Our father, Li’l Tom Hardy, was a proud man who frequently tried to pretend we were not too poor for Christmas presents.
Usually around December 13th, he’d come stumbling back to the trailer just as we were getting ready to head to the next town and announce,
“You know, I was talking with this Jehovah Witless Guy and he convinced me there is no biblical basis for celebrating Christmas.Now, while I don’t accept everything they those old boys say, ‘specially the no-drinking or smoking stuff, but I started thinking about it and I think they might be right.
I’d hate to see our whole family damned to Hell just to get a present under some pagan tree.”
“You know, I ran into that guy that used to be a ringmaster with Stamster Brothers and he commenced to talking about how Judaism – in its strictest form – really had the whole picture together.
They were waiting for the Messiah and that’s got a lot to say for it. I disagreed with him on the whole no-drinking and dragging out their equivalent of Christmas for a week or whatever, but the idea that we should really anticipate the birth of our Lord is a good thing.
Sooo, I’m thinking we anticipate how he can come into our life without the week of candles and presents.”
Or the worst was:
“You know, I was down at the Stop, Drop and Roll (that’s Circus Talk for a booze tent or trailer – usually just off the parade grounds), and I was walking back and saw this guy with a gun. He was mumbling something about how people demand so much from him and stuff and he was pretty well-bombed. I didn’t want to get too close cuz he was drunk and had a gun but I walked up a little closer and thought he looked like a biker.
He had real long hair and beard and was wearing gang colors – all red with a big old leather belt.Some midgets were screaming at him to drop the gun and walk away but he just kept waiving it at them and so I kept walking back to home – because family means more to me than keeping a biker and some midgets safe – and I heard a gun shot.
Some one yelled, ‘Oh, no!Santa shot himself!’ I didn’t want to go back to check it out cuz I still have that warrant in Maricopa County and didn’t need the trouble. Anyway, I guess no toys this year, huh?”
He was a proud man who didn’t mind making up stuff to avoid doing other stuff.
Whoever was my mother at the time would usually make up for the lack of money and buy us gifts at the local Woolworth’s so we’d have something when we woke up.
The life of kids of a side-show magician is decidedly different than a main tent performer’s kids. Apparently, they never had to convert to Jehovah Witness or Judaism or witness the senseless but imaginary death of a sacred icon. (It is traumatic enough to have Santa likened to a suicidal Biker).
One mother we had was from outside the circus community. Debbie had been a waitress at the Howard Johnson’s in, ironically, Quinlan, Texas. She fell in love with my pop. After she moved into the trailer, she tried straighten things up and give us kids a real family life. (She and pop slept in different bunks).
Debbie appeared with Pop in his show and their two-person telepathy act was good enough to get them a slot in the big tent for about three months. Pop became convinced she was trying to stop him from drinking and to shape up but for some reason he still tolerated her.
I think it was because she seemed so natural on stage. The audiences and the show boss loved her – in different ways but she was almost always faithful in spirit to my dad.
We were scheduled for a three-nighter in Tucson by the airport. The Friday afternoon show was good. I had taken over my dad’s sideshow slot to keep the $26.60 coming in plus a buck for every coloring book or magic trick I could sell. The evening show did real well and I pulled in about $50 just on books and tricks.
Not bad for a 14 year old who could barely read a center tear.
In the big tent, Debbie and Li’l Tom were kicking butt. They weren’t performing – they were having a fight. Debbie wanted to have a traditional Christmas with trimmings and a tree and dad just wanted a couple of bucks to buy some hooch and visit his friends at the Stop, Drop and Roll.
They did the show. Debbie, the trooper, did wonderfully and you couldn’t tell she was sobbing behind the blindfold during the telepathic act. She walked out with my father at the end of the routine, came to the trailer, handed me $300.00 and a note, kissed me and my two brothers and three sisters and left and then kissed some other people – some longer and in different ways than she had kissed us – and then “blew the show.” (Circus talk for walking away and not coming back).
Dad didn’t come home that night. I read the note to my siblings as I tucked them into bed:
Jesus Christ was born this night in a stall.He had no place to stay. His mother and father traveled just as you have, and hoped for a better place to deliver him.
But the stall was all they had that night and as it turned out, all they needed. There were visitors who came and left. Some brought gifts and some just came to see. Not one invited the new family into their homes. One of the visitors, a wise man, gave Jesus a spice called myrrh.
Myrrh was used to put on a body before burial. The wise men were telling Joseph and Mary that just as they were celebrating their little baby’s life, his death was already in the picture.
I have to leave because I can’t stay. I could stay with you children forever but I can’t stay with your father. I love him but I can’t stay with him. Each night from now on, I’ll think of this last time I saw you and I hope you remember me.
It doesn’t matter where you start. It doesn’t matter who comes into your life and leaves. It does matter who you are and what you do.
The wise man was right, Jesus would die eventually – like we all will.
Never let anyone tell you that because you are from a circus family (technically, we were not from a ‘circus family’ we were from a magician family that performed for a while in the circus) that you are without hope or are worth less than someone from a “good” or “decent” home.You’re not. You’re God’s children.
He will not disappoint you ever. On this day, a child was born. God in a very real way came into our (yours and my) lives. I’m sorry that I’m leaving you but He won’t leave you ever.
I never saw Debbie again.
There were other mothers that came and went but after Debbie, there were none that could add to or take away from my self-esteem. Her presence was a true Christmas gift.
My pop came back in time to load for the trip to Bisbee, Arizona. I didn’t have a license but it didn’t take a genius to realize I would be a better navigator of the rig than pop at that time.
One year later, as we returned to Tucson for three days of shows, I asked my dad if he ever thought about Debbie or missed her. He said, but not in a sarcastic way, “she’s too good for me. It’s too bad she couldn’t just be with you and the other kids.”
That was the last conversation we had about Debbie. It seemed ironic that the fears my pop had were the same ones she addressed in her note to us.
I’ve thought often about Debbie’s note and am convinced her words of encouragement were a lasting Christmas gift to my family. I had never really thought about the gift of myrrh for a baby and that it portends death. But once she wrote it, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. What an awkward baby shower gift it would be, eh?
It didn’t matter where we started, that’s true. But I think you can take that beyond the place where you’re born. If death is inevitable – and it seems to be – the gift of myrrh is appropriate because it will ultimately be needed. And our movement towards death, then, is also inevitable.
We are starting right now, as I write this and as you read this, towards the end of our mortal life. Our starting point is right here and now.
Jesus born in a barn stall would just 33 years later be killed in a humiliating yet prophesied way. He advised Nicodemus, that to enter into Heaven; one would have to be born again. You have to start where you are and move on, Nicodemus.
“Yes, but . . .” I would have interrupted if I were at the conversation between our Lord and the Pharisee Nicodemus.
“Yes, nothing,” Jesus might have said back.
“Don’t interrupt,” Nicodemus might have said.
“Yes, but you don’t understand, I’m not that great a guy,” I’d say.“I’m not like you, Nicodemus, a religious leader. I have some definite failings and I’m not going to say they’re due to my upbringing in a circus or as the chief assistant of a touring magician.”
“And how will you undo those failings?” Jesus might have asked me. “By what power can you undo your sins? How can you go back into time?”
“Exactly,” I’d say.
“Exactly,” Jesus would say.
“Are you done? ‘Cuz we were kind of talking here,” Nicodemus would politely interrupt and I would have walked away trying to figure out what was meant.
I can’t go back even to the beginning of this week and re-write the real events that have taken place. I can’t change how I treated others or how I neglected the real needs that others had. I can’t erase the sins I’ve committed. I can’t stop the march towards death and the inevitable need for burial preparation.
“Exactly,” would say Jesus and Debbie.
I’ve got to start now and here as I write this all too long recollection of a five hour event over 26 years ago. And tomorrow, when I read this again, I’ll no doubt have to start again. Whether I like it or not, I have a certain ability to sin with the best of them. In fact, as evident by the fact that I claim to sin “with the best of them” I am apparently just as competitive in sin as well as other areas of my life.
I’m starting right here and moving forward convinced that Jesus’ words and promise as conveyed through the angel Debbie are true. I move forward with the knowledge that even though death is the end of this life it is not the end of my life. My sins, plentiful and horrible (but not like serial murderer horrible – or even singular murderer horrible – but just regular horrible) only define where I start from but not who I am.
Fortunately, I have someone in Jesus who is willing to accept me from this starting point.Be he does more than just accept me. He loves me unconditionally.
He understands the fear that wakes me at 3:00 am to write this message from the parking lot of a mall just outside of Maumee, Ohio on the miniature keyboard of a Treo 600.
He’s just good that way. But lucky for me, He does more than just understand, He has the power to clean me of my sins.
Just like my pop returning to the rig, though, while I may be forgiven the ramifications of those sins can have a life of their own. Pop had to sober up before I could let him drive. He had to suffer through the hang-over as we headed south towards Bisbee.
I have to deal with the effects of my sin but I am forgiven of those sins nonetheless.
Debbie didn’t cite John 10:10 but her words were certainly in accord with Jesus’ promise, “A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Here is to our mutual desire for abundant life beginning with our acceptance of the gift given to us over two-thousand years ago this evening.
May God bless you and your family tonight and every night.