By Wendy Hodge
Have you ever seen a Southern summer sky? I mean, really seen it? Do yourself a favor and stop what you’re doing. Walk outside and just look at those white pieces of fluff floating above.
See how the blue sparkles? And the whole thing changes every minute … like a moving masterpiece.
When last we met, I was driving down a country road in Georgia, looking up at just such a sky.
In my rearview mirror, was Providence Canyon, Lumpkin, and Richland. Ahead of me was a destination unknown. It just felt good to be out in the world. While the night before had been filled with my standard nightmare of strangers stalking me and of the ground opening up beneath my feet to swallow me whole, that glorious Saturday had been nothing but one miraculous, ordinary, beautiful sight after another.
The radio threatened to intrude on my day with news of a murderer on the loose out west, but I quickly turned it off and pretended I hadn’t heard a single terrible word. This was not the day for sinkholes or serial killers.
And then I saw a road sign announcing that a few miles ahead was Plains, Georgia – Home of the 39th President of the United States! The last time I was there, I was only six or seven years old. Destination no longer unknown!
I only traveled a few miles before entering Sumter County. A mile or two more, and I was right outside the city of Plains. And there, on the corner of the main street, stood the Sumter County Retirement Home. On that brilliant Saturday morning, the parking lot was packed. Above the entrance was a banner with big red letters that practically yelled at me…. “Beauty Pageant!
The whole world is welcome!”
I’ve never been one to turn down such an exuberant invitation.
I walked in the door and was welcomed by a frazzled but cheerful little lady who didn’t seem to mind that I was from out of town and knew absolutely nobody. “That’s okay, sugar. Sumter County is a friendly place. Come on in.” A long table, sagging with punch bowls of lemonade (hopefully better than what I had back in Lumpkin) and platters of brownies (also of questionable origin) was surrounded by old folks and young folks and folks somewhere in between.
But the center of attention was a small stage at the front of the room. Two women and two men, whose 70’s were a quickly fading memory, stood smiling and waving at the audience.
These were the finalists for the “Most Beautiful Woman” and “Most Handsome Man” in Sumter County. They were completely adorable. But it was the gentleman on the end who caught my eye. He wore a seersucker suit and a little red bowtie. And I could not take my eyes off that smile. It covered his whole wrinkled face, and I could tell he felt it straight down to his toes. He reminded me of a skinny Colonel Sanders, and I wanted so much to hug his scrawny shoulders.
When they called his name as the Most Handsome Man in Sumter County, I stood up and cheered. I think the residents were startled by my excitement…. or maybe they just accepted me as one of their own….
As the winners left the stage, I made my way through the crowd. I just had to say hello and get a better view of that smile. When I was finally in front of him, he reached out before I could and took my hand in his. Those bony fingers were cool, but his generous smile was as warm as the Georgia sun.
He said, “Hello there! I’m Jimmy Carter. Welcome to Plains!”
The nurse beside him leaned in to me and whispered, “He gets confused. It’s all the Jimmy Carter signs all over town that have him convinced he’s the president.”
His hand was still shaking mine, and his eyes were twinkling. What possible harm could come from playing along with his delusion?
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. President. I’m Wonder Woman.”
“Well, of course you are. I recognized you right away.”
“Congratulations on being the most handsome man in the county!”
“Isn’t that just the silliest thing? I’m so embarrassed.” But he clearly was loving every minute of the spotlight.
I could have stayed there all day talking to “President Carter,” but the city of Plains was waiting for me. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I looked back at the retirement home. Best choice I’d made all day, stopping by to meet the Most Handsome Man in the county!
By the time I reached the Plains Visitor’s Center, my phone battery was blinking at me. I am notorious for having an “almost dead” phone… it’s all the pictures of clouds I take, according to my best friend. I parked and was struck by how beautiful the area is. The visitor’s center itself is a log cabin with a wide welcoming porch filled with rocking chairs. Ceiling fans stirred the breeze, and several folks rocked and chatted.
There was a wind blowing up some dark clouds, and one older man said, “Looks like rain is coming!” A little girl sitting next to him said, “Over there the sun is shining. You’re just looking at the wrong half of the sky, Grandpa!” As often happens, I didn’t just hear her words, I paused to feel them.
As soon as I opened the doors, the woman who runs the center greeted me like I was an old friend. Within a matter of minutes, I had an ice-cold water in my hand and a rocking chair had been pulled up next to a bay window within arm’s reach of an outlet. I sat, recharging my phone and realized I’d been smiling so much for so long that my face actually hurt. Imagine that, smiling until you hurt!
In that moment, I pulled out a notebook that has traveled all over Georgia and Alabama with me and began to write the words you’re reading right now. My night spent tossing and turning seemed very far away as I relived the miles and the smiles. And I renewed my conviction that joy is a choice. Every single day, it’s a choice. I’m not naïve enough to be unaware of how cruel and hard the world is. I have cried bitter tears and swam in oceans of regret. I have lost people who meant more to me than I can ever find the words to say. There are sinkholes that swallow houses and serial killers who murder women and babies. The world is real, and I am aware.
But there are also children who turn cartwheels when you buy their homemade lemonade.
There are people who randomly paint sunflowers on their concrete building. There are women who hang sheer curtains on their wraparound porch so they can watch the breeze move as it blows across their bare arms. There are little old men who believe in their very soul that they are the President … They tie their bow tie and face an aging world with a smile … And they see Wonder Woman when an Alabama girl shakes their hand.
Shame on me for looking at the wrong half of the sky where the sinkholes and serial killers live. May I remember to keep my face turned toward the side where little girls see nothing but sunshine and people greet each other with kindness. May I always make my home there.
And may my phone stay charged long enough to get a picture of that giant peanut in Plains!
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika.