Showing Up By George Merrill

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There are millions, worldwide. They’re everywhere.

They were there when I needed them most. They could be friends or strangers. They might be old or young. I’ve found these people hard to profile except for this: their timing is impeccable. They were there just when I needed them.

In my lifetime, I’ve known more of them than I can count. Some are especially memorable and two come to mind immediately; a young working man I met twenty-five years ago in a snow storm. He drove the sorriest junk car I ever saw. The other, a school principal I knew over seventy years ago. He listened to me in a way no one ever had before. He wore brown suits. I don’t know if the working man had any religious affiliation but I know the school principal was Jewish. His name was Abraham Rubin.

Both showed up at just the right time.

I am talking, of course, about angels. Mr. Rogers of the legendary Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, preferred calling them helpers- probably because he was a Presbyterian – I think of them as angels, being a high church Episcopalian and all. But it’s also because these angels have got to be connected; affiliated with someone higher up who really knows what’s going on in people’s lives. Whoever that may be, I suspect he or she is the one that tips the angels off. That’s speculative but in any case, I want to tell you about the two angels I’ve never forgotten.

It was in 1945. The war had just ended. My father returned from Europe and shortly thereafter died violently. My family was depressed. They didn’t like to talk about it. I felt abandoned and alone. My own grief began showing up in my school performance and after a while I was remanded to the principal’s office for remedial action. In Public School 29, kids believed the gallows was a better option.

I was frightened. I walked into Mr. Rubin’s office. He invited me to sit down and instead of sitting across his desk from me, he drew a chair up beside me, looked at me with the kindest eyes I believe I’ve ever seen. I was still scared. He only said, ‘I hear you’ve been having trouble with your school work. What’s been the hardest for you?’

I burst like a pierced balloon filled with water and cried. I must have talked about a half an hour non-stop. I talked about my father’s death and then about the dog we had, and how only a week after my father was gone my dog died of distemper. When I’d emotionally wound down he asked me in the most matter of fact way, what my hobbies were. Photography I told him.

He paused; then said that he was soon to initiate a school newspaper. He wanted pictures. Would I like to provide them? It would require me to meet weekly with him for a few minutes to deliver the photos and help him select the best ones for the school paper. Of course, I said yes.

In the genius of his compassion he’d devised a plan in which I would be accountable to him in a way that didn’t highlight my failures but affirmed my talents. I felt known. I felt cared for.

I believe everyone meets angels. There are some you don’t recognize until years later. One day about fifty years after the principal appointed me school photographer, it came me: “Wow, now I get it.” This was an angel. There are times, however, when I knew it immediately, right there on the spot. Such was the case for me some twenty odd years ago in January after a big snow storm.

The snow storm ended. I was due in D.C. for a conference in which I had committee responsibilities and had also been asked to take photographs. I had my car serviced. I packed all my photographic equipment in it and left Baltimore arriving at the Washington D.C. beltway around five. The beltway had been plowed and there were high snow banks on either side. The beltway was jammed although traffic clipped along in all three lanes at sixty plus. I was in the middle lane.

I accelerated to get positioned into the safety of the right lane. The motor raced. The drive shaft had uncoupled. I could not accelerate and was gliding. With no control over my speed, how to get in the right lane was the problem. Cars shot by me on either side. Finally, I saw a break in traffic, pulled to the right and glided into a snow pile just short of Georgia Avenue. I was trapped between the cars racing in the right lane and the snow bank. It was dangerous.

An old junk car pulled in behind me. The driver got out. He wore a flannel shirt and Levis. He walked to my door and asked if I had AAA. I did. He took my membership number (before cell phones) saying he would stop at the station on Georgia Avenue and have them come and tow me. Within an hour, AAA arrived and I was towed safely off the beltway. He drove off. I never saw him again.

What a kind man, I thought. I also felt that what had happened signified something much more. The man was endangering himself walking between the narrow space between traffic and the snow bank. He didn’t know me from Adam. Why did he stop and bother at all and for a complete stranger at that? I was sure this was an angel because at times like this I’ve sensed how the total of the encounter feels equal to far more than the sum of its parts. If I feel that way, I’m pretty sure I’ve been visited by an angel. I’m sure I was.

Why do I write this now?

It’s Easter for Christians. In the Easter narrative, there’s a part of story that mentions angels that show up at critical times. After the crucifixion when the women who loved Jesus came to the tomb to find him, he wasn’t there. They were alarmed. Two angels appeared to assure them that Jesus had risen and that they would soon meet up with him.

I’ve always had this whimsical thought about that appearance. I imagined, not unreasonably, that one of the two angels were Jewish, since there was a significant Jewish population in the neighborhood. He may have been a teacher like Mr. Rubin. The other, possibly a working man, a shepherd maybe, like the man I once met who drove the junk car.

And the angels were, as always, true to their word.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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