I’ve often thought I’d like a roadmap of my life, an old-fashioned paper map with creases and wrinkles and pencil markings of all the places I’ve been. It would include the happy spaces and the sad places, the places I never should have been to begin with, the wrong turns, the dead ends, the uh ohs and the oh wows, the just-glad-to-be-there safe havens, and the home sweet homes. Some of the roads would have only a couple of lines, the getting there and the getting back marks, others would’ve been penciled in so many times there would just be a torn space where the graphite had once been.
The road from Warner Robins to Americus, Georgia would be one of those torn lines, a dogleg tattered groove starting in the middle of the state and then heading south and finally west.
I’d never thought much about Americus until I landed in Warner Robins as a young wife, mother, and teacher. That’s when my work friends told me about little Georgia Southwestern College, a good and relatively close place to get a Master’s Degree. After eschewing the tiny school as being beneath me, even with my less-than-stellar transcript from the University of Georgia, I decided to matriculate. The first pencil line on my map to Americus would have been dated early June of 1977 when I drove down the rural highway to register for classes. During the next ten summers or so, I traveled that road twice a week, earning two graduate degrees and coming to appreciate all a small college could offer.
It’s one of those quirky tricks of fate that Americus’ claim to fame not only included Georgia Southwestern College but also Magnolia Manor, with its retirement center and nursing home, the place where both of my parents would eventually live and die. Good Methodists that they were, my mother and father believed you just couldn’t get to heaven without at least stopping by Magnolia Manor on your way out the door. I hadn't paid much attention to conversations about Magnolia Manor when I was growing up, never believing in my adolescent mind that anyone I really cared about would ever end up in a place like that.
Of course, as with many youthful beliefs, life proved mine wrong. A few years after I’d finished my last class at GSW, my daddy became too ill for my mother to care for him in their home on the Georgia Coast, so he was moved into the nursing home in the same small town at the other end of that southwest Georgia road I’d driven for ten years.
Daddy wasn’t too happy about being in a nursing home, partly because he couldn’t get a decent haircut, so he called and told me I needed to get a razor and drive down to shave his head. I was horrified at the thought of taking a blade to my daddy’s scalp so I stopped at Walmart on my way into town and bought an electric hair trimmer. When I’d finished with the buzz cut I’d attempted, Daddy looked like he’d just finished a fight with a bobcat, with the bobcat being the paws-down winner. I, on the other hand, was proud he at least still had his ears. During the three years Daddy lived at the nursing home at Magnolia Manor, he never did ask me for a haircut again.
Daddy died in 1994 when I was in the midst of getting my doctorate at the University of Georgia by way of another well-traveled road. When I completed that degree, I was offered a teaching position at none other than Georgia Southwestern State University, the new name signifying my old school's advancement within the university system. I accepted in spite of the pay cut, believing that the lifestyle and the Dr. Mayo status would make up for the lack of money.
Never thinking I would stay as long as I did, I decided to continue living in Warner Robins where Molly was still in school and to commute to Amercius. During the seven years I worked full time for GSW, I made the 120 mile round trip an average of four days a week year round, 600 miles per week. Most of those trips were work related, but some were to visit my mother and take her to lunch, as she, too, had made her way to Magnolia Manor at that point, first in assisted living, finally in the nursing home.
Although the trip itself quickly became perfunctory and mundane, lots happened on that road to and from Americus throughout those seven years. I watched the crops come and go each season and enjoyed some beautiful sunsets. I laughed at the crazy whirling dog who greeted me most mornings as he dirvished himself way too close to the highway for my driving comfort. I mourned the dead deer who apparently weren't as smart as the dog, and tried my best to dodge the turnips that would truly fall off the backs of old farm trucks. I worried about my kids, worried about money, and worried about my future. Then on one trip on a September day in 2001, I learned of the horrific events that would change everything and then I worried about us all.
During that time, I also wrote my three crazy books in my head as I drove, thinking up fictional roles for Macon State Prison, the old Manhattan Shirt Factory, and Debra, my first real friend who happened to be black, as I daydreamed my way to and from work. And there was that Friday evening, driving home after seeing Mama look so bad, and then turning around and going back the next day, marginally functioning in a state of disbelief after getting the call letting me know she was gone.
Now that I live in Atlanta, I don't go to Americus very often, but just this week, I added a couple more pencil marks to my mind map when my friend, YeVette, asked me to teach a class while she was out of town. Because the trip was no longer commonplace, I spent the time appreciating the countryside and awash in memories. The drive was still gorgeous, with its pristine Mennonite farms, verdant pecan orchards, and corn and cotton crops, but it was the pictures in my head that kept me most occupied: Daddy and his hair cut, Mama and her favorite lunch spots, my teachers, students, and friends from my GSW days, and that crazy dog.
But what I thought about most was the life I've lived during the thirty-three years since my first trip on the road to Americus, and all the other roads I've traveled. And, even though my life map is pretty full, I feel relatively confident I'm not finished yet. I'm looking forward to seeing what I'll pencil in next. I just hope it's not one of those places I never should have been to begin with. I do hope those trips are over.
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