“Almost there,” I tell my squirming toddler. “See? Playground.” We stumble through the door of Chick-Fil-A. She squeals, seeing only the indoor playground. I pause, seeing only the man beside it.
A wrinkled man sits in a corner, alone at the table beside the kiddie area. White tufts of hair peek out from beneath a blue cap embroidered with yellow words, in proud capitals: WW II VET. He looks small beneath the bulging cap; somehow it accentuates his age and the empty chair beside him. Spotting a wedding ring on his finger, I wonder who should be sitting in that chair. My heart gives a painful hiccup, thinking of my grandfather, alone in the world now these thirty days, since my grandmother passed. He, too, is eating lunch alone today.
In a painful rush, it hits me: We’re losing them.
We’re losing them all, one by one, the whole World War II generation—“the greatest generation,” Tom Brokaw has called them—and they’re taking their memories with them.
My daughter wiggles and grunts, trying to launch herself out of my arms. I hold her tight, speared by worry: How can I help her understand the ones who came before? She won’t even remember her own great-grandmother. Soon there will be none left who remember firsthand: none who grew up as children of the Depression; who experienced Pearl Harbor as a personal horror; who huddled around radios, hanging on every word of FDR’s Fireside Chats; who lost friend after friend to war. And soon their stories will fade into hearsay and legend, distorted by retelling and mis-memory, made distant by time and generational differences.
I brush against the man’s table on our way to the playground, and my daughter’s escape efforts grow frantic. Seeing us struggle, the man stands to open the door for me. His back is crooked, his steps awkward, but somehow he stands tall. Gallant.
“Thank you,” I breathe, releasing my daughter into the glass-walled playroom. She giggles her delight and beelines for another toddler, nearly strangling her with a let’s-be-friends hug.
“I remember the days,” he says with a knowing smile.
I smile back and let the door swing shut. “How many children do you have?” I ask, knowing full well what I’m getting myself into. And that is all he needs: He is off, regaling me with descriptions—where they live, what they do, how often they visit. I keep one eye on my daughter, happily playing with her new friend, and with the other eye, I study mine: His grin, sunny and crinkled, topped off by pale blue eyes snapping with humor; his timeworn hands, fiddling with a rectangular object on the table.
“My wife was British, a war bride,” he says, his chest puffing out, as if this is—was, I correct myself, he said was—one of his favorite things about her. “I brought her back here with me after the war.” He reaches for the rectangle in front of him and flips it over. A man in uniform and a woman in white beam up at me from stone church steps, radiant even in grainy black and white. The picture is so similar to my grandparents’ 1946 wedding photo that for a moment I cannot breathe. I give my friend a nod of admiration for his bride, wrestling down a wave of sadness.
“They faced great odds and a late start, but they did not protest,” Mr. Brokaw wrote in his book The Greatest Generation. “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love, and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting, often hand to hand, in the most primitive conditions possible.”
And somehow, in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, many found love and clung to it. This man found love and made it last.
“I lost her two years ago,” he says. The blue eyes turn red-rimmed and glassy.
I want to reach out and squeeze his hand, but I don’t even know his name.
We’re losing them.
A thousand words clog my throat—My grandfather served, too. Flight engineer, US Army. Twenty-seven missions out of Saipan in B-29 bombers. Every time they flew, they almost ran out of fuel on the way back. His hearing was never the same. My grandmother and her sister shared the same wedding dress in the summer of 1946, war brides both. I spent the happiest summer nights of my teenage years in my grandparents’ house—they’d pull up a chair for me between their recliners, and we’d read for hours in companionable silence, eating peanuts and popcorn—but now my new friend is telling me where he met his wife, how she laughed, the way she burned his toast.
And I realize: Today is not my turn to tell stories. It’s his. And so I store my own history down inside, pull up a chair, and sit at his table. I pick up his picture, admire his bride, and let him take me back in time.
A muffled giggle escapes the play place. Taking my eyes off the man’s gnarled knuckles as they gesture mid-memory, I catch sight of my daughter’s happy curls bouncing. In my mind, I make her a promise: I will tell you the stories.
I will tell her about this man, the man from Chick-fil-A. I will tell her about his British bride, so adored, so missed, that her husband carried their wedding photo everywhere, years after her death, and showed it to strangers.
I will tell her about her great-grandfather—my grandfather, Frank: How when he was a boy the milkman rode a horse—a horse!—and delivered milk to back doors in glass bottles, and on icy mornings the tops would pop open. How when he grew up, he went to war, and although many of his friends didn’t make it home, he did. How one balmy spring night in 1946, when the whole world was just daring to live again, to love again, Frank fell in love with Jane, a spunky redhead with a laugh as big as New Jersey.
