On June 6, under dark clouds threatening torrents as we’ve seen lately in Northwest Arkansas, two men gathered with friends and family beneath a somewhat out-of-place, lone pine tree in the old Bentonville City Cemetery. There to bury a woman deeply loved by both, one man’s devotion to her began some 25 years earlier than the other.
The younger of the two was understandably incredulous. Andy Pham, an affable, Arkansas-born Vietnamese American in his mid-30s and father of three little girls, was burying his wife of 10 years, a beautiful tall blonde, Deep South Scotch-Irish to the core, who had fallen for his sense of humor, work ethic and who knows what else in the chemistry between two mortals.
The older of the two was equally incredulous. A Louisiana-born man, father of six, and living in the last year of his sixth decade, he was burying his daughter with whom he’d fallen deeply in love from her moment of birth in Little Rock in 1983. Beyond her early demise, his disbelief was that his daughter was being laid next to her mother and his late wife, whose earthly remains had been planted under that same pine tree 13 years earlier. This in a small yet famous city that had welcomed his newcomer family, arriving from Houston, into its caring fold as seamlessly as if his family roots were of noted, even pioneer, local families: the Berrys, the Douglases or the later-arriving Waltons.
But then, that’s the modus here. Disembarkers landing near sylvan Beaver Lake shores since late last century hear the same warm greeting: “Welcome to town — do you work for Walmart or are you a vendor?”
His answer in 1994 was the latter — a Walmart supplier representative then finding himself in the most at-ease yet arguably oddest company town in the country, a place where so many “owe their souls to the company store” because, well, the company store is the largest in the universe. Like a fast-acting Stockholm Syndrome in an aerosol can promoted at “rollback” pricing, this local hybrid culture of getting along in overall “niceness,” as one business sociologist from up north pegged it decades ago, overtakes you. And in contrast to the preceding, poignant and sometimes tearful celebration of life that had just taken place at the First United Methodist Church just off the square where Sam Walton opened his first namesake dime store, the annual Walmart Shareholders Week was in full swing. Thousands of shareholders and store employees from around the world descend upon the region to celebrate the previous year’s financial results and hear company execs and visiting celebrities offer pep talks for the current year. It’s the Mardi Gras of Northwest Arkansas. The only corporate shindig that might compare is the Berkshire Hathaway annual soirée for shareholders and analysts in Omaha.
Now, 25 years after planting foot here, I was that elder man at the cemetery seated shoulder to shoulder with my son-in-law under a forest green funerary canopy, staring blankly at yellow roses arrayed over my daughter’s pearl-gray coffin. Loved ones surrounded what has become, by chance and corporate relocation, the Talley family plot, situated a mere hundred yards down the lane from the late retail patriarchs “Mr. Sam” and “Miss Helen” in their own family plot with headstone and adornment no greater than most others in this old public cemetery. Ironically, and certainly not by design, Walmart corporate headquarters looms in clear view through the cemetery trees.
It’s a vivid and literal lesson. When both daughter and granddaughter of a Louisiana piney-woods carpenter are interred a stroll away from the graveside of the once-dubbed “richest man in the world,” we understand: Earthly possessions count for naught at end-of-life. Rich or poor, we are judged the same. And when viewed by those left behind, wise words once spoken by Helen Walton come to mind: “It is not what you gather, but what you scatter that tells what kind of life you have lived.”
I thought of what daughter Emily had scattered in her shortened life. There are memories of her laughter, her creative nature and her determined way of doing things in her own way that so frustrated her parents and other loved ones. As a toddler and when asked her name, she would respond, “Emily, Emily, Emily!” mimicking her mother’s exasperated tone. More importantly are her bright and beautiful daughters remaining to be consoled and lovingly nurtured. Yes, I am their devoted grandfather and beauty is but skin deep, yet — my word! — they are stunning in their blended features of American Gulf South mother and South Vietnamese father.
My musings were interrupted by the minister’s benediction. We stood to depart. In an impromptu moment I gathered my children around their mother’s headstone a few yards from their sister’s new resting place. I entreated God’s support for my brood and offered thanks for blessings.
The rain clouds finally poured down their own benediction; mourners moved quickly to vehicles nearby. Pulling away from the cemetery, the Walton headstone and the Walmart headquarters beyond appeared in my rear-view mirror. I felt an unexpected sense of comfort: rich or poor, the Talleys and the Phams were going to be OK. Yes, with faith and community support, we will be OK.