Published December 24, 2023
Remembering a friend and the spirit of the season
This is our first Christmas without David, my wife Susan’s father. He died this past August at the age of 93. No one kept Christmas like Judge David Brind of Geneva, New York. He was the spirit of Christmas. No one loved Christmas more or, it seems to me, understood it better.
He was a character out of Dickens—especially around Christmastime. He had a good deal of Mr. Fezziwig in his nature: a sort of Fezziwig with gravitas. Fezziwig, you remember, was the merry and benevolent boss to whom Scrooge was apprenticed when he was young. “The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune,” the penitent Scrooge admitted after his dream-flight with the Spirit of Christmas Past.
A funny thing: in the twenty-first century, no one uses the old-fashioned word “merry” except around Christmastime, when for a few weeks it fills the air—uttered billions of times and then, on December 26, abruptly abandoned until the next December. When David said Merry Christmas, he meant it in the Dickens way. He had a hard-won and almost a religious belief in such merriment. It was a blessing and a sacrament—and, as it were, an act of will. It held back the dark. He loved A Christmas Carol. He watched the movie every year, especially the black and white 1951 Alastair Sim version, which purists consider definitive.
I dismissed the story of Scrooge as a seasonal cliché—an item of nineteenth-century kitsch. But David, a nineteenth-century sort of man, taught me to respect it —especially Dickens’s actual 1843 novella, the written version rather than one of the films. If you surrender yourself to that small book, you see that it has a sentimental perfection about it—and is suffused with the animating genius that is the mark of Dickens’s best work. A Christmas Carol reminds one of Dickens’s understanding of the human mind as, among other things, a haunted place: everyone’s life is inhabited by ghosts—by memories and their complex emotional and moral meanings, which may be benevolent or devastating.
Anyway, as each December came around, David returned to A Christmas Carol as scripture and life-text. It confirmed his instincts about the essence of Christmas: love and forgiveness. They were the path to all better things, to a kindly sort of freedom, one might say, a release into the realm of merriment, into the possibility of happiness. Without love and forgiveness, Christmas might become merely neurotic, with its grim negatives—greed, disappointment, depression, despair. Christmas might become, at best, a meaningless diversion—tinsel; at worst, a desolation.
The judge delighted in giving presents. He did it in a seigneurial way, with a touch of self-mockery. After the death of his wife Shirley (whose last years had been afflicted by dementia), he filled up her bedroom in their retirement home in upstate New York with a profusion of Christmas gifts for family and friends, the presents nestled in a jumble of shopping bags and wrapping paper and ribbons and Scotch tape. The great thing was the loving accumulation of them—and, at last, the ritual of handing out the presents and watching them being opened.
The first of the gifts swelling the pile would be items from the Dollar Store—ball point pens for me, olive oil and honey for Susan (such gifts being a satire of potlatch and amplitude). After that, there would be dozens of candles, because David loved formal dinner parties and he liked to imagine that Susan and I entertained guests four or five nights a week and therefore would need not only an abundance of candles but also beautiful crystal candlesticks and other fancy things that he bestowed upon us—Waterford crystal bowls and serving dishes and wine glasses with facets that sparkled in the candlelight and handsome crystal ice buckets and Wedgwood teacups. He’d been gathering these treasures for months, searching the Internet for bargains, turning Shirley’s bedroom into a pirate’s cave. His most extravagant gifts (to be opened last) would be labeled with a “P,” standing for piece de resistance (shortened, with a flourish, to pea-ess). As the recipient admired the gift, David would jokingly hype the present—and satirize Christmas commercialism and venality—by announcing, in an aside: “Big bucks!”
David had known a good deal of suffering. Two of his four children were killed in separate car accidents. Those blows brought him and Shirley very low. But he endured them and learned from them, and you saw the ultimate outcome in what I thought of as a profound sweetness of character—an emotional nobility, a benevolence—that came to him as the years passed. He was animated (that is the word) by forgiveness and love, the truths of the season as he understood it.
Those two great things induced their corollary, selflessness: the habit of looking beyond himself, of thinking of others, and making people, not himself, the object of his interest and concern and good wishes.
He was a lawyer and, for many years, the presiding city judge in the small city of Geneva, in the Finger Lakes region. I sat in his courtroom years ago and watched him preside in his black robe—a comprehending man, smart about people and their weaknesses. He could be hard on those who deserved it, but mostly what he encountered in his courtroom was folly, error, stupidity, unhappiness. His rulings from the bench were better than fair: they were sympathetic. He was naturally courteous.
Judge Brind did not gossip. He would not speak ill of others, no matter the provocation. He simply would not do it. If I gossiped or spoke ill of someone, he grew uncomfortable and looked away and changed the subject. I learned not to do it. I learned lessons like that from David. He was a good man.
I don’t want to make him sound like a saint. That would be silly. He had his faults, though they did not amount to much. Even his faults were generous—or downright funny. He exaggerated people’s merits and titles and importance, simply for the sake of making them feel good and puffing them up a little. He liked to give people good publicity, even if it was absurd. It amused him. He would have introduced me as the editor of the Wall Street Journal, or the senior senator from New York, if he could have gotten away with it. If I had been a captain in the Army, he would have introduced me as a major general. It meant that he wished me well. His mind operated in the optative mood. I ought to be a major general. In the family this was known as “the Brind stretch.” An enthusiast, he loved good food and would often push away from the table exclaiming, “Best steak I ever had!” or “best shrimp I ever had!” He and I often lunched at diners—we were always on the lookout for a good diner—and I became known as the expert on coleslaw. He would tell the waitress, confidentially: “This man knows more about coleslaw than anyone in the world.”
The diner lunches were a ritual of our friendship. David was a ceremonious man. His routines as the year proceeded had, for him, a liturgical regularity. In summer there would be muskie fishing at a slightly scruffy fishing camp on Elephant Lake in northern Ontario. I went along sometimes. The Brinds are superb fishermen, especially David’s second son Charlie. I am a mediocre fisherman but admire the skill as a mysterious gift; a fine fish on the line makes an electrical connection that is vaguely mystic, life to life. Charlie’s elder brother David had been a national champion bass fisherman—at 19, the youngest angler ever to qualify for the Bass Masters Classic. David’s trophy fish are mounted and hung on the walls of the family’s cottage on Seneca Lake. He was handsome, a golden boy. He died in that car crash, killed by a drunken driver, at the age of 20, in 1981.
I came to understand that there were meanings—emotional, spiritual—in David’s routines, even in the fishing, in the casting to weed beds for muskie and bass. In such ceremonies, there was remembrance. There was the residue of grief, I’m sure, though, in the passage of time, grief would be transformed into homage and then reverence and—who knows?—wisdom. Or simply love.
Susan and I almost always drove up to Geneva at Christmastime, or to Canandaigua nearby, after David and Shirley moved there in retirement. Not this year. Shirley and David are gone now, but the meanings are still there. His children (the two that survive, Susan and Charlie) and his two granddaughters and those of us who were his friends think about the meanings, and about the lovely man himself. So, through our memories, David’s idea of Christmas has an ongoing life.
Lance Morrow is the Henry Grunwald Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the moral and ethical dimensions of public events, including developments in regard to freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and political correctness on American campuses, with a view to the future consequences of such suppressions.