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“I thought you knew…”

I caught sight of them while slowing down for a red light ahead. The thirty-something man, dressed in a fine suit, was holding hands with an adoring little girl, presumably his daughter. Oblivious to the bustle of the morning all around them, they seemed in rapt attention with one another, talking and laughing as they walked. Then, in what I consider an inspiring expression of fatherly freedom, they suddenly began skipping in unison along the crowded sidewalk. Passers-by couldn’t help smiling, even if self-consciously averting their eyes. I was captivated and regretted it when the light changed.

I tend to notice fathers with their children.

At a recent leadership retreat sponsored by my employer, I was charged with delivering to my fellow participants a short presentation expressing “my story.” Considerable liberty was given regarding content, so I chose to tell about an inexplicable encounter with God (and my father) that brought both healing and direction to my life.

I scribbled a few notes for the talk, but I honestly found the best preparation to be prayer and introspection. While reflecting, something my father said to me many times during my childhood and adolescence came painfully to mind.

“You’re not worth the powder to blow you to hell.”

Those words remain disturbingly accessible to my psyche even in this seventh decade of life. Sometimes, while with my grandchildren, I think about their innocent susceptibility to emotional injury and about the terrible implications if they were to hear such words directed their way, especially if spoken by someone they love, someone charged with their protection and formation.

When I read my resume, it is often with an odd sense of detachment. The career path and achievements detailed therein can actually intimidate me and feel as though they are someone else’s work, feats well beyond my capabilities. I believe the term currently used to describe this phenomenon is “imposter syndrome.”

I also wrestle this beast every time I sit down to write, which is likely why I so seldom post a new essay to my blog. Yes, I am in a long-term relationship with self-doubt (and shame). I also believe, however, that God is healing me incrementally, choosing opportune moments to speak a beautiful new reality into this wounded heart.

What follows describes just such an occasion.

I first encountered Peter Meinke’s powerful poem “Untitled” (reproduced entirely below) more than 30 years ago. I was overseeing a weekend retreat at the time, and one of the retreatants, a kind gentleman named Gene, who – coincidentally? – was just about my Dad’s age, read it aloud to the group.

The words, written by a father to his son in reparation for the harm he had caused him, seized me unexpectedly, even violently. Fighting back tears, I considered leaving the room but then concluded doing so would only draw attention to my embarrassing reaction. Instead, I bowed my head, took deep breaths, and battled to keep my composure.

Over the course of (then) recent months, Gene had become a dear friend. I first met him when he enrolled in an evangelization workshop I was teaching in his parish. From the start, I was drawn to his genial, affirming manner.

Gene was an educator by profession; and, though I was technically the instructor in our shared workshop, I really learned a great deal from him. At one of our sessions, for example, I was chatting with Gene during a coffee break and asked him about his experience while pursuing his PhD. Specifically, I wanted to know what he valued most about the experience. His response made a lasting impression.

“Oh Steve, that’s easy,” he said. “The best part of my studies was the research. It was such a privilege to take a topic I cared deeply about and to explore it from every direction, to peel it like an onion finding every hidden layer. Doing research is what taught me to learn to love to learn.”

At the time, I had no hint that I would one day become a research librarian. When I did, however, Gene’s words became my mission statement. With every student who sought my assistance, my goal was always to help her/him “learn to love to learn.”

The Meinke poem haunted me. My initial reaction had been so overwhelming, I was certain I needed to go further with it, certain that God intended my cooperation.

Several days after the retreat, I recognized a possible opportunity. I had a light workload at the parish and knew that I would not be missed if I spent some time praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Before deciding definitively that the timing was right, however, I peeked inside the building to see if I would have the privacy I knew I would need. Thankfully, the church was completely empty.

I brought a printed copy of “Untitled” with me and knelt before the Tabernacle. Since Catholics believe in the abiding presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I trust there is no better place to open one’s heart to God.

As soon as I glanced at the page, as soon as I saw the words “I thought you knew” I began to sob ferociously.

Some tears seem to originate directly behind or within the eyes. These felt as though they were springing from within my soul.

Here is the poem that affected me so profoundly.

Untitled

This is a poem to my son Peter
whom I have hurt a thousand times
whose large and vulnerable eyes
have glazed in pain at my ragings
thin wrists and fingers hung
boneless in despair, pale freckled back
bent in defeat, pillow soaked
by my failure to understand.
I have scarred through weakness
and impatience your frail confidence forever
because when I needed to strike
you were there to hurt and because
I thought you knew
you were beautiful and fair
your bright eyes and hair
but now I see that no one knows that
about himself, but must be told
and retold until it takes hold
because I think anything can be killed
after awhile, especially beauty
so I write this for life, for love, for
you, my oldest son Peter, age 10,
going on 11.

