To me, he was Mr. Baker and he was my first friend in Kentucky. Shortly after I moved here, he must have recognized I was a fish out of water, gasping and twisting alone in the house. So he righted me. Every week he would come for coffee. In fact, it was only because of him I learned how to use the coffee maker. We’d sit at the kitchen island and he would talk about his childhood in Hail, Ky., featuring a coal-mining dad, a loving mom, nine brothers and sisters, plenty of chocolate gravy and middle-of-the-night walks to the outhouse.
At first, I had trouble understanding his accent and it wasn’t until a few months later that I realized he thought I had a hearing problem. But after a while I got used to it, and we settled into a calming routine of him talking and me listening.
It was Mr. Baker who introduced me to the bologna sandwiches at Nelson Valley Grocery. It’s called a grocery, but it’s really a gas station whose store is filled with every imaginable kind of pop and chocolate bar.
Needless to say, I was a little skeptical when he took me there for lunch. But he went up to the counter and asked for two sandwiches on white bread. I watched the man take out the tube of bologna from the cooler and cut a slice as big and thick as a pancake.
I suppose Mr. Baker was a little suspicious of me when I asked for mine with mustard instead of mayo, but he accepted it soon enough.
Because that was the thing with Mr. Baker. He always accepted me. He was always glad to see me and I was always glad to see him. He showed me his coin collection, he told me his thoughts on politics, he drank R.C. Cola directly from a two-liter bottle and he didn’t apologize. Upon his request, I brought him my clabbered buttermilk and he hungrily drank that too. A few times, he took me down to his creek and was the first one to tell me to watch out for snakes in the leaves. He was the kind of person who knew who he was and wasn’t going to change for nothing.
He spent his career working for GMC Truck & Coach in Michigan and, forever after, refused to drive anything but Fords; Mustangs and T-Birds were his darlings. He didn’t like winter or Michigan much, mostly because his heart still lived in Kentucky. So in 1982, he moved his family back to Somerset and, but for the plumbing and electric, he built every inch of their new home. I can tell you that every corner in that house is perfectly square. Every baseboard is absolutely level.
That is not the case in our house and he didn’t mind pointing that out. But, since he was the one I always called to come and help me when disaster struck, he had every right. Together, we managed plumbing, car and sewage crises. During a septic tank fiasco, it was Mr. Baker who told me maybe I was using too much toilet paper “when you wipe.”
He never asked me to call him Mr. Baker, Billy would have been just fine by him. But somehow it seemed too intimate or raw to me, made me want to squint. So my Mr. Baker he became.
When he got sick, I don’t think anyone knew how he was going to handle it. The prognosis was dire from the beginning, and we couldn’t imagine how a man with such get-up-and-go would handle this grisly weight.
But being sick let us all see a different side of him: a powerful optimism, a dedicated strength. The cancer had spread to his spine and femurs and it had to be excruciating, but all he ever did was rub his back a little and press on. For two years, he didn’t even use anything more than Advil for the pain, though he’d been prescribed stuff that was much stronger from the very beginning. Instead, he built a new waterfall for the pond he had in his backyard, choosing stones from the creek nearby. He mowed his own lawn. He installed a screen door that, later, he looked out of from the seat of his wheelchair to watch the birds and trees.
I never said anything, but I keenly felt that the way he was dying was the most important lesson he’d ever teach me. He was always up for a laugh. He took the opportunity to flirt with the nurses. He ate chocolate ice cream, Twinkies and Jell-O and savored every last bite, boy.
And on Monday when he left us, I was sad but so thankful. Because this was a man who was loved by a lot of people. He did what he wanted and was happy. And, from what I can tell, had no regrets. You can learn a lot from that.
So I eat my delicious bologna sandwich today in honor of him. I always treat myself to one on days when I’m sad. And like Mr. Baker, they always make things better.