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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 22, 2007

Everyday miracles are gifts in a dark season

Photo: The Enterprise — Tyler Schuling

Pictured above:
Her mother’s words: Gene Smith reads from her mother’s diary, written in 1925. Each week, Smith writes a column, including excerpts from years and years of the diaries, connecting Hilltown readers with their history.

After Thanksgiving, we face December with the shortest days of the year. Darkness comes early, and offers little comfort from the cold and gloom. The leafy canopies of summer and the brilliant hues of autumn are no more. The natural world looks dead. The ground is frozen hard. Bare branches groan in the wind.

As human beings, we make our own warmth this time of year. As pagans did long before us, we bring evergreens indoors to decorate our homes. Electricity has made our decorations extravagant — we light up the night. We try to keep the darkness at bay. We gather together to make merry.

The religious among us see a greater light. This time of year, we believe in miracles. Christians believe the son of God was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. A star of wonder marked the miracle. Christmas was not observed until early in the fourth century, when the birth of Jesus was fixed on the date of a Roman Festival.

The Jews celebrate a feast of lights. Chanukah marks the rededication of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem after Judah Maccabee led his followers to evict the Syrians in 165 B.C. Legend has it that, when the Jews recovered their temple, they had only enough consecrated lamp oil for a single day; miraculously, it burned for eight days. This is commemorated in the eight branches of the Chanukah menorah.

The word miracle comes from the Latin word that means "to wonder at." There are many things in our midst to wonder at, to be in awe of. We can receive these everyday miracles as gifts in a dark season.

One of these gifts is printed in a picture on the front cover of our special holiday section this week. It is a favorite scene of ours, printed with an essay that Lansing Christman wrote for us seven years ago, at the start of a new millennium. Christman, a poet who was the editor of The Altamont Enterprise during the Great Depression, died last year at the age of 96, but his words live on.

He wrote, at age 90, of the Helderberg farm on which he grew up. He reminisced over how he would follow the creek for a while where the waters murmur under ice as they wend their way. We can almost hear the water’s sound in the alliterative w’s Christman so precisely strung together: "...where the waters murmer under ice as they wind their way...."

Our publisher, Jim Gardner, went to the Christman farm, now a nature sanctuary, with the intention of photographing the evergreens that line the stream, natural Christmas trees. But he hadn’t visited the farm in decades. Gardner discovered the trees that Christman had helped plant in his boyhood now towered over him.

This is the gift of a civilized man; Samuel Johnson once wrote: To plant trees whose maturation we may never see in a lifetime is to give a gift to the future. We are not sowing to reap, but for the good of people we’ll never know.

Christman’s essay and Gardner’s photograph are a fitting cover for the stories inside. Our Hilltown reporter, Tyler Schuling, has written about four Helderberg elders as the holidays approach. He was given the assignment because funds the seniors had counted on for a holiday gift won’t be forthcoming unless people contribute.

Schuling’s stories, though, are not about needy people. They are about giving people. Janice Pearson worked for years at Bryant’s Supermarket, living in South Westerlo. She moved to Berne to take care of her mother and to "fix up" the house.

This is not something she complains about but rather does with relish. "This is where I was born and brought up," she said. "I love it up here, and Everett did, too," she said of her late husband.

Pearson also works in a thrift shop to raise money for her church. This year, she said, was a "fabulous" one at the thrift shop. "People donate the stuff, and you just can’t believe the things we have and the money we get from it," she said, marveling at the generosity.

Gene Smith also lives in her childhood home — in Medusa. She wears lilac, which is also her nom de plume, and has shades of the hue throughout her house. She contributes to her community with her writing.

Each week, she uses an electric typewriter to write her weekly column — "Notes from Lilac" — for local newspapers. She connects her Hilltown readers with their history, often including passages from her mother’s turn-of-the last-century diary.

Besides her weekly column, Smith is working on another writing project. As a girl, she went to a one-room schoolhouse where the Sayre and Fox Creek roads meet. The schoolhouse, she said, "is falling in and falling apart."

But she will make it whole and vibrant again, in words. She has about seven people lined up to contribute to a book about the school and hopes more will join in.

Finally, Schuling wrote about a couple who have opened their home and hearts to those most in need. Leah and Leo Bartell take in foster children who need a temporary home until the county can find a more permanent place for them.

The Bartells said of children who have stayed with them for the holidays, "They don’t really know what’s going on, but we celebrate it just as if they did."

Last year, a 7-year-old boy staying with them was unfamiliar with the holiday’s stories and traditional customs and skeptical of others’ goodwill. He did not believe he would get any gifts on Christmas morning and he thought their Christmas meal would be hamburgers. He had never had a Christmas tree.

As he decorated the tree he had selected for the Bartells, the boy looked worried. "Santa Claus is dead," he told Mrs. Bartell.

"What do you mean, Santa Claus is dead"" she asked.

"Well, he never ever came to my house, so he must be dead," the boy replied.

On Christmas Day, the boy didn’t run to the tree as most children do. He just stood, looking at the presents. "Those are from Santa Claus," Mrs. Bartell said to the boy.

"It can’t be for me," he said.

But it was. Part of the miracle of a gift is the joy it brings to the giver. We can only imagine how full the Bartells’ hearts must have felt as they watched the 7-year-old boy opening his very first Christmas gifts.

We hope our readers will help spread joy this year by donating to the Hilltown Community Resource Center so some of our elders in the Hilltowns will receive the gifts they deserve. Our hunch is that people like the Bartells will spend the money on others, deriving their joy that way.

These are people who have sewn seeds — just as Lansing Christman planted those trees so many years ago — that have grown to benefit us all. And they are still giving.

We may never be able to pay back the person who planted a tree that shades us now, who works in a thrift shop to help a church, who writes a column that enriches us and connects us to our history, or who cares for children others have neglected. But we can pay our debt by helping others, and asking nothing in return.

This way, we’ll shed a light in darkness and make the human condition miraculous.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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