(Peter Meinke)

Though alone in the church, my powerful emotional response made me self-conscious. Several times, I looked around through bleary eyes to make sure I’d not been mistaken regarding my solitude. Then, just as my concerns were sufficiently assuaged, I heard the unmistakable sound of the church’s large front door opening.

I regret admitting this, but my first reaction was anger. Seriously, God had put me in this very vulnerable place and then wouldn’t/couldn’t protect my privacy?

I dried my eyes as best I could and began praying that the invader would kneel, say a quick prayer in the rear of the church, and exit with no further trouble. Then, I heard the footsteps coming down the aisle in my direction. I bowed my head and quietly simmered.

As the interloper passed by on my left, I discreetly glanced in that direction. My heart immediately softened. Of all people, it was Gene.

He must have sensed the intensity of the moment for he was very respectful of my space. It occurred to me later that he may have even seen the Meinke poem in my hand and read the situation clearly. He was, after all, a very perceptive man.

Though I didn’t notice it at first, Gene, a Eucharistic minister, had a pix in his hand. He had come to the church specifically to retrieve the consecrated Hosts to bring Communion to the shut-ins he visited regularly.

He genuflected, opened the Tabernacle door, then turned to me. “Would you like to receive the Eucharist, Steve?”

“That would be so beautiful!“ I replied, my voice shaking in the winds of grace.

I received Eucharist twice in that moment – first in the sacred Host and second in Gene’s fatherly hug. I wept in that good man’s arms, no longer concerned with privacy or appearances.

“I thought you knew…”

I never did.

But, I’m learning.

Perhaps you are too.

Addendum:

I have honestly forgiven my father, who passed away in the fall of 2013, but forgiveness does not necessarily heal one’s wounds. I write as a cathartic exercise and not to pass on blame. My sincere hope is to hold my father’s hand in God’s Kingdom and to skip unashamedly with this man I have always loved but have not always understood. Again, I’m learning… with God’s grace.

Praying on 3rd Base, Etc.

For a number of years, I have been in the habit of writing a Thanksgiving essay as my way of expressing gratitude for the many blessings in life. Typically, those essays have taken the form of a single, sometimes lengthy story. This year’s entry, however, represents a departure from that tradition.

Earlier this month, I turned sixty-one years old. Having now completed the first full year of my seventh decade of life, I am in a scattered yet reflective mood. So, this year’s Thanksgiving entry finds me less with a (longish) story to tell and more with a few short musings possibly consistent with this later stage of life.

I hope one or more of them will bless you.

A friend of mine recently said to me: “God cannot be put in a box.” Her intention, of course, was to express that God is bigger and greater than we could ever imagine; and, I wholeheartedly agree with her. Yet, virtually every day of my life I violate that awesome truth.

When I sit down to pray, I most often do so with a concept/image of God in mind, something to make God seem more real and approachable. I suppose “boxing” God in that way helps me to cope with the mystery, especially God’s silence – even apparent absence – at difficult moments in life.

One such depiction of God, an anthropomorphic image found in the book of Genesis, grips my imagination like no other. It appears in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, and it reads as follows:

“And they [i.e., Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Genesis 3:8a, RSV-CE)

I cannot explain my fascination. I can only admit to bringing a personalized version of this verse (i.e., a God box) to prayer countless times. In truth, one of my deepest longings has now become walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day.

To talk. To listen. To finally understand. And then, to rest in God’s peace.

One day…

This past summer, my wife Marianne and I attended several of our grandson Joseph’s little league baseball games. One inning of one game left a lasting impression.

The field where the game was played restricts spectator access along the baselines, so we were watching from behind the left field fence. Since we arrived a few minutes late, and our vantage point was a healthy distance from the dugouts, we weren’t even sure Joseph knew we were there. That question, however, would soon be answered.

When Joseph got up to bat for the second time, he got an infield hit. As often happens in little league, a series of fielding miscues followed; and Joseph, who should have been on first base, made it all the way around to third. His foot had no sooner safely landed on the base when he pivoted around and waved enthusiastically to us.

“Did you see that? Are you proud of me?” his wave seemed to say.

That endearing gesture spoke volumes to this grandfather’s heart. Joseph’s Mom and Dad had dropped him off that day, but they couldn’t stay for the game. If we’d not been present, with whom would Joseph have shared his great accomplishment?

Joseph’s wave reminded me of a child’s vulnerability and of his/her need to know support, affirmation, love, and acceptance. Since we are all God’s children, and since my mind inevitably works this way, it also taught me a lesson about prayer.

Sometimes I turn to God with a broad smile and wave. Other times, I turn and desperately search for God’s face in the crowd. Still other times, I turn and can only bow my head in sorrow.

What matters is that God comes to every game.

And, as it turns out, 3rd base is an excellent place to pray.

