“Santa Came! Santa Came!”

Dear Will:

I grew up in a loud, frenetic home. In addition to my parents, there were seven of us kids, born oldest-to-youngest in just a 10-year span. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.)

Imagine Christmas in that house. When we were little, the place pulsed with nervous energy. I can remember scrambling around the tree together, counting and sorting and speculating over what made one gift rattle or gave another its unique shape. Who knows what kinds of calculations took place in my parents’ quiet hours together (did they even have quiet hours together?) as they tried to ensure that no child felt overlooked or under-loved.

By Christmas Eve, the wave of excitement crashed upon the family shore, sending its exuberant spray in all directions. As I recall, the yule feast was typically a rib roast with Yorkshire pudding and . . . I have no idea what else. Afterward, we would gather for an abbreviated Christmas program of some kind. There again memory fails, but for sure we sang some, with Santa songs woven indiscriminately among the sacred hymns and carols of Jesus—it was all Christmas to us kids.

Eventually we hung our matching stockings and scurried off to bed. From that point, the living room was technically off limits, but you can bet that by 4 a.m. anticipation would overwhelm sleep, and one or more of us would begin slinking up and down the hallway, flashlighting our way through the fresh booty that had appeared while we were “asleep.” (One year my younger brother Michael woke me with a beam of light to the face. “You got a bike!” he announced. My corneas have not recovered.) Once we had assembled a critical mass, our clumsy eagerness would betray us and we would be shooed back to bed by a disheveled parent. But rather than return to bed, we would huddle in one of the bedrooms, chatting anxiously while we awaited the celebratory signal: my father shaking a string of bells and exclaiming, “Santa came! Santa came!”

All these years later, my memory clings to a smattering of snapshots from specific Christmases, but the details of those gleeful hours have mostly faded. Faded, that is, with one prominent exception: Every Christmas Eve, as the after-dinner festivities drew to a close, we would gather for a reading of the familiar King James account of the First Christmas Ever. My father would drag out the family Bible—one of those gigantic tomes meant mostly for display—and share with us the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke. My siblings and I were never what one would consider especially (or even somewhat) reverent, but in my memory we sat quietly for this. He was not an especially religious man, my dad, so when he read scripture, it was a very special thing.

Hearing my father recite that familiar account remains for me the most sacred thing imaginable. It had a greater effect on me than any of the baubles stuffed into stockings or concealed beneath the tree. Among my sundry childhood memories, it remains among the most precious, perhaps because of how it made me feel. Memories of the Spirit are that much harder to forget.

Oh, but how time passes relentlessly on. As we grew, whichever of the brood was near enough at hand would reunite each year in my parents’ home, now with our own children creating the energy of anticipation and wonder. As marriages added in-laws to the mix, new traditions mingled with the old; but the most treasured tradition remained inviolable: We would sit, and my father would recount the tale of angels and shepherds and a miraculous, life-changing, world-saving baby boy. Until he no longer could. The year his eyes failed and my dad asked me to take his place with the family Bible, I felt both disappointed and unworthy. I did the best I could, but clearly it wasn’t the same. Nor is it. My dad has been dead now for over ten years, and still I miss him all the time—never more than on Christmas Eve.

In a couple of weeks, a smaller group will gather in my own home. It will be just Dana and I, Seth and (maybe) Bryn, plus a couple of dear friends. There will be no Yorkshire pudding (who knows how to make Yorkshire pudding?), but it will be lovely nonetheless. We’ll be missing the magic that small children lend to such an event, but when we read of the Nativity, we will still feel the spiritual warmth that story always brings. Come morning, my grown children will sleep until I can stand it no longer. Eventually, I’ll reach for a string of bells and make the big announcement: “Santa came! Santa came!”

PW

Feeling the Joy

Dear Will:

We have this delightful, irresistible friend who likes to say that she is a “certified joyologist.” She’s kidding, but if you met her and heard her infectious laugh and saw the way she infuses a room with positive energy, you would have no reason to question her claim.

Given the chaos and disruption of 2020, we figure we could all use a little more joyology in our lives. A lot more, actually. As the poet Mary Oliver has written, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather, she says, “if you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

All right. We’re game. ‘Tis the season, after all, when joy shows up on billboards and t-shirts and any number of gift bags (shopping bags, for that matter). Looking back on this year-like-no-other, there have been plenty of things that have brought us joy in spite—and sometimes because—of all the rest. So in this season of giving, we’re giving in. To joy.

There were many moments during 2020 in which we suddenly, unexpectedly felt joy. Moments like these:

  • When hundreds of my co-workers agreed to voluntary pay-cuts so that no one would be laid off or furloughed (not a bad place to work, right?)
  • Before: 90-mile commute on the 405. Now: 30-foot stroll down the hall (pants optional)
  • Working with a puppy asleep at your feet (panting optional)
  • Hearing the sound of neighbor children lost in imagination on a cool, summer evening (love that)
  • Knowing that many doubters wear masks anyway for the sake of the rest of us (love them)
  • Sitting together—just the two of us—on the patio outside of Rubio’s (first night out in months)
  • Making new friends of old neighbors while walking Nacho, the least-disciplined dog in Orange County (work-in-negligible-progress)
  • Eavesdropping while Dana tutors one of her students (who knew math could be so fun?)
  • Texting with Seth during the Lakers’ Championship in Quarantine (perhaps even better than the championship itself)
  • Watching more movies AND reading more books (how is that possible?)
  • Trading in Dana’s two worn-out knees for a couple of state-of-the-art titanium numbers (to match her titanium hips)
  • Cheering in the early dawn as our beloved Brentford Bees came THIS CLOSE to the Premiership (best season ever)
  • Sunday evening Facetime Poetry Hour with Bryn (how else would we know about Mary Oliver?)
  • All of us avoiding COVID-19 (so far)
  • Seeing a resounding affirmation that democracy still works (so far)
  • First tour of Luke and Tyler’s first house (quirky and delightful, just like the house)
  • Spending a distanced weekend with Bryn and Seth at Silver City Mountain Resort (before they were chased out by the fires)
  • Celebrating the Dodgers’ first championship since before any of our kids was born (catharsis)
  • Looking on as Nacho disembowels yet another squeaky toy (no blue dragon is safe)
  • Studying Engineering from home while enrolled at UCLA (correction: no joy in that for Seth whatsoever—he’s moved back to Westwood)
  • Eating Guerilla Tacos during the Worst Drive-in Dance Concert of the COVID Era™ (Date Night!)
  • Witnessing the selflessness of medical personnel and other essential workers (angels and superheroes)
  • Meeting the brand-new baby of our brand-new friends who arrived only a few months ago as refugees from Afghanistan (you’d love them too)
  • Sitting down to compile this list (and there’s more where this came from)
  • Thinking about friends like you (corny, but true)
  • Celebrating the birth of Jesus (Joy to the World!)

Here’s hoping for even more joyology in 2021.

PW

Photo by Anthony Asael

To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW