Each December, the American Film Institute’s historic Silver Theatre, where my husband runs the educational programs, screens holiday classics. The favorite is always Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where an unlikely guardian angel named Clarence Oddbody convinces businessman George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, that if he commits suicide, the world will feel his loss.
It is the sappiest of sappy movies, and yet it is #20 on AFI’s top 100 films and #1 on 100 Years…100 Cheers, their list from the first 100 years of movie-making that most inspire us. Since it isn’t among my favorite Christmas films, I’m surprised each year when the theater offers at least a dozen screenings and so many people flock to the AFI Silver that the film is perpetually one of their biggest box office draws of the year.
Though I sometimes watched the film as a child, when it was one of few Christmas films on television, I can never watch the film all the way through as an adult. It’s just too saccharine for me—so sweet and so sentimental that I roll my eyes and pick up the remote at home, where it also runs on television over and over again, to switch to another channel where the plot is less predictable and the characters more complex.
But last Sunday afternoon, while my husband was out playing soccer, I stood in the family room, running my fingers through my hair and trying to figure out where I’d misplaced a book I’d been reading before I was called to my mother’s side by a Wonderful hospice staff. Life didn’t feel so Wonderful. I’d been trying to remind myself that I’d had my Wonderful mother for 57 years of my life, while some have theirs only for a twinkling of time.
As I stood in my family room, feeling scattered and lonely in the complete stillness of the house, I heard the crisp tinkling of tiny bells. Confused, I looked for the source of the sound. Perhaps it was the wind chimes I’d bought for my father that my mother had given me after his death fourteen years ago. But those wind chimes hung from the branch of a tree outside on the other side of the house.
Convinced there must be a rational explanation for the sound, I walked around the house, considering all the possibilities—my cell phone, the clock on the coffee maker, the alarm clock in the bedroom. I found nothing. Even my father’s wind chimes were still.
I smiled. Mom just got her angel wings, I thought. And though I hadn’t yet been reminded by AFI flyers or ads on television of the advent of Jimmy Stewart, I suddenly saw the scene in my head, the one where George stands with his wife in front of a Christmas tree with his daughter on his shoulder. His little one, in that sweet child voice, points to a jingling bell ornament and says, “Look, Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” George looks at his daughter with that movie star grin and says, “That’s right. That’s right.” And with a look toward the heavens, he offers an exaggerated wink to the angel who has saved him from himself.
Sometimes in our lives, we experience a Wonderful that is perfectly explainable—the help of colleagues when we drop our work for family, the embrace of people who comfort us in our loss, the gathering of loved ones to say goodbye to a Wonderful Angel who has been here for too brief a time no matter when we’re forced to give her back to the Universe.
And sometimes we experience a Wonderful that defies explanation. A mother who has been unable to speak intelligibly for a year who can suddenly say “I love you” again the way she has hundreds of times when you have left her behind. A sunny November day when God defies the forecast with a blue sky, a gentle breeze, and radiant trees on a mountaintop to sing a Wonderful mother to heaven.
And a tinkling sound of bells in the stillness of a quiet Sunday.
It’s a Wonderful Life.
Tell me your stories of Wonder.