This is Ralph.
I've had Ralph since I was in junior high. Ralph was my first and remains my only guitar. I have written countless songs, some of which got recorded. Some got sung by youth groups and Bible studies. Some eventually were performed in musicals my husband and I wrote, produced and directed by casts of up to 100 people and audiences of up to 1,000. Ralph kept me company in my loneliest moments. Ralph was there when I was 13 and my brother died - and I wrote my first song as a result. Ralph helped me process all the "feels" that a creative person can not escape due to the very nature of our being. Ralph has literally been all over the world with me, and all over the galaxy of what it takes to just grow up these days.
Ralph is named after one of the finest men I will ever know. Ralph White. Mr. White was the Dothan High School band director that put us on the map with super sharp red jackets and British style black band hats. The band was impressive where football was king. They broke our hearts when they moved to Alabama further north where he ran a music store. But we visited often through the years and he picked my first guitar for me. When it didn't arrive on time for our visit, he gave me his personal guitar. In fact, that was the trip we had taken to get Jon after his summer with Youth With a Mission. We only had a few weeks with him back home before he died in a football accident.
I was little when Ralph and Sandra lived in my hometown in Alabama. While I was raised in a home with deep and abiding love, there was also a deep and crippling vein of generational perfectionism. As a child, I always felt like I was doing something wrong, or was certainly about to. But at the White's house, we jumped on beds to escape the "crocodiles." At the White's house, we were loud and happy and simple. We touched empty locust shells on pine trees and felt all the tiny butterfly tickles of a roly-poly legs in the palm of our hand (potato bug).
I did things I was afraid to do and laughed.
Ralph and Sandra loved each other and their two children, Julie and Greg.
Ralph and Sandra were experienced campers. And they lured us in until we were hooked.
Camping gave me the Appalachian mountains and those mountains, in turn, gave me my Father, then Jesus, then Holy Spirit. I was allowed to wander the campground by myself and explore streams and dogwoods and meadows. And that's where I met God...and myself.
When Rich and I got married, letting Rich meet the Whites was priority. And when our kids got to meet them, they slept on the same sleep sofa that Julie and I slept on as children. The one where Mr. White would wake Julie up with a wet wash cloth. The one that folded up on us and sent us all into fits of laughter when he happened to sit on the hinge at just the collapsing point.
Funny, if I were to do a word search on any word I might be overusing in this blog post, it would be "laughter." But that is exactly as it should be.
I've just come back from an art conference in those mountains, and while I was there, Ralph White fell and died. I received word the night before last when I got back. I had to tell my mama yesterday morning. I felt incredibly guilty for not texting Julie while I was there. She has at times lived nearby the conference center, although I'm not sure where she lives now. And even though she was in Alabama saying goodbye to her most amazing daddy on the day I reached the mountains, at least she would have known I cared. The truth is, I was relishing and jealously guarding time with Davis who, we had just learned, will be moving to South Africa. I plan to be back in August so I had decided to try again then. But I should have listened to that Holy Spirit prompting. (Julie, I am so very sorry.)
My own father passed away last year. And here I was in the mountains that gave me the best of him. He loved those mountains so much and actually left work completely behind there. We were allowed to get dirty - not for long. We bathed in mountain streams regularly. But getting dirty was allowed there.
Being with the Whites was always somehow like being in the mountains, even if we were gathered somewhere else. Laughter was always on the menu along with fabulous story telling intermixed with delicious food.
I can still hear Sandra's laugh and the way Ralph pronounced "and uh" between thoughts.
But most of all, I truly believe the prayers of Ralph and Sandra led my family into the Kingdom of God. My dad was a church going agnostic until I was seven years old. And while the Whites were not physically present when Dad decided to let Jesus be Lord in his life, they were there to walk with us the rest of the way.
But here's the deal. They loved us the same on either side of that equation.
I will mourn deeply as the days come, but I am overcome with the sweetness of the fact that I was one of the extremely privileged many who were loved well by Ralph White.
Ralph White gave me my own best dad. He allowed my daddy to let down his guard and to laugh at himself. We always felt whole with the Whites.
And this gap will never be filled by another. It will be reserved for the sweet memories of an incredible human being who had more impact in my life than I probably will ever even realize.
I love you Ralph. And I love you still, Sandra.