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Jeff the Baptist, vol. 1, #7

Remembering Those Who Have Gone Before Us

Harry died last week. I can still remember his smile. He was the nicest man. When my Dad called to tell me, it was like the world hushed for a while. It grew quieter, sadder, to mark his passing. A bright smile and laughter has left us to return to God.

This may not seem the proper venue for writing a eulogy, but a eulogy is not what I’m after, here. I have always had a very hard time accepting the post-Anselmian view (speaking of setting aside traditions that no longer work well) that Jesus poured his blood out for the many, by being nailed to a cross, which had the effect of magically washing our hearts clean and making us acceptable in the eyes of God. Somehow, it just didn’t ring true. Rather, I believe that we find salvation through embracing one another. And one way, for me, to embrace one another is through remembering each others’ stories. So, that’s what I want to do. I want to remember Harry a little. I think there may be something in his smile for us all. And if reading about his smile brings to your mind something special about someone who has gone before us, I would like to read about it.

Harry was the father of one of my good high school friends. But, I met him before that, picking up a pair of shoes. He had an old shoe store in the old part of my hometown in northern Wisconsin, not too far from the harbor. Dad once told me that Harry got a lot of his business from sailors coming ashore. I remember bicycling down to the store one day to pick up the shoes when I was pretty young. Outside, the store looked run down, old. The sign looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 30s. The displays in the dirty windows were a potpourri of products from the same era, spiced with the occasional new set of shoelaces or polish here and there.

Inside, surrounded by the smells of leather and polish, I walked up to the counter. I peeked over it to behold mountains of shoes everywhere. How could he ever find anything, I wondered. Yet, he did. Without hesitation, this short old man with his head cocked slightly to one side, his thick glasses and a few strands of gray and white hanging down over a wide forehead, walked right over to a pile and pulled out the shoes. And what a smile. Not the wide beam of the overeager salesman. Not the forced trying-to-be-friendly grin of the trade shows. Not the plastic gleam learned from a success seminar. None of those. Just a nice smile. Unassuming. A hint of shyness. Deep within, a profound sense of serenity. The smile of a person who has confronted the worse demons of his nature and, somehow, made peace with them. The smile of a person who has seen the trials of life and yet, somehow, learned to live with them.

Years later, when I returned for a visit, things had not really changed. The sign was the same. I swear the displays were no different. Harry looked older, but he still had that smile. He showed us a painting of the store with he and his son, much younger then, standing in front. The painting was one of two copies, he told us. The other hanged in the office of his son, who had grown up to become a contracts lawyer in Minneapolis. His son kept it there, Harry said, because, amid all the hustle and bustle of big city law, he wanted to remember where he came from. Somehow, I was not too surprised.

That same visit, I stopped by their family’s synagogue. Not knowing any better I quietly walked in and slipped into a pew. Just as quietly, Harry found a yarmulke somewhere and gave it to me to put on my head. No questions asked of this gentile, just a quiet welcome. We’re glad you’re here to worship God with us.

Not too long ago, I found myself sitting in another place of worship, listening, oddly enough, to the dating stories of an older generation. He told me of dating a girl who had grown up in a concentration camp. She had a number tattooed on her arm. The stories her parents could tell would bring him to tears. It never bothered him that she was Jewish, or her family that he was gentile, but much to his surprise, it seemed to bother everyone else.

Harry fought in the war that spawned those concentration camps. That war also gave rise to the horrible knowledge of what we, as a species, are still capable of doing to each other out of a disagreement over what constitutes a proper relationship with God. Harry had a special relationship to that horror, if for no other reason than his roots. Despite that terrible knowledge, despite the fears for his family’s safety that must have gripped him from time to time (I still remember the anti-Semitism that rocked our small town in the early 70s), despite all this added to the typical trials of life that we all experience, he kept his smile. How he did it is a mystery. I wish that I could ask him.

There must have been some kind of deep trust of God within. There must have been some kind of innate belief that, somehow, we would go on. Sometimes, I like to sit back and think about the hardships of previous generations; it helps put our current struggles like AIDS, the frenetic pace at which we must work, or the systematic rape of our planet into a better perspective. Those that have gone before us, too, had their struggles.

I like to believe that we can learn from the smiles of those such as Harry. That kind of smile is not based on foolish bravado. It’s supported by a quiet confidence. It comes from that presence of grace within, if we choose to acknowledge it. Most important, that kind of smile is available to us all.

That’s what Harry’s smile meant to me. The world, somehow, seems a better place because of it.


- Jeff the Baptist


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