“If half the things go half as well as they might,” I said to my students, “we’ll be very well off, indeed.” Then I told them: “The problem is that I know too much of history ever to expect half the things to go half as well as they might.”
We were talking about life, the universe, and everything in light of the news that a Russian-made missile had hit a building in Poland. The past couple of weeks have been a bit of a blur, but if memory serves, we already had heard that the missile likely came from Ukrainian air defense. That wasn’t a good thing, but it was less bad than several of the alternatives. The world had been bracing for the worst.
It was something for which to be thankful, at least for now.
By the time I was in high school, we had taken to the notion that the Cold War was over and that the threat of global thermonuclear war was at least very much attenuated. I remember John Szablewicz – one of the great legendary history teachers at Prep – encouraging me to read Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. He also had me read a biography of Charlie Soong. That reading list suggests he saw further and more deeply than he let on, and trusted me to see for myself.
That is something for which I am only now becoming properly grateful.
I have always appreciated our custom of closing the year with an act of thanksgiving that is very much a public affair, typically celebrated in the intimacy of home. Last year was the first such thanksgiving I had celebrated at home in nearly twenty years. I resolved last year to delight in what I have received, to be more generous than I have been in sharing of the great blessings given me, more hospitable in welcoming all who would join our company.
I cannot take the measure of my success in meeting this threefold resolution, which is the work of fellowship for which I am never so grateful as I should be.
The society of my father has been a signal blessing all throughout this year. For the first time since leaving home a quarter-century ago, I have enjoyed his regular company. The popular and conventional wisdom has it that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That is true only in a very qualified sense. The joy of the past year has surpassed the fondest hope of happy reunion.
A few years ago, I wrote about what I learned – and still learn – from my father.
At play with my father – and watching him at play – I learned tenacity, sportsmanship, equanimity. I learned from him that these excellences of character are not opposed to one another, but are in fact complementary. I learned that there is honor in victory only when it is fairly won. I learned that there is never shame in failure and defeat, when one has given one’s best.
Watching him at work, I learned to succeed graciously and to acknowledge others’ often crucial contributions to “my” success, hence that one’s own merit is not diminished by cheerful recognition of others’. I learned that neither systems nor the people that make them are ever perfect. I learned that sometimes we are called to struggle to the last, outcomes be damned. I also learned that sometimes we are not. I learned that it is difficult, though not impossible, in principle, to discern the course to which we are called.
Watching him in the neighborhood, I learned the meaning of the word. I learned that good citizenship begins and ends in neighborliness and personal rectitude. Watching him in all his dealings with others, especially in his relations with me, I learned that wisdom and judgment are real, and that they are not incompatible with perfect generosity. Watching him in adversity, I learned the meaning of physical and moral courage.
Seeing him care for my mother in her last illness, and praying with him over her deathbed, I learned the order of love.
He teaches me today.
Each day, I learn from him that the Divine Fatherhood is worthy of our worship. Each and every day, he shows me more and more of what that love is like. After forty-six turns around our star, I still say that I want to be just like my dad. I still mean it.
This year will be the sixth Thanksgiving we celebrate without his wife, Maudie Altieri, my mother. That first year, 2017, I wrote of how she loved Thanksgiving. Indeed, she delighted in it. She poured herself into it. She outdid herself over it. The Lord of Life will not refuse her a place of honor at His feasting table.
My fondest hope, then and now, is that He should see fit to bring me and all of us together again who loved her and were beneficiaries of the largesse that spilled from her bottomless heart. One day, we shall be restored to her companionship. One day, we shall break the bread of uncreated and eternal thanksgiving unalloyed with tears.
As I write this, Mrs. A. is at work in the kitchen. She has thrown herself into preparations for a Thanksgiving meal far from her native land. With great alacrity, she oversees the business of the day. She has helped me in years past, when we have made something of the feast in a place where I was a stranger. She is in a foreign country now, bringing the flavors and aromas of her homeland to our table.
This is a grace with which we are familiar.
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