A nod to Frank Capra and his Christmas masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life.
When a simple, joyful life becomes a yoke, then subsequently is befallen with disaster, George Bailey looks around the fixer-upper he, his wife and three children occupy, and can see only his disappointments and shortcomings and failures.
Restless and angry, he lashes out.
“Why do we live in this drafty old barn? Why do we have all these kids?”
This line became a running gag between my wife and I, surviving some impressive winters in our own “drafty old barn”, The Ark of Engleville. It’s as big and as old and indeed as drafty as that home in the movie. Each year I go about sealing cracks and stuffing holes and promising to do better next year. Still, when I lean into the kitchen window and a slight breeze arises from between the sashes, I am greeted with the wonderful aromas of the world outside this portal. The scent of the wind and snow, the smell of 115-year-old clapboard siding, hints of human inhabitance; smoke from a wood fire. It is invigorating and nostalgic and genuine all at once, and never does the thought enter in that this is not an economical window.
But this post is not about the Ark or windows. It’s not really about the movie, either. It’s about perspective. In the story of George Bailey, he feels all is lost from his perspective when things go wrong at his family business. He already lived with the sense that he had sacrificed his worldly hopes and dreams to care for the institution founded by his father and uncle. He is young in the grand scheme of things, with school-aged children at home, and many years to face of toiling away as an everyman at an everyday job.
He accuses a prominent businessman, Mr. Potter, of being “a warped, frustrated old man.”, and when things turn bad, his words are echoed back to him.
“And what are you now, but a warped, frustrated young man?”
I’ll not spoil the movie for you with too much detail, in the event you haven’t seen it. Suffice to say that after a long personal trial of himself, George realizes the greatest gifts in his life did not come from globetrotting escapades or success in business or social prominence and status symbols. He sees the true and real value in his life; having a father that took pride in his children, not his income; saving his brother from drowning when they were young boys; friends and a community that respected and revered him because of his character and kindness and generous nature; his wife, his children.
The contrast is Mr. Potter, an aging bachelor whose only “children” are the myriad business holdings he owns. He is painted as selfish and miserly, always looking to take advantage of others for his own monetary gain. Indeed, he is without a doubt the richest man in Bedford Falls, the fictional location of the tale.
The story involves a tremendous financial disaster that occurs in the family business, one the family does not have the resources to solve. George is faced with bankruptcy, and possibly a jail sentence for embezzlement. When, after the trials of the story, he puts things into perspective, he sees that his life is filled with precious and beautiful things, and is worth the living even under dire circumstances. Friends and community rally to raise the funds needed, and in the final scene, George’s brother (the one whose life he saved as a child) raises a glass to toast him. While Harry may be referring to the money raised in support of the family business, we know George is thinking about more important things for which he is supremely grateful. His brother; his wife and children; his mother; his uncle Billy; this little town with a big heart, an endless stream of friends.
“To my big brother George,” Harry proclaims, “the richest man in town.”
Here in Engleville, the sun is just setting now. The beauty of December’s snow has been melted away by the day’s rain. The wind is up, and that means I need to run around now and pull closed the heavy drapes in the parlor and at the front “coffin” doors, stuff the draft stopper tightly against the south porch door, clean the pellet stove to fire it for the night. I’m glad it’s above freezing because I have neglected to plug in the heat tape in the cellar to keep the water pump switch from freezing. I left the storm windows out for the Thanksgiving company’s benefit, and the single pane view is nice, albeit chilly.
I’m closing curtains and turning up gas heaters and asking the dog and my wife’s spirit and this ancient Ark: “Why do we live in this drafty old barn?”
A smile stretches across my face as a tear wells in my eye.
I know damn well why I live in this giant old Victorian Ark with its giant old windows and its sagging floors and crumbling foundation.
It is my mansion.
And I am the richest man in Engleville.
Take care and keep in touch.