It Is a Wonderful Life

On the morning of Christmas Eve after chores I opened the big doors of the garage barn and set up the chop saw outside to start cutting boards. The weather was unseasonably warm and the sunlight came down in great shafts between the great white cloud banks that rolled across the face of the mountain. I had given the puppies their first bath in the mudroom sink before the family woke up and put each one, fluffy and smelling like balsam, into a galvanized wash tub on the mudroom floor. The time had come to move them out into the barn so I built them a corral of hemlock boards, filled it with sweet hay and set it up where their mother could still get to them if she needed to. Even she was over it. They’d been weaned and their needle sharp teeth were something everyone had to be watchful of when they handled them, cute as they were but it was time to harden them to the cold world, literally. We spent a lot of time working with them already and at four weeks they knew their names, followed the children everywhere when we let them outdoors and stayed close to the porch the rest of the time watched over by the older dogs. At night they were still vulnerable and the enclosure inside the barn was the best solution until it was time to send them off to their new homes. I’d finished assembling it and introduced the litter to their new home and was sweeping up the last of the sawdust when a friend pulled up in the driveway and asked for a hand. I checked in with the family and the two of us drove down to the Church in the middle of the village to install some spotlights on the front of the sanctuary. There was an evening service later that night and the old main light above the entrance had failed so my friend had offered to get it ready before dark. Our family attends service on occasion but we’ve never joined the church. It’s pleasant enough to sit in the handmade pews and listen to the sermon or sing hymns together with the children beside us, but the messages are increasingly out of touch with our reality and we have our hands full with so many other things that getting involved with the activities expected of members is more than we are able to offer. That doesn’t mean we can’t lend a hand when one is needed, so I pulled on my tool belt and set to work. I told him it was a good idea he’d come and get me because the lights were almost thirty feet above ground and the extension ladder was a 24 footer. It was a dangerous job for one man, so I volunteered to do the top work if he held the base and after a few trips up and down we had the fixtures secured and the new bulbs secured in place. I study buildings when I work on them, look for things that need repair, notice the craftsmanship of the people who went before me. There was a moldboard sign fastened on the front of the chapel with the words FOUNDED 1831 painted on it in bright green letters so thick with age it stood above the surface and twenty inch pine shutters with crescent moons expertly coped by hand almost two hundred years ago. There are times when I feel that I am in the presence of ghosts and that morning in the full sunlight and last warm breezes of the year was no exception. As we put away the tools and cleaned up our debris we both stopped, more than once, to look back into the face of the church as it looked back at us and we could sense something there, a reflection of the past. Over the course of time a lot of things build up and accrete beyond the layers of paint. The forlorn headstones in the cemetery adjacent to the church stood mute, tilted by the passing of time and reminded me of the last visit between Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, knowing that if your name wasn’t there now, it would be in time.

I spent the rest of the day doing some last minute shopping with my children. Our oldest son drove and we listened to his music as we rode along, talking about Christmases past. The excitement was creeping in along the edges, especially for the youngest who asked non-stop questions about the plausibility of Santa Claus and his single night mission. I assured him that as the population had grown, so too had the naughty list and that his numbers were relatively unchanged from my youth. He accepted that with a nod of his head and went back to looking out of the window, thoughts elsewhere. We spent a few hours together — watching people more than anything else — and after a lunch together we picked up a few stocking stuffers to finish off our afternoon and headed back to the farm. Most of my memories of Christmas Eve revolve around my father and I, perennial last minute shoppers, and it seemed important to continue the tradition. My wife doesn’t get it. She thinks the commotion and traffic aren’t worth the effort, but this is something between the children and I that we consider a tradition and we all look forward to it almost as much as Christmas morning.

