Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Journey to Christmas

by Andrew Hanson

This is the time of year that Christians celebrate the miracle of Christ’s birth. Of course all births are miraculous events, when you think about it. All children are miracles! Not counting the mind boggling biology involved in our conception, all of us exist because of a sequence of past events that is so highly improbable, it makes winning the lottery next to a sure thing! And I think that’s worth thinking about, as we travel our own, individual journeys to Christmas. The following is the story of my family.

It was one of the longest, most frustrating journeys of his life. Alfred was 37, and the year was 1938. He had worn out two pairs of shoes walking the streets of Los Angeles, looking for a job, and when he found one at a refrigerator company, he was sure it was a miracle. When he showed up for work the next day, along with some other guys, a mob of strikers ambushed them. When the others ran, he hesitated for just a moment, and they trapped him against a fence. They had clubs, and it wasn’t until they knocked him down, that he realized that they were going to kill him.

Pauline was playing way up on the hay wagon with her older sister that afternoon. It was the first time that her father had let her ride up there twelve feet off the ground. The year was 1905. She had just turned 5, and it was the longest journey she had ever taken without her mother. Her father had driven the horses almost to Flagstaff to get the hay, and was coming back with as much hay as the big wagon could hold. They were turning into the dirt road to their ranch. She stood up to look for the barn when the wagon lurched, and she fell. It happened so quickly that she didn’t even cry out. The next thing she knew, she was on the ground and the huge iron edged wagon wheel was inches from her face. And then she felt the cold rim touch her forehead.

Alfred decided not to die against the fence. He started crawling as they beat him, and he managed to wedge himself between two parked cars. It wasn’t so easy to hit him there. He was loosing consciousness when the police arrived. They saved his life. His mother and father were Danish immigrants. He grew up on an Iowa farm, the third of 12 children. He was plowing behind a horse at seven and running the farm at seventeen when he came down with pneumonia. The doctor saved his life on the kitchen table by removing fluid from one lung by puncturing his left side under the arm and draining the fluid from his lung into a bowl. He had a scar, a kind of hole in his side, the size of a quarter. He and his wife had been married in 1931 and had been trying to have children for seven years. He was sure it was hopeless and wanted to adopt. His wife insisted that they keep trying to have children of their own.

A mud puddle saved Pauline. The wheel rolled right across her forehead and pushed her head into the ground. Amazingly, she didn’t even lose consciousness, and the accident left her with only a faint scar, a line across her forehead. That was the same year the Adventist evangelist, preaching the end of the world, converted her mother and scared her so badly that her mother had to get her out from under the bed with a broom handle. She was a middle daughter, and too bright for her own good, they said. Her ancestry was English and Heinz 57. That’s what she said when asked. Her father traced his ancestors back to the Revolutionary War, but her mother wasn’t quite sure how, where, or when her relations came to America. Her father’s ranch was between Flagstaff and Prescott, Arizona. He sent Polly away to San Fernando Academy for her high school education because he didn’t want her falling in love with a cowboy. Her mother sent her barbecued quail in care packages. She road a buckboard up the hill from St. Helena to Angwin in 1917 to attend Pacific Union College.

She finished college and began teaching at Glendale Academy in the early 20’s and ended up teaching preachers how to speak properly at La Sierra College, a brand new school out in a Southern California desert. She was brilliant, cultured, a writer, and she had the misfortune to marry a man whom she didn’t really love, a good looking Adventist farm boy who should have had sense enough not to court an independent professional woman. He lost his job as the Dean of Men at La Sierra because of his lack of sophistication and hot temper, and in those days, if you fired the husband, you fired the wife, too. She lost her job the next year. So in 1933, in the middle of the depression, she and her husband found themselves teaching in a two-room school outside San Antonio, Texas. Later, she taught school in Los Angeles and her husband found work where he could before they moved to Glendale, California, in 1940.

I am here today because Pauline, my mother, held out for children of her own. I was born in 1942 when she was 43. My brother was born three years later. My father, Alfred, had long since given up hope. My children are “here” because I survived a near drowning in the Merced River when I was five and a car wreck that involved hitting an oak tree broadside at something over sixty miles an hour when I was 18.

One of her friends told Opal that John was the crazy guy who worked in the hydrotherapy department. He had recognized one of his female psychiatric patients running naked down the street as he was coming to work that day. So he tackled her, threw her over his shoulder, and carried her, kicking and screaming through downtown Oakland and back to the hospital. Imagine doing that in 1931! Her friend said he was good looking. Opal wasn’t interested. She was 21 and had her life pretty well worked out. She was practically engaged to a nice guy down in Glendale where she had completed her nurses training. Anyway, what kind of guy would just grab some naked loony? They said she grabbed every awning and light post along the way. They said he had to hold on to her with one hand, and peal her off the light posts with the other. He must have really strong hands . . . like her father. Of course, it wasn’t much of a journey to just walk by the hydrotherapy department when she went off work. . .