When I was a boy in parochial school, I learned that we all have a guardian angel assigned to guide and protect us. I can’t help wondering what the guardian angels of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were doing while Adam Lanza was on his hellish rampage.

Years ago, when I was working for the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), I was invited to deliver a presentation about preservation microfilming to an audience of imaging scientists at the Polaroid Corporation. That was, perhaps, the most intimidating lecture I’ve ever had to give. Before speaking, I remember studying the faces of those in attendance, knowing full well that every one of them was more knowledgeable than I about photographic processes.

Some years later, I had a similar experience while teaching a six-week adult-education course in my parish on the topic: “God and Human Suffering.” Looking out at the participants before my first lecture, I realized that every person in the room had suffered, many quite profoundly. Further, each person had processed his/her suffering in such a way as to reconcile it with his/her view of God. I was an amateur charged with speaking to an audience of experts.

Fortunately, the course was very well received. In fact, after the final lecture, many expressed a desire to meet for an additional session just to talk about what we had collectively learned. We did so, and it was a beautiful and humbling experience – so many moving stories.

I’m now convinced that discovering the beauty and goodness of God in the midst of our suffering is one of the most important adventures in life.

I can’t imagine a more central element to the spiritual life than daily prayer. Yet, in all the parishes to which I’ve belonged over the years (nine or ten, if memory serves), I’ve never found one that consistently prioritized teaching adult parishioners how to develop and deepen their personal prayer lives.

Why?

The divisions that exist in the Catholic Church today exhaust me. Twitter, in particular, has become a battleground wherein uncharitable comments from both the right and the left abound.

With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to read James 3:1-12, while mentally substituting the word “keyboard” for the word “tongue.”

It is also worthwhile to recall that, whenever someone expresses an opinion that differs dramatically from one’s own, that person is defending what he/she believes to be good, i.e., he/she is not knowingly proposing evil. In all circumstances, deeper understanding is called for, not aggression.

I have a friend I greatly admire, who is an atheist. He is kind, thoughtful, socially conscious, a devoted husband and father, and he certainly has known his share of suffering. Though we’ve never discussed the matter outright, he and I would surely differ in our views about an afterlife.

Of course, the only way we will know which of us is right is if I’m right.

Should that prove to be the case, it would gladden my heart immeasurably if my friend were to walk with me – and with God – in the garden in the cool of the day.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Waiting (for God)

Waiting, it seems to me, is a defining characteristic of the spiritual life. In my mid-twenties, I rediscovered God and eagerly adopted the opening verse of Psalm 63 as a recurring prayer.

“Oh God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.”

These words gave/give authentic voice to an aching for God in my heart that has yet to be fully satisfied. Still today, in prayer or simply in quiet moments, I echo the Psalmist’s words, and I wait.

In my early fifties, I endured a prolonged and, frankly, demoralizing period of spiritual darkness. While in the midst, I repeatedly called out to God for even a pinpoint of light to sustain me, but all that came was this familiar ache.

On the other side of that wrenching experience, I shared the details with my spiritual director. In frustration, I asked him why God had withheld consolation for so long. In his wise way, he quietly asked: “Have you ever considered that the aching in your heart was your pinpoint of light?”

Since that exchange, I have come to view the ache as my companion on the journey. Now, we wait together.

The Tale of the Foul-Mouthed Boy

”For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” (Thomas Merton)

I see him at the vigil Mass every Saturday evening. He sits in a pew toward the back of the church. So, by the time he reaches the front of the Communion line, I’m already back in my place – praying, watching, remembering.

Though we both live in the same small town, where secrets are not easily kept, I’ve never known his first name. To me, he’ll always be the “unwitting catechist,” and I’m content with that.

He resembles his late father; and, it was he, rather than the son, who once wagged an accusing finger in my face, thus teaching me something truly important about integrity and authenticity at a tender age.

My first childhood home had a fateful encounter with a demolition crew many years ago. No doubt the house was already well beyond its prime by the time the Daltons took residence there in the 1950s, but I have no recollection of its warts. Instead, I remember it as a magical place, and I suspect I always will.

A formidable maple – “my tree,” also gone now – served as sentry at the front edge of the property. Countless times I traversed the deep grooves of its bark with my small fingers and scaled its rung-like branches as far as I dared. On one side of the trunk, the tree’s sinewy roots poked up through the ground like a child’s bench, a perfect perch on which to savor a Popsicle, swap stories, or simply relish the pure freedom of a young child’s summer day.

The large backyard was a wonderland, overgrown in places, lending a true sense of mystery to the space. It served as a de facto neighborhood playground, and many adventures were concocted and acted out there under its seemingly inexhaustible inspiration.

