As we live in the holy pause that is Advent attempting to turn our restless, impatient hearts to a story of waiting, I’m also reminded of my late great-grandmother whose love of the song “Silent Night” inspired her lifetime of waiting through great hardship and pain. I cannot enter this season without thinking of her.
During the summer of 2003 I was serving on full-time staff at Camp Bethany when I received a call that my great-grandmother had passed away. The news grieved me. Upon hearing the news a flood of memories raced through my mind of this extraordinary (and particular) woman and the profound hope she had that sustained her painful life.
Maria Ritzer Barnhart was born in Munich, Germany in 1917, only one year before the end of the war that claimed to end all wars. She grew up in the depressed German economy that was the rebuild of a country after WWI. Her parents pieced back the life of their family. A home had to be rebuilt and a looking forward had to be undertaken. And, then, the impossible happened.
In the late 1930s a charismatic leader came to power in Germany. Throngs of people followed him and hung on his every word. He spoke proudly of a new Germany that could reclaim its rightful place in the world. He spoke out against the oppression of other nations on German soil. He rebuilt the military. He cleaned up the streets and lowered the unemployment rate to staggering new lows. Adolf Hitler, my grandmother would say, embodied an optimism the German people had never seen. It was as if Germany was the hope of modern civilization.
Then we all know what happened.
My grandmother watched as her brother went to war…never to return. She watched her fiancé go to war…never to see him again. She watched as her parents aged from their vibrancy of the pre-war years to the skiddish, on-edge couple taken to the brink of insanity by a war that would never end.
She detailed the lies they were told as a German people. She daily walked pass a concentration camp. They were told via German propaganda that this was merely a prison. Late at night, she and her father would sneak up to the attic and tune into British broadcasts via shortwave radio, lights off lest they be spotted and arrested. Only then did they know the atrocities of the Nazis. When Hitler came into Munich for a great rally, she and her mother would have to physically restrain her father from standing up and speaking out against the Führer’s atrocities. To lose her father would have been unfathomable.
Every Christmas as the war raged on, amid the bombs dropping all around them, my grandmother and her family would rush downstairs to the dirt floor safety of their basement. There, in the darkness, they would light a small candle. A small flame of light would penetrate the darkness of the musky room and a small warmth would be felt, albeit it psychologically, by the warm aura the little flame produced. There, on their knees, shaking from cold and fear, they would pray together and sing: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht. In German the first line reads: “Silent night! Holy night! / All are sleeping, alone and awake.” We, of course, sing the song, “Silent Night, Holy Night. / All is calm, all is bright.”
After the war, my grandmother married a man from Turkey (a Turkestani as she called him). They emigrated to America and started their life in Arlington, VA. Thousands of miles from her family she felt the loneliness—and then the abuse began. First it was verbal, then it became physical. Her husband was a successful banker who threw outlandish parties. Parties, mind you, to which she was never invited. Her job was to prepare for the merry hoarde, then not be seen by them because of her husband’s embarrassment of her. Later, after the guests left, her job was to clean up the mess left in the wake of their departure.
Weekend after weekend. Year after year. 25 years in all.
Christmas brought the greatest parties in the house that was not her home. Every Christmas she was forgotten…left alone in the basement as the guests partied above. Guests who were clueless that their host even had a wife. In her cold, damp basement, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she would sit on a metal folding chair, amid walls of concrete, holding her adopted son. She would pray and on those cold Christmas Eves, with a small lit candle in hand, she would sing: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
After 25 years, she found the courage to break the cycle of violence—to make her own life. To rid herself of the pain and suffering that had legally been called a marriage. While her husband was away she gathered up her belongings, a suitcase of clothes and a set of dishes from the homeland, loaded her son in the car, and she left everything she had ever known behind. Years later, in a complicated legal battle, she won her divorce, officially closing a haunting chapter in a book typed in pain.
In the Spring of 1983, in a diner outside of Waynesboro, VA, my grandmother spotted a handsome man across the way who kept making glances at her when she looked the other way. He did not realize that when she looked out the window she was watching his eyes in the reflection of the glass. She made the bold move to get up and go to him. Taken back and flustered, the 72-year-old man apologized profusely and made a sudden move to exit the booth and leave the restaurant.
Grabbing his sleeve, my grandmother begged him to sit, there was no foul, as she would enjoy the company. Within 15 minutes it was if they had known each other for a lifetime. He heard her story, shared, by her description, in “surprising detail.” She found out that he was a widower. Grieving the love of his life, he came back on a weekly basis to their favorite diner. His late wife was my biological great-grandmother. I never met her but I sure wish I had.
In the spirit and urgency of true love, the two were wed on September 2, 1983. His grandson was unable to make it. “Granddad,” he said, “Amy is set to deliver our child any day now. I’d hate for her water to break in the church.” On September 24, 1983, my great-grandfather and great-grandmother held their first great-grandchild together, Jason Scott Barnhart. My childhood was one tucked into this magical love they shared. In their eyes, I could do no wrong.
And on that first Christmas in 1983, beside a beautiful Christmas tree in their new home together, with family present and warmth from the fireplace, my grandparents gave thanks to, as my grandfather called God, “the man upstairs.” And in a battered, tear soaked tradition, my grandmother with her new family sang: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
In 1993, after decades of smoking, my great-grandfather developed lung cancer and died. His was the very first death I ever experienced. And, in the years that followed, I experienced his death over and over again through the pain and grief that marked my grandmother’s life. She would say things like, “Those were the best ten years of my life.” And, in a soft sigh amind eyes welled with tears, she would recall fondly, “Your grandfather treated me like a true lady.”
In the summer of 2003 I returned to Virginia and sorted through photographs and the various other items that were symbolic of a life of many stories. Tragedy and beauty wed as one. Hope made present in the subtle, often time overlooked, souvenirs of a life gone by.
I still have some of those items – including the dish set that was one of her few belongings on that journey some two decades earlier away from bondage into freedom. To this day, when I open a book from her house, I can smell her perfume. I’m instantly transported to my childhood once more. Just her perfume alone connects my present journey with the beauty and hope that marked her life. I was honored to have her as my great-grandmother and I miss her. Her life gave mine perspective. Appropriately, her last moments were with loved ones gathered near proclaiming in song, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.”
Hope is a profound reality tucked deep within the human heart. Hope is a surprise because God hides eternity in the most fragile of things.
“Silent Night, Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.”