George wobbled up the aisle to light the candles on the altar at the small Presbyterian Church in the North Carolina Mountains.
"World's oldest acolyte," my husband Barry whispered with a grin.
Feeble as he was, George looked neat in his dark blue suit and head full of grey hair. He was one of the reasons we attended this church. We had visited a couple of times in our search for just the right congregation and pastor, then George began stopping in to see us every couple of weeks. His visits were short and entertaining. We picked up small pieces of the history of the church and his own history as he sat on the deck and talked.
He was a native mountain man and knew everything about the region. The trees filled with white bloom that we had always thought were dogwoods on the mountainsides; he said were named for the time the preachers used to begin their travels to do their services in all the communities tucked into the hollows. The trees bloomed at this time and were named service trees, but in mountain dialect they became know as sarvis trees. George, a widower, told us on our first visit to church that he had placed the stained glass window behind the pulpit in honor of his late wife. Unlike most stained windows in a church, it displays a mountain scene with a single dogwood branch across it. That window mesmerized me from the first day I saw it.
One late spring day, George came with an invitation. As Barry and I sat on the deck with him George asked, "Have you ever seen a trillium?"
"No," I answered.
"I have the prettiest Easter trillium growing at my place. They are wild flowers and they don't grow just everywhere," he said. "Why don't y'all come out to my place and let me show you my trillium."
Barry had been busy doing sales reports and I was doing laundry, but George, like a child with a new puppy, grinned from ear to ear.
Why not, I thought. It’s a beautiful day to be outside. We can give George a few minutes to look at his flowers.
I said let's go, and Barry agreed. On the way out to his home in Shooting Creek, he pulled off the road and we stopped behind him. He came back to point out to us where the Blue Ridge Mountains rose on the right and the Smoky Mountains rose on the left. It seemed there was no end to George’s vast knowledge.
When we entered his driveway I saw a house on a pretty lot with a stream running behind it. Two dilapidated chairs endured, unembarrassed on the front porch.
Inside George gave us the grand tour, pointing out antiques carefully chosen long ago by his wife who was no longer there to wipe away the dust.
"The house is over a hundred years old," George told us. “Everyone who ever lived here added on to it."
That was soon obvious. The rooms went off in all directions and after passing through the kitchen, we found ourselves in a closet. A door opened from the closet to a small hallway. The hallway opened out into a large paneled den. A pool table sat in the middle of the floor. The dimly lighted room revealed walls lined with photographs. George told a story about each one. The men dressed in World War II uniforms were his comrades and an airplane appeared in almost every picture. George had been a pilot during the war.
"This was my squadron," he said, "and these were my buddies. Most are gone now." He worked at Lockheed after the war, continuing his love affair with planes.
Finally we came to the last wall in the room lined with pictures of his family. When he touched a photograph of his wife, his eyes filled with tears.
"I wish you could have known her," he said. I remembered the beautiful window in the church. The love he had for his wife of many years was palpable in the room.
I was beginning to wonder if we were ever going to see the trillium when George took us through the back of the house and started up a rocky hill. He wore shorts and hiking boots and, frail as he was, I wanted to hold on to his arm, but I knew that would offend him. Even though he was on the plus side of eighty, his independent spirit remained strong.
We climbed the hill behind him and walked along the banks of the stream. I kept scanning the landscape, looking for a splash of color among the green grasses. We came to a footbridge, and George led the way across it. On the other side of the stream we eased down a steep embankment. I just knew George was going to fall, but he kept upright, and there at the bottom of the incline, he stopped and pointed down.
"Here it is," he said, pride swelling his voice.
There it was -- one lone stem with three leaves and a single lovely white bloom, edged in pink. Not the masses of flowers I had expected to see, but to George it was a special plant growing on his land. So special he wanted to show it to his friends.
As we walked back toward the house to our vehicle, I thought about George. With all the momentous experiences in his life, with the losses he’d endured, he still appreciated the small things. One little wild flower brightened his day, and he wanted to share it with us. Just as he did for those in our church each Sunday, he lit a candle for us that day. He lit a candle in our hearts.
I looked back as we drove away. George stood on his porch beside the broken chairs like the single trillium beside the stream, a rare mountain species, smiling and waving his arm in farewell.
This spring a single flower appeared among my daylilies and impatiens. When we saw the delicate white bloom with tinges of pink, set on a stem with three leaves, Barry said, “This is George’s trillium.”
Our kind friend is no longer with us, but I believe he sent this rare blossom to remind us to look for joy every day, in the unexpected, in the small things of life.
From Echoes Across the Blue Ridge, Stories, Essays and Poems by Writers Living in and Inspired by the Southern Appalachian Mountains
published by Winding Path Publishing. Available at Independent book stores and on Amazon.com