This essay originally appeared in the Dec. 2005 issue of Indy Men’s Magazine. Having just run into my friend Marge Krah in New York, I felt compelled to dig it out and post it here. Happy holidays to all and peace to those struggling with the challenges of the season.
A place with a room at the inn.
By Lou Harry
There was a television station in New York that used to broadcast a Yule log every Christmas Eve.
I kid you not. You’d turn on the station and, for hours, there would be nothing but a fireplace burning in your TV. And some generic carols playing. It was a once-a-year broadcast, kind of like The Wizard of Oz only without the commercials.
We never watched the Yule log at my house. There were other issues, which I’ll get to. But I remember clearly that Marge’s dad had the Yule log going when I stopped by her house on Christmas Eve. Marge’s dad was sitting in his living room chair in front of his faux-brick wall and the Yule log was on the tube and Marge’s two sisters and her mom were hanging out and hot chocolate was no doubt involved. Something akin to comfort and joy permeated the place.
And nothing in particular happened. This isn’t that kind of memory.
Instead, this is the kind of memory where what wasn’t happening, what wasn’t said, was as important as what happened and what was said.
What wasn’t said: “Hey, Marge’s Dad. Thank you for letting me intrude on your domestic bliss on this family holiday of all family holidays. Why am I here and not at home? Because I’m so frickin’ confused about my life, and am just starting to grasp what it means to lose my father at a young age. Because I’ve rejected the Church and I’m struggling to figure out how to deal with that, and part of my 16-year-old attempt is to feel hypocritical if I show up at Mass only on Christmas and Easter, even though I know it would make my mother happy, or, at least, make her not unhappy. And, Marge’s Dad, I am not telling you this, but as I walk into your home, I am wracked with guilt about how trying not to be a hypocrite is keeping me from being with my family. So I’ve been driving around town kind of a mess, and I need a place to be, a place that feels normal, a place with a room at the inn.”
And Marge’s house, with Marge’s dad at its center, let me in.
I haven’t talked to Marge in more than a decade. Haven’t seen her father since high school graduation. Can’t remember the names of her sisters.
But when I call her—which I just did a few minutes ago—it’s like Christmas Eve again.
“I can still picture you sitting on the couch,” Marge says of my unannounced visits. “It never seemed odd. My parents were just glad I had a boy around—which turned out to be a short-lived thing.”
Marge, you should know, accepted her homosexuality once she got to college. She didn’t officially tell her parents until she was 27.
“I think all the women in my family knew,” Marge said. “And I think my dad did, too, but he totally blocked it out. He said one time, ‘If you keep hanging around with these older girls, your mother is afraid you’ll be gay’—which I’m sure scared him. When I finally told them—when I felt I could handle how they felt—my sisters just said, “Duh.” My mom said it didn’t matter, ‘as long as I wasn’t going on Oprah.’ My father just said, ‘…if that’s the choice you’re making.’ He and I debated that point—whether it was a choice—until July 3 of 2005 when he died.”
When he passed, Marge’s dad was sitting in his chair, in his living room, surrounded by his wife and three daughters. It wasn’t the same chair I remember. Chairs had come and gone in 25 years. It wasn’t even the same house.
When you lose a parent at a young age, you can’t help posing the impossible questions of how life would have been different. Those inevitably spin to the positive.
For instance, I don’t think about the fact that I might be in an iron lung now, thanks to the increase in second-hand smoke. Instead, I think about how those Christmas Eves would have been easier. Either I would have stayed home with my lapsed-Baptist dad and watched over our own televised Yule log, or he would have said to me, “Lou, your family’s going to church. I don’t give a damn what you believe or don’t believe—you’ve got a family.”
I know nothing, really, about my own father’s attitude toward Christmas. He died when I was just a little guy, and any memories I have are ones created out of generic images. Him struggling to put together a tricycle. Him dragging a tree up the porch stairs. Him cutting a turkey.
One of the problems I had with church was that I couldn’t get a picture of heaven that wasn’t loaded with unresolvable complications. Should the Reaper arrive and I have the chance to see my father, who would he be? He died at 33—if I saw him at that age, he would seem like a kid. That’s not the father I would be looking for. And why would he want to see me at the age of my death when all he knew of me was a 3-year-old? What happens when my 60-plus-at-her-death mom meets my 30-plus-at-his-death dad? I mean, I liked Harold and Maude as much as the next guy—but not for my parents and certainly not for eternity, with me at whatever age I drop trailing behind them.
Too much to figure out. Best to forget about heaven. Best to do your best here and let the rest take care of itself.
Still, it took me years to not feel like a hypocrite walking into a church without faith. Years to feel that that wasn’t an insult to all the believers inside. Now I can do it—I’m able to appreciate sacred spaces without having to buy into their supernatural quality.
And to understand that there are many kinds of sacred spaces.
“If we didn’t have this conversation, I wouldn’t have known what it meant to you,” says Marge. “I didn’t realize that closeness my family had was a rare thing. It wasn’t without its troubles and whatnot, but it was safe, and there was routine, and it was good.”