For the first eight years of my life, that house and its immediate environs were virtually my world; and, it was a charming place indeed. Of course, being a small boy, it never mattered to me that my family and I lived in a rented apartment. It mattered to my parents though, especially my mother, who had long dreamed of owning her own home.

The move comprised no more than half a mile, but distance is an unreliable measure of change.

Yes, the new house was “ours,” but there was no maple tree, no intriguing backyard to attract playmates. In fact, there was really no yard at all, only a narrow driveway and a boring one-car garage.

My initial response to the move was grief.

“There seem to be quite a few children in this neighborhood, Stephen,” my mother observed one day from across the room. “I’m sure you’ll make lots of friends here.”

Embarrassed at having been noticed, I let the curtain slip from my fingers and turned my attention away from the window and the children playing outside.

“Maybe,” I replied in a near-whisper. Shyness can make social transitions so very difficult.

Thankfully, over time, my mother’s words proved prescient. I did make good friends and forged life-long memories in the new neighborhood. In fact, if my first eight years are characterized by memories of things and places, the next few years are filled with names (Paul, Phil, Evans, Justin, Jackie, Jimmy…) and endearing faces. Those were, in fact, the happiest days of my childhood.

My friends and I typically matched our activities to the season. In summer, we seemed to play baseball morning, afternoon, and night. In the fall, our street became a touch-football field with telephone poles marking the end zones. And, in winter, we played street hockey both after school and on weekends, as long as daylight accommodated.

Often, boys from nearby neighborhoods would join us for our games. That made our play more realistic as we’d have more positions covered on the field; however, it also changed the group dynamic a bit and eventually presented me with an early moral dilemma.

I wonder if there’s anything – temporally speaking, of course – that the human heart desires more than fitting in, i.e., being accepted by one’s peers.

I’m not a fan of foul language. Even as a child, I was very careful with my words, never wanting to offend God or others. While my closest friends always respected who I was and how I tried to conduct myself, kids from other neighborhoods were not always so understanding. They would occasionally tease me about my “holiness.” And, though most of their jibes were not mean-spirited, being a sensitive child, I tended to take their words to heart.

I don’t recall how the idea first came to me, but the more I worked it over in my mind the more sense it seemed to make. Convincing myself, however, was only half the battle. When I summoned the courage to raise the issue with her, my mother looked less than pleased.

“Why would you want to do that, Stephen?” she asked.

“The other kids say swears, Ma.”

She carefully studied my face. “You know it’s not right to use bad language.”

“I know. But, if you give me permission, that would make it okay, right?”

She remained silent for some time, and I could feel my face flush under her persistent gaze. When she finally answered, she did so with obvious hesitation. “I don’t like this, Stephen.” She shook her head slightly as she spoke. “But… I do understand.” After another pause, she continued, “I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you choose one word to say. But, that’s all. Does that sound fair?”

“Thank you, Ma!” I said gratefully, feeling a weight had been lifted from my small shoulders.

We then rather delicately discussed my possible choices – an interesting exercise between a mother and her young son. While I don’t clearly recall our rationale, we ultimately agreed upon the word “sh#t.”

Soon thereafter, my friends and I gathered to play touch football. It was a beautiful fall day and, though we didn’t notice it at the time, one of the local residents was sitting on his enclosed front porch observing our play.

As the game progressed, so did our use of salty language. Feeling a newfound freedom and connection with my peers, I made liberal and creative use of my new vocabulary word.

“That was a sh#&&y pass!”

“You really looked like sh#t on that play!”

“This ball is as dirty as sh#t!”

I was playing my role to the hilt until a porch door suddenly swung open, and a large, angry man stepped out.

“Hey!” he bellowed. The game abruptly halted and all of us players gave him our full attention.

“I’ve been listening to you guys and your filthy mouths for half an hour now, and I am sick to death of it!”

He came down from his steps to confront us at closer range. My heart was racing but my feet were anchored in place.

Pointing a thick finger at one of the boys, he screamed, “I’m sick of listening to you!” Then, he pivoted, aimed his finger at another, and yelled, “And you!” He quickly turned again, “And you!” Finally, as I knew in my heart he must, he turned his rage my way. He glared at me and thrust his finger forward once for each pronounced word of my sentence. “And! Especially! You!”

Especially?! Me?!

My first instinct, though I didn’t act upon it, was self-defense. “You don’t understand,” I thought to myself, “I had permission.” Within a split second, however, defensiveness yielded to shame for my actions. I had indeed been responsible for the verbal assault this man experienced, and any protestation, even one pointing to a mother’s consent, would have been an empty excuse. My eyes dropped from the outraged man’s face to my own feet. I felt crushed.

“I’m really sorry, sir,” I said, still not looking up.

“I don’t want to hear any more of it!” he proclaimed loudly to all of us. “Do you understand?”

I and several others answered, “Yes, sir.” Then, our game broke up and the dispirited players scattered.

