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.