“DON’T TELL! IT’S A SURPRISE!”

BY: JAMES F O’NEIL

SURPRISE: An unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing; to occur to with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness; to come upon or discover suddenly and unexpectedly; to cause someone to feel amazed at something unexpected; a feeling aroused by something unusual or unexpected; feeling unusually alarmed or delighted [from American Heritage College Dictionary].  “Unexpected” or “unusual” can be divided into SURPRISE: sudden wonder or disbelief, unanticipated; ASTONISH: overwhelming surprise; AMAZE: astonishment, often bewilderment; ASTOUND: shock, or unprecedented in one’s experience.  (Is it all clear now?  Were you surprised at your last surprise?  Is that sur-PRIZED, or sup-PRISED?  Hmm.]

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THESAURUS EXERCISE: Copy the following into your speckled notebook for next Friday’s spelling quiz.  SURPRISE!  (Just kidding.): astonishment awe wonder shock nonexpectation unforeseen  godsend  miscalculation  unexpectedness  abruptness jolt precipitance  marvel  amaze  astound  flabbergast  stun  startle  stand aghast  miraculous  catch unawares  taken aback  unbargained for confounded  wondrous  incredible  suddenly  magical  without notice  remarkable  breathless  mirabile visu (“wonderful to behold”).

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“The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us.” –Francois de La Rochefoucauld

“And to my niece I leave . . .”

I heard those words at the reading of my Grandma Schuma’s will.  I was in 11th grade.  The niece was my mother.  The Grandmother was really my Grand Aunt.  My Uncle Joe was really my Grandfather.  My real Grandmother Anna had died long before.  Grandma and Grandpa raised my mother as their daughter.  I didn’t know this Family Secret  until I was a sophomore in high school.  SURPRISE!  The reading of the will and the word “niece” was a real “shocker.”  I never thought of my mother as a niece.  And my Uncle Joe?  He was never my Grandpa . . .  And as far as  I was concerned, my mom and Aunt Em were still “sisters”  and not cousins . . .  That’s another story.

“A Scout is never taken by surprise; he knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens.” –Robert Baden-Powell (founder of Boy Scouts)

“It’ll just take a moment.”

I always locked my bike when I went into the public library.  This time I was only returning books to the Ogden Park Public Library near our home on Chicago’s South Side.  I wheeled my bike into the bike rack–unlocked–and ran up the stairs.  In a flash I was inside, in a moment, putting my books through the Return slot, and was out the door.  SURPRISE!  No bike.  Gone, in a flash.  Wham!  In the chest!  Heart-stopping bam!  What to do? tears covering eyes of reason.  Went inside, blubbering.  Park policeman came.  I made some kind of report.  I walked home, seeing ever crack in every square of every sidewalk.

Over a year later, the bike was recovered.  I walked a long, slow walk to claim it at the park police station.  It had been stripped clean: I recognized the frame and the tires and seat.  I gave thanks, and rode home, teary-eyed, remembering too well, “It’ll take just a moment.”

“Do not always expect good to happen, but do not let evil take you by surprise.” –Czech Proverb

“In sickness and in health . . .”

“We want as many children as we good Catholics can have.”  “SURPRISE!  It’s a healthy boy.”  “Don’t plan to have more than two children: you are Rh+ and your husband is Rh-.”  SURPRISE.  “We want to have as many children as we good Catholics practicing birth control can have.”  Two . . .  “SURPRISE!  It’s a healthy boy.”  The end.  The beginning . . .

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.”  –Henry Ford

“SURPRISE, Loser!”

I have a notebook filled with Loser Letters, those “Sorry, Charlie” or “We regret to inform you” or “Another candidate has accepted the position.”  I’m not sure why I keep them, for it’s been a very long time for Loser Letters.  I applied for my share of grants and scholarships and degree programs as others have done.  And I have received the “And the envelope, please.”  “Nope.  Not this time,” in so many–sometimes many–words.  I kept trying, up to a point in my career of forty-nine years.  And that was that.  “Wait!  Princeton University is advertising for . . .”

“The moments of happiness we enjoy take us by surprise.  It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.”  –Ashley Montagu (1905-1999)

“Some good stuff . . .”

“SURPRISE!”  “It’s your 80th Birthday Party!”

“SURPRISE!”  “You got accepted!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They called and offered you the job!”

“SURPRISE!”  “It really was your appendix!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They approved your loan!”

“SURPRISE!”  “Oh my gosh!  That’s my new typewriter!”

“SURPRISE!”  “She said Yes!”

“SURPRISE!”  “The house is now yours!”

“SURPRISE!”  “You’re taking the Honor Students to Cambridge!”

“SURPRISE!”  “They want you to tell your story on WBEZ!”

* * *

© James F. O’Neil  2021

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