As I was walking home, the scene played over and over again in my mind. I knew the man was justified in the action that he took, and I felt true contrition for my offense; still, I couldn’t help feeling like a victim of injustice. He had singled me out as the worst offender without really knowing me.

The realization, when it came, was sudden yet gentle, like a soft voice in the soul. Even being a child, I could understand. Indeed, the angry man didn’t know the real me because I hadn’t shown him the real me. Instead, I’d pretended to be someone else in order to feel more like a part of the group.

Sh#t happens! My real sin was falsity and compromise. And, the angry man was my wake-up call – a true friend.

I’ve come to trust that the soft voice in my soul was/is my conscience, helping me interpret my world and inviting me to live more authentically (i.e., closer to God’s plan for my life). I wish I could say that I’ve always been true to that calling. Alas, I’ve needed many wake-up calls.

So, I will be at the vigil Mass again next Saturday evening. When my “unwitting catechist” passes by, I will see again the face of his father. I will remember. And, I will lift up a prayer of thanks.

Where Bombs Come From

Today, one of my Facebook friends posted a short video that has been widely circulated. A portion of the heartrending recording shows two young Syrian boys grieving the loss of their brother, who was killed by a barrel bomb during an airstrike in Aleppo.

How can we do such horrific things?

Walking is one of my preferred forms of exercise. On a recent walk, I recognized the face of someone approaching from the opposite direction. He was not a friend. In fact, I knew only his face and not his name; but, it was a beautiful day, one that naturally lent itself to cordiality. So, as we drew near to one another, I nodded and offered a greeting. He returned my greeting, and we stopped to exchange pleasantries.

During our conversation, we discovered that we had a mutual acquaintance – a person who, in my experience, has always shown himself to be consistently thoughtful and kind. I mentioned that this mutual acquaintance was a really wonderful man. At that, my conversation partner paused briefly and then said: “Of course, not everyone would agree with you.”

When he uttered these words, I felt my heart drop in my chest. I asked no follow-up questions and quickly changed the subject. Our conversation soon ended, and we parted company.

The New Testament Letter of James offers a stern warning about the power of the tongue. In a passage that always makes me squirm, James writes:

“Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:5b-8)

When I saw the video earlier today, I almost immediately recalled my recent encounter while walking.

I intend no disparagement. In fact, if I indict anyone, I indict only myself. How often have I casually uttered unkind words? How often have I sewn corrupted seeds by malicious use of my tongue? How often have I surreptitiously attacked my neighbor while failing to recognize my own violence?

Weapons come in many shapes and sizes. Some cause instantaneous destruction and pain while others simmer and slowly corrupt from within.

I wonder…

Might bombs be the ultimate product of our untamed tongues?

Bonding with a Beloved (Dead) Stranger

image

The memory is vague, almost dream-like. My paternal grandfather, who died in 1960 when I was still a toddler, is atop a fight of stairs in the family home and speaking with my father, who is with me at the bottom of the stairs. I can’t describe my Grandpa’s features except to say that he was an old man, nor can I recall anything distinctive about his voice or manner. To be honest, I’m not even sure that I can trust my recollection at all. I know, it’s not much to go on; but, somehow, it’s proven to be enough. That one obscure memory has always served as my relational touchstone with my father’s father, a foundation upon which to build.

For most of my life, I had no such connection with my maternal grandfather.

During the opening credits of Rocky Balboa, the 2006 entry in the “Rocky” film series, there is a touching scene wherein the aging title character visits the gravesite of his beloved wife, Adrian. While brother-in-law Pauly awkwardly watches and waits, Rocky sits on a folding chair in quiet communion with his departed bride.

When he’s ready to leave, Rocky tenderly kisses the top of the headstone as if it were Adrian’s soft, blushing cheek. Then, he collapses his chair and returns it to its storage place in the sturdy branches of a nearby tree. The message is clear. Rocky visits often; and, the audience feels the good man’s pain.

Intentionally or not, this scene models behavior that contemporary grief counselors might describe as an “enduring bond,” i.e., a psychological and/or spiritual relationship that continues even beyond death.

While love is typically the defining characteristic of such bonds, other sentiments can certainly be involved as well. It is not unusual, for example, for someone to come to a gravesite bearing unresolved anger, regrets, a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation, or countless other all-too-human emotions.

Indeed, graves can be complicated places.

Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why I seldom visit graves, even of people I’ve dearly loved. Knowledge that the bodily remains (the “earthen vessel”) of a loved one lie beneath my feet affords me neither inspiration nor consolation. By faith, I believe the person I cared for is no longer there. Rather, she/he is now in the hands of a loving God. That considered, I’m far more likely to work on my “enduring bonds” behind closed doors during prayer. It is there, rather than in the cemetery, where I’ve had some of my most satisfying “conversations” with departed relatives.