As a kid, John hunted skunks after school on Friday. He did everything possible to get them home alive and caged without getting blasted because if the skunks were shot anywhere except through the eyes, the pelts were almost worthless. And, if he wanted to attend school, he had to do the killing and skinning on the weekend, so he could bury his clothes to get the smell off so he could attend school. A good, mostly black skunk pelt was worth as much as 2 dollars.

His dog had flushed the skunks out of the Oklahoma brush; he had taken their spray on a gunnysack held in front of him and grabbed first one and then the other by the tail. He didn’t do it for sport. His family needed the money. There was a depression on and his family was so poor that John’s mother sewed any new shirt that she made inside the old one. It added warmth. He managed to get his horse over by a log so that he could mount him, and he headed home. When he was thrown from the horse, one of his brothers heard his cries for help, ran across a field, grabbed one of the skunks, and led him home. He had never tried to bring two home at once before. He never tried it again!

He was three when he and his family cleared immigration at Ellis Island in 1913. They were Dutch people that had immigrated to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great. His father was a butcher and a successful businessman in their little village 50 miles south of Moscow. In 1913 here was a revolution brewing. There was poverty and starvation everywhere. Refugees asked if they could die on the sunny side of his father’s barn.

An angel appeared to John’s father in a dream and told him to sell everything he owned, take the money and book passage to America for as many relatives as wanted to go. He did. There was enough money to take all of his immediate family. His half brother missed the boat, and as a consequence had to escape from exile in Siberia. In New York, John’s father bought train tickets to a little farming town in Oklahoma where his uncle lived. When they got there, there was enough money left over to buy a cow. Through a series of chance events and misadventures, he found himself working in the hydrotherapy department of an Oakland hospital.

It was 1931. Opal had just graduated from the nursing program at Glendale Sanitarium and Hospital. She was a Swede, the daughter of a Seventh-day Adventist Swedish evangelist. It turned out she liked the looks of John, the young man in the hydrotherapy department. It turned out he was a Seventh-day Adventist, too. It turned out to be pretty much love at first sight.

John and Opal were Claudia’s parents. Not only did our children risk nonexistence when I almost drown and hit that oak tree, Claudia had to survive an automobile accident when she was fifteen in which an entire big rig’s load of lumber sailed miraculously over their family’s Volvo.

George was eight and was walking to school when the German anti-aircraft guns protecting one of the Paris rail yards began firing. The American bombers were back. Suddenly, shrapnel from the spent anti-aircraft shells was falling all around him. He started running. He had to get off the bridge over the rail line. He could hear bombs exploding. He ran so fast that he thought his heart would come out of his mouth.

No one had answered the phone. She had let the ringing go on forever. She didn’t have enough money to try again. She was sure that she had put the correct amount of money in the phone and dialed the numbers correctly, but it was a strange country. What did she know? Her English wasn’t that good. Her parents and two sisters were still down on the dock guarding the little they had been able to bring with them from Jerusalem. It was December 24, 1956, a cold, snowy day on the New York docks. Hosanna was a fifteen-year-old Armenian girl. She and her family had just completed their journey to America from Jerusalem. Ellis Island was behind them, and because she was the oldest child, she had been sent ahead to a pay phone to call the strangers who were supposed to help them. Now, in addition to being cold, exhausted, and hungry, she was terrified. She began sobbing.

It was almost midnight on the night of May 15, 1980. It was pitch black below deck. David, Elena, and their three children, a girl and two boys, were on a boat, somewhere between Havana and Miami along with eighty-five other sea sick Cubans who were squashed together like sardines on a boat that had room for only twenty. Fifty of the passengers were convicted criminals, two were insane, one man was in a wheel chair, and the rest were religious undesirables. They had boarded the boat at 6 o’clock that morning, but didn’t leave the harbor. The captain didn’t want to make the trip. The sea was very rough, and he was afraid that the boat would sink. The Cuban authorities told him that if he didn’t leave the harbor, he would have to return to Miami empty. The captain finally decided to risk the trip, and the boat left the harbor at ten o’clock that night. Just before boarding the boat, the family had to give away everything they owned. As they huddled together, they were penniless. They owned nothing but the clothes they were wearing. David and Elena held on to each other and the children and tried not to, by action or conversation, communicate their fears to Elena Margarita, David Jr., and Gonzalo.