How they almost called off the wedding on account of that laugh, because one rain-soaked afternoon Frank got his finger trapped in an umbrella, and the madder he got, the harder Jane laughed, until finally he stalked away with the umbrella still clamped to his finger. How he eventually forgave her (it would make a great story for the grandkids, after all), and a few weeks later she walked down the aisle in Westfield, New Jersey, beaming over a bouquet of hydrangeas. How as newlyweds they were the first couple in their town to get a new car—no one had seen a new car for years—and everywhere they drove that car, a black Chevrolet Fleetline with silver trim, a crowd gathered.
How they finally saved enough to move out of Frank’s parents’ home, and their neighbors helped them build their house, because that’s what neighbors did. How Frank shouted in his sleep for years, still haunted by nightmares of battle. How they moved to Florida and hoarded shoeboxes full of soap, because you never knew when a Florida hurricane, or another Depression, or wartime rations, might hit again.
How they had four daughters, twelve grandchildren, and friends beyond counting. How they grew old together and pulled up an extra chair and made space between them for their insecure granddaughter, and when she was with them she wasn’t lonely, she wasn’t insecure. How way back when, first they saved the world, and then they saved a girl.
My daughter won’t get it, I know—can we ever truly grasp the lives of those who came before? appreciate the extent of their sacrifices? fathom the depths of their losses, the heights of their joys?—but I hope when it’s my turn, she’ll pull up a chair and listen. I hope she’ll hang on every word of my stories. And not just my stories—her grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ stories, too.
Frank and Jane’s stories.
The Chick-fil-A man’s stories.
The stories of the great generation we lost when she was still learning words.
And maybe she’ll realize that their story is my story is her story, forever intertwined. And maybe we’ll help the greatest generation live on after all.
Nope, that’s not a typo in the title. It’s the ETV (Elizabeth Thompson Version) of 2 Peter 1:3: “His divine power has given you everything you need for life lice and godliness.” (Hey—I think my translation still suits the spirit of the scripture.)
I’ll take another liberty, this time with Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem:
‘Twas three days before Christmas, and all through my house, not a creature was stirring, except for a louse…
Yep. This Christmas, we got visited by more than just elves and Santa Claus.
It was December 22, 6:00 am. The night before, I had nearly killed myself to finish an intense editing job—I’d worked long hours for weeks on end, scrambling to finish with a few days to spare so I could shut down and spend time with my family for Christmas.
So there I was, the morning of December 22, finally free, and happy, happy, happy. For thirty-eight minutes, everything was perfect. I woke up before the rest of the family, smiling to myself in a dark and sleepy house. I brewed coffee, switched on peaceful music and the Christmas tree lights, and settled down on the couch with a mug and my Bible. Christmas had finally begun, and I was going to start it off right: alone with God.
A few minutes later, my daughter stumbled out, bleary-eyed and tousle-haired, and snuggled up beside me with her head in my lap. Happy, happy, happy, I sat there and prayed over her and stroked her hair.
And that’s when I saw it: a louse, scurrying across her head.
Within an hour, the whole house was awake and Kevin and I had kicked into Save-This-Christmas Mode. We called and made an appointment with the “Lice Lady” who had saved our vacation the last time the lice fairy paid our family a visit, when we were on vacation. Who cared if her office was a ninety-minute drive away? Christmas had to be saved. (I hereby pause this essay for a random proclamation: If your kid gets lice, hire a Lice Lady. Hock a family heirloom to pay for it if you have to. It will be the best money you have ever spent, except maybe for your epidural. Lice Ladies know what they are doing, and will help you get rid of evil bugs waaaaaaay faster than you could on your own. They will also help you retain your sanity, your spouse, and your salvation. Okay. Back to our story.)
So we stuck a shower cap on the Infected One, cancelled our big Star Wars plans with friends, loaded up the four Crazies in the minivan, packed enough snacks to survive a four-month covered wagon journey across the Oregon Trail, blasted Frank Sinatra Christmas carols, and trundled down the road to the Lice Lady. When we got there, our poor almost-three-year-old squealed with glee: “We going ice skating!” We had to break her heart and re-enunciate: “We are going to the LICE LADY, not ice skating. Instead of ice skating, you get to sit in a chair and let someone comb your hair looking for bugs! Woohoo!”
And so began the Great Christmas De-Lousing.
The first appointment was just the beginning. The afternoon at the Lice Lady’s office was followed by several days of laundry and hours of follow-up nit-picking, even as family members gradually filled our house for the holiday. (Paranoid family members, I might add, who were terrified—rightfully so, I’m not judging—of hugging us.)
But you know what’s great?
