Was it worth it?

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

In the course of less than a month, Fayette County lost two of its most revered citizens, Drs. Ferrol and Helen Sams.

In sheer gentility, they epitomized devotion to community and to family – which for the most part are the same thing.

I forget, sometimes, how the years slip away, and when a friend spoke to me the other day, I was taken off-guard. Our county is so populous now that it’s hard to imagine that when the Samses opened their Fayetteville office, they were the only full-time physicians here.

My friend has lived here 10 or 15 years and thinks of Sambo (as Dr. Sams called himself) as a novelist.

“I had no idea he also practiced medicine for awhile,” she marveled. “I guess Mrs. Sams did too.”

In 2007 I wrote about standing in line in a June book-signing for an autographed copy of his latest triumph, “Down Town.”

Was it worth it?

Was it worth standing in line for nearly three hours to get a dozen barely legible words scribbled in the fly page of a book I hadn’t even read?

When his Velcro memory recalls every conversation, image, or event that he has witnessed, in his entire [then] 85 years?

When he signed books for three solid hours without a break, saying he wouldn’t quit until everyone still in line got theirs signed, because they had waited? (“Just like we did for patients at the office,” he murmured.)

The book signing for “Down Town,” Ferrol Sams, Jr.’s latest, was brilliantly orchestrated by Friends of the Fayette County Library – on a steaming Saturday in June. Well before the 1 p.m. starting time, the driveways and lawns were packed with Sams fans from as far away as the Carolinas and Florida.

He took his place at a table in the Dorothea Redwine Meeting Room and did not stand up or excuse himself until he had signed an estimated 2,500 books by about 4:15.

I take that back: When a particularly good friend or former patient stepped into the space in front of him, he rose and stretched across the table to share hugs. He thanked everyone whether or not he knew them, shook a few hands, shared a little quip with many.

I was one of the lucky ones who fell into those last three categories. He told me to turn around, he wanted to see my skirt. I had worn a particularly unfortunate tie-dyed caftan to a party we both attended, and he has mentioned it every single time we have seen each other in the 34 years since.

Then he asked very softly if I was seeing a neurologist, and who it was. Only a caring caregiver would notice a tremor and check to make sure it was being seen to – even though I was not one of his patients.

It worked out fine. Both the out-of-towners and the locals were civilized folks (naturally – they are readers) and scrupulously remained in their proper order until they reached Mecca. The air conditioning just barely kept up with the throng and the open double doors. Some of us took advantage of the chairs to sit down as we moved along; many were reading. Strangers saved places for strangers who needed to take potty breaks, but, you know, come to think of it, by the end of the day, those within conversational distance were no longer strangers.

Fayette Countians shared memories about their beloved doctor and the advice he dispensed over the years. In a 55-year practice, you meet a lot of folks, but who expects questions like, “How’s Uncle Jake’s back?” of a patient whose relative had been in the office once, 25 years ago?

The friend I was with that notable afternoon observed the same thing: When you mention tonewcomers to the community, i.e., anyone here less than 10 years, that you’d stood in line most of an afternoon to have a new book signed, it’s really hard to explain why.

How do you explain pages from which rise stories of how it was – and is – in Fayette County, Georgia, even if by another name? How do you explain how he gets the language, the gestures, the scenes exactly right?

How do you make them believe that this man wrote by hand early every morning for years to produce his eight novels and several other titles –then went to the office to work an often 10-hour day?

He and Dr. Helen were the county’s only physicians until about 1971, which may explain why he wouldn’t have had time to start writing until he was 60.

He always said he would not retire until they carried him dead from the office. Not so. He retired in 2001, and when you ask him how he is, he says, “Fine, fine. Well, not really, but good enough.”

I worried about him. He was in the home stretch, of course, but I wanted him to live forever.

I guess he will, in his books and stories, and in the massive fragrant gardenia bush I rooted from a snippet he handed me once in his wildflower garden.

Was it worth waiting all afternoon to receive an inscription that says he admires my work too?

Yes. Oh, yes, it was worth it.

[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]

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