May 18, 2015
Every year at Christmas time, my good friends, Tim and Jeannie Vining, would personalize their Christmas card envelope for my parents, drawing all over the front of the envelope by extending the visual created by the Christmas stamp. For instance, if the stamp was a wreath, it would end up on the door of a house sitting in a winter wonderland scene, perhaps with Santa Claus and his sleigh pulling away into the night. These envelopes (as well as the Vining original cards in the envelopes) were the highlight of my mother's season, maybe even her year.
This weekend, my wife and I took all of these envelopes and framed them onto what I call the Fleming/Vining Wall (no $25,000 donation needed for this wall) in our house. And as I looked at them all framed, I was struck dumb by the 2014 Christmas envelope, obviously the last one that my parents received before their deaths.
As you can see, it is an image of a boy and a girl making snow angels, only the girl is a real angel and the boy is a bit surprised. While this is typical of what Tim and Jeannie usually drew for my parents, a more secularized approach to the Christmas season, it still strikes me as prophetic of my parents' fates. Allow me to explain.
My father was an agnostic. He was always a scientist at heart, so that is not so surprising. When he had last come to visit me, he told me he had not seen any evidence of God but he was not scared of death. Almost everyone who ever met the man would say that he embodied the characteristics that most Christians, if not most religious people everywhere, say matter. He followed the golden rule, he accepted people for their faults (well, maybe not one person who eventually raised his ire, but, hey, don't we all know one person like that), and he simply loved. He had an amazing ability to make people he worked with feel like a family.
My mother was raised Roman Catholic. After their marriage, she saw herself as (probably) a seriously lapsed Catholic, because whether unstated or not, following religious beliefs married to an agnostic was not going to be easy. I have often wondered just how much my parents may have even talked about that dichotomy. Given that she was a woman of her times (married in 1952), she probably just assumed this is what a good wife did. More importantly, she became disillusioned with some of the Church's strictness. She saw loved ones having babies with severe birth defects and she was distressed that the Church still wouldn't allow birth control for them. However, she, too, like my dad lived the life any loving religion preaches: respect for others, high integrity, and unlimited capacity to love others that came into their circle. I never had a chance to ask my mother if she was scared of death, but I am guessing she was, fearful of God's wrath or disappointment in her for not following her faith more explicitly.
I am not sure what I believe about higher powers. I am my father's son and have generally also taken an agnostic view toward God. I am, however, also my mother's son and drawn more to the mysteries of life than my father (we used to love teasing him about whether there might be ghosts). I am willing to believe there is something else than what our perceptions can understand; I just don't know what that is and may also die waiting for evidence that cannot be produced.
However, back to the envelope. There is something overwhelmingly sweet in the image that both of my parents are angels. My mother never had anything to worry about and God's love was going to accept her anyway. Her angel body in the snow is true and defined. My father has come to realize that he too could be an angel and is a little amazed at how readily my Mom showed herself as that angel. This gives me great hope that if there is a God, he really is a loving God who doesn't judge souls simply by how much or how little they followed human scripture.
I don't think Tim and Jeannie foresaw anything when they designed this envelope. In some ways it is as secular of a drawing as any other one they sent for 20+ years. Maybe some mysterious force drew them (pun intended) to the snow angel stamp and the rest followed. Maybe I am just seeing what I want to see. One doesn't get all these degrees in literature and not realize that everything is filtered by what individuals want to see. However, I just don't see myself coming to these revelations if my parents had passed in the year after Tim and Jeannie's envelope showed the Grinch being arrested by police.
Or, maybe I am just the gas in the hot air balloon, needing something to lift me higher and higher.