There is, however, one grave that tugs at my heart like no other.

John J. Christopher, my mother’s “Papa,” died when he was my age, 58, in 1944, a terrible year for the family. I’ve shared previously about how little I know of my grandfather’s life and death. In fact, as I write these words, it occurs to me that I can’t ever recall even seeing his photograph. Whenever I’d question my Mom about my grandfather, she’d always seem hesitant to speak. Was it grief or something else that knotted her tongue? Judging by the sensitive tone her voice assumed whenever she did speak of him, it was clear that her Papa held a special – albeit, a hidden – place in her heart.

Over the years, I’ve found myself a number of times pondering unanswered questions in front of my grandfather’s grave, a resting place he shares with his oldest child, Mary, my aunt, who pre-deceased him in 1944.

So, who was this man? What were his treasures? Did he believe in God? Did he make friends easily? What made him smile, laugh, cry? Did he have a hobby? What burdens did he carry? What were his gifts? His regrets? His foibles? Did he pray? Was he a dreamer? What were his politics? Was he satisfied with his life? Was my grandmother his first love? Did he love her to the end? Was he always faithful? What thoughts filled his mind in quiet moments… and, in his final moments? What were his fears? His temptations? Who were his heroes? How did he die? And, more importantly, what guided how he lived?

My Mom was the last surviving member of her first family. When she passed in March of last year, it meant that all those who had been closest to my grandfather were now gone. So too, I imagined, was any hope I had of finding answers to my myriad questions concerning this stranger whose blood I share.

While going through my Mom’s things shortly after her death, my wife Marianne and I came upon a diary my Mom had kept in 1940 when she was 13 years old. I’d never known of the diary’s existence and couldn’t resist immediately exploring it’s pages, which were a genuine revelation to me. Marianne, ever-gracious (and knowing me only too well), gave me a pass on further sorting that day.

Just holding the book stirred my emotions. Seventy-five years earlier, my Mom recorded the highlights of her adolescent life in its pages, beginning each entry with “Dear Diary” and concluding with “Love Eleanor.”

The textured cover of the book bore the words National Surety Corporation 1940, and the title page read National Surety Diary 1940. A handwritten note on that title page explained that the diary had been: “Given to me from Johnny as a Christmas present.” Johnny was my Mom’s older (and only) brother. Just a few years later, in 1944, he would be horribly wounded by a German soldier during ground fighting in Sicily. He’d be in recovery for a long time, but he’d live and eventually return home.

My Mom wrote faithfully in her diary through May 27th of 1940. Then, for whatever reason, her daily entries abruptly ceased. Mostly blank pages followed; however, there were a handful of later entries, including a few dating from 1949 and 1951.

There were many gems to discover in the diary’s pages, including my Mom’s first (recorded) encounter with my father on Thursday, May 2nd. That entry reads as follows: “Then Robert Dalton called me by my first name and then hit me over the head with a magazine. It seemed so nice.” Knowing the pain that awaited them later in life made this sweet passage particularly poignant for me.

I won’t delve into the specifics of my Mom’s early adolescence beyond these few observations. At age 13, she was a bit boy-crazy and seems to have prompted innocent flirtations (e.g., the magazine on the head, above) from more that a few young suitors. She struggled in a couple of her subjects at school, was somewhat fashion-conscious, and was prone to being “kicked out” of the public library. She and her older sister, Edna, were inseparable, but they also had strong arguments, a characteristic they would carry into old age. My Mom’s allowance at the time was $0.30/week, and she often used the money to go to the movies with her friends. She felt things deeply. In short, she was a typical teenage girl of her time.

As these previously unexplored aspects of my mother’s life unfolded with the turning of each cherished page, I was too taken with her story to anticipate what was coming; but, my Mom was about to introduce me to my grandfather.

Mystery sometimes begets romanticized notions; but, any idealized images I’d subconsciously formed about my grandfather were quickly humanized by my mother’s pen. In all, there were twelve entries in the diary that mentioned my grandfather. Some were just brief references, but a precious few were more revealing.

Rather than recount all of the details, I will instead summarize the still thin portrait of my grandfather that emerged for me from the diary. Some general aspects of his life, e.g., that he once worked for a railroad and that there was some tension between him and my grandmother, were not a total surprise. The insights I gleaned about his temperament and character, however, were altogether new and satisfying. I was also surprised and saddened by the intensity of the rift between my grandparents.

John J. Christopher was an emotional man whose identity was closely tied to his work. For twenty-five years, he was employed by the narrow gauge railroad that operated in his community. After experiencing a serious drop in ridership, the railroad shut down on January 27, 1940. My Mom’s diary entries on that fateful day and the next both speak of her Papa’s constant tears at the loss of his job. “He cried into five hankies. Ah diary, it was so sad.” At one point, she also recounts him calling out hysterically: “It’s gone!” His children gathered around to console him in his grief. That was very heartening to read.

