It was about 10:30 a.m. and blue lights blocked the intersection. Walton County Sheriff Deputies sat quietly, stopping traffic from all sides. I knew it had to be a funeral this time of day. People paused in respect, a Southern practice that always makes me proud to be a Southerner, and, a little teary-eyed no matter who it might be. I didn't expect it to be Robert's procession. I waited, looking at my watch realizing I was getting later by the second, but it didn't matter anymore. They surely wouldn't start without Robert.
I observed each car go by - the hearse, the family, the friends - and then finally, I was allowed to fall in behind. On this very road, about 40 years ago, I traveled to meet Robert, his wife Josephine, his family - Renee, Rodney, Lance and Kelly - for the very first time.
As a sophomore at Truettt-McConnell College, I was selected by the Southern Baptist Convention as a summer missionary to Massachusetts. My stranger-side-kick and myself infiltrated the Catholic world of New England, working during the summer in backyard Bible schools, leading church services, ministering to young people who were basically the same age we were. It was life-changing. Service and ministry seeped into my skin, and I decided to do it again - just not so far away. So during my second summer at the University of Georgia, I interviewed with Center Hill Baptist Church for a youth ministry position. They liked me. They invited me. They kept me. For two years.
The first year, I commuted from Athens with the occasional spend-the-night with a church member. The second year, I had to have a home. They made sure of it. So Robert and Josephine - with four children of their own - turned their living room into Judy's bedroom and that was that.
Today, as I sat in the packed sanctuary, I heard Rodney, his eldest son, speak of his father's character. I glanced at Josephine. She was nodding her head in agreement. So were Renee, Lance and Kelly. Unconsciously, I'm doing the same thing. A quiet man, his convictions - his love - his service to mankind was palpable.
I struggled to remember the small details of life with the McCarts, but I do remember how I didn't feel like a stranger. When the car pulled under the car port to unload groceries (and, man, were there a lot of groceries), we all helped. It was an event. Evenings around the dinner table included everyone with tales of the day and usually, lots of laughter. I hated squash, but Josephine cooked it just right - paper thin and fried, and I caved. The sweet tea was addictive, but not as addictive as that strawberry cake. I can still taste it.
Being a Ford man, I understood why Robert loved my little red and white Mustang so much, but not as much as he loved Renee's. Anything I asked him to do for the youth group, he did it with joy. Anything. He loved the outdoors, and he loved to laugh. I remembered that hearty laugh. His children had it, too. I suspect, they still do.
Even after they converted my bedroom back into a living room, it was still home. And when I would return to the church for visits over the years, Robert and Josephine were the first faces I searched for. They were the first people I grabbed.
It's incredible how, even though years have passed, the depth of love I have for this family has never wavered. Time has been the greatest divider but not the conqueror. Just like that, I'm back and it's summertime at Center Hill. The youth group is preparing for some big event, gathering in the parking lot underneath the big oak tree. I'm eating squash and strawberry cake. I'm sitting in the house on the hill where a family took me in and gave me exactly what I needed - love.
Part of that scenario goes home today, but the legacy of Robert remains. He leaves a very important lesson with me - when you think you are full, and there's just not room for anyone or anything else, there's always an opportunity to change a living room into a bedroom.
Having a place to lay your head is life-changing. Just ask me.