When I was a small child I often attended a tiny country church with my Granny Fanny Weaver. My Granny Fanny was OLD and she wasn’t a softy kind of Granny like I am, Fanny Weaver was a small stern woman with eyes as serious and cool as blue steel. In other words, I didn’t mess with Granny Fanny much, especially not in church during Sunday preachin’.
I would listen to the “preachin'” the best I could, but, most of what was being said struck me as boring old people stuff, so I shifted… and I wiggled. Mom made me wear fancy little church dresses with stiff angry netted petticoats and white lacy socks and little black patent leather shoes, and I will never forget how those benches were so cold and hard on my bony behind.
The old preacher preached his sermon in that wind-ed kind of way that aging Appalachian preachers do. It’s difficult to explain how he sounded, but he would wheeze at the end of each thought…he chopped off his sentences with a word that sounded like “and-ha!” but with angry growling undertones, then his fist would strike the pulpit to fiercely sharpen his point. This was all sort of frightening to watch and to listen to as a four, five, and six year old child but I endured, in the sad way that little children with no freedom of choice must endure.
Preacher Courts was very distressed about souls going to hell, (where was hell, I did not know but it was somewhere that was very hot and very mean) I did NOT want to go there for sure!
There WAS one thing that caught my attention and that was when the preacher was talking about “angels unaware.” You see, those were angels that were sent down from heaven to test people. I liked angels, I enjoyed coloring angels in Sunday school with pink and yellow crayons. Angels were always floating in blue skies right above someone who looked sick or scared or sad or lonely, those beautiful angels looked so nice to me. I liked their pastel colored wings and their pretty faces…so different from the old mean looking red devil images. So when Preacher Courts talked about “Angels Unaware” I always perked right up because finally he was talking about something that I liked to think about. He told us that sometimes angels can look like real people, and when angels change from pretty winged beings into real people they are doing that just to see what kind of heart a person has, it’s a test from God. He explained that those angels always turn into people who look and sound like they need something that you have just enough of to share but angels won’t usually come right out and ask for what they need…you have to notice on your own and then do the right thing or you fail the test. That’s the whole point, you have to care enough about people to notice when they need something that you have to give.
So, fast forward 30 years…I’m driving down a long stretch of highway one evening in rural Louisiana. I was with a wild and crazy girlfriend and to be honest, we were speeding just a little, we were laughing and carrying on like we were highschool best pals on a joyride in our daddy’s pick up truck when we buzzed by a twisted little man who was walking with an obvious bend in his back, he appeared to have one leg longer than the other one because his gate was awkward and lopsided. He looked all confused too and his clothing was disheveled. As we drove by him, I felt something, well, really I felt all kinds of things but what stood out most was that he “FELT” oddly out of place to me.
The road wasn’t a busy road, in fact I don’t remember seeing any other cars for at least twenty miles in either direction that particular evening.
Now … what happened next gives me chills to this day. I slowed down and I looked at my friend and she looked at me and we both yelled out “He’s an Angel Unaware!” at the exact same instant.
The truly odd thing is that this individual was a brand new friend, someone I had just met, we had never talked about angels unaware or much else for that matter. She was from Chicago and she was extra special to me because she happened to be my very first ever black friend (this wasn’t a racial thing with me, I honestly had never met another black woman in my life before this lady, I come from the hills where the only skin color is white for miles and miles. She and I had met in a grocery store parking lot, she was new in town and I was new in town and we struck up an instant friendship that caught on like a house on fire, we were best friends in 15 minutes) So, when we both recognized that “he was an angel unaware” at the same instant…we both just knew it was true, it had to be true.
After we both yelled out “angel unaware” I swung that car around and we headed back to talk to that little twisted man because we both knew that he was an angel unaware sent from heaven to test us and we couldn’t fail him! We would help him, we would help him even if he didn’t want to be helped because that’s how it works..the test I mean..you have to HELP!
The highway was perfectly straight, no turn offs, no drive ways, no hills..just open flat farm land on both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see…we drove in utter silence now for we were on a sacred mission, we were going to find our shared “angel unaware” and we were going to help him!
We shook our heads as we drove past where we knew our angel should be and we kept on driving.. but, there was NO ONE walking on the side of the road, on either side, there were still no cars behind us or in front of us. It was as if we were the only people in the whole state of Louisiana. We pulled off of the road and sat in silence looking out of the car windows, in front of us, behind us, the car was so quiet, our two minds were silently racing.
We finally gave up and headed toward our original destination, but not without talking about our lost “angel unaware” We couldn’t understand where he could have gone?
We did what we had to do in town and headed back on the same highway, still looking for our angel. As the sun sank and night filled the car, we stopped talking and rode in silence.
Of course, I don’t know what we could have done to help that little twisted man other than to offer him a ride and maybe a fast food meal in town. I can still remember how alone he looked and how twisted his small body appeared as he gingerly inched those painful steps along the side of that long lonely highway. I can still hear the sound of our car whizzing by him, I can feel it all from his perspective and from my own impressions. I can yet feel the lifting of his dirty gray hair, feel the pain in his twisted legs and the aching bend in his mis-shapen back.
Of course, I still don’t know where he came from, or where he was going, or what ever happened to him. I do believe in angels unaware though.
Isn’t it strange the things that we remember on long sleepless nights, those singular impressions that rise up like bouquets of weary flowers in need of drink? Preacher Courts and Granny Fanny, those hard wooden benches, white angels with pink wings, black angels with yellow wings, long highways, a twisted little man, laughing girlfriends caught unaware, lifted or yanked from our giddiness, suspended somewhere between reality and divinity, on a mission to find an angel on a Louisiana highway. What were the odds that she and I would discover our angel unaware at the same instant?
In the years since I saw that twisted little angel, I have been the twisted little angel myself once or twice. I had no choice over my situation, I do know that much. Once I know that one of those “angels unaware” crowded me out of myself and he or she took over my body, it’s true. The kind person that helped me was a nun in the hospital when our precious daughter was passing from this life. You see, I hadn’t been able to eat for days and this frail little nun brought a big tray of donuts into our daughters room. She crept behind me and she touched me on the shoulder and said “Eat these” in the gentlest and softest voice. I remember taking the tray and eating those donuts until I was full. I don’t know how many donuts I ate. I didn’t taste them and I did taste them, now, how is that possible to taste and not taste? When I think of myself sitting there in that hushed room not even realizing how hungry I was, and I think of how that nun knew exactly what I needed even when I did not because I was all hollowed out and I couldn’t feel anything at all, not sadness, not loss, not even hunger, somehow she saw an angel unaware in me, and she wanted to pass the test.