Shadows in the background of life

Published 8:53 pm Saturday, January 17, 2015

Some people come to mind at the oddest times. A reference to a boarder in a TV show, two women talking over a side yard fence or model airplanes in a store window, and suddenly my mind goes back to people who were like shadows in the background of my life.

I guess it’s true of all of us. We have primary family players on the daily stage: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. And then there are neighbors like my grandmother’s friend, Miss Eva. She and Grandma Edwards had the most fascinating conversations while Miss Eva Anderson stood at her fence and grandma sat on her stairway at the window facing Miss Eva’s back yard.

They talked about who did what in the neighborhood, who said what and who was with whom when they weren’t supposed to be. Their talks were just as inclined to cover faith, politics, children and grandchildren. When Grandma finished calming Miss Eva’s sometimes hair-trigger temper, they both returned to life a little happier.

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In the yard behind Grandma’s house was Thomas James’ hobby shop. His thing was Boy Scouting and building balsa wood airplanes with little gas engines.

Mr. James was there for my sibling after Dad died. He stepped into a void only a father could fill. His workshop was packed with the latest World War II model planes and other fun stuff. It was a little boy’s wonderland, just the kind of distraction to temporarily lessen the pain of death.

Later, the mystery man in Grandma’s house appeared from out of nowhere. His name was Obie Lee Wilkerson, and he rented the smallest room on the second floor. It was little more than a closet. There was a twin bed, a cubbyhole for hanging clothes and a window table. I got the sense he wanted things that way.

Mr. Wilkerson was my grandfather Clem’s cousin. He made his living managing the old Carver Theatre on Suffolk’s historic Fairgrounds, the black business district, just across the railroad track on East Washington Street.

I don’t think I ever heard Mr. Wilkerson say a word. I remember thinking that while he slept at Grandma’s house, his life was clearly somewhere else. Every day, he’d slowly open the front door, methodically climb the stairs. Once you heard the squeak of bedsprings, there was nothing more from him until he left the next morning.

I always wondered where the sadness in Mr. Wilkerson’s eyes came from. He was a large man with a secret etched beneath deep lines in his face, the kind kids didn’t hear about back then and adults talked about in code. Secrets are always a burden. But his seemed to weigh on those big shoulders like a heavy sweater on a hot day.

For some reason, his out-of-kilter humanity registered with me. I wanted to ask “What’s wrong?” But children didn’t do things like that then. Years later, I heard Mr. Wilkerson had died while living with relatives in Norfolk. Around the same time, Mr. James, his wife and son slipped away one year apart. In time, Miss Eva stopped coming to the fence, and Grandma stopped sitting at the window.

Decades later, I still find myself missing them. I guess I’ve grown to appreciate the kindness they provided in a world quickly turning into a hostile place. They were nearly anonymous people who lived quietly great yet mundane lives right in front of us.