George escaped injury crossing the bridge, and he found refuge in the doorway of tobacco shop. He was an Armenian boy living in Paris because his parents had immigrated to France from the Middle East. They had survived the 1913-14 attempts of the Turks to kill or drive out all the Armenians living in “their” country. A million Armenians died. George immigrated to the US by himself in 1949 and lived with his uncle in Los Angeles until his parents were able to follow him.

A lady, who wasn’t really sure why she had ventured out on such a miserable day, noticed Hosanna sobbing in the phone booth. When she asked what was wrong, she discovered that they had something in common. She and Hosanna were both Armenians. Hosanna and her family spent their first Christmas in America in the home of this kindly woman and her family. Hosanna’s parents were also survivors of the Turkish genocide. They emigrated from Jerusalem to escape Israel’s war of liberation. George and Hosanna, through an utterly impossible and improbable series of events, eventually met in Los Angeles, fell in love, and married. They are the parents of our daughter-in-law, Lisa, Jonathan’s wife.

David (a Cuban of Italian ancestry), Elena (a Cuban of Spanish ancestry), Elena Margarita, David Jr., and Gonzalo came to the United States along with thousands of others during the Jimmy Carter presidency. It was called the Muriel Boatlift. The Casanova family left Cuba because they were Seventh-day Adventists and Elena’s father was not allowed to hold a job because he refused to work on Saturday, because David and Elena did not want their sons to be sent to fight in Angola or some other Russian backed revolution when they reached the age of 18, and because there was pressure on the family to send Elena Margarita to Russia for further piano instruction. At the end of their 13-hour trip, they were dumped on a dock in Miami, and became the wards of the American immigration authorities. Elena and David are the parents of Elena Margarita, my son Brian’s wife.

My daughter, Elizabeth, is a very special Christmas story. She was born on Christmas Day in a suburb of Dallas Texas. Claudia and I lived in the San Fernando Valley at the time, and there wasn’t a chance in a million that we could even have known about her, much less have had the opportunity to adopt her, but we did and did! Her ancestors include survivors of the Cherokee Trail of Tears.

She became our daughter when she was four days old and a nurse placed her in Claudia’s arms in a “public” room in a Dallas hospital. She cost us every cent we could scrape up plus $1000 loan from my Dad. When my father picked up the three of us from LAX, Claudia and I didn’t have a dollar between us. We were the richest people in the world.

And now there are seven grandchildren. What an intriguing mixture the next generation of Hansoms and Penner’s and Casanovas and Penossians will be. Danish and Swedish and Armenian and Spanish and Italian and Cherokee and English and Welsh, spiced with a generous amount of Heinz 57. I really look forward to accompanying that bunch on their journeys to Christmas in the years ahead.

And don’t think that you people out there without biological children aren’t invited along. They’re your children, too. All my children and grandchildren are up for adoption. Adopt them! They need your Christian example, your stories of faith and courage, your inherited common sense, your love, and your instruction on their individual journeys to Christmas.

For those of you journeying to this Christmas who find themselves beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, do some kindness to a child. I guarantee that the golden hours of Christmas will come swiftly on the wing. You will find rest beside the weary road. You will hear the angels sing.

I just briefly outlined our family’s journey to Christmas. Your families’ journeys are just as amazing and interesting as ours. What better time than Christmas to tell your stories. Every child needs to know that he or she is the end result of a million miracles and that their lives are the priceless legacy of infinite possibilities.

Of course its also time to tell again “the” Christmas story, of two young people in love, foolish enough to take their long journey to the first Christmas when she was so close to “her time”. Maybe Mary risked her life because she couldn’t face the self-righteous condemnation of religious folks in her village. Maybe she just knew, with a woman’s intuition, that Joseph could take care of her. Maybe she didn’t want to share the birth of her child with those that had tried to shame her. Maybe she couldn’t stand the thought that her neighbors would call her precious child a bastard. Maybe with the innocence of the young, she trusted the protection of angels.

The Bible doesn’t say whether or not Mary was attended by a mid-wife, but the circumstances of the birth must have been dicey, to say the least. Born in a stable, a first child, the pain, the bleeding, the birth, the wait for the first cry, the flies, the bloody rags. But she and Joseph managed it somehow, as the poorest of the poor have had to manage down through the centuries, and apparently, the place was pretty well cleaned up before the first visitors arrived. By all accounts, the baby Jesus didn’t fuss.

The Christmas hymn has is right. All children, and especially the Christ Child, embody all the hopes and fear of all our years. They are the future; they are our half remembered innocence; they are our second chance, our test of character. They are what Christmas is all about. They personify what we journey to Christmas to discover: hope, joy, wondering love, compassion, gentleness, trust, peace, good will—what God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of His Heaven.

Merry Christmas!

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