Confession time: I learned to hate Valentine’s Day a long time ago. Never mind why; just know that it’s so.
It does present unprecedented opportunities, though, for stories about a crazy little thang called love. This one, which I first read in Fred T. Morgan’s Ghost Tales of the Uwharries (1968) is one of the sweetest and saddest such tales I’ve ever run across.
Jubal Reeves was a mountain man born and bred, and he had a heart like a mountain too, a heart brimful of lovingkindness. He was always a good man to help his neighbors, but his truest love he saved for his beautiful wife, Rebekah, and their four stairstep children, who ranged in age from ten down to three: two girls, Hannah and Sarah, and two boys, Laban and David.
He just couldn’t do enough to show his love. He was forever bringing Rebekah flowers from the beds he planted in the yard around their cabin, forever hanging swings from the trees and carving little toys from chunks of wood for the children. Whenever he made a trip to the nearest store, he always picked up candy for the kids and cloth for Rebekah, who was an excellent seamstress and kept her children beautifully clothed.
And there was no prouder man when, at Sunday services in their little church, Rebekah raised her remarkably beautiful voice in song. He’d smile at the sound as if he were hearing the angels.
Jubal and Rebekah expected they would live to a ripe and loving old age together, surrounding by their children and spouses and grandchildren.
But it wasn’t to be.
They’d been married about twelve years when, in the dead of an exceptionally cold winter, influenza crept into the Uwharries.
Rebekah and Jubal nursed other families until, one evening, they came home to find their four children sick. David, the winsome baby of the family, died before morning, just about the time Rebekah first fell ill, but the next to go was ten-year-old Hannah.
Rebekah lived long enough to know that Hannah was dead before succumbing herself.
Jubal tried his hardest to keep six-year-old Sarah and eight-year-old Laban alive, but he fell ill as well. Neighbors sent for the already overwhelmed doctor, whose medicines saved few and eased the passings of many. By the time he arrived, Sarah and Laban were gone and Jubal was delirious.
He lay in a coma for nearly a week before his fever broke, and was too sick for another few days to ask about Rebekah and the children.
His neighbors gently and pityingly told him that they were all dead, buried in the yard near one of the flowerbeds he’d made for Rebekah.
Jubal didn’t believe them.
The doctor pronounced Jubal out of danger, and the neighbors went home. Perhaps, once he was there alone, he would accept and deal with his loss.
Except that Jubal’s disbelief was not that first unthinking oh no no nonono. . . that is our universal first reaction to the loss of loved ones.
In the spring, Jubal made his first trip to the general store. He still looked deathly pale, and was inclined to get a bit winded yet with much physical effort, but his mind seemed quite clear until he asked the storekeeper for five yards of gingham cloth and some stick candy for the little ones, mentioning that Rebekah was wanting to make spring dresses for the girls.
The startled storekeeper asked him if he was sure he wanted those items after what’s happened.
Jubal looked at the man as if he were the one whose mind wasn’t quite right, and said, Of course. Ain’t nothin’ happened. What are you talkin’ about?
The storekeeper didn’t try to explain; he simply sold Jubal the cloth and candy and sent him on his way.
Some said it was the fever that had unhinged Jubal; others, that his great grief had left him a little bit off. Although some tried, over the years, to explain to him that Rebekah and their young ones were waiting for him in heaven, Jubal never believed them. He carried on his life as if his wife and children were there by his side, washing clothes and hanging them out to dry, cooking for a whole family, setting a table at each meal for six, and washing all the dishes afterward.
The only sign he ever gave that things might have been otherwise was that, about once a year, he would have a neighbor woman make dresses for Rebekah and the girls–always in the same size as they had been when they died. The kindly woman always complied.
As the years passed, Jubal became quite reclusive, but remained happy and secure with the family he believed was still with him.
One year, around Christmastime, a stranger happened to pass by the cabin, stopping to ask directions to a nearby home. By then Jubal was quite old and feeble of body, but the stranger could see that the cabin was brightly lit and clean as a pin, and Jubal was setting the table, putting out simple decorations of pine cones and holly, and enough food for a feast. Jubal himself was cleaned up and dressed in clean clothes.
He gave the stranger the directions he’d requested, and the man went on.
He came back by a couple of hours later and might have stopped in to say merry Christmas and thaw out from the bitter cold by Jubal’s roaring fire, but he heard voices in the cabin–the merry voices and giggles of young children, followed by the most beautiful woman’s voice he’d ever heard singing an old mountain carol.
He didn’t interrupt; he simply went on his way. When he told the older mountain people about the sounds he’d heard, they told him about Jubal and the family he had never believed lost.
That was Jubal’s last Christmas with his phantom family. He died one afternoon the following year in that little spell when the leaves begin to turn, signalling the end of summer, sitting in his chair by one of Rebekah’s flowerbeds.
His neighbors buried him by his long-lost family.
In the Uwharries, they still tell the tale of Jubal Reeves and the family he loved so. The oldtimers believe that, somehow, his belief that Rebekah and the babies were still with him had the strength, eventually, to bring them back from the graves where they had lain for fifty years or more, and that they were truly with him in his last years.
And they can pay no greater compliment to anyone than to say [that person] shows a love like the love of Jubal Reeves.