A long walk to our mailbox is many times a way for me to get my thoughts together. As is the case for most working mothers, my days consist of task after task until the time that all energy is sapped away and I fall into bed seeking the peace that only a deep sleep can bring. I am luckier than some, because we sacrifice a lot so that I only work part-time hours in order to fulfill my passion for volunteer work and be home for my daughter in the afternoons. However, I definitely stay very busy with my connections to China’s orphans, my CASA commitments and caring for my family and pets.
So every minute of quiet I can find I take advantage of and one of those moments is the half hour after I arrive home from work. I slip into the house, change into casual clothes, pop a microwave lunch in, and take Riley out of his playpen for some outside time. While he is doing his business, I make the long walk to the mailbox and mentally line up my afternoon tasks that I plan to accomplish.
Today my list was interrupted as a truck came screeching to a stop on the road in front of my home. The driver, a man I’ll call Pops, is quite a character. When we moved in a year ago, he welcomed us to ‘his’ neighborhood by inviting us to his annual fish fry. I believe they said Pops had been putting on the event for 20 years and does all the fishing for it himself. At 84 years old, he is a spry fellow that seems to have more energy than I do. He sat down in our living room, introduced himself and told us that most of the people on our road were related to him. He invited us to the fish fry and then told us, “Now don’t go inviting nobody else or bringing anyone to my fish fry. I am inviting YOU and I don’t want any unexpected strangers showing up.” I thought that was hysterical and loved that he was bold enough to tell us not to be bringing any party crashers along.
He is a gruff old man—one that has seen many changes in this world. The peculiar thing about him is that when I try to interject anything into conversations, he ignores me! We laugh about it later, but he only seems interested in talking to my husband about fishing, cars and other mysterious man things.
This summer, he blessed us with plenty of vegetables from his garden. Entertaining to me, his offerings always come with some grumpy remarks—one day he came up and I was at the kitchen sink doing dishes. Through the window, I saw a truck outside but no one was around it. I went to investigate and found him in our garage, knocking on the inside door. I told him, “Pops, I can’t hear anyone knock on that door, because it leads into the laundry room and is very separate from the rest of the house.” He replied that “real neighbors’ don’t use the front door—they always come to the back door.” He had a point and I conceded. He told me that he had a bunch of cucumbers he wanted to give us but they had spilled out in the back of his truck. I climbed into the truck bed and began picking up the cukes and throwing them into his bucket. He looked at me and said in his gravelly voice, “You can pick those up but you ain’t getting my bucket.” I laughed and told him I’d get my own bucket out of the garage.
The next week he brought us a bucket of okra and again, he was very possessive of his container but I was ready with my own—and Ben got to can okra for the first time. These exchanges happened several times during the peak garden season.
Our property is just over 2 acres of some very fast-growing grass. Because of traveling commitments, and some other events, Ben let one big piece of our land grow the grass a bit longer. We decided we didn’t like it and he proceeded to try to cut it down with his riding lawn mower. He continued to tell me, “I really need to bush hog this. I need a tractor!” I continued to respond, “We can’t afford a tractor.” After a few hours of attempting to tame the overgrown grass, Ben determined it couldn’t be cut with our mower. He decided to ask around about finding someone to cut it—a hard task, considering we really don’t know many people here in Georgia. Before we could begin our quest, I came home from work the next day to find Pops bush-hogging our land with his tractor, as his dogs frolicked around him. He never said a word and when he was finished, he got back on the road and drove that tractor home with his two dogs cantering behind him. No one had asked him to come over—we didn’t even know he had a tractor. He saw it needed to be done, and he did it. Simple as that.
Despite his grumpy exterior, his kindly gestures prove that he is a wonderful person. It is a rare thing in this world to meet someone who you know without a doubt would do anything he could to help you if you were in a bind. Pops is that kind of person—he doesn’t really know us but I am convinced if I called him today and told him I was stuck on the side of the road, he’d give me some colorful words but then hop in his truck and come to my aid.
So back to today—Pops came to a screeching stop and I hollered out a hello. He ignored my hello and stuck a cell phone and minutes card out his window and said, “Program this phone, please.” I went to him and took the phone and told him okay, then asked him if he wanted to wait. He said, “Nah..I’ll be back around later to get it.” Then he put his lead foot on the gas and sped away.
Well, I am really not a gadget girl. That is what I have teenagers for, right? But because Pops had faith in me, I was determined to program the phone with the minutes and service card. I called the 800 number and when I couldn’t get anyone, I went to the website. When I couldn’t find instructions on the website, I did what any smart mom does—started playing with the buttons on the phone. I figured it out and patted myself on the back for my genius moment of gadget glory.
After picking Amanda up from school, I took the phone and the card and drove up the road to Pops house. As soon as he heard my tires on his gravel driveway, he came trudging out of his workshop. “Did you get it done, girl?” “Yep. I figured it out.” I was just tickled to death that he was talking to me. Then we stood under his trees and had a very long conversation about all kinds of stuff. He told me one of his dogs was missing and I could see that he was very concerned that something had happened to it.
The subject turned to China and the orphanage, as it does so many times. After I talked for a bit, he weaved a very interesting story about a time he was in the service and stationed somewhere around Italy. He said it was 1945 and he came to know two poor, hungry village children, and shared his lunch rations with them every day.
As he talked about those kids, he voice got more mellow and quiet than I had ever heard. He wasn’t looking at me as he talked, but instead staring off in another direction and seeing a landscape in his mind that I will never see.
He then asked me, “Do you know what I most regret?”
“What?” I softly asked, mesmerized by the thought of this one lone man holding so many interesting tales that many will never hear.
“When I found out I was leaving to come home, I told them kids I wouldn’t be back. I told them I’d be leaving the next day at 4 in the morning. I didn’t think I’d ever see them again, but you know what? The next morning when we were pulling out, that 9-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl came to see me off. And I didn’t even get their address. I think about them all the time and I just regret that I all these years I haven’t been able to know how they are doing.”
Grumpy-Pants-Pops pulled his old-fashioned handkerchief out of his pocket, mopped up his tears and blew his nose.
At that moment, I felt a kinship with Pops. After 65 years of a very active life, the two impoverished children who touched his heart remained a vivid memory. For me, it has only been a short few years since I held my China girl close to me, but I do predict that 40 years from now, I’ll still see Xiao Gou’s tiny face and remember the impact she made on my life.
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