neither Walter nor I returned to Valdosta as permanent residents, but we always considered Valdosta our home, and we knew each other’s whereabouts. His last residence was in South Carolina. He also knew that I intended to relocate to that state, so in September 2006, he telephoned me and said, “Short Dog Shorty, this is Gate Mouth, just calling to hear your voice.” It was our last contact.
As I attempted to enter the church to attend his funeral in Columbia, a car partially blocked my path as a young woman assisted a very old lady out of the vehicle. I instinctively offered my assistance, and immediately cradled her elderly arm under mine for firmer support to escort her into the church. We proceeded very slowly, and I commented that Walter was my friend since childhood. The old lady stopped. I felt her tremble. The young lady said, “You must be from Valdosta. This is his mother.” The timing of the moment had been orchestrated by a power greater than any human capacity to schedule. My eyes were almost too wet to see her face as I turned to reintroduce myself, “Miss Edna, this is James Edward, Catherine’s boy,” while hugging and kissing her again after more than 53 years. She remembered me, whispered that she was 96 years old, then held me tightly and said to me, “James Edward, stay with me. Stay with me.”
As we approached the open casket on our labored stroll to the front of the church, I could almost feel the pulse of her counting the years between the birth and death of her son. Her firm grip on my arm served as a reminder to me (just as in the old days) to keep my place where she had commanded, “Stay with me.” Miss Edna did not hesitate to approach the flag draped coffin. She has some experience, having said goodbye in a similar fashion to her husband, and her other three children. We stood for a moment for her to brace herself, and she gave me her weight as she bent over, kissed her son, and uttered, “My baby, my baby. He is sleeping so peacefully now.” And in a tone of voice that only a mother can generate, and with the authority and passion that only she possessed, she said, “Bye-bye baby.”
For a brief spell we stood there together, as the survivors of a once vibrant neighborhood in a little town in South Georgia, during an era that seemed so distant, and for her, at least five lifetimes ago.
It was such a beautiful day.