I didn’t lose it. I didn’t cry one self-pitying tear. Not even when my dryer decided not to help me dry the 4,000 loads of laundry I needed to do when we got home. I didn’t lose my temper, or snap at my husband or kids. I didn’t flip out, not even behind closed doors. I just rolled with it. I even laughed about it. I’m kind of gawking at the computer screen even as I type these words, because this is not normal for me.
I am beginning to accept that life is messy. Things do not go according to plan, pretty much ever. If we wait for our whole life to be perfect to be happy, we will be waiting forever. We will grit our teeth through a series of disappointments, and only find peace and joy when we make it to heaven. That’s not how God wants us to live.
The secret to a joyful life is appreciating what we have, when we have it, for as long as it lasts. Not placing rules or restrictions on our happiness—rules like: “I can’t be happy until…” or “I won’t be happy unless…”
Nope. That’s not how joy works. That’s just a recipe for disappointment, frustration, and unhappiness.
As 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 puts it, “Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
I’ve come to accept that there will always be something wrong with our life. Something we wish was better, or different, or…whatever.
There was a day—two years and nine months’ worth of days, actually—when I couldn’t get pregnant, and I would have gladly given my right arm to have a house filled with lice-infested children. I never want to forget those lonely days.
If we can learn to roll with the unexpected, to adapt on the fly, to appreciate what we have even though there are things we lack, to “laugh at the days to come” instead of fearing them (Proverbs 31:25)—better yet, to laugh at the days that are, even when they go so completely wrong…then we can do more than just survive life. We can enjoy it. We can thank God for it. We can be a person we’re proud of being, in all kinds of circumstances.
So if I have a new year’s resolution this year, it’s this: To keep on rolling with the punches. To stop waiting for perfection. To stop expecting smooth sailing. To accept, embrace, and even laugh at the mayhem of the unexpected. To be happy now—no asterisks, addendums, or alterations.
And to braid my daughters’ hair, and spray it with mint spray, every day from now until eternity.
Happy new year, y’all. Here’s to the madness.
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“Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things. But only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42, emphasis added).
Welcome to my world. I’m hosting Christmas for oodles of beloved family members, and the Martha in me wants to show my love by making everyone else’s Christmas perfect: Decorations? Check. Clean house? Check. Gourmet food? Check. (“Sort of. Wait. Let me run into the kitchen to prep a few things . . . I’ll be back in five hours.”)
But you know . . . the clean house, and gourmet food, and Pinterest-worthy Christmas decorations, aren’t what’s most important for our family holiday. A great holiday is about time spent together, about laughing so hard you snort egg nog through your nose, about the light of magic shining in our children’s eyes. So I hope you’ll join me in taking Jesus’ gentle words to Martha to heart this holiday season. Let’s “choose what is better.”
And what did Mary choose? She chose to be present. To be engaged. To be with—fully with—the people who had come into her home. To spend time sitting at the feet of the Lord, listening and learning. That’s what makes the holidays great. That’s what is “better.” So won’t you join me?
Let the dishes soak a little longer.
Let the pine needles rest on the carpet a little longer.
Let the meals be a little simpler.
Let’s just be there with the people—and the Lord—we love.
That, my friends, is better. That’s BEST. And Jesus will not take it away from us!
Merry Christmas to you and yours, from the Thompson Crazies! (Here’s hoping we don’t actually GO crazy.)
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Ready for five questions that can make or break your holiday?
Okay, here’s the first one, and it’s a big one: How is your family going to handle technology during the holidays? (Insert Jaws theme music here. Or perhaps that screeching sound from the infamous Psycho scene . . . )
The minute kids get done with school, they kick into chill-out mode. They want to turn off their brains, turn on the TV, and play games. And hey, a mental break is great, and probably something most busy kids need, but it’s up to us to parent them into a healthy mental break. If we don’t want our kids and teens to disappear into a TV/video game/smart phone fog for the duration of the holidays, then now is the time to think this through. Let’s not wait until our kids succumb to a Game-Induced Zombie Coma. Let’s not wait until the teenagers begin texting us from across the room because they’ve forgotten how to use their lips. Let’s not wait until we’ve turned into the “Turn-Off-that-Stupid-Game” Police. Here are four more simple questions to ponder about your family’s holiday technology use, questions that will help your family stay connected—connected to each other—this Christmas:
What are your holiday technology guidelines going to be? Will they be different from your normal routine?
How much TV is okay to watch? (And what KIND?)
How much game time is allowed, and when?
When do the cell phones get put away so the family can look each other in the eye and just BE together? (And this includes the parents’ phones, too!)
If we agree on a strategy ahead of time, and if we talk it through with our spouse and kids, our holidays will go much better. Let’s not allow our precious family time to go to waste—let’s think. Let’s be proactive. Let’s parent on purpose. And let’s enjoy making meaningful memories—the kind involving eye contact and real conversation!—with the people we love.