My grandfather seems to have had a strong sense of responsibility regarding his family. As much as the job loss devastated him, he was quick to search out employment and apparently found a new position in less than two months. My mother mentions both a new job and the start date, but she provides no further details about either the employer or her father’s adjustment to his new work.

As mentioned, the relationship between my grandparents was strained, perhaps torturously so. Six of the twelve diary entries that mention my grandfather reference either their fights or their complete lack of communication. No motive for their discord is ever mentioned, but the impact upon my Mom and her siblings appears to have been quite severe. At one point, my Mom reports that her oldest sisters, Mary and Barbara, had devised a plan to save their money and move out of the house with all three of their younger siblings (Johnny, Edna, and my mother) due to the fighting. That plan, at least during the period covered by the diary, was never carried out.

Alcohol is mentioned in passing once, but the reference, as I see it, is open to interpretation. Exactly one week after the traumatic loss of his railroad job, my Mom wrote: “Papa is very good lately. Hasn’t drank any liquor. He used to all the time.” Can her last sentence be taken literally, or did she mean “all the time…” since losing his job? I will likely never know.

Finally, despite the stress in his marriage and his devastating work situation, my grandfather appears to have had a strong relationship with his children. As noted, they gathered around to console him after his job loss. Also, when my Mom was laid up for two weeks with a terrible sore throat, she wrote of how kind he was to her during the illness. And, he apparently tried to involve his children in activities around their home. My Mom reports affectionately, for example, about spending a Saturday morning painting woodwork with her Papa.

This last point evokes a beautiful picture in my mind, a picture that, like the image of my paternal grandfather atop the stairs, can serve as a foundation for an “enduring bond.”

My Mom’s diary doesn’t come close to answering all of my questions about my grandfather. Still, it provides marvelous insights I’d never had before about both him and my mother herself. I consider it one final, loving gift passed from mother to son.

I only wish she’d written much more.

P.S. Writing is difficult. One reason I take up the pen (or, the keyboard) is to provide future generations in my family with an understanding of who I was and what I valued. Perhaps it won’t matter to anyone. Then again, if one of my grandparents or great-grandparents had shared something of her/his heart in writing, I would treasure it beyond measure. By the way, I also hope that my experiences might strike a familiar chord within you and somehow prove to be a blessing in your life. Thanks so much for taking the time to read my reflections.

Believing in Santa

Did you ever have a “God moment?” Even if you’re not a believer, have you ever experienced a surprising insight, a sudden drawing back of the veil, that caused you to stop whatever you were doing simply to ponder what you’d just seen, heard, or felt in your heart? I’ve had many.

Once, for example, I had traveled to the Boston Public Library for a meeting. Since I’d arrived a bit early, I spent a few minutes people-watching in the lobby. An assortment of interesting characters passed by, but my attention was especially drawn to a class of middle-schoolers, who had come for a library tour.

The social dynamic among the students was eerily familiar. Some were the cool kids, comfortable being the center of attention, which they commanded by their antics. Others, the clear majority, seemed indifferent to their surroundings. They conversed in small clusters while waiting for the tour to begin. (This was before the age of the ubiquitous cell phone.) Finally, there were those bringing up the rear. I’ll affectionately call them the misfits. They generally appeared ill-at-ease and eager just to get beyond this ordeal. I understood.

As I watched, I felt compassion for this latter group, whose members quite likely endured taunts and trials for being perceived as different or for failing to measure up to some unjust standard. Then, however, I noticed something important. Yes, the misfits were segregated somewhat from the larger group, perhaps by choice; however, amongst themselves, they genuinely cared for each other. Maybe they weren’t as audacious as their more confident peers, but they talked, goofed around, and laughed together. They shared a bond, a communion of souls. It’s difficult to explain, but that awareness was startlingly joyful for me. In that unexpected moment of clarity – a “God moment” – I appreciated anew the wonderful blessing of comradery.

On another occasion, my wife Marianne and I were in our stateroom awaiting the launch of a Caribbean cruise. Shortly before the scheduled departure, the ship’s captain made an announcement that we’d be leaving late due to a mechanical problem. Since our balcony overlooked the pier, we were able to witness some of the feverish activity below as cruise line personnel scrambled to resolve the unnamed issue. It looked like exhausting work.

We finally set sail about three hours late, and I watched the departure from our balcony. As we exited the ship’s berth and crept toward the open ocean, I saw three workmen gathered at the far end of the pier. Most likely, they’d been forced to work overtime and were quite tired. Still, they lingered, enjoying each other’s company. The last sound I heard from those men was a hearty, shared laugh. It seemed to speak directly to my soul about the healing power of friendship.

