Aunt Lillian's timely grace

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Seventeen years ago, I reprised a Christmas column I'd written in the 1990s for a Texas newspaper. 

The original column and the 2004 interpretation celebrated a holiday prayer conceived by my favorite grand-aunt, Aunt Lillian, a before-the-big-meal "grace" of gratitude and humble spirit composed with a mother's grasp of Thanksgiving and Christmas appetites and enthusiasms.

In 2004 I spent several months on active duty in Iraq. My family and I felt a great deal of gratitude for my return. I gave Lillian's prayer before both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Allow the detour, but Aunt Lillian was a delightful lady and a character. Born in 1900 in Manhattan - on West 84th Street between Broadway and West End - the Aunt Lillian I knew was an elegant, cosmopolitan New Yorker to the core. However, she was born to poor German Catholic immigrants and had an impoverished childhood. Over the years she gave me the details. Life in 1908 wasn't East Side, West Side, all around the town. 

The Aunt Lillian I knew had a gentle wit. She signed letters and cards sent to her Texas relatives as either "Ant Lillian" or "Ain't Lillian." The Yankee pronunciation, "aww-unt," wasn't in our vocabulary. One time I told her I simply couldn't pronounce it. Well, neither could her husband, my grandmother's brother.

Once upon a time the days and nights before Christmas were a child's ultimate experience in slow motion. The ecstasy of raising and decorating a Christmas tree gave way to the agony of waiting for The Day to arrive when the wrapped presents could be ripped open and exposed. Packages beneath the Christmas tree got shake-and-rattle therapy as the itch to unwrap them became intense.

But wait; we had to wait until Christmas. As a 7-year-old I hated that word.

Aunt Lillian told me Thanksgiving actually inspired her simple prayer. Thanksgiving dinner also involves waiting. She understood 7-year-old and 57-year-old appetites, especially for her Thanksgivings at her home in New Jersey. Turkey, rack of lamb, glazed hams, mashed potatoes, a garden of steamed vegetables, baked bread. Behind the protein: the allure of strawberry cake and chocolate pie.

I couldn't resist poking a fork into the turkey dressing before the dinner prayer. But Aunt Lillian always halted my fork with lines like, "I know you're hungry, dearie. But thankfulness should precede takefulness."

A direct quote, actually. 

It's a sweet request for good manners and basic decency but also a reminder we should appreciate what we have. Oh, Aunt Lillian could cook a feast, but she loved America, and knew our nation's freedom, opportunities, productivity and generosity far outweighed its faults.

Here's Aunt Lillian's short and simple grace, always delivered with a smile: "This, us, them, God bless. Amen." 

Short? Aunt Lillian called it practical -- everyone wants to eat. At Christmastime, the children want to go play with new toys.

Prayers of thanks before a meal can become rote and habitual. Aunt Lillian insisted on at least a moment of apparent gratitude for food, plates, roof and family gathered for the holiday, despite appetites.

She insisted short and practical can also be inclusive and complete, if you consider the implications.

Yes, she and I discussed the theology of her one-liner.

Her grace expressed appreciation for the meal and recognized the value of everyone -- "us" and "them." May God bless those at the table, family elsewhere, but ultimately all human beings.

Everyone's life matters.

Unfortunately, in 2021 that statement is regarded as political instead of the spiritual insight and social bond it is.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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