It’s a Wonderful Wife: What Mary Bailey is teaching me about how to live post-Sandy Hook

Five years ago on December 14, we heard and read of the horror that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, We imagined the grief of these parents who had already wrapped Christmas presents for their children, these babies whom they would now have to bury. Their grief was beyond our fathoming, so monstrous and so paralyzing.

Anne Lamott writes about Sandy Hook in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, particularly how paralysis is not a place to stay on the heels of grief.  “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next. Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags,” Lamott writes. “We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the whole shebang, you miss the stitching.”

A powerful epidemic of kindness ensued following Sandy Hook. NBC ‘s Ann Curry spurred us on to commit 20 acts of kindness. To include the women who died at the school, The 26 Acts of Kindness movement began with a roar. Donations of talent and treasure and teddy bears swelled not only around Newtown but into communities everywhere. The lightness and goodness did its damndest to drive out the darkness.

Five years later, we are numbed by the regularity of massacre on our soil. We are bereft of shock when another mass shooting occurs. Great sweeping acts of kindness may feel, well, a bit naive when the forces that are meant to protect our freedom from fear are, at best, crumbling, or at their very worst, seem to be the embodiment of evil.

In our impotence, many of us will turn to tropey holiday films as we do year after year. That old standby It’s a Wonderful Life will remind us with the chiming of bells and angel wings of what matters.

On a recent reviewing of Frank Capra’s classic, though, it occurred to me that the protagonist, George Bailey, is not the hero America needs at this moment. It’s the First Lady of the Bailey Building and Loans: Mrs. Mary Bailey. George’s mother tells him she is “someone who can help you find the answers.” Maybe she can help America find some, too.

At first blush, Mary Bailey may appear to be one who settles, one who cannot dream beyond Bedford Falls. But Mary cultivates contentment in every circumstance. She doesn’t get an epic honeymoon; she makes loans to fretful bank account holders with her wedding money. She fixes up a leaking, decrepit, old mansion; she calls it the bridal suite. She’s complicit in this — even seems to take joy in it all — and we never see her utter an embittered word about it.

When our protagonist faces his dark night of the soul, it is Mary who leads the charge to save him and his bank. Stitching together a network of friends, she watches as each pours in his dollars and cents.

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At the heart of all George’s pain is a miserly banker named Mr. Potter whose crotchetiness is only transcended by his greed. Unlike George, Mary does not seem to waste a moment fuming at Potter. Mary’s focus is on what’s possible.

The last few years have been a dark night of the soul for our country.

I have frittered away much of this year reading incendiary Twitter threads and rolling my eyes at political frenemies. To what end? If I am to look to the model of Mary Bailey, then my focus needs to be set on what’s possible.

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The poignant beauty of Sandy Hook was a whole nation averting its eyes from the Terrible and Unfathomable and pivoting toward the Lovely and Generous. The indomitable spirit within each one of us has the power to spur something powerful again, by first fixing our eyes on a more redemptive future. We will believe that our disparate rags can become something of a shelter in this “drafty old barn,” to borrow a phrase from George speaking to the one and only Mary Bailey, as she asks, “What’s wrong?” while she fixes the salad. Mary, always fixing.

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Father Christmas

Father Christmas

The first Christmas holiday after my parents’ divorce, our father led my siblings and me through the stuffy corridor to his apartment. He stopped us short of entering, and instructed us to wait in the hallway. My siblings and I waited, swaddled and sweating in our scarves. Then, with a twinkle in his eye that shown all the way to Bethlehem, Pops appeared at the door and ushered us inside.

The apartment was dark, except for a warm red glow illuminating the sitting area.

I saw Santa, but I could say nothing.

This Santa, or one of its many million incarnations, was typically found at garden centers or department stores in the aisle marked “Yard Ornaments” or “Outdoor Lighting.”  Not “Living Room Fixtures” as my father had seen fit.

And yet there in his living room, standing all of 3’5”, Santa shone.  A bright red beacon, arms outstretched, proffering a sackload of waxy, colorful presents. Santa, who, among the rest of my father’s furnishings – from the Ethan Allen Mid-Life Bachelor Collection – stood out like a garden gnome at Versailles.

