Obituary for a Quiet Life

Quiet lives on the land are just as important as any politician’s or celebrity’s life, yet they are usually unsung and unnoticed – often fading into the earth without any, except family, to remember them or write them down. To write about the “nobodies” of rural America is to keep alive the names that provide meaning, intimacy, and beauty to our world.

A man passes away without a word in the mountains of North Carolina, and his grandson, Jeremy B. Jones, sets out to write about the importance of a seemingly unimportant life…

My grandfather died this year, but you wouldn’t know it. In fact, he preferred you didn’t. Ray Harrell came up as the youngest of eight in the Cataloochee Valley in the 1930s — outrunning mountain lions and driving cattle off the mountain and crashing borrowed jeeps — and on January 20, nine decades later, he passed from this earth without a sound. That’s how he wanted it. You won’t find a headstone. Nobody gathered for a funeral. He was here, sitting on that porch he shared with his wife of nearly 70 years, and then he wasn’t. Dust to dust.

I was driving home after a day of teaching when Grandma called me. The cancer slowly draining him of life for the past year had held him in bed that morning, and it seemed he would stay there for the rest of his life.

“Would you write your papaw’s obituary?” she asked, ever practical even amid the loss of the love of her life. 

There was plenty to tell. He’d stolen a school bus as a teenager and backed it over a teacher’s car. He’d been shipped to Germany with the Army in 1950, where he flew up the ranks despite accidentally firing artillery through an empty house. He’d led the union at the textile mill where he worked most of his life. But he never talked much about any of that. What he set out to do was build a small life in Fruitland, North Carolina, to raise up his daughters and do the dishes and fix the broken garage door. He set out to live quietly — and then pass away just the same.

When I sat down to write, I found myself dropping details into a template — son of, survived by. The obituary form puts a particular pressure on what matters, on what should be remembered and praised, but what does one say about a life that aimed to carry on in the background, that had no interest in a name in newsprint or an award on the mantel? Ray Harrell, son of Jim and Cora, was content to sit still and watch the breeze scatter the leaves? Ray Harrell, sergeant first class, arranged the bills in his wallet in descending order? Ray Harrell, survived by Grace, whistled the same invented tune year after year while searching for the right nail in the shed? I filled in the expected details and sent the obituary to the newspaper, but I knew it wasn’t right. It captured nothing of the life he lived. What I returned to in the days after he passed, as the ladies from church covered the table in casseroles and Grandma slept in a bed alone for the first time since she was 19, was the sheer audacity of a quiet life. 

When the notable figures of our day pass away, they wind up on our screens, short clips documenting their achievements, talking heads discussing their influence. The quiet lives, though, pass on soundlessly in the background. And yet those are the lives in our skin, guiding us from breakfast to bed. They’re the lives that have made us, that keep the world turning. 

They’re taking out the trash before we notice and walking up the road to see if the mail’s come. They’re showing us how to lay out the biscuit dough at just the right thickness. They took our sons up on the tractor on spring afternoons. They helped the neighbor with the busted sink. They jumped in the river to pull an 18-month-old out. They caught the man who’d been pinned by the forklift, his back broken, and held him as he died. They slipped money into their nephew’s pocket when he hadn’t a penny to his name but was too ashamed to admit it. They did the laundry. They swept the floor. They played in the yard like a kid. They ate a pack of saltines and climbed into bed night after night until there were no more nights, only all the people left behind who’d carry on living because making a little life on a piece of land off Fruitland Road is about the holiest thing we can think of.  

All around us are these lives — heads down and arms open — that ignore the siren call of flashy American individualism, of bright lights and center stage. I’m fine right here is the response from the edge of the room, and that contentment is downright subversive. How could you want only that? the world demands. There’s more to have, always more. 

What Ray Harrell had was a reliable tractor and a fiery woman. He had a pat of cornbread waiting at noon dinner and an RC Cola every night before bed. He had kids and grandkids and great-grandkids enough to fill the house every Christmas. And that was plenty. “We’ve had a good life,” he said to me nearly every time I visited in his final year, and I knew it to be true even if it might have seemed odd from a distance. On paper, this small life above Clear Creek should have left a long list of regrets, of what ifs. But this life was the life, the very thing he and my grandmother Grace set out to make when they married in the little church up the road in 1954. 

On those visits, I settled down with the cornbread and asked for stories. Over time, I collected histories I’d never known. I learned of the stolen school bus and the crashed jeeps and the cow he got stuck in the mud. I learned of Papaw winning big playing cards while stationed in Germany during the Korean War, and then taking his earnings and traveling all across Europe. I learned of him being fired — over and over — from the textile mill.

“How come?” I asked. 

“Well, because I was aggravating, I guess.”

That was right, mostly. He said no when no one wanted to hear it, rallied the union when the bosses didn’t want to see it. Like when they told him to climb 10 feet without a harness and swap out a roller by himself. “I told them I wasn’t a-gonna do it.” They fired him, the union lawyers stepped in, and he came back to work.

“He’s a stubborn old man,” Grandma said.

Maybe that was right, too, but as I pieced together these stories of seeing the world and fighting back against injustice, I realized that a quiet life isn’t a passive life. Sitting still on the porch doesn’t mean letting the world go by. He and Grandma took their camper across the country. He served as president of the union. Being content doesn’t mean being blind. It means knowing the difference between a good fight and a selfish one.

“I believe in standing up for what is right,” he said between bites of corn. “And I oughtn’t say this, but everybody liked me.”

“Why?” Grandma asked.

“I wouldn’t have thought you’d have to ask that. I’m a good old boy.”

What I’ll miss most is the sound of his voice, cooked up in the North Carolina mountains out of remnants from across an ocean. There always thar, fire always far. I loved the phrase ever which a’way but loose. Loved how things liked to happen. How hello was what do you say and how being still meant setting awhile.  

Even his voice was quiet, throaty and clipped in the way of men in these mountains — a voice meant for conversations beyond a crowd, meant for the group of men eyeing the door, aiming to be outside where it’d be easier to talk about nothing or just as soon not talk at all. 

He could go hours without saying a word, but a flash of wit always waited on his tongue. For nearly 70 years he kept up a constant, good-natured banter with Grandma over anything and everything. 

“I can’t rightly remember,” she said on one of my story-seeking visits.

“You’re getting too old to remember all that, woman.”

“I surely am.”

“I know the feeling.”

A month before he passed, faded and worn down to a wheelchair, his head still popped up when Grandma walked into the kitchen: “Hey thar, pretty girl.” 

The morning after Grandma called me, I took my boys by to see Papaw for the last time. He’d been unresponsive for a day, but when we entered the bedroom, he was awake again. He couldn’t find his voice — he’d been breathing through his mouth, and his throat was too dry to speak up — so I leaned in. He looked to my sons and said, “Hey, fellers.”

They waved. 

“I love you,” I told him.

“Love you, buddy,” he whispered. 

“You done good,” I said because that’s how he would’ve said it, but also because that’s how I meant it. He’d done so much good, even if it couldn’t be listed on official records or captured in the stat sheet of an obituary. The good of his life was ever-rippling water, quiet and steady, and my boys and I would long be swept up in it.

Dr. Jeremy B. Jones is the author of the memoir, Bearwallow, which won gold in the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named the 2014 Appalachian Book of the Year in nonfiction. His essays appear in Oxford American, Garden & Gun, and Brevity, among others, and he serves as series co-editor of the book series In Place from West Virginia University Press. He teaches at Western Carolina University. 

Originally published on The Bitter, June 6, 2023. Used by permission.