Counting, and nurturing, blessings comes easily to someone who both adds up numbers on license plates and hoards architectural fragments for decades. A new blessing I’m counting in early 2014 is a realization, admittedly belated, of how little it takes to be truly happy.
It hit me, like the proverbial flash out of the blue, at church on Christmas Day.
A week or so before Christmas, when Advent candles were still burning, the pastor of Woodlawn Methodist Church, which stands proudly in a swath of of lawn carved from the canefields of what had been Madewood’s sister plantation, Woodlawn, paid us a visit. Warren Freeman, Madewood’s groundskeeper, whose family has lived on the land for six generations, ushered the delegation from his church into Madewood’s parlor, where we received an invitation to the service.
On that perfect Christmas morning less than a week later, the pastor and children’s choir welcomed us to the church, where a living nativity was to be created by church members. A branch-entwined arbor evoked the stable, as, one by one, the participants arrived.
Mary, Joseph, a shepherd and an angel with flapping wings slowly appeared, each being introduced by name and the role he or she played. Then the arrival of the animals was announced, and a tall, serious man strode in from the adjacent fellowship hall with a snow-white plastic lamb, placed it in front of the Holy Family and plugged it in. Everyone beamed as it lit up, fulfilling its role in the simple, poinsettia-decked church better than a full, live delegation from a safari park could.
Warren and two other members solemnly served as the Three Wise Men, regal in white or dark-blue terry-cloth bathrobes as their royal robes, with headdresses of matching bath towels secured by rope around the tops of their heads. It appeared so authentic that, if they showed up so dressed at an airport, they’d immediately be asked for their passports.
Shoe and cigar boxes — hand-lettered gold, frankincense and myrrh — seemed to delight the dutifully-modest Virgin Mary as she lovingly cradled the dark-featured doll representing Jesus.
You don’t need a crèche from Neiman-Marcus when you have this kind of pure, heartfelt worship just down the road.
A week later, Millie and I found ourselves on Robinson Crusoe Island, off the coast of Chile. Devastated by a tsunami, which was spawned by an earthquake on the mainland on February 27, 2010, the small island is experiencing the kind of slow, piecemeal recovery that New Orleanians faced after Hurricane Katrina five years earlier.
I dusted off my Spanish and began a spirited conversation with the owner of a small cafe near the tender pier. She showed us a photo of her grandson, taken just three days before the tsunami that swept him away. We lamented her loss, and she offered me a homemade ice-cream-sicle on a stick — condensed milk with shaved coconut, which I speedily consumed as we walked to the small cemetery, where new graves for victims of the tsunami shimmered with color and trinkets on a plateau above older resting places.
“You were our guiding light, and now you are a star to lead us,” read one inscription in Spanish. Another expressed faith that, like Evita, “You’ve really never left us.”
That’s the way I want to be remembered, I thought: with lamentations, lots of rainbow-hued plastic flowers, tinsel and small solar pathway lights for nocturnal visitations. Not even Al Copeland, Ruth Fertel or Stan Rice can boast that kind of Mardi-Gras brilliance on their stately mausoleums in Metairie Cemetery.
In lieu of elaborate floral arrangements, please visit your local Dollar General store and let ‘er rip after my demise.
How little it takes to be truly happy.