It’s one of those Christmas rites of passage that’s uniquely American — watching the 1946 film “It’s A Wonderful Life” — about George Bailey, the small-town boy who longs so desperately to leave his small town of Bedford Falls but spends his life there until the night he decides to kill himself, despairing at his business’s ruin. He’s saved by Clarence, a bulbous-nosed angel.
I thought I’d hate the movie, so lionized it’s been. I watched it for the first time last night prepared to be unmoved.
Yeah, well, I cried by the first commercial. I loved its weird little details, the crow that lives in the bank (?), the squirrel that runs up a character’s arm, Zuzu’s petals (surely a great band name?), and I loved its message, character counts.
It made me think about my angels, the people who appeared in my life at a point when I most needed them, giving me a confidence and feeling of security and safety I didn’t think possible by that point. So, here — so far — are mine:
Gudrun. I found her through the guys at Reuters in Madrid, of course, the summer I spent four months traveling alone through Europe at the age of 20, writing 10 freelance newspaper stories along the way. She was their Barcelona stringer and, I was told, had a huge heart beneath her gruff, blunt, German exterior. She did. With only my nervous phone call as introduction, she welcomed me into her home, leaving me alone with her kids when she and her husband went out, as planned before my call, to a dinner party.
When I returned to Spain weeks later, sick as hell with a really bad cold, arriving late at night with a few Spanish coins, (having planned to stay in France but deciding to keep going by train that day), so dizzy and feverish the floor was moving beneath my feet. I was smelly, sick, broke and alone in the train station at 10:00 p.m. I had no idea who else to call, and called Gudy, who was in the middle of a dinner party. “Come over at once!” she insisted, paying for the taxi, putting me into a hot bath and into a comfortable bed.
Philippe. A tall, white-haired, elegant Frenchman, he was a legend: the founder of a journalism school, a journalism fellowship, a home for wayward boys, a sailing school and a French daily. Oh, and a Resistance hero. I met him after being chosen to join his program, Journalistes en Europe, a life-changing eight months in Paris, with paid travel across Europe to write articles. He was funny, sharp, demanding, loving, irascible. He believed in my talent in a way that stunned me, at 25 just starting what I hoped would be a long and successful career.
He died in November 1986, when I was working in Montreal at the Gazette; impossibly, perhaps, two other former fellows were working in that same newsroom, all of us bound by our love and respect for this man. I finally visited his grave in June 2008, in his Breton hometown of Concarneau. I searched the graveyard in vain for an hour, looking at all the tall, noble obelisks and angels. He was a great man, nationally respected. Surely, one of these was his. Instead, his grave was marked by a raw slab of granite from the islands where his sailing school still runs, his marker a piece of raw wood. I sat with my hand on his stone for half an hour, profoundly grateful to be there, and for the gifts of his life.
Gabi. Our friendship ended about six years ago, but she was there for me when I needed her. I had a knee surgery scheduled for 7:00 a.m. on a day that began with an enormous blizzard. She came by train all the way from downtown Manhattan, then took a cab that could not make it the rest of the way up our steep, winding hill. So, up to her calves in snow, she tromped the rest of the way through it to my door to make it in time. She soothed me before the OR and, literally, caught me falling head-first into a bathroom door afterward, when I was still dopey from anesthetic.
Bill. I’ve blogged here about falling into the clutches of a con man, a vicious criminal who’d done time in Chicago for bilking women and businesses alike. At the point where I feared for my sanity, and my safety, I met — through a night out with Gabi, on a first date with an accountant — Bill, a former NYPD detective. Gentle, calm, quiet, he knew at once the danger I was in and helped me escape it. No one else understood or knew what to do, and he arrived at exactly the right moment.
Have you had an “angel”? Who, when and how?