My father crowed, “It’s SANTA!!” as we stood around the yard ornament in the living room, “Look at him!  Isn’t he the jolliest fellow you ever beheld?”

I stood at a distance, my mind swirling with the significance of Santa. “Doesn’t anyone else find this INCREDIBLY SAD?!” I wanted to cry.

Our father was living in a one bedroom apartment whose lobby smelled like armpits.  Just last year, we had all enjoyed Christmas in a large living room, charmed by the smell of pine from our real Christmas tree.  Suddenly, I felt as though we had been exiled to a trailer park, one where yard ornaments had to be kept indoors.

“Yeah,” Pops said, “Maybe once it snows we’ll put him out on your porch.”

Santa never got any fresh air that year.

My first semester away at school, mired in final exams and completely oblivious to the holiday season’s arrival, I called my father during a study break.

As Pops reported on all of the festivities, his voice crescendoed, “And, of course, Santa’s waiting for you.”

I choked at the thought of my brother and sister eating Christmas cookies and watching Claymation specials in their pajamas – all within Santa’s jocund gaze. I was so homesick.

After all of my exams were turned in that first semester, I came home to friends with photo albums and boys under mistletoes. But I also came home to Santa, whose hollow plastic barrel looked good enough to hug.  What once was an emblem of my sadness had become a token of home for the holidays.

During my last year of college, my father remarried.   Julie brought two cats to the relationship. My father brought three children. And one Santa. They moved into a home on a tony street of white light holiday schemes.

One day, Julie came home to Santa on her porch.

Try as she might to convince my father, her new husband, that he was single-handedly bringing down the property values for the whole neighborhood, Pops could not be dissuaded.

This did not come as a surprise to my siblings and me.  Pops is not a particularly recalcitrant person.  It’s just that he so fervently loves the holiday season and guards the spirit of the season as sacred.

Last year, I received a call at work from my father during the day, an oddity, which caused for alarm.

“I’m in bad shape,” he said. He was on his way to the hospital. He had fainted in an elevator at work and now he couldn’t keep food down.  The doctors discovered a hole in his esophagus due to stress. He underwent a blood transfusion for severe anemia, and his esophagus was patched.  While my father was recovering from surgery, I spoke with Julie on the phone. She had been hard-pressed to get my father to a doctor after his initial fainting in the elevator.

I asked her how she cajoled him to take time off work to go seek medical help.

“I threatened to call off Christmas,” she explained. “I said, ‘I’m not putting up the tree. No cards. No gifts. No Santa.’”

The last ultimatum had been the prompt that he needed.

Santa arrived late to his post on the porch that year. The neighbors probably thought Pops had retired him for good. Upon his reinstatement, the neighbors balked.

But since Santa may very well be the single most important reason my father is still alive, Santa is going nowhere. My family and I – Julie included – have embraced Santa as our own. He is our home team mascot, and no one boos for his home team.

Santa’s cherry nose has faded since he first came into our living room and our lives, but no amount of burned out bulbs, or the sneers of white lights-loving neighbors will ever banish him from our hearts.

Santa represents for us the childlike whimsy that Pops loves about holidays. The spirit of the season which is most palpable for him. The love and joy that are meant to be held right out in front, right out on the front porch.

This piece originally appeared in the Dorchester Reporter in December 2007.

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The Unabridged FamiLee Holiday Letter

Dear Fam,

We cheaped out on the Christmas holiday letter, reserving only a few lines on the glamour card for an update, so I thought I would harness the economy of this world wide interweb for the purpose of updating you on the FamiLee goings-on here at fiscal year-end. Do you like how I just referred to our family unit like it’s a limited liability corporation? Do you think we should probably get a tax cut? Do you think I can write off my blog for these purposes? I have questions.

But before Kanye grabs the mic from me, I want to first say very emphatically that the best album of the year was Lady Gaga’s Joanne (Deluxe)” Buy. Listen. Love. For best books, I’m putting Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body and We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy as my favorites. The latter I have not yet read but I ninja-dropped it into my dad’s basket when he was buying Christmas gifts, so I’m sure I’ll love it. For movies, pssh. I paid to see “The Emoji Movie” so you should for no reason be taking film notes from me.

