Honoring Tradition

November 20, 2007, 9:30 am; posted by
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The rain and sleet drove down practically sideways in icy, almost unbearable torrents. The sky — if one could catch a glimpse of it — was a deep, discontented grey, with layers and layers of storm clouds mushrooming out for hundreds of miles. But no one looked at the sky — why would you look at a sky if it meant getting a face full of sleet? Instead, people pulled their scarves and their hoods closer, mittens a little higher, layers of sweaters a little tighter, and prayed that their wool coats wouldn’t be soaked through.

But the rain did soak through. It soaked through the wool coats, through the flimsy roofs of flimsy wooden houses, through lean-tos and tents and makeshift shelters. It dampened fires as they were lit in chimneys, chilled people huddled together for warmth, stole life from those whose lungs were already consumptive.

Then the rain turned — mostly — to snow. The ocean kept the temperature in the twenties or thirties, so the snow was heavy, wet, and deep. The little houses built near the bay were uninsulated, their medical supplies close to nil and medical knowledge even closer. Their thinner clothing — nightgowns, extra sheets and potential trousseaus — became graveclothes, and each time a death rattle began to sound, a collection went round for those with extra to provide, and the shovel was passed to those with some strength to dig the graves.

By springtime, over half of them were dead.

________

The next winter wasn’t nearly so harsh. New friends had helped them fill in the chinking in their walls, mend their roofs, and marvel at the stupidity of wool clothing, which holds water and cold for so long. The year had been mild and plentiful and had brought old and new visitors to the community. People ate and stored and looked long at the skies — which stayed blue and cloudless through October. They celebrated and felt full for the first time in months, their happiness almost immeasurable. It snowed near Christmas and for a while after that, but if the sleet and rain did come, they couldn’t soak into the food that had been stored away. Joy, it seemed, had come.

________

People expected life to continue that way – mild days, plenty to eat, fewer and fewer graves as the year went by. But the uneven cruelty of the winters was yet another thing that they couldn’t have known — not then, after just two years. The next spring and summer was hot and crowded — too many old friends had decided to move in as well. The food stores ran low by mid-January, just when the nor’easters began to unleash their fury. It was bitterly cold, and people often didn’t know which pangs were greater — those of their frostbitten fingers or their growling, shrunked stomachs.

The collections for graveclothes began again. They had more to spare this time, perhaps, but the hopefulness that had pushed them through the first winter was gone, now, and with each death it seemed a nail was driven into their own hearts. What had they done wrong? They had been willing to learn, to be thankful, to share. What had they done wrong?

________

It was just before the fourth winter — most of the leaves fallen already, but a few still clinging to the trees, rustling stubbornly as if to say, watch me come down before I feel like it, I dare you. The wind blew often in those days, and the people were certain another winter would wreak more havoc. They had grown significantly in number, but scarcely in hope. This year had been bad — a drought had teased the farmers with corn barely knee-high by the end of the season, much less early July. The people had worked hard and put away as much as they could, but by late November, the pangs of realization and hunger were beginning to set in. There had been a fire in the first week of November which tore through the village, burning the houses and food stores of many to a crisp.

One of the men, William, went in to his wife Alice, as she was crushing the tiniest bit of an indeterminate herb over their supper stew one day.

“Don’t we have a servant for that?,” he said, jokingly as he could, putting an arm around her from behind.

She smiled. “God knows I’ve asked him enough for one — though a servant might ruin your favorite soup.”

“My favorite?”

“Yes, of course. At least, it had better be your favorite. It’s got to last us a while.” Her eyes grew serious. “I’m beginning to give up, William,” she whispered. “Will one of our children be the ones to go this winter?”

There was a moment of silence as William pondered what he had always hoped to be unthinkable. “God will provide, Alice.”

“I pray and I pray, William. Not for much — for just enough.”

“I know. Believe me, I do.”

Alice began to reply, but in that moment William had an idea. He put a hand on Alice’s shoulder to still her voice and rushed out of the house to his neighbors’.

By the end of the day he had visited almost every house in the small community, begging them to see the light, to gather, and to pray.

________

They gathered. A man stood and read from Job about suffering and God’s mighty response, about His provision and His love and His ultimate authority.

It was so hard to believe.

They stood and prayed for safety and health and warmth and the Spirit, one after one, words after words. Until William.

He stood a little clumsily for a man in his authoritative position, but those around him didn’t see it as weakness. His family was hungry, too.

“I called you to this because it is all we can do,” he said, and then began to pray.

“Our Father, give us a spirit of humility, thankfulness, and joy when Your provisions for us are many and we cannot but express our gratitude for Your everlasting love. When we are unsure of the future, give us the ability to trust You, give us perseverance, and banish our doubt.”

“And Father, when we are as we are now,” the words came out slowly, his voice dangerously near to giving out, “when we believe no light can be seen, when we fear for our lives and for our souls, bear us up in Your grace, help us not to curse You but to thank You for it all. Amen.”

Then William opened his eyes to the people he governed. “Let us keep on doing this. It is a tradition worth beginning,” he said. He motioned to Alice and his children — the ones born on the voyage and born here, the ones born of his first wife, whom the first winter of sleet and rain had killed, and the ones born to Alice: his family, the light of his eyes.

Then the Bradford family walked, together, out of the meeting hall and looked up at the sky, where a storm had been brewing. The snow was just beginning to fall.


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