This week my brother flies in to help our dad move to Silver Spring, Maryland. And among the things we’ll need to attend to is his beloved 1953 Pontiac. The car is the same model as the one Dad was driving when he met our mother in Dallas. He was in seminary, and she was working at Texas Instruments. And there’s an infamous family photo from that time. Dad had convinced Mom to get behind the wheel of his car for a picture. What could be prettier than this woman in that car, right? Well, he did, technically, take Mom’s picture. But he kept backing up and backing up until he had the entire Pontiac in the frame. And since the car was roughly the size of the Hernando de Soto Bridge, the wide-angle shot reduced his true love to a blurry, smiling bouffant in the driver’s side window.
Did I mention that Dad really, really liked that car? Mom never let him live that photograph down, if always with a good-humored twinkle in her eye.
But the reason Dad has a ’53 Pontiac today isn’t because he preserved the original. It’s because a few years ago, a former student of his wanted to tell the story of Dad’s life with Mom in a short film. The conceit was to film him driving the old car in places like Hershey, Pennsylvania and Dallas, Texas and Siloam Springs, Arkansas where their love story played out over 47 years of marriage. There were scenes with the car pulling into old downtowns and church parking lots and some of it was shot from a drone way up in the air. The film never quite made it into final form. But Dad got the old car out of the project, and we got a lot of lovely and moving footage of people talking about the impact Mom and Dad had on their lives, especially as they lived with multiple sclerosis together over the years.
The photograph is now a family heirloom, perhaps because it did end up telling an important truth about their relationship. At the time it was taken, Mom was a beautiful, gracious, independent, smart, musical (I could go on…) young woman whom Dad’s friends couldn’t believe had actually agreed to go out with him. But her presence in his life really did grow larger in just about every way from that day on.
It’s funny how perspective changes. The parts of our lives we spend so much time, energy, and imagination forming to make a difference in the world are all gifts from God. But they can obscure the truth that there’s a beautiful essence to each of us that can only be uncovered or observed, never performed or achieved. That tiny, barely discernible but perfectly quaffed woman in the Pontiac, became the smiling woman in the reclining wheelchair many years later who, up to her death in 2012, still seemed to have an increasing impact on nearly everyone in their small town, from college students to waiters and concert-goers to sons and neighbors, and, most especially, to the husband who took a picture of her one day, decades before, in his beloved Pontiac.
I want things that are supposed to grow in influence and importance in my life to do just that over the years, as they did for my parents in so many ways. I want parts of myself and my world, of my family and friends that might have seemed small and easily overlooked once upon a time to gradually take over the frame I live out my days within, if those are the parts where the Shimmering Brilliance at the heart of all things is seen most clearly. That probably means my Pontiacs, whatever they might be, will grow smaller over time, as people come to matter evermore. But if an old Pontiac or parish church is how you traveled into my life…well, thanks be to God for those too. In the end, I suppose, there’s room for a lot in our portraits. Perhaps the key is to bring everything in our lives ever closer to its proper proportions. In fact, I’m beginning to think the meanings of words like “abundant” and “flourishing” and maybe even “beloved” and “sacred” are understood only as we do precisely that.