How do we measure success? Popular culture has an answer, and we are all too familiar with that. But there is a better answer, and no finer example can be found than the life lived by our friend, Joe Anderson, of Upper Hightower. Joe passed away last Friday at the young age of 84.
Mothers cherish those days when the family is back home again, together under the same roof, but most families today are scattered. Parents with an empty nest wait for the phone to ring and wonder why it doesn’t. We blame our “busy lives,” but that excuse brings no comfort. Our longing for community and for the sense of belonging that family once gave us is painfully evident in the empty hours we spend on social media. We left the village for a commute on an Interstate highway, and watched our families receding in the rear view mirror. We attempt to fill that void in the virtual world, and today we cannot drive or even walk without a phone in our hands.
Joe chose a different kind of life. He served in the Army and saw what the world had to offer beyond our green valleys, but he returned here to make a life in the mountains he loved so much. Anyone who grew up here can tell you what a challenge it can be to make a living in our isolated and limited economy. Joe and his wife, Totsy did it, however, and raised five children who built their own homes and raised families here as well. Joe’s success was easy to see, especially on Sunday afternoons, holidays, and on any given day throughout the year when his home would welcome visitors: friends and neighbors, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He raised a family that continues to keep parents and grandparents as a priority in their own busy lives.
I mentioned earlier that Joe passed away at the “young” age of 84. I know people thirty years younger who are less engaged with life than he was. Joe had planted two gardens already this spring. He had just built some homemade bee hives to add to his apiary. His yard was immaculately kept, and he was often seen around the valley on his ATV visiting neighbors or carrying his granddaughter to her house sitting job.
Joe was the first person to welcome me when I moved into the valley, back in the days when I was young, untamed, and in a hurry. He was patient with me, and always kind. Some people are “horse whisperers,” but Joe knew how to guide people back onto the right path with good humor and common sense, softly spoken. Somehow in the midst of raising 5 kids, Joe helped keep an eye on my grandparents when they were old, contributing greatly to the time they were able to stay together in their home. This is just one of many such stories that are told all around our area. When the community came to pay their respects Saturday evening, the line of people waiting could have circled the entire church.
I will miss Joe’s wisdom, rooted in the Faith that was central to his life. His Faith was an example to any who seek God, never judging, always welcoming. I will miss Joe’s wit, his easy smile, and that twinkle in his eye. I will miss his stories. He is one of the last few people alive who knew my grandparents and the forgotten stories of the pioneers of the Southern Appalachians. He was a bridge between the past the the future.
No one expected Joe to leave so soon, but he lived his life fully, and he was spared the painful, lingering – and lonesome departure that awaits many who live so long. The only true measure of success is the impact that we have on people’s lives, and Joe Anderson touched many lives. His legacy will continue in the family he leaves behind, strong in Faith, rooted to the land they cherish, and devoted to family and community. To his children, those of us who have stood where you stand now can only tell you that it will get easier in time, but it will always hurt. Always. But the pain will change to longing, and it will remind you to cherish every moment. Your dad is not gone. I see him in your faces, and in the lives that you live.