A Child Is Born
The coming of the advent season invites us to examine the spiritual significance of awaiting
the birth of a child—and perhaps the opportunity it represents for us to be “born again.”
“I loved you before you were born.” These were the closing words I wrote in a letter one fall day in 1996. I folded the letter carefully, slipped it snugly into an envelope, sealed it and neatly wrote the name of the letter’s intended recipient. I suppose the extra care resulted from the fact that I knew this letter would need to stand the test of time. You could almost think of it as a time capsule of sorts, only a time capsule that would portray not the technology and cultural trends of 1996 or current news events, but rather one that would reflect only the feelings of quiet anticipation I had privately held in my mind on that day.
Perhaps the extra care was not surprising, since I was writing to someone very special—someone who would one day be the most important person in my life for a time. But this was someone I had never met. It didn’t matter at the time that the letter I had so carefully considered probably wouldn’t be read for at least 20 years—and maybe never read at all.
You see, I was writing to my son, Owen, a few months before his expected birth in late December of that year. Now, the idea of writing a letter to your unborn child was not my own—I had read about it someplace. I thought it was pure genius. Rather like when NASA in the late 70s sent images of a man and a woman into outer space with the Pioneer space probes, with the hope that some unknown alien creatures beyond our solar system would scoop it up and marvel at the intelligence, the physical beauty, and the downright cleverness of our species.
We had already found out the sex of our child—Besty hates surprises—and therefore had settled on the name. Owen. Baby Owie. His official full name—George Owen Eliot Grimm-Howell—was a metaphor for all the accumulated history and expectations of at least four families, past, present and future—all crammed into the very long name of one very small boy. Not even out of the womb, and the great weight of history was already upon his shoulders. In addition to being my name, George is also my father’s name, making Owen “George III” unofficially. The “Eliot” part of his name is for his paternal grandfather, Hadley Eliot Grimm, who’s uber-Unitarian parents Gloria and Hadley Grimm had been the first to merge the Grimms and the Eliots, if only through the naming of their children. Through the Grimms, Owen and his sister Meredith are fifth generation Unitarians in this church. Gloria Grimm was instrumental in bringing the Rev. Earl Holt to this church in the late 70s, and about 25 years later there was Earl dedicating Owen, Gloria’s great grandchild.
Like Joseph of long ago, my part in the whole affair was pretty minor – I just provided transportation and moral support for the whole child-bearing process. But at least in my case there were no serious questions regarding the paternity of the child.
No, my role was simply to be clever, and to try and pass on some kind of wisdom from my side of the family. My fascination with intergenerational communication began years ago with my encounter with an Albert Camus novel, “The First Man.” In this autobiographical novel, the middle-aged French-Algerian man is overcome by a powerful desire to know his father, who had died in World War I in France. Since his father had left Algeria to fight in France shortly after the son’s birth, the son had never actually met his father. My favorite moment in all of literature is when the son finally arrives at his father’s grave in the south of France. In this moment of reflection, he realizes that he is now older than his father was on the day he died in combat. He becomes determined to learn more about his father and recapture a part of his heritage that had been lost.
The intergeneration theme was re-emphasized in the publishing of the novel itself. This was the last unfinished manuscript Camus was working on at the time of his own untimely death in a car accident in the 1960s. The novel was published in France in 1995 in its raw, passionate and unpolished state, by Camus’ daughter Catherine—34 years after the manuscript was discovered in the wreckage of the car crash in 1960 that took her father’s life. I can only guess that, like the young Camus in the story, she must have been older than her father was at the time that she took up this project to publish the manuscript.
I think the lesson here, among others, is that at a certain point in life, we have to forgive our parents. To forgive our parents for their faults, in a way, is to forgive ourselves. For we have all been young and foolish and passionate at some time in our lives. In turn, one day, it will be the duty of our children to forgive us.
“I loved you before you were born” was not a phrase I had come up with myself. Appropriately enough, it was a phrase inherited from my great grandmother, Hetty Orpha Orem Tucker. Yes, the kid in the painting was me. I don’t flatter myself in thinking that I was the only progeny of hers she had said this to. Knowing her generosity and her Baptist Republican pro-life convictions, I’m quite sure she thought this of every single unborn child in the world. But that possibility hasn’t diminished the powerful effect that this statement had on me as an adolescent.