Right there, I lifted up a prayer of thanksgiving… under the stars, on the Dolphin Deck.

—–

I’ve noticed that, on social media sites, some atheists mockingly equate belief in God with belief in Santa Claus. That always makes me smile.

I learned the truth about Santa on Christmas Eve when I was only five years old; and, for a few hours, it felt as if all the magic had drained from my world. Then, I had a “God moment” – perhaps my first (though I doubt that) – and learned what C.S. Lewis might have called a deeper magic.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I offer this wee bit of context.

Exactly one year earlier, when I was four, I had a Santa Claus nightlight. It plugged into the outlet, just below pillow level, behind the headboard of my first big-boy bed. And, if I were frightened during the night, one quick look at Santa’s backlit visage, with rosy cheeks and kind, smiling eyes, was all I needed.

“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.”

How thoroughly wonderful that, with all of the many children in the world, Santa cared so much for me. My devotion was real, and it reached its peak on that long-ago Christmas Eve.

Alongside the foot of my bed, there was a drafty old window, which routinely frosted over during the winter months. By late December, the frost was already thick enough to obscure the night sky.

I was restless and far too excited to sleep; but, it was the promise of presence rather than presents that denied me slumber. Santa Claus would soon be near; and, thinking back, it felt as though hope itself, rather than blood, was coursing through my veins. Eventually, after many adoring glances at my nightlight failed to satisfy, I pulled off my covers and made for the window.

I haven’t many crystal clear memories from early childhood, but that night is an exception. My big sister, Christine, who shared the room with me, asked what I was doing. “Watching for Santa,” I replied matter-of-factly, while scratching out an icy peephole with my thumbnail.

Through that tiny portal, I expectantly searched the dark sky for a sign. Every twinkle, every shadow passing in front of the moon, quickened my pulse. I couldn’t have identified it at the time, but this was, I’m now convinced, an early experience of desire for the Transcendent.

—–

That moment apparently left a profound impression. Even today, when I go to my prayer room hoping to encounter the un-seeable One, I can almost feel a ribbon of frost melting beneath my thumbnail.

—–

Despite a valiant effort, my four-year old self never did see Santa that night. I ultimately returned to bed and fell asleep. While I’m sure it was wonderful, I have no memory of Christmas morning that year or of the presents under the tree. The next year, however, would be quite different.

—–

Months passed, and Christmas Eve arrived again.

Just before bedtime, Christine, who would turn ten the next morning, pulled me aside and said that she and my Mom “had something important to tell me.” She had a strange, sad expression on her face, and I sensed something was wrong.

They both knew of my sensitivity, and it must have been quite difficult for them to bear such crushing news. I don’t remember the precise words they used, but I do recall their reason for telling me on that particular night. Though I hadn’t known about it, our family had been struggling financially. Consequently, Christmas was going to be lean that year – just two gifts per child.

My Mom had decided it would be better to tell me the truth the night before than to have me wake up the next morning thinking I’d somehow disappointed Santa during the previous year. Today, I marvel at her concern. That night, however, I was too brokenhearted to think.

I cried… and, so did my Mom.

Grieving is hard work for a little boy, especially on Christmas Eve. I still had my Santa Claus nightlight, but looking at it only magnified my sadness.

That night, the frost on my window remained undisturbed.

—–

On Christmas morning, I lingered awake in bed. The birthday girl, my very closest friend, came over to encourage me.

“Come on. Let’s go see.”

“Okay,” I replied, but I was still slow to move.

“You know,” she said, “it’s not that Santa isn’t real. He’s just not who you thought he was.“

—–

Two gifts awaited me under (and beside) the tree. And, honestly, of all the presents on all the Christmas mornings of my childhood, they are the only two I can still recall. One was a paint-by-numbers kit with a special kind of glittery paint. The other took my breath away. It was my first and only childhood bicycle, a 24-inch Columbia that I cherished immediately. Was it my imagination, or did it really glow?

No other conclusion was possible. I must have been a very good boy that year!

I looked across the room at Santa’s now smiling face.

She knows when you are sleeping. She knows when you’re awake.”

“God moments!”

—–

Philosophical proofs of God’s existence make my head spin. Try as I might, I just can’t follow the arguments; and, I’m honestly not edified by them. I don’t say this to disparage intellectuals, whom I greatly admire. It’s just that, if the world is comprised of thinking people and feeling people, I’m a card-carrying member of the latter group. In Myers-Briggs typology, I’m classified as an INFJ, which is a fancy way of saying that I lead with my heart.

My “proof” of God isn’t found in logic, reason, or even the theology I so dearly love. Rather, it’s found in the comradery of misfits, in laughter at the end of the pier, in frosty peepholes, and in Santa’s smiles and tender tears.

Yes, I still believe!