Just before the bottom dropped out of our world with the coronavirus, I attended a birthday party at the home of close friends. This party has been a March tradition which continues even though two beloved people are no longer with us — but they are remembered fondly when we all sing “Happy Birthday.” During the pre-dinner conversation, Gina Nielsen mentioned our plans to head for Nebraska in May. She needs to see her Iowa daughter and I’m overdue for a visit with my family.
This reminded other guests that I have always made a point to surprise, i.e. shock, my very conservative family in some way. Four years ago, we made this trip, and Gina adjusted my fake nose ring before we stepped off the plane. My kid brother, Paul, and his wife, Dorothy, have never quite recovered. As I listened to the laughter at the party, I was reminded of another story, one I hadn’t thought of in years. I told the story, and everyone insisted I write about it.
Here it is. Somewhere in a box of 10,000 old photos is one taken in the main lobby of the Omaha Airport. If I could find that photo, you would be looking at it today. You might recognize a six-foot-five-inch African-American, famous NFL football player known as Rosey Grier. In the photo, I am standing next to him, my arms loaded with purse, carry-on bag and birds of paradise, an unusual flower that grew around our California home. In the photo, you can see Rosey playing my guitar. The photo was taken by one of my star-struck, football-loving brothers. Fun football facts: the Nebraska state bird is a football with wings, the Nebraska state tree is a goal post and the second largest city in Nebraska is Lincoln — on a Saturday afternoon.
Every few months I made trips to Omaha, mainly to spend time with my aging parents. I always brought something special. My mom had seen the birds of paradise during visits to our home when she still had her vision and she asked if I would bring her “some of those beautiful flowers.” The guitar traveled with me because our family had regular sing-a-longs whenever I visited. If I close my eyes, I can picture that living room with several of us on guitars, Dad on harmonica and Mom on tambourine, tapping her foot to the music.
My husband, Burt, was not on this trip with me. Consequently, as I stood in the long line at the LAX counter, I could barely juggle the dozen long-stemmed flowers, my purse, the carry-on bag and my guitar. I didn’t notice or recognize the big guy — Rosey Grier — who was almost to the counter until he suddenly turned around, walked back to me and asked if he could help. I thanked him and handed over the guitar.
The flight to Omaha was uneventful, unless you factor in the beautiful singing and guitar-playing coming from the front of the plane, not back in steerage where I was sitting.\When we landed, Rosey walked beside me, carrying the guitar.\When I asked what he was doing in Omaha, he shared that he was a speaker at a large Christian convention. As we descended the escalator, there was my family staring up at us — my football-loving family, with their jaws unhinged.
My mom, of course, had no clue what the fuss was about or that a crowd of Rosey Grier fans had gathered. Rosey was one of the most famous defensive linemen in the history of professional football. He greeted my dad and brothers, but his focus was on my mother in her dark glasses. As I hugged my mom, I told her I was traveling with a nice Christian guy who loved to sing. She reached for him and he responded by touching her hands gently and asking if he could sing to her.
“Oh yes, please,” said my mother. “Do you know ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Old Rugged Cross?’”
Rosey quickly got my guitar out of the case and put the strap around his neck. The crowd had grown much larger and people listened as Rosey’s amazing voice filled that airport lobby.
Yes, this was a rare moment in time and no way could I hold back the tears as my mom sang along with Rosey Grier.
This story was told over and over, often to my husband Burt. More than once he asked, “Tell me again exactly how all that happened with Rosey Grier?”
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories as One Woman Journeys from Heartbreak to Healing with Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to the Rotary Intl. Fdn., is available at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie at [email protected]