My great grandpa surely had just as much love in his heart as his more talkative wife. He suffered a stroke in the early 1980s that greatly diminished his ability to speak. So he was a presence in my childhood but a relatively mute one. One of the fondest memories was our family tradition of him playing Santa Claus for us at Christmas time. His slurred speech may have prevented him from reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, but he had no trouble belting out a hearty “Ho Ho Ho” as he reached into his bag to pull out the gifts and treats. We older children quickly figured out it was Papaw Tucker. But it was still magic to see him so transformed, so useful and happy. After this death, this, too, was a ritual that was passed to the next generation—though his daughter, my Grandma Francis, was never quite as convincing a Santa as Papaw. We all pretended not to notice.
So all this—the Indiana farm family, the St. Louis Grimms, the Boston Eliots—all were swirling through my head when I decided to extended those magical words of my Great Grandmother to another generation: “I loved you before you were born.” The lives of Granny Tucker and Owen just missed overlapping—my great grandmother died in 1995, and our son Owen was born in 1996. I was the link. It was my duty to transmit the pass phrase to the new generation.
But was it just cleverness? Was it just my own vanity, or some vague attempt at immortality? Or was it really, truly possible to love someone you had never even seen face to face…someone you had never even seen a picture of other than a vague, shadowy ultrasound image? I had decided the answer must be “yes.”
I closed the letter by assuring the baby boy of my, and his mother’s, deep and abiding affection, and letting him know that we looked forward to welcoming him into our lives and to make him part of our families’ histories whenever he was ready.
And then we waited…
And we waited…
And we waited…
You know that old wives tale about how you can make the baby come sooner by walking around a lot? Or maybe it wasn’t a wives tale—Betsy was ready to try anything. So we walked, and we walked, and we walked, in the chilly days and nights of mid-December. You see, when Betsy walked, the contractions started. Bring it on! But then upon arriving home, they stopped. I think the Virgin Mary had a smarter idea to ride a donkey. All the bouncing and jostling of that ancient journey to Bethlehem obviously was more effective in prompting labor than blocks and blocks of walking around Webster Groves, Missouri. Once, while walking vigorously around town at midnight, in bitterly cold temperatures, we were stopped by a police officer. What was so suspect about an extremely pregnant woman and her accomplice walking briskly through the empty streets in the middle of the night?
Trust me, it’s not frequently that I equate my wife Betsy with the Virgin Mary. But here they were, both miserable and expecting large baby boys in December. I can only imagine Joseph’s anguish at having to undertake the difficult journey to a faraway town at such an awkward time. And during an era before the concept of rest areas. It’s probably a really good thing that the holy gospels don’t capture any of the actual dialogue that must have occurred on that donkey ride.
—I’m sorry Joe, but I have to go again. Can you stop the donkey? Just pull over at the next exit.
—But there’s nothing at this exit. Can’t you wait until we get to the Bethlehem suburbs? Maybe there’ll be a Roman rest stop or something.
Just like Baby Jesus, Owen’s due date was supposed to be Dec. 24. Just in time for the tax deduction. We now know that Owen pretty much takes his own sweet time doing whatever it is, so in retrospect it’s not surprising he needed lots of coaxing to make his debut in the world. Betsy’s young and perhaps over-exuberant OB made the mistake of telling her on Dec. 16, “Make sure your bags are packed for the hospital. This baby could come at any minute!” to which he had the wisdom and foresight to add, “Just eat some spicy food – they say that will make you go into labor sooner.” Right… So… after 8 nights of Pakistani food and bouts of vigorous streetwalking, we thought the magic night had finally arrived.
It was Christmas Eve. We had just hosted a house full of family members, including my father who had come to visit from Indiana. While Dec. 24 was the due date, it soon became clear that Owen was not coming this day. Owen’s first Christmas present from me, a copy of Antoine de St.-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, was waiting beneath the Christmas tree. The tree was festooned with a little ornament that read “My First Christmas—1996.” In the nursery upstairs, the manger was ready, complete with swaddling clothes. I thought I even heard the sound of angels singing, but soon realized it was Betsy calling my name. “I think it’s time,” she said. The baby was moving around like crazy, like he had just awakened from a long stupor. And after all, it was the appointed day, so I ran around back to the stable to fetch the donkey…I mean the Volkswagen…and we called the doctor who was just thrilled to receive our call on Christmas Eve. He told us to meet him at Barnes Hospital, which as it happens is about two blocks from where Betsy had been born at the old Jewish Hospital.
Upon arriving, I half expected to be told that they had no rooms in the hospital. But alas, there would be no births in the utility shed out back that night. We had the place to ourselves, since apparently few other mothers had wanted to schedule their births for such an inconvenient time. The doctor arrived in a flurry, looking very jolly—OK, let’s face it, he had been at an obviously very festive Christmas party. Just occasionally I imagined he was having trouble focusing. Of course, about the time he arrived, the contractions stopped. The angels must have stopped singing, too. It was stone silent in that very cold and empty place.
