Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mary Jo

Already February first and I haven't really acknowledged my little blog (I don't like that word) in the new year. I had high hopes about a daily entry. It just wasn't meant to be.

I'm in a hotel room at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education tonight in the great Athens, Georgia. It's strange to be here as a professional, within eyeshot of my old dorm (Rutherford Hall for you Georgia grads). During my time at Georgia, I may have entered the Continuing Ed Center three or four times, with the first time being my most memorable.

I was seventeen or eighteen and my grandmother, the epic Mary Jo Whitley, drove me to "the university" as she called it to allow me to register. The parking deck was full. After a couple of rounds through the parking deck, my able-bodied grandmother pulled into a handicapped spot and proceeded to limp across the garage, gently holding onto my elbow. I was mortified. Here I was, at the University of Georgia, with all of these cool college kids walking around. And my otherwise dignified grandmother was faking an injury to avoid searching for a spot. (She couldn't remember which leg she had been limping on when we returned to the car. Hilarious.)

And here I am 15 years later, preparing to give a talk that the program says is titled "Going from Good to Great: How to Design, Install and Maintain Color Displays." And unbeknownst to the people attending the conference tomorrow, I retitled it "Lessons from a Walled City: Using the Gardens of Charleston as Inspiration for Color Displays". It's a very Mary Jo move.

It's been a week of Mary Jo.
Me and my grandmother

On Thursday, Chris and I drove to Callaway Gardens so that I could give a workshop and talk at the Southern Gardening Symposium. At the banquet and live auction Friday night, we chose a table at the back of the room where four people were sitting. One couple was from Tucker, Georgia (where I grew up), one lady-who was a real firecracker and insisted I introduce myself the next morning as "The Plant Whisperer"- was from St. Petersberg, and the other lady was from Columbus, Georgia. Their average age was probably around 80.

I mentioned that my grandparents lived in Columbus and wondered if she knew of Dr. Whitley and Mary Jo. She gasped, put her hand to her heart and said, "Your grandmother was one of my very best friends." I couldn't believe it.

She came over, held my hands and told me that seeing me brought her back to when she was young and friends with my grandma. They lived around the corner from each other and had children the same age. And during one of the summers in the 1950's, they decided to entertain their children by taking day trips to each of the state parks in Georgia.
Mary Jo Whitley, 1940's

I remember my grandmother telling me about those trips. They'd pack food for the day, load the kids in the car and take off. When she told me about these adventures she'd laugh her devilish laugh and talk about all of the trouble they'd get in (trouble in a very 1950's kind of way).

There were so many great things that happened on this trip. My mentor, Dr. Michal Dirr was there when I gave my talk, as were my parents. When I told my jokes in the talk, I could always pick out Chris' laugh in the crowd. The people at the conference were wonderful. The weather was perfect. But I still can't get over meeting Mrs. Betty Turner.
My sister Kelley, Grandma and me at Middleton Place


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