According to ancient Greek mythology, a curious woman named Pandora once opened a box. Inside that box, sealed tight until her curiosity cracked the seal, were confined all the evils of the world. As Pandora's prying fingers pulled back the lid, those evils came pouring out to visit their destruction on the Earth.
But something else came out of that box too. The only good among all the evil, hope was the last thing to emerge and it remains to this day humankind's sole comfort in misfortune. Hope, that singular blessing, was a tiny wraith among so many other forces and a fragile thing indeed. But hope also dies last, I'm told, enduring longer than the rest. After everything else has spent its energy and seeped away, hope is the one thing that remains for the living to hold on to. There is a photograph I have that proves it–proves to me, once and for all, that hope dies last.
Even after extensive reconstruction and preservation, the picture is grainy and sepia toned. Seventy-five years of time does that to photo paper. It does different things to people, to families, to nations. Most everything has changed since the picture was taken, sometime around 1928. Still, despite all that lies between the moment the shutter clicked and today, the image on the film remains one of vibrant come-hither youth, hope captured in its prime, life waiting to unfold.
It is of a young woman, in her late teens, all decked out in her very best flapper girl regalia. The wind is blowing just enough to sweep both her silky pleated skirt and the smoke from the rising city stacks off to the West. She wears a string of pearls that hangs all the way to her waist, a bob just to her cheekbones, and a felt hat cocked ever so sassily to one side. On her left shoulder is pinned a corsage of white roses, and her shoes are made of satin. It is a special day.
The photographer is visible only in shadow, and only vaguely against the sunlight can you see what I like to think is the outline of his hat, the kind they wear in gangster movies, the kind best paired with pinstriped suits. Along with a few other grainy images as alien to me as old movies, that shadow is all I have ever seen of my grandfather. But my grandmother, Dorothy McDonald, that pretty flapper woman with the mischievous glint in her eye and the rounded baby face so like my sister's…her I will always know.
She stands there in front of a gravel road that is now a four lane highway, in a park that no longer exists, with her eyes totally focused on camera and photographer, leaving the mighty muddy Ohio to flow along unnoticed beyond her gaze. But she knows where she is standing, right there with her back toward the swankiest hotel in the River City of Evansville, Indiana.
This country girl who early on learned lessons in futility as she tried to nurse her mother through the tuberculosis that killed her and her sister through a depression that ended in suicide; this country girl who while still a child took care of her family on virtually nothing; this country girl in the satin shoes, she knew where she was. She was somewhere, standing there in front of the McCurdy hotel, where as a waitress she had met the bellhop who would become her husband. It was he who would buy her flowers, promise to take care of her, and take her picture in the park one sunny afternoon.
The image, I said, is one of hope in its prime. You can see it in her eyes. Right there on the Indiana riverfront seventy five years ago, everything was possible for that woman and her new husband. Before Black Tuesday, and the depression settled down across America, Dorothy McDonald was not the only one who found it easy to hope. The world was expanding, the economy was booming. The future loomed brightly ahead, and new beginnings seemed to be everywhere.
Of course, after the snap of the shutter, Dorothy McDonald must have turned around, maybe faced that grand hotel again and returned with her husband to their everyday lives, lives less grandiose, less romantic, than this still photograph can show. They turned around to face the future, and the future did indeed unfold, in ways that she could never and should never have known there when hope was easy. Like our own lives, inevitably do, hers took its own course. The wonder of it all is that she endured. The wonder of it all is that we can too.
My dad, the youngest of what would be that couple’s four sons, was four years old when that starry-eyed young woman found herself a tired-eyed young widow with no money and no saleable skills except a warm smile and a willingness to work hard for her family. She was back where she stared. Starting the week after her husband died, she hitched rides to work in high-heeled shoes every morning for over a decade, hoping that someone get her home in time to lead the Cub Scout meeting. In the middle of it all, all the mourning, all the struggle, there was work to do, and she did it.
In such circumstances, meaning is made and hope is found just by getting through each day, by moving on to what lies ahead, no matter how frightening it may seem. When the preservation of self and others is on the line, hopelessness is not an option. I’m reminded in this Advent season of Mary, heavily pregnant, wandering the twisting streets of Bethlehem, never daring to give up hope that there would be a place for her family, never ceasing to believe that there would be a way through the long dark night. Women before and after Mary have found such strength in frightening times, and two thousand years worth of women, including my Grandma, looked to her as a model of courage and a reminder of the persistence of hope.
In her own long nights of work and worry, had my Grandma given in to hopelessness it would have beaten her down. In so doing, it would have broken the chances that her children (and her children's children) would have in the future that waited beyond her very painful present. Hopelessness would have crippled those who depended on her, killed the tiny flickering spark that kept her always at the work of living.
Dorothy McDonald didn't have time for decadent bitterness, nor excess energy to spend railing against her lot. She was busy doing other things, most of which were work. Grandma did have her fun, though, especially toward the end of her life.
We would drive her into the city on Friday nights, Dad at the wheel, kids in the backseat. My favorite part of the week was often the exchange we shared as she got out of the car to go up to her apartment. "You girls be good, but not too good," she'd say with a cackle to my sister and me. "Stay out of them bars, Mom," my Dad would loudly joke for the whole street to hear, "Don't you go dancin' on any tables." "Heck," she'd say, "If you had legs like these you'd be dancin' too."
Her life, like the lives of so many real, struggling human beings, teaches us about the persistence of hope, about its changing face, one moment pure and shining, the next rock-solid, unmoving even in the midst of pain. Hope does not require ease. Hope does not require naiveté. Rather, it is real, tangible, and enduring even when the stories of our lives do not have fairytale happy beginnings, middles, or ends.
Grandma died a year and a half ago at the age of 97. This holiday season, I’ll be remembering her and all those who came before who carved hope out of even the most difficult of situations. Every year at this time, it seems that all that was broken has a chance to be made whole. All that seemed hopeless might just be restored. My grandmother lived as if every moment were an advent of hope, as though the child in the manger, the child of hope, were about to be reborn every single day. May we all be so bold as to live even one day of this holiday season in that same way.