Remembering my friend Cree

Published 7:44 pm Thursday, March 15, 2012

Editor’s note: The following article in memory of Saluda native McCree John Pace, who died on Dec. 27, 2011 at the age of 83, was submitted by Roy Eargle.
Until this sun-filled, late-fall afternoon, in an aging cemetery among the graying mountains of the Blue Ridge, I had not attended an old-time graveside service since I was a boy in the backcountry Sand Hills of South Carolina. Today, I was warmly reminded of those long-ago services when the fiercely private country-folk buried their dead beneath the heavenly umbrella of an open sky, with only the solemn presence of family and the lonely word-tones of a beloved hymn.
The long rays of the sun had begun reaching in under the funeral canopy, stemming the slight chill that stung our cheeks, as family and friends assembled on a grassy knoll, following our long walk along the sandy lane that led from the historic Mountain Page Church. The long grey hearse followed silently, easing to a stop near the gravesite as the funeral director and pall bearers gathered to remove the casket.
John McCree Pace was a large man and the disparate group of bearers struggled to raise the heavy casket up the embankment and across the rolling winter carpet to the yawning jaws of the vault, stumbling occasionally with the shifting weight. With an almost audible sigh of relief, we settled quietly, a few men reluctantly taking one of the several velvet-covered chairs available, others standing, a little apart to avoid intimacy, a whispered greeting here and there, until a cloak of hushed respect fell upon us all. Only the soft murmur of a passing car on the bordering Page Mountain Road remained, slowed at the sight of the little graveside crowd.
Unannounced, a young man, dressed casually in a rumpled wool coat and open-neck dress shirt, slipped quietly from the darkening shadows of the canopy into a crowded corner near the raised coffin. Propping a foot on the ancient stone coping enclosing the family plot, Charlie Pace, a nephew of McCree, rested an old guitar on his knee and quickly tuned it with a few softly strummed chords. As the golden rays of the late afternoon sun crept silently across the oaken casket, Charlie began the quiet strains of, “There’s a Mansion over the Hill Top,” and in his soft, clear voice sang the words of promise of “A bright land where we will never grow old and some day yonder we will never more wander but will walk on streets that are made of gold.”
The comforting words of the great old hymn of my youth were still spilling quietly through my mind as I watched a tall, slim man, dressed neatly in a dark suit with a large red tie imprinted with a golden cross, rise gracefully from his place at the casket. For a few moments, while he held closely to his vest a large leather Bible, faded, its edges torn with age and use, his warm gaze seemed clearly to hold the little gathering in a blanket of compassion and love. Reverend Emerald Gordon spoke softly in a warm, conversational tone, the strength of his colorful, country-bred deliverance easily reaching those of us gathered outside the canopy. Reverend Gordon told that in all the long years he had known Cree he had found him to be an intensely private man, of strong will, and one difficult to engage in a personal relationship. The pastor had studied on this, he said, and believed in his heart that Cree had suffered a severe personal hurt early in his life, one that he was unable to share with anyone.
In his deliverance of the eulogy, Pastor Gordon made it clear that there was nothing he could say or do, at this point in the cessation of Cree’s existence, nor could he utter any expression of words of high praise or commendation that could change his life’s record on earth. He declared that McCree Pace must now present his soul before his God. The pastor softened his words then by telling that he had been comforted recently in the words of Cree’s sister, Medena, that her brother had professed his faith as a young man and that act may be the salvation of his soul. Pastor Gordon fell silent for several long moments, looking off toward the wind-ravaged crests of the western mountains, as if he might be engaging his God on behalf of McCree. Turning quietly, he opened his great Bible and began to read from a psalm favored by Cree’s family, a sudden wind whipping at the thin pages, momentarily stirring the flowers laid upon the casket.
Those huddled closely under the canopy had remained remarkably reserved throughout the funeral rites, most heads bowed, some holding a neighbor’s hand for courage and strength, others with a loving arm steadying a trembling shoulder. With the first strains of Charlie’s closing song, one that he had written himself, that told of one’s final trip home and that there is “A light shining brightly…” to guide the way, I sensed a near-visible quiver of bereavement suddenly ripple through the small gathering, almost in concert with the brief stirring of the wind.
I continued to stand there for a long while as the crowd slowly drifted away, lost in the warm memories of those occasional moments I spent with Cree chatting on the bench in front of Thompson’s Store and Ward’s Grill over the long year I had been involved in the restoration of the historic building. And later, after his tragic fall at home, those interesting times I discovered in visiting Cree during his long illness. I recalled that, at first, I had also experienced McCree’s reluctance to share his thoughts, but the possibility of a personal hurt in his young years, as Reverend Gordon suggested, had never occurred to me.
Slowly over the months that I sat by his bedside he became more open in our conversations, as we compared our experiences of growing up on the farm, our shared tall-tales of hunting dogs, old trucks and the thrill of catching a double-handful of sweet water from a cold mountain spring. He seemed fascinated with the revelations of my own struggles these past 30 years of being an outsider to the Saluda community, but, as a native, he had never shown any resentment to me in the slightest. Through our brief friendship I learned of Cree’s strong character, his subtle attempts at humor and his deep, mountain-bred respect for truth and honesty.
McCree Pace was my friend and I take but small satisfaction in the belief that I may have been one of the few people with whom he found confidence. The far greater reward from our friendship was that as Cree withdrew from his inner restraint toward his fellow man, I was privileged to see an awakening of his true nature, a genuine awareness of the blessings of life and an inner peace that reflected gently in the mellowing of his smile in his final days I sat with him. My friend Cree, I know, had found peace.

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