The widow of Rudy Williams sits at her brown kitchen table in Hamilton, the clippings from her late husband's life spread out before her, with two of her three daughters propped against nearby counters and wearing matching heart-shaped pendants engraved "Love, Dad."
They are remembering, in word and thought, the life of Rudy Williams--husband, father, seafood peddler, volunteer firefighter--who passed away Sept. 9 after a brief illness.
On this night, it is only three weeks after his death, and his loved ones are retelling their favorite stories about him before those, too, slip away.
There was the time Rudy helped save a fisherman-gone-overboard from drowning in the Potomac River. It was a typical Rudy Williams moment--the man who lost both of his legs in a 1961 traffic accident going out of his way to rescue someone else.
His 64-year-old widow, Frances, who attended the same Arlington County high school as Rudy and married him in 1952, holds the torn, yellowed clipping.
"It all went by like a whirlwind," she says of their time together. "When you look back, you wish you had just one more day."
Just one more day. It has an ironic ring now: Tomorrow would have been Rudy's 69th birthday.
He was a fit man, and watching his health fail wasn't easy, says Frances, the postmaster in Paeonian Springs. He had arm muscles like steel, the result of pulling himself around for more than 30 years on a padded board. He turned their back yard into a vegetable garden, bought a boat and made sure his daughters all learned how to water-ski, and served with the Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department.
"He was always doing something, always busy," says Frances.
People may remember him best as the man who sold seafood out of the back of a black truck bearing the legend "Williams Chesapeake Seafood."
Rudy established the business in 1970, making the weekly three-hour drive to Virginia's Northern Neck to stock up on oysters, shrimp, jumbo lump crab meat, the occasional eel and crabs of many varieties--Chesapeake blue, deviled, soft-shell.
Rudy didn't just "take" from the Northern Neck. One of his daughters, Karen Settle, 43, eventually decided to move there and raise her family.
In the early days, he delivered fresh seafood to customers at their homes. But the business grew, and after a while Rudy decided to let his patrons come to him. He parked his truck in Hamilton, lowered the tailgate and waited on them from the cab, which he had outfitted with a small television and a radio.
Moving back and forth from his truck to his roadside seafood coolers, Rudy developed the agility of a gymnast.
"In earlier years he could go from ground to tailgate with one movement," says his daughter Leslie Lowry, 36, who worked beside her father and will continue to operate the business in Hamilton.
Rudy's legions of customers were loyal; many attended his memorial service at Hall Funeral Home in Purcellville on Sept. 12. Hundreds sent condolence cards in which they recalled conversations, fond moments, good fish.
"I had to write and tell you how much I appreciated him and the wonderful fresh bay seafood he brought to Hamilton," wrote Barbara Williams (no relation to Rudy). "I'm only a customer of his--for the last 19 years--but I thought he was a great guy."
Rudy's life took its dramatic turn on a foggy December day in 1961 when the then-31-year-old was returning home from a hunting expedition. His Jeep broke down near Centreville.
After leaving the vehicle briefly to fetch a friend, Rudy returned and was standing on the shoulder of the road working on the Jeep when a passing car crushed him between the two parked vehicles. At the hospital, both of his legs were amputated.
The accident occurred a week before Christmas, Frances recalls, and in the back seat of the Jeep were presents he was bringing home for her and their little girl.
Rudy refused to dwell on his tragedy, Frances says. He stayed busy.
"He was not an idle person. Of course there was an initial period of depression, and there were other depressions over the years," she says, "but for the most part he was not a depressed person. . . . He was active. He learned to use a lawn mower. He loved to hunt and fish, to be outdoors."
Two daughters were born after Rudy's accident, and Frances remembers that family outings, such as trips to the supermarket, would often turn into mini-lessons on dealing with disabilities, not only for the children but for the occasional adult who would stop and ask Rudy what had happened.
"We would draw attention when we were out with [our] young kids," Frances says. "If anyone would ask about it, he would answer rather than have it go unanswered, and depending on the age of the kids, he would say, 'You have to be careful crossing the street.' The kids were usually able to handle it better than adults."
His daughters remember how proud they were of their father for his volunteer activities and his refusal to give up such tasks as raking the lawn or hauling rocks out of the yard.
"We all kind of grew up knowing what a physical disability was and how glad we were to see McDonald's had a drive-through," says Leslie. "It's the little things that were important."
Rudy's youngest, Lora Mullen, 34, who lives in Leesburg, recalls that her dad even found a way to accompany his daughters down the aisle on their wedding days--he rolled alongside them.
"We didn't see where there was any big deal," she says. "Our father just didn't have legs."