It was on a sunny October Saturday afternoon.
There in the café of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, I dined with my dear friend and mentor Don Light.
He was on the Hall of Fame’s board and had invited me for a special tour around the new, fancy museum downtown. This was years ago after it had moved from its decadeslong residence on Music Row.
I don’t remember the exhibits that day — other than a fancy Cadillac once owned by Webb Pierce — as Don Light (I always called him by both names) escorted me, enlisting an archivist to provide historical detail.
But this I remember vividly: In the café, I was delighting in the most perfect sandwich I’d ever tasted — pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes and crisp bacon — while a fiddler stood near our table, playing a Merle Haggard ballad. Then he segued way into a mournful playing of Elvis’ “American Trilogy,” as arranged by the masterful songwriter Mickey Newbury.
A man cautiously approached our table. He stopped three feet away.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he began then, smiling, asked, “Are you who I think you are?” A sinking feeling of embarrassment filtered over me.
“Oh no,” I groaned inwardly. I dreaded the next awkward moment for us both.
Don, soft spoken and gentle always, set down his coffee cup and looked curiously from the stranger to me. I’m sure he dreaded the embarrassment, too.
“I’m not anyone,” I replied bashfully. “I’m not a country music singer.”
He shook his head. “But are you ...” he paused. “Ronda Rich?”
Don Light and I were speechless. Finally, I found my voice. “Yes, I am.”
The man smiled broader, relaxed his shoulders and moved closer. “I thought so. I’m a big fan of yours. I read your column every week in the Athens Banner Herald.”
His name was Robert Hale and, in the albeit too brief time I knew him, he became a friend.
He made a difference in my life and increased my depth of knowledge.
A few days after that meeting in Nashville — a city that is hours away from our different hometowns — he emailed me. As a hobby, he explained, he had taken up research of his families. This was years before websites such as ancestry.com made it easy.
Robert’s great-great grandfather had battled in the Civil War and, additionally, he was descended from men who had fought in the Revolution against the British.
“Let me look up your ancestors. As a favor. I’d like to do it in return for the reading pleasure you’ve given me.”
This led to many excited telephone calls including one in which he announced, with laughter, that my sister and I share a great-great grandfather with her husband.
“Y’all are actually cousins!” He roared.
Robert dug diligently until he had proven that 14 of my Appalachian ancestors had fought in the War of Independence and 11 relatives — their great-grandsons and great-nephews — had fought in the Civil War. Dozens, like my daddy and uncles, fought for America in later international wars.
Through Robert, my life looked different. I began an understanding for the suffering of my people, going all the way back to their homeland in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim.
I shall be forever grateful.
Robert began to complain of not feeling well. Two weeks later, he announced sadly, “I have cancer.”
We cried together then prayed. He did not last long. His family, knowing our friendship, invited me to the funeral. I dressed in black, drove the lengthy distance to the church, then sat alone.
I have a folder with all his emails and research. It led me to travel to Northern Ireland and consult historians about my ancestors and see the land from which I sprung.
It’s remarkable. Whenever I read his notes or think back to our Nashville meeting, I hear a fiddle. I think it’s playing “The American Trilogy.”
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at www.rondarich.com. Her column publishes weekly.