A ride home on Christmas eve

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

No surprise that we were waiting.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

Those demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. Looking out the front window, we saw a car that wasn’t my dad’s. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing and there was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Then, off he went into the Christmas eve night.

He saw that he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad acknowledged that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Perhaps you could, too.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogi. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought some demons home from the battlefield.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

He saw he could help,so he did

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He could be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams Hawaii

I was dusting off my annual tribute-to-Grams blog last night when, out of the blue, one of my siblings shared this photo of her on a trip to Hawaii long ago. The image and the coincidence made me smile. These things happen with Grams. She’s persistently present, even now.

We call her Grams, though her name is Ann. Her birthday is today, so everyone in the family will think of her, raise a coffee cup or glass in her honor, and smile. She’s always had a way of making us smile.

She’s made us smile simply by being her funny, feisty, life-loving self, and that’s such a great gift – showing others what it means to have the courage to be.

She’s taught us many important things, too, such as how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogi from scratch in such a way that they won’t fall apart when you cook them.

And persistence – she’s taught us about persistence.

The courage to be

Her husband died of cancer when they had three young daughters. She had many tough choices to make. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then.

Uh-uh, not Grams. Instead, she found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed.

She heard the men’s comments but she didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support! She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

When I was young, my family went through difficult years. There were moments when Grams would pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And she was persistent, all right! When I was away at college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers, again and again.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together to celebrate special occasions or just hobnob about old times. No matter what we were doing, she made us know that she was happy to see us. Without even saying it, she reminded us that we were loved.

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been many not-so-subtle reminders that she’s still an important part of it.

Persistent presence

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with needed guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with her two sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh? But not surprising at all. Not if you know Grams.

Many people have shared similar stories about loved ones showing up in unexpected ways, providing reminders that they’re still dear and not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works exactly, but we know there’s something to it that’s beyond our comprehension.

There’s a line in one of Paul’s letters that describes God’s love as so powerful that nothing can separate us from it, not even death. That’s how love works – it recognizes no barriers or boundaries. I also believe that we can never be separated from the people in our lives who love us so powerfully.

Persistent love would never let a small thing like death get in its way.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is today, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee (that’s one of her mugs above) and how to make pierogi from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

Persistent about life and love

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone mistreat you. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of pierogi for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Love offers but never insists

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.