My Uncle had planned a surprise party for my Aunt’s milestone birthday. She hates surprises, always has. As a family we agreed to attend, gladly, hoping that my Aunt would be able to forgive her husband’s gesture long enough to let the happiness come to full bloom, surrounded by loved ones. She was born on Christmas Eve and all through our lives we would find ourselves together for her birthday in a way that never happened for other members of the family. Some people used to say that it was a shame she had to share her birthday with something like Christmas, but my Aunt is the kind of person who was overjoyed by the presence of family and friends far more than by any gifts she might have received. We had never been to the home where the party was held, close friends of my Aunt and Uncle, and the directions we’d copied from the Internet were as bad as they get, so my wife and I with the children dressed up and hungry in the back of the car drove aimlessly in the dark countryside looking for a road in a town where we’d never been before. The countryside of New Hampshire rolls and undulates like an ocean, the roads following ancient trails and stream banks, past rubble walls and dense, dark forests. The houses were either at the edge of the blacktop, or set far off across the fields, but in each one the lights glowed in the darkness, like something in a dream. I could feel the tension rise as the time for our arrival passed and then receded by the numbers on the clock in the dashboard. The children repeatedly asked when we’d get there, while my wife nervously searched in the windows of each house for a sign of a party. Frustrated and about to give up I spotted a police car idling in a parking lot and pulled in to ask for directions. The children make it a practice to exit the vehicle every time I do, hoping they won’t miss out on whatever takes place when I’m not in sight. We approached the officer and he smiled and gave us accurate directions. I thanked him profusely and and within minutes we had located the house. When we walked in my Aunt broke into a fresh set of tears and hugged us each with obvious delight, repeating over and over, “I love you” to each of us. The hosts were welcoming, the food was delicious and the entire evening was so effortless and festive you couldn’t help but be carried away with the goodness and light of the season. It was a pleasure to be with my wife in a social setting with no responsibilities and to have conversations with my Aunt’s friends about everything and nothing at all. It made us proud to watch our children move effortlessly among the adults exchanging pleasantries and handshakes and to hear people comment later what wonderful children we had. The host took me to his wine cellar and in a gesture of such sincere generosity and goodwill that it left me speechless, offered my wife and I a bottle each of his beautiful wine for Christmas. I made him promise to bring his wife to the farm so that we could share with him a vintage of maple syrup and some steaks whenever they got the chance. We said our goodbyes and drove home, chatting quietly while the children fell asleep in the back, the radio playing jazzy Christmas songs one after another.

I finished up wrapping the last few gifts I’d put together for the children after they went to bed. I put on It’s A Wonderful Life and paid scant attention to the beginning of the film, waiting instead for the better part of the second half. It doesn’t matter how many times I have seen the movie, there’s something deeply touching about the message that transcends the dated look and feel of it. The campy theatrics of Jimmy Stewart camouflage the sweet and stinging rebuke of Clarence when he demonstrates what life would look like in Bedford Falls if he hadn’t been there and each scene of a world altered into a nightmare echoed the theme of A Christmas Carol. As I finished up the last couple of presents — running out of tape as I have done countless times before and relying on ribbon to secure the wrapping — I paused to watch a single scene. George Bailey, unable to find the money lost by his absent minded uncle, returns to his home on Christmas Eve. His wife is busy with the preparations for their dinner, his daughter practices piano in the living room while his youngest son drapes tinsel on George’s heavy head. The sounds of a loving family, rather than fortifying George, bring up a deep well of sadness within him, the turmoil of the world brought home to the only sanctuary a man ever has. His sadness is suddenly perceived by Mary his wife and in an explosive moment he turns on the ones he loves the most leaving them crushed and speechless. This single scene had always touched me because it shows, Like Scrooge taking back the ring from Belle, that the greatest suffering in our life comes not from outside, but from within, failures of our own making. In that second you can see clearly that the greatest regrets are formed in an instant and often from our concerns about ourselves first, rather than the ones we love the most. The world doesn’t need us, the people we love do. And whatever the world gives to us for good or for bad, none of it is worth the price of missing the love that is given bountifully by the ones we love in return.

A lot of the world today looks like Potterville to me. I wish, like George Bailey must have, that I could change things back, but unlike a character in a movie I don’t have that kind of magical power. Scrooge was able to make things right, Clarence to give George his life back, but the rest of us have got to live with what we have and simply make the best of it. We recreate the best things of our early life with our children if we are lucky enough to have them, and we reach out tenderly, if we’re wise enough, to the hands that reach out toward us. I have done the same kind of things that both Ebeneezer and George chose to do in their weakness and self-indulgence and it brought me the same kind of empty despair. I understand how easy it is to give in to that in a world that eats our tears, but that is always a choice that we make and one that we can choose not to if we listen to our inner voice. Nothing is going to alter the path that we are on but for the way we walk upon it. Tread lightly, follow the dips and curves of the road in darkness when you are lost, but never forget that every decision you make leads not only to a grave but to that brightly lit future filled with loving moments that transcend time itself.

And never forget that despite it all, it is a wonderful life.

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