I don’t like surprises.
I never have.
I roll with them pretty well when they come my way, but I don’t like being held in suspense.
So when my wife told me that she had a surprise for me on Saturday, I was not excited. She would not tell me what the surprise was, only that I needed to be ready to roll at 10:45 in the morning..
I tried to pry information out of her, but she was adamant about keeping a lid on the surprise. She did say it was “not a big deal” which only raised my suspicions more. What could she be up to with this surprise?
Originally, she wanted me to be free Saturday morning, but I had a retreat already planned that would occupy me from 10 AM to 3 PM. She asked if it was absolutely mandatory that I make this retreat, which was being conducted on Zoom. I insisted. She then said that we would do it the following Saturday, same time. Then, she mysteriously informed me that I would need to be ready by 3:45 for the surprise, today. My suspicions peaked.
Three-forty five came and we made our way to her Highlander. We drove past the Braves stadium, which took out one premonition. Then onto Cobb Parkway heading over the Chattahoochee River, another possible stop that we passed on by. All the way to West Paces Ferry, where we turned left. Past the mansion where I lived at the start of my doctoral program, on past the Governor’s Mansion, quickly approaching the toney Buckhead area where my old Cathedral resides. That’s definitely where we are going, or maybe the Fish Hawk to visit with Gary. I had just been talking with my friend, Glenn Brackett of Montana about his bamboo fishing rods, setting up a visit for one of the people I coach.
But she made a turn just before Buckhead, into the Atlanta History Center, one of my favorite places. But she did not go to the left up to the Center, but veered right down to a building I had never visited. It’s called the Kenan Research Center, where a library and records are housed. We parked on the curb, and I slowly made my way to the door, It was late afternoon on Saturday, so there was not a gaggle of research types there. In fact, I dare say we were the only visitors.
It felt a bit odd going through the lobby to the library area. Mary had made an appointment with one of the librarians there. We walked into the library, meeting a wonderfully welcoming young librarian, Serena, who made me think of my college friend, Ginger Hicks Smith, who served faithfully in the special collections of the Emory Woodruff library. This young woman, handed us the same gloves that physicians use when they are going to examine certain areas of the human body, raising my anxiety again, but then I saw it….a portfolio covered by a black cover. What the hell?
Still no explanation. I wondered what could possibly be under the cover. I will not tell/admit to what I feared might be waiting for me. What was under the black cover was a great surprise, and thrill for this Southside boy. It was a photo, a large one, of a group of Atlanta policemen in 1926, gathered around the major of Atlanta, William Hartsfield. There was my grandfather, handsome, John Wayne-looking policeman, along with his partner, Herbert Jenkins, who would later become chief but remained one of my grandfather’s best friends until the day he died. I later met with Chief Jenkins at his office at Emory, in the Center for Social Change.
Glen Pollard was my amazing grandfather, who had retired just before I was born. I was so fortunate to have him as a model for a male when I was a young boy, an image to pattern myself after unconsciously. I lived with my grandparents for the first three years of my life on this planet, with my divorced mother who moved home, and kept teaching high school biology at Fulton High. So while she was gone during the day, I had my grandfather and grandmother to be with me. What could have been a terrible absence of a father became a blessing, giving me an amazing trio of people who gave me unimaginable love and care. This dialectical tension of blessing and curse has played itself out over and over in my existence, so that I now expect it, look for it, count on it. Regardless of what happens, no matter how bad, I find myself natively looking for the blessing that is going to come my way.
The miracle even got better when my mother met a man from Hosford, Florida who had come to Atlanta to work for Delta Airlines. I more than hit the lottery when he married my mom, and adopted me…a package deal he would joke. Not only did I get a father who would become my “Best Man” when I married Mary, but I got a stellar little brother who would share my dad’s non-revenue airline pass as we flew all over this country….for free.
I laughed deeply when I first heard the old joke of a young boy who woke up on Christmas morning to find a steaming pile of excrement… once again cleaning it up for you South of God folk. The joke goes that the young boy is not disappointed by the discovery of the pile, convinced that there must be a pony somewhere. That is boy is me. A blessing from what seems to be a curse. Or as I say every so often to myself: Jackpot!
There’s an inherent issue for leaning into life with such optimism. I have learned that the hard way on occasion, but all in all, I rather like my way of doing life. I have known people who get a pony, but are obsessed with the pile that goes with it. It’s called a mindset. Some even suggest that it is a faith, a trust in the process that we are engaged with.
Living in close proximity with my grandparents proved to be such a blessing.
My grandmother’s gift was teaching me to cook as a young boy, giving me a certain love of the process of preparing food, appreciating the fresh produce of the farm, with a special love for her cornbread and her cast iron skillet. She also told me of her home in Texas, where the soil was black, the trees few, and the thunderstorms were monstrous. She took on a wistful countenance when she talked of Texas, lodging a piece of Texas in my Georgia heart. How magical, mystical when I took a detour while on my way to a board meeting in San Antonio when i spotted a sign indicating that it was 13 miles to Mart, a town my grandmother had mentioned. I found her mother’s grave under a lone mesquite tree, as she had told me, just outside of Waco, giving me a deep sense of connection to this land, relieving me of my homesickness so that I could stay in Texas for a decade…..hell, even weeping when I left. My McBrayer grandmother gave me a lot, not to mention her witchy ways…..that’s a W, son. And the gift included teaching me her incisive way of calling a spade a bloody hoe. It’s my Scots heritage that I wear proudly.
My grandfather modelled a compassion that helped to balance that edge. I remember him going next door on late Saturday evenings, to pick up a drunk, a passed-out Mr. Dial, a single veteran who would get loaded to assuage his inner demons from the war. My grandfather, a cop by day, and super hero by night, would take care of numerous folks, and do it with great heart, but with a quiet grace. He would also give me a deep love for nature, both at his family farm that he kept in West Georgia, and the woods where he taught me of animals and nature, and a pond where he taught me to fish.
I was a lucky, or blessed boy to draw these cards from the deck of life. (Lucky or blessed, depending on your cosmology). I find myself grateful most of the time, particularly in the latter chapters of my story. And that only increased when I was the recipient of this act of love from my wife of forty-one years, who went out of her way to arrange this amazing trip back into my history, time-travelling almost one-hundred years to my grandfather’s beginning as a cop, What an act of love she displayed in planning this special occasion on a Saturday in September.
That’s the way Mary is. She gives it daily at she teaches dyslexic students at the Schenck School here in Atlanta. She gave generously to our two kids, giving them a good dose of unconditional love, preparing them for life. She’s a bit more structured in her love while I tend to be free-wheeling. We make a good team, but you would need to check with our kids. She is an amazing friend to her childhood friends from the Druid Hills area. And now, she saved just a bit for me on this Septmber afternoon. What a gift.
Such moments give me a deep sense of grace, of receiving love from my grandparents, from my mother, from my amazing dad, my brother, my kids, my friends. I am a blessed man, though I sometimes suffer from a case of amnesia. I forget. And then, someone, this time my wife, surprises me with an act of love, giving me the amazing experience of a moment of grace. And I respond by being grateful, thankful for the gift of this life.
I remember people encouraging me as I was growing up to “count my blessings, name them one by one.” Mary’s amazing gift of a moment of grace on a late Saturday afternoon re-minded me of this reality, something that can get lost in the business and busyness of life. I am betting, I am hoping that you have a similar experience of being loved and cared for. I encourage you to let this amazing act of love from my wife, and my appreciation of it prompt you to pause, if but for a moment, and extend the effect of this amazing moment of grace.
Pause. Reflect. Appreciate. Yield to your instinct to be Grateful. Blessings, my friends.