Monday, April 13, 2009

Stories That Will Not Be Forgotten: The Easter Message

Life is full of interesting . . . coincidences.

Some of those I remember vividly have been unexpected encounters with former students, in strange places in which I never expected to see anyone I knew, let alone someone I had taught. I remember rushing through the Frankfurt airport once, and suddenly coming face to face with Calvin Washington, whose name popped right into my head the moment I saw him, though I’d never have been able to identify him otherwise, in a picture of his class. Even in a military uniform, Calvin was the same old Calvin, phlegmatic and deliberate in each movement as he had been in his pre-Army days.

And there was the time when I was walking along a street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of D.C., and heard my name being called from across the street: “Father Lindsey. Father Lindsey!” Randy Johnson, who had insisted on calling me “father” when I taught him, no matter how many times I told him I was not a priest, just an ordinary layman. His name, too, came right to me, as if we were both still at Xavier slogging through another chapter of Shusaku Endo’s life of Jesus.

Yesterday brought Steve and me one of these unusual happenings, as we prepared Easter dinner for our families. We were scurrying about to set the house to rights, dust, shine, make things welcoming. As he worked around the kitchen-den, Steve bumped a mantel clock his aunt had given him last year.

The clock was one of many Steve’s father retrieved from anywhere he could find old clocks needing repair, and put back into working order. John loved clocks. If you called him near the hour, for a solid minute, you’d hear chime overlaying chime in the background.

As he finished repairing a clock, he’d give it away. Each of his eight children and many relatives and friends now have a collection of clocks John repaired and presented to them as gifts. Steve and I have one John bought at a thrift shop on a trip to us in North Carolina. It has those little faux marble columns made of animal horn found on some mantel clocks of the era. In addition to fixing the clock works, John went to the trouble of finding horn and whittling it to the right shape to refit the clock with its little columns again.

This clock is especially important to me, since I have a match to it, which John also repaired. This is a clock that my grandfather bought the day my aunt Kat, his first daughter, was born in July 1914. She cherished it, and I feel tremendously honored (and burdened with expectation) that she chose to give the clock to me before she died.

It had stopped working, and John fixed it, cleaning it carefully inside so that the parts now shine when I open it. The two matched clocks seem to belong side by side on top of the old bookcase in the entryway to our house, with tiny unglazed cherub heads from Latin America, both faces marred by interesting accidents in the kiln, watching over them. Throwaways, like so much else in this house kept by social throwaways—other people's discards that have a place with us, and which we cherish for one reason or other, marred faces notwithstanding.

So here’s what happened yesterday: as Steve worked around the clock that had gone from his father to Steve’s aunt and then to Steve, he bumped it, and it began to chime. And when we looked at the clock face, it was set precisely on the moment at which Steve bumped and revived it. All day long, all Easter day, it chimed right on the moment.

The clock hadn’t been working well, and nothing Steve did to it seemed to set it to rights. It’s a clock with a beautiful deep chime, something like a recording of a church bell. Steve’s father had given it to one of Steve’s aunts who is a nun. As she was retiring last year and moving to a new monastery, she wanted Steve to have it.

It’s a meaningful gift, because Steve’s aunt gave the clock to him within a week before his father’s death last summer. So he now associates the clock and the gift with that important passage time in his family’s life.

And this, of course, made its chiming all through Easter day (it has now stopped again, as mysteriously as it started), all the more meaningful to us.

Coincidences like this have been on my mind lately, as I’ve thought about something that happened to me in my last year of high school. I recently read a book that mentioned Catullus. Catullus is a name that always immediately brings me back to Latin classes in high school—both because I liked his pithy (and often obscene) lyric poems, and because my Latin teacher, Sallie Chambers, gave me a copy of Catullus with side-by-side Latin and English versions of his poems, a surprising gift, since the translation did not in any way seek to evade or bowdlerize the dirty bits.

I do not know what might be made today of the choice of an elderly lady to give such a book to a young pupil. I only know that I saw the gift as an act of kindness and of mentorship, and it strikes me as a sad measure of the distance we’ve fallen from real culture, that people today might look askance at such an act of kindness in today’s classroom.

And culture was what Sallie Chambers was all about, in the best, non-stuffy sense of that word. We were lucky to have her as a teacher, as we were lucky to have several other lady-teachers of her generation and background—well-educated, dedicated, widely read and tolerant, brookers of no nonsense and no sloppy preparation: outstanding teachers of a sort colleges and universities no longer produce, and which most universities nowadays would chew up and spit out, if they applied for faculty positions. They would see through the cant and venality of most college administrators in a heartbeat—the money-grubbing that is the machine of the educational enterprise today—and would not hold their tongues.

We enjoyed making just a tiny bit of genial fun of Sallie Chambers, even as we knew that we were fortunate, indeed, to have this skilled classicist with a master’s degree from Tufts University (something she never let one forget) teaching us. She had a Roman nose and wore her hair in a low-perched bun, and with her erect carriage and way of posing her head as if in cameo, she looked for all the world—or so we told ourselves—like the writers whose texts she drilled into our heads in class each day. A dead Roman, live in our Latin class . . . .

But the coincidence: there was a day, that fourth year of Latin, that Mrs. Chambers gave each of us a small book to read, and on which to write a report. Each was a book written in Latin. All were books she had bought at one or another used bookstore at some time in the past.

I don’t recall the title of the book that landed on my desk, or its title. What I do recall was that I opened it up, looked at the flyleaf, and saw my great-aunt’s name written there: Frances Tucker. She had owned the book prior to her marriage to my grandmother's brother John Batchelor. Without knowing the connection, without knowing anything about the previous owner of the little book she placed in my hands, Sallie Chambers had given me a book that had belonged to my great-aunt, who had been a Latin teacher half a century before that date, in a different community.

How the book had come to hear, Mrs. Chambers could not tell me. She thought that she must have bought it at a used bookstore. And, of course, the moment I identified the signature, she wanted me to have it. And I must still have it somewhere, unless I have given it away in several fits of donation in which I’ve boxed up most of my books and have passed them on to libraries that seemed to need them.

Wherever the book is, this coincidence will continue to live on in my mind. As will yesterday’s Easter chorus from John’s clock. As does the message of Easter itself, of a poor, powerless man crushed by injustice, whom the powers-that-be intended to put to death once and for all, so that his strange teachings about God’s salvific presence breaking into the world and his way of acting out those teachings as he sat at table with sinners, would be forever silenced.

It didn’t happen. Not as they planned. And therein lies the hope that those of us who try to remember this man and his legacy find at the very center of our faith.