Here were the options, the doctor told us. We can just induce labor right now and force him out. Or we can all go home and wait until the baby’s really ready. And I can go back to my Christmas party and spend Christmas morning with my children. (OK, I just imagined that last part.)
Well, this is an Advent story, not a Christmas story. So we’ll have to save the birth story for our annual Christmas Pageant in two weeks. Flash forward to baby number 2.
Meredith Frances Macintosh Grimm-Howell (roll eyes) was not a Christmas baby. But I love the irony of that fact that Owen was the child who had been promised for Christmas. But Meredith’s birth in 1999 was perfectly timed to earn her the starring role of Baby Jesus that year. Steve Call and Teresa Sweeney thought their baby Esmé had it all sewn up, but then Meredith was born soon after, making her the youngest baby at First Church at Christmas Pageant time. Maybe Esmé will get even by being Mary in a few years.
With Meredith’s birth, the spirit of my great grandmother stirred once again. Tragically, I didn’t write to Meredith before she was born—I was too busy helping with Owen, who was nearly three and into everything. But I soon realized a magical connection between Granny Tucker and Meredith: Great Grandma had always bragged about the fact that she was planning to live to be 101 years old. She was born in 1899, so living to 101 would mean her life touched three centuries—the fleeting moments of the 19th, all of the 20th and the dawn of the 21st. Sadly, she didn’t make it to the 21st century, dying in 1995. But now here was her second chance. Her great-great granddaughter, Meredith, was born in 1999. With the dramatically longer life spans anticipated for her generation, she is very likely to achieve Granny’s dream of living in three centuries.
This love that transcends time and generations, and our rituals like the annual Christmas Pageant, bind us together.
One of my favorite readings is from Antoine de St.-Exupéry, the author of “The Little Prince,” the book I gave to Owen in celebration of his birth. I hadn’t yet run across this reading at the time, but I think it conveys perfectly the sentiment I was trying to convey in my letter to Owen and in my wish for Meredith’s long and meaningful life. Quote:
In a house which becomes a home, one hands down, and another takes up, the heritage of mind and heart, laughter and tears, musings and deeds. Love, like a carefully loaded ship, crosses the gulf between the generations.
Therefore we do not neglect the ceremonies of our passage: when we wed, when we die, and when we are blessed with a child; When we depart and when we return; when we plant and when we harvest.
Let us bring up our children. It is not the place of some official to hand to them their heritage. If others impart to our children our knowledge and ideals, they will lose all of us that is wordless and full of wonder.
Let us build memories in our children, lest they drag out joyless lives, lest they allow treasures to be lost because they have not been given the keys.
We live, not by things, but by the meanings of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.
So as we look forward to the holiday season this year. Let’s do our best to make it not about the gifts and the conspicuous consumption, and the competition for who has the most ostentatious Christmas light display. Instead, let’s all make it an opportunity to remember the best of our families’ traditions. To remember our family matriarchs and patriarchs, past, present and future. To remember that the greatest gift we can give is our love—from one generation to the next.
As Khalil Gibran reminds us, we can’t own our children’s futures. It will be up to them to make their own way in the world. But as St.-Exupéry has observed, we must send them on their way with the keys to their heritage; we must transmit the best of ourselves to the next generation. It is in publicly celebrating our ideals—in our families, in our friendships, in our congregation and in our neighborhoods—that we ensure the survival of our ideals.
I believe that there is a spark of divinity that glimmers deep inside each of us. In some it is harder to see than in others. (laughter) But it’s there. It’s ironic that, in a world obsessed with cheating death, so many people have failed to grasp the obvious path to immortality: to kindle and nurture this spark of divinity, this little piece of ourselves, in a child.
For in transmitting the best of ourselves, in love, to the next generation, we are born again.
“Build memories in our children…lest they allow treasures to be lost because they have not been given the keys.” Dig out that old holiday cookie recipe from Grandma. Think of her when you taste them. Come to Hanging of the Greens here at church, where you can watch the children decorate the beautiful tree that will be standing right here next Sunday. Sit on Santa’s lap. At home, put those old ornaments on your own tree and think of Grandpa hanging them there. Delight a homebound person with Christmas caroling. Invite a lonely person or long lost relative into your home to share your family traditions. Hold a baby. Even if he’s 13.
And remember one of the greatest teachings that we UUs hold dear: that “Each night a child is born—whether it’s in St. Louis or Illinois, in Afghanistan or Haiti, in Tibet or Bethlehem—is, indeed, a holy night and the hope for our own salvation.
November 10, 2010
Delivered at First Unitarian Church of St. Louis