December 25, 2022
By Arthur H. Gunther IV
For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, has offered a holiday story published in this space. Reprinted here is one of my favorites from some years back – AHG III.
Franklin was a man of routine. Perhaps such a person had become an antiquated notion in this day and age, the very word “routine” summoning visions of safe havens and early dinners. Someone for whom risks were akin to strangers at your night door. What a shame to reduce a person to such a narrow universe. There had been a time where Franklin would have been moved to debate and argument over such labeling of his being.
He was older now and less ready to argue. So old in fact that he would rather not seek new memories for fear of crowding out the old ones which kept him warm, the ones that had made him who he still was. This was easier than it sounded. The year itself, with its familiar cycle, cooperated nicely. The ebb and flow of the seasons lent a rhythm to his days that evoked memory at every turn. Despite the changes that had settled around his town, there was still so much to remind him of his past days.
Which brings us to Christmas. Here it wasn’t so easy. Franklin himself had never been what most would call religious. He never attended a church or other religious house, even on the most popular of churchgoing days, Christmas. His wife had been another story. Molly had been a regular churchgoer, attending church every Sunday morning for the entire 55 years of their marriage. She rarely spoke of her beliefs, preferring to let the way she lived her life do the talking.
Franklin did not label himself some kind of heathen. He had plenty of belief in God. Proof was everywhere. Franklin saw God in snowstorms and surprises, laughter, nature and seeming coincidence. Franklin had seen God every day for 55 years in his wife. Church just was never a place where he sought Him.
Franklin’s wife had been accepting of his ways. She never asked him to attend church with her. On Christmas Eve, she may have dressed a bit nicer and left a little earlier, but she still attended alone. When Molly died a few years back, Franklin was stunned, as he knew he would be, though her passing was not unexpected. Slowly, however, he found those familiar routines and let the memory of all the sweet days before settle in more deeply than ever. In his own way, Franklin’s wife walked with him through his days.
It was on Christmas that Franklin was at a loss. He had depended more on living vicariously through Molly’s routine on that day than he had realized. Franklin first tried ignoring the holiday, but that didn’t seem right. He had never ignored religion, just celebrated it in his own way.
The second year after his wife’s passing, Franklin instead sought distraction and tried hiking in the woods, but this wasn’t much better. Before he knew it, here came the season again.
By Christmas Eve, Franklin was restless. After trying to distract himself with some of the old Christmas movies that his wife and he had always appreciated, he put on his coat and went for a walk. He decided to head toward town and maybe see if he could find a place open where he could drink hot chocolate. As he walked south on Broadway, he noticed more cars than usual parked on the side streets. People left and right were emerging from their cars dressed quite nicely. Slowly Franklin realized that these must be the extra people who always attended Christmas Mass. Without consciously making a decision, Franklin found himself following the crowds up the hill toward the church. As he crested the rise, he was taken with how the building flooded the normally quiet Tuesday night of the street with light. This was a street where Franklin rarely found himself, never having a reason to walk here. He couldn’t remember the last time he walked this way.
Franklin stopped at the corner adjacent to the church and stood still. As he contemplated whether to go inside, he suddenly was startled by the noise of a collective standing up. An organ note rang out as all the lights around him went out. His first thought was that a blackout had occurred, but then Franklin saw that inside the church candles were being distributed and lit. Candles were soon being passed around for those who stood outside on the steps, too. Franklin guessed that the church must have been filled to capacity. Thinking his decision had been made for him, he turned and was about to walk home when a little girl ran up to him with a candle. “Here you go,” she said and was quickly gone.
Franklin had forgotten to wear gloves, and his cold hands dropped the candle as quickly as it was handed to him. Bending down to pick it up, he noticed that he was standing not on a sidewalk but on a brick walkway. The bricks were all engraved with dedications. Franklin read the ones he could see illuminated by his candle: “John, with love from Elaine.” Then another: “Margaret and Stuart, 45 years” and finally: “For Franklin, thank you for your faith, always, Molly”.
Franklin was frozen in place. He read the brick again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things and then slowly stood up. He could hear the church choir start to sing as he turned to walk away. Maybe next year he would return and go inside, Franklin thought. Maybe tomorrow he would walk down this street again. For once, Franklin was glad he had changed his routine.
Arthur H. Gunther IV, a school teacher, lives in Upper Nyack, N.Y., with his wife Laura, son Sam and daughter Beatrice. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org