For The Love of Jimmy
At the corner of Folly Grove and Schoolhouse, near the fallow tobacco fields my extended family farmed decades ago, I came.
I arrived in my funeral suit Monday afternoon to say goodbye to one of my own, a man I had known my entire life. I ate his barbecue, I pined over his chicken pilau, and I listened to him tell stories about his goings-on in a rural corner of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, a place he had lived his entire life.
That is James Edgar Rowe Jr. Everyone called him Jimmy.
Like so many members of my family, Jimmy loved get-togethers. He’d like nothing better than gathering friends and family in his tractor shed and slow-cook a hog over hickory and dip a big spoon into a huge cast-iron pot and pull out the chicken pilau he made himself.
And man, you’d be happy. And there Jimmy would be — in his apron, talking in his nasally wheeze of a voice and showing his love for you with the food on your plate.
And yes, you were mighty grateful.
So many folks knew him in and around Hemingway, a dime-sized town of 500 or so in the northeastern corner of South Carolina’s Williamsburg County. They had a name for him: “Boss Hog.”
But to all us Rowes, we knew him simply as Jimmy.
The South Carolinian known as Boss Hog knew how to turn pork into ‘cue.
He was a son and a brother, an uncle, a father and a grandfather who had retired from farming and selling big equipment bound for any field near and far. At age 9, he was baptized in the Mango River, and like so many who share my last name, he grew up to be God conscious and Bible thoughtful.
He became a deacon, a choir member, a youth leader and the director of Sunday School at Center Baptist, a tiny red-brick church with nine rows of pews.
I came to Center Baptist Monday. Like scores of people, I came to bid farewell.
I watched Jimmy’s four young granddaughters sing, “Bigger Than Me,” complete with choreographed hand gestures and two solos with a handheld mic.
I heard Jimmy’s minister talk about how a funeral reminds all of us that our lives are brief and how we all need to forgive, empathize and help those around us. Jimmy did do that.
Then there is Jimmy’s son, Jay. I grew up with Jay, the oldest of three, and I saw him every time I came to what my dad always called “The Country.”
Jay Rowe with his aunt, Joyce Tyler, the oldest sister of Jimmy Rowe.
Jay was a lot like his father, gracious in spirit, easy with a laugh. But this time, Jay stood before all of us with his voice caught in his throat. He stood behind the pulpit and talked about his dad.
In his eulogy, he described his dad as a “a gentleman and a gentle man.” He mentioned his dad’s many civic accomplishments: a proud Mason, Shriner, volunteer fire chief and longtime school volunteer. Jimmy kept in his wallet his recipe for slow-cooking what sounded like a gazillion hogs, and he once operated a CB and had a CB handle that fit him perfectly.
Jimmy was “The Laughing Boy.” Jay was “Laughing Boy Junior.”
But as I sat in the fourth pew, surrounded by many I knew and many I didn’t know, Jay brought up an image that will stick with me forever. He talked about the woman his dad married.
Jimmy was just 18 when he married Linda Avant. He had just left the University of South Carolina, lured back home by his tobacco-farmer dad who offered him a brand-new car, a Falcon.
Jimmy came back to help his dad farm. But he also came back to marry the woman he had known almost his entire life. Jimmy built a house for them beside where his parents lived and across from the tobacco fields that would support his well-mannered life.
Linda, she was something. She had this infectious laugh, 1,000-watt smile and these dimples for days. Year after year, visit after visit, that never changed.
I remember going to The Country from my hometown in Charleston when I was in my single digits, and I’d go all mute and goofy around her because her beauty and personality would light up a room. And every time I visited, her dimples would crease her cheeks, and she’d hug me hard. Always loved that.
On Monday, I saw Linda again. This time, she sat in a wheelchair near the casket of her husband.
Linda is struggling with a spate of health issues that have stolen her smile, her voice and her bubbly personality. But yet, those problems didn’t diminish the love Linda and Jimmy had for one another.
Jay brought that out in his eulogy. He saw it firsthand no more than a few days before his dad’s death.
“Seeing my dad and mom sitting together during his last days, just sitting there holding hands, saying a few words or saying nothing at all,” Jay said in a voice tight with emotion. “That is what love is all about. They shared 57 years in one house.”
James Edgar Rowe Jr. was taken down by liver cancer. He was 75. A doctor gave him the grim diagnosis 12 days before his death. Jimmy took the news straight-faced, I was told. But the first question he asked wasn’t about him or his prognosis. It was about his wife.
“Who’s going to take care of Linda?”
Jimmy was then given a choice. He could either spend his last days alive at a hospital, a skilled nursing facility or in his own home. Jimmy chose to go home.
That is where he stayed, in the house he built, a minute down the road from the church he attended his entire life. And in that house, full of photographs and good memories, is where Jimmy died.
On Monday afternoon, people didn’t talk about Jimmy’s death. They talked about his life. And as I looked around at the crowd wedged inside this small country church, I realized the ripple effect one man’s life can have.
Jimmy, the man many called “Boss Hog,” touched almost everyone in the rural crossroads he called home. He fed them, he laughed with them, he worked with them, he farmed with them, he raised money with them, he worshiped with them and he grew old around them.
In the process, in his own gentle Southern way, he showed them love.
Jimmy Rowe had just recently converted his tractor shed into a gathering place for friends and family. Following the funeral, friends and family gathered there to celebrate him.
It reminded me of something I read this week from theologian writer James Finley. It’s one of those things I read before daybreak every morning to get geared up and centered before my day turns into a treadmill.
Anyway, Finley wrote: “When everything is said and done, only love is real; only love endures. Outside of love, there is nothing, nothing at all.”
As I stood Monday at the corner of Folly Grove and Schoolhouse, that did seem right.
Jimmy, he got it right.