For as long as I can remember, there has been a place in this world that contained great mystery, a place that combined two seemingly contradictory characteristics. On Uncle Jim’s farm everything was large and, especially as a little kid, I was amazed and fascinated by this – by cows that towered over me, by tractors that roared and machines that clanked, by the old barn which held an immense treasure of fragrant hay, by the broad horizon that stood so much further off than it did in town, where I lived. There was something wild and free and dangerous about this place.
On the other hand, this wild kingdom was ruled by a strong but peaceful man who always seemed glad to see me (though I must have been a terrible pest). When dad would bring us to visit, the work of the farm went on and Jim would allow me to tag along, to the barn, to the fields, even to ride with him on the fender of his tractors as we bumped along over the crops or sailed down old gravel roads with the wind in our face, to the music of the engine’s roar and the whine of its wheels.
When we would visit in the winter I was always struck by this contrast…we would walk across the yard, shoulders hunched against the bitter cold, and stumble into the soft light of the barn, full of the strange (and mostly sweet) smell of the cows, the sound of their chewing, the warmth of their breathing. I would find Uncle Jim somewhere in the process of milking and – however busy or weary or distracted he might have been – he would look up and smile and say “Good morning, Sunshine!”, with a twinkle in his eye, as if it were a private joke between us.
As I grew older he took me on to live and work on the farm for several summers. I watched him work and rest and eat and all of the normal things that people do. I watched him wrestle with the hard realities of business. Over those years, I learned to operate the equipment on the farm and even grew taller than Jim, but the impression that was formed when I was a little kid never changed. Jim was a giant. He solved every problem (including quite a few that I created), he endured every hardship. He was faithful and peaceful and he did not complain. Every morning, I would stumble late into the barn. Every morning, he would look up and smile and say, “Good morning, Sunshine!”.
Many years have gone by since I worked on the farm, though in some ways I never left. We had lost many, and now we have lost every one of the remarkable people in this generation of the Ostrander family. It seems impossible to me, but even Jim grew old and frail.
The last few weeks have reminded me of a story in the Bible, where the young Elisha is told that his mentor will soon be leaving him. “I know”, he replied, “but do not speak of it”. I feel the same way. I was not ready for this. Even now, that every member of my father’s generation has passed from our sight, I am still not ready. I wish we did not have to speak of these things.
Before his master left, Elisha asked him for an inheritance. “Let me have a double portion of your spirit”, he said. That is the inheritance that I want from Jim. I want to be like him. He never told me how to live but he spent years showing me how to live. Time will tell if I learned from him.
He showed me how to respect children, to welcome them and spend time with them and teach them what is important.
He showed me how to be faithful in love, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health; a lesson also demonstrated in the way that, for many years, my aunt Freda cared for her disabled husband Willard, in the way that, for many years, my aunt Caroline cared for her disabled husband Pat, in the way that my dad Charley cared for his disabled wife Julie. I think we have learned that lesson, as our family, and especially Sheila, cared so well for my aunt Flora and has now, especially Kelly, cared beautifully for Jim.
Last week we buried not only a great man, but the last survivor of a great generation: Jim and Flora, Virginia and Newton, Freda and Willard, Caroline and Pat, Chuck and Julie…these tough, faithful, quiet people who showed us how to work and showed us how to love.
We are sitting at Denny’s, Joy and I, taking her grandfather out for breakfast a couple of days after Christmas. An odd thing happens when I pick up the menu. This faintly sullen room in a largely forlorn city falls away and I am drawn into a different place. On the cover of the menu there is a picture of a young couple dining in a booth very similar to our own, but also very different. Perhaps it is only the photography and lighting, but rays of warmth seem to shoot out of the scene. The woman in the picture, in particular, is radiant. Her golden hair emits light, her eyes sparkle and her mouth is open, breathing in the world, breathing out warm sweetness. There is no trace of pride in her smile, nor reservation. Her face is a gentle spring sun and there is not a cloud in the sky.
Hank sits across from me. As I lower the menu, ruminating, his face is the next thing I see. He settles his teeth, sighs faintly, wears an expression of grim resignation. Hank is a veteran of WWII, a man of great strength and honor, yet there are many clouds in his sky. Time has done to him what the Great Depression and the Japanese army and years in the steel mills of Buffalo could not. He shuffles across the room, gripping the cursed walker without which he can no longer stand; shuffles past faded pictures of his once-young wife, past stacks of CD’s and LP’s of once-popular musicians, past all manner of things which, at times, can raise a memory of the good that is gone.
He is a quiet man. Probably, there were years or days or even a moment in his walk through this hard world in which the skies cleared, in which he smiled and his eyes sparkled and his hair gleamed in the sunlight, but they are an old memory now that he keeps to himself. He settles his teeth, blinks in grim resignation, grips the walker and shuffles to his chair. When it is time to go I touch his arm, say goodbye. He looks at me and drops, for a moment, his faraway look, and says, “So long”. Yes, I think; it sure is.
My youngest daughter was sifting through old photos the other day and pulled one out. I am in it, sitting on the Borisch’s porch some twenty years ago, hair still dark, arms around (what were then) my two little girls. Emily appeases the photographer with her normal composed and slightly ironic smile. Annie, impossibly skinny and a world younger in spirit, is not so much smiling as baring her teeth in selfless, defiant abandon. I love this old picture for the same reason that she does not; it is a moment saved from the wreck of time, a moment before the need for vanity or dignity had occurred to her, a moment in which joy seemed solid and permanent, not the fragile and teetering thing we have found it to be.
It is for this reason that a Christmas tree stands in my living room, even now as we approach the middle of January. Early every morning, I stumble across the dark room and plug it in, then sit for a while, watching. What is it that I watch? Not a memory of something good that is gone, but the defiant gleam of a small light in a dark world.
I hope you don’t mind my saying that this world is dark. Its every beauty is, at some level, heartbreaking because we know that it will not endure; every wedding is the preface to two funerals. Though God has set eternity in our hearts, our other parts will soon enough return to dust. This is not a dark way of looking at the world; this is the world, however we choose to look at it.
And so, Christmas; not just the holiday but the holy fact that Christ did come and will come; that every real joy we meet here is a gift from him, that every evil done here will receive his eternal veto. If I were a braver or wiser man, I think that I would smile as Annie smiled that day, in selfless, defiant abandon, for it is darkness that shall pass, or that is what the Christmas lights seem to whisper to me.