If I had the perfect picture of him, he would be wearing his old, blue postman uniform. It would be slightly unbuttoned, dirty, and sweaty from his day's endeavors.
If I had the perfect picture, he would be chain-sawing his newest woodland creature out of the tree he just felled in his backyard. Or carving and painting one of his many masterpieces in his basement workshop.
If I had the perfect picture, it would be of my dad and him building his log cabin-style garage from the trees on his property. It would include the pride my dad felt in being able to assist this wonderful neighbor and for being the chosen one to work with him- the project saved for when "John" was there.
If I had the perfect picture, he would be winding his bike down River Road, chasing the bald eagle or looking for other forest wildlife.
If I had the perfect picture, he would have dropped his bike at the pine tree entrance to The Pinery and be walking toward our cabin with a strong half-wave and a distinct Pittsburgh accent shouting "Heya John!" Perhaps not many would hear that when looking at the picture, but our family would.
We'd also need a picture of Ralph sitting at the campfire or on the front steps of The Pinery talking to my dad late into the night. Us kids falling asleep on the three-story bunk beds would listen to the sounds of their voices as we drifted off. Again, that's what we would hear in a picture that others may not.
You see, Ralph was such an integral part of our summer experience. The Pinery visit was not complete until we had a dose of Ralph. And he was always welcome, whether it was at the campfire, in the middle of a project, or before our next outing, we always had time for Ralph.
His stories were full of sustenance, people, and experiences. His grandfather owned all of the land on our stretch of the Clarion River. Ralph was around to see every cabin built and he knew everyone on that river. He remembers when the Clarion River used to be called the Black River- when it was too polluted to fish or sustain any wildlife. My how it changed throughout his lifetime.
Recently, he suffered from Alzheimer's and his short-term memory failed, but he didn't forget his old stories and he didn't forget John.
When we arrived at The Pinery, we received word that he had just slipped into a coma and would most likely not make it through the night or the next day. The next morning we were told that he had passed.
The day happened to be on the Summer Solstice.
All week the images of Mr. Watts flashed through our minds as we swam, biked, kayaked, and sat and shot the breeze at the fire and on the porch. He should have been riding by at any moment on that old bike or in his old truck, and he even should have been taking a long walk to visit the neighbors with his best pal, Rocco the beagle, and his yellow rope of a leash. Rocco died a few years back, but he will always be present in my memory.
Yesterday was his funeral in Trafford, Pennsylvania. We sang his favorite hymn, The Old Wooden Cross, and it seemed just so appropriate for him. Throughout the funeral home were pictures of him from his time in the navy, with his family, and at the river. But they also had his carvings, both small and detailed and big and carefully chain-sawed.
And there amongst the smaller carvings, was one of his trusty companion, Rocco.
If I had the perfect picture, Rocco would be by his side, and our family dogs would be barking as they walked toward our house.
Our neighbor, Bob, did the officiating at the funeral and his homily was called "Gospel of the Unseen." While these pictures will all remain unseen on this blog and we will never have those tactile photos to hold in our hands, we will always hold these dear both at and away from the river.
I don't have the perfect picture, but I do have some of him from our wedding. Unfortunately the internet at my parents' house does not have enough bandwidth to upload the pictures I would like, so they will have to remain unseen. But those are sometimes the best.