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Now that we’ve got that out of the way, the news.

In the early part of the summer, we joined John’s family in Vancouver to see his grandma who is 90 years young. If you want the curated version, see my Instagram feed. If you want what really happened, you can consult my Google searches during that time. They include:

“MY+KOREAN+IN-LAWS+ARE+DISAPPOINTED+MY+KID+WON’T+EAT+RICE+AND+WHAT+TO+DO+ABOUT+IT.”

“I+JUST+REALIZED+I’M+A+DIVA+IN+CANADA+I’M+SAD+NEAREST+SUPPORT+GROUP.”

“DIRECT+FLIGHTS+VANCOUVER+TO+CHATTANOOGA+THIS+AFTERNOON.”

After we returned to Tennessee from the trip, the kids spent two weeks at their grandparents’ homes in Ohio. It was epic! We missed them terribly but are so grateful for Grandparents Camp because it allowed John and me to pack up our earthly possessions for the big move.

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That is probably the biggest news bulletin–not in the world obviously because North Korea is up to somethin’ and obviously Chip and Joanna Gaines are in their last season so the world might actually end any second now–but in our world, moving back to Boston has been the biggest news.

Especially since it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense. Why would we leave Tennessee where we both had great jobs that we loved, where the kids were in a great school, and where we didn’t even need to own a snow shovel? Well, my friends. Like Al Gore gesticulating the ebbing of global climate change, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. We moved back to the same street we used to live on, not far from the house we had to short-sell because we thought we were going to be in Tennessee until the Lord returned or until “Fixer Upper” stopped releasing new episodes. So here we are back in a city that we adore, where we get to show the kids things we’ve already done with them, of which they have no memory of doing the first time. It’s like that part in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where they keep circling Big Ben except our kids are legitimately impressed to see Big Ben again. We found an apartment in the Athleisure Capital of the World. Even the yoga pants are fancy here. It is exciting to go from renting in ruralburbia to renting an apartment just steps away from Dunkin’ Donuts. John’s working as a counselor at a boarding academy for which people seem really interested to know the tuition. I guess that is more important than whether or not he’s happy. Ohh! Burrrrn! The answer to tuition and happiness, though, is the same. A Lot. I’m doing the freelance thing. Mostly putting the “free” into freelance but having fun as I write with my calligraphy pens or this here laptop.

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As for the kids, they are mostly amazing and teaching us about resilience through this transition. We lost a hamster just as school started, and the kids showed us that we had not failed entirely as parents, so we were grateful for that outcome even if we the kids miss Doris something fierce. RIP Dodo.

Madigan, 9, is still the delightful optimist you remember, now with tween mood swings! She has not had an easy adjustment to school. Going from a small Christian school where she knew everyone to a much larger public school has been overwhelming at times. We think this to be true, but obviously, she is a tween so she only answers in one-word answers like “cool”and “good” and “maybe.” We are proud of the way she is staying on top of her studies and making kind friends, too. She started guitar lessons this past fall and she has better musical timing than I could hope to have. Again, I paid to see “The Emoji Movie” so my artistic opinion is null and void but really, she is good.

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Tatum, 7, is still the goofball you recall, now with a whole suite of fresh dance moves. He is crushing the first grade and is taking karate. He has a vast knowledge of YouTube Gamers, so if you were ever wondering what kind of hypothetical Minecraft moves you could make over the course of the next seven lifetimes, just give our boy a call.

As we settle in to Boston Life the Remix, we miss our Tennessee church most of all. We are a part of a body here in Boston and we are trying to find on-ramps for involvement, but it is not the same. We are grateful for the experience we had as part of a healthy church family and are using that experience to help us believe better things are to come. I think this is a sound reminder of the way our Savior came to earth: vulnerable and with parents in transition, cloaked in beauty and filling us with hope. We remember Jesus who came and saw and loved and conquered and we are encouraged to do the same.

Wherever this holiday finds you, in a place of landing or a season of transition, we pray that peace will reside within you, and wish an abundance cookies, covfefe and good cheer to you and yours.

Love,
Kendra…and John, Madigan, and Tatum

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