My grandfather was a devout evangelical Christian. He’s gone now, but when he was still alive we jokingly called him the Most Right Reverend Jimmy Judd. It was a joke because in the non-denominational denomination I grew up in, preachers are preachers not reverends or pastors or anything else. We were all Brother and Sister Whoever.
We traded other jokes about him with each other. One was about Thanksgiving. Another was calling him a “pistol-packing preacher,” which was funny because it was true. He was a missionary for 50 years, working mostly in Malawi, Africa, and when he went out in the bush, he often holstered a gun. A few times, we know he actually used one. That’s how one water buffalo’s head ended up on a wall in Pop’s garage in Macon, Georgia. He said the buffalo would walk a path then carefully backtrack and hide to ambush someone hunting it. They were cunning and dangerous. Stories like that made me think of him like Indiana Jones. He even wore a fedora.
As a kid, he was more exciting in absentia. My grandparents’ house was a menagerie of hand-carved wooden figures, staffs, instruments, a cheetah skin, some horns and various related art, which I thought was normal decorative behavior for grandparents until I was a teenager. In that environment, he remained a mystery as my mind gravitated towards stories of wily wild animals and head hunters when he was gone. But when he wasn’t actually in Africa or at other congregations around the country sharing repetitive slides of tomato plants and the churches they built with handmade bricks, he was home sharing them with us. That always took the romance out of his work.
The Thanksgiving joke was this: “What are *you* grateful for this year?”
Every holiday, my family rolled 20 deep at dinner and we worked up an appetite waiting to get to the table. Mammaw always cooked up a mess of food, filling the house with an incredible array of tummy-rumbling aromas that had you mentally preparing your plate before it ever reached your hand. Then, before we could line up and grub, Pop would make us stand in the kitchen and (rightfully) give thanks for the hands that prepared that meal. By the time you reached your seat, you were dying for this food.
That’s when, one Thanksgiving, he made all of us stop and go around the table answering, one-by-one, as he asked, “What are you thankful for this year?” Every year after, someone would preface the meal with a sarcastic take on the same question, sparking laughter and simultaneously diffusing any intent Pop had at repeating his experiment. Thing is, thanks to the joke, I haven’t gotten near a Thanksgiving meal in the 20-something years since without asking myself that question.
This year, I’m thankful for a lot, especially for the people of Akron, for freaking out and for hitting The Wall.
Of all the artifacts of my family’s life in Africa, none makes me as happy as the black and white photo of my mom hiding behind my grandma’s skirt as Mammaw cradles a shotgun and a Black Mamba lies dead at her feet. Mammaw eventually returned to the states full-time to raise her five children while Pop split his time between the continents for the next several decades, building a Bible college and an eye center along the way. But even when he was home, he was often gone raising money on a circuit of guest-preacher spots. The idea of him was more present than he was. I don’t know when, but I decided long before I had a family that I wouldn’t do that no matter how big or noble my work.
If ambition and an autodidactic bent can be inherited, I believe I owe a lot to Pop’s trickle-down genetics, but I owe him more for making me determined to be a good husband and a good father—AND still do something impactful with my life.
The Sunday before this issue came out, I ran my third marathon, which meant running through my third encounter with The Wall, that point about 20 miles in when your body threatens to rebel completely. Knowing that’s coming doesn’t make the pain easier, but it does make the decision clearer: you quit or you overcome. The best way past is often through it.
Well, a week or so earlier, I hit The Wall with The Devil Strip. I panicked, deciding I needed to put this foolishness behind me and get a real job and make money and wear ties and whatnot. A couple hours later, after I’d gotten back to my to-do list, I realized it marked one year to the day I quit my day job. Like that fear and doubt had come back to haunt me. Still, it’s the best decision I could have made for reasons I hope are obvious. Chief among them: The people. In fact, it’s because of them I freaked out too. Look at the masthead. That editorial team is working miracles and the proof is in the fact I have “free time” now. That’s what gave me space to panic—and the panic was just enough of a nudge to remember there’s so much more I’m excited to do here.
The people who make this magazine possible—our editorial team and our contributors, the creatives who make it easy for us to fill these pages with stories, and the various Akronati who read us—aren’t just enriching my life by becoming my friends and opening doors to new experiences. They’re making possible a dream I’ve had since I was young. That is, to be good to my family and live with purpose. It feels amazing.
They—you all—are what I’m really grateful for this year.