Goodbye “Toke”


I know that most of my articles are funny or attempt to quench our thirst for the nostalgia of yesteryear, but sometimes the paper calls for the ink to take on a grander tone, to honor a soul and a life that touched so many. So this is dedicated to such a person, Rayford “Toke” Pendergrass, who passed away February 2, even though there aren’t enough words to do this article justice.
A resident of Fyffe, but I think born in Scottsboro, Rayford was married to my Dad’s first cousin, Birdet. And although I probably saw him many times as a kid, I really only got to know him since recently moving back to Alabama. He welcomed me into his home that year at Christmas and it was an evening to remember.
An annual holiday family tradition was sitting around the kitchen table holding a writer’s workshop with his wife and four daughters. Seriously, how cool is that? And although I remember the great story he wrote that night, what will forever stick in my mind was his penmanship. It was the neatest and most graceful cursive writing I’ve ever seen.
His love of reading and writing was passed down to his daughters, all of whom became school teachers. His daughter, Martha, who is one of my favorite people in the world, wrote a story years ago about one childhood Christmas where her dad had lost his job and made gifts for them. It’s titled “Simple Wooden Boxes” and was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and later made into a TV episode. You can Google it.
Rayford was one of those guys who could pick up a guitar and pick and sing country and gospel songs as easy as most people breathe. You will probably find as many pictures of him holding a guitar as not. Every year he put on Toke Fest where friends and family gathered around for a cookout–style extravaganza.
And every year, even when he worked long hard hours, he always took his family on vacation. Even now that his kids are grown, they still rented a cabin every year and the whole family went to the mountains. It was obvious how much he loved his daughters, and I know they will forever be Daddy’s little girls.
Rayford hung on for three weeks before passing peacefully in his sleep, and in that time I’ve never witnessed such an outpouring of love. Friends and family members traveled many miles for one last chance to chew the fat or play one final tune with this man who had meant so much to them. I can think of no greater measure of character than that.