Grounded Angels

Angels are today's media darlings. While Tess and Monica sprinkle gold on CBS ratings via "Touched by an Angel" and "Promised Land," winged actors fly into our hearts at the movies.

But I owe my first run-in with angels to the United States Air Force. The incident convinced me that the best angels are you and me--at our very best.

Growing up, I led the life of an Air Force kid . . . the oldest daughter of an officer. My well-intentioned but disapproving grandparents often lamented, "The nomadic lifestyle of a military family--where will it lead?"

In 1953 it led to my sighting of two angels--complete with halos--in Miami, Florida. My father was assigned to the Air Defense Filter Center. While he was tracking unidentified aircraft off the Florida coastline, I was learning a dramatic lesson in religious tolerance that would become my touchstone for sensitivity to diversity. My father's sightings had wings; mine were grounded.

By the time we were stationed in Florida, I was ten years old and had lived in six Southern states. I was already a veteran in the adventures of diversity--but not religious diversity. My family was Irish Catholic, and I'd always attended Catholic schools wherever we'd lived.

Because I knew about halos, I assumed everyone else did, too. Halos symbolized goodness, a closeness to God. Jesus and the saints had halos. And for angels, halos were regulation attire.

In Miami, all our neighbors were Jewish. Frankly, I didn't think much about it. After my mother explained head coverings and Kosher diets, I continued about my business of being a ten-year-old. All the kids on our block played together, and our parents became friends.

Two factors were catalysts for the halo incident: Rose Goldberg's lack of experience with Christian deity, and the fact that my mother's business was beauty.

Right from the start, my mother and Rose seemed destined to become close. Rose was a full-figured woman with curly dark hair. Outgoing and witty, she delighted my mother, who missed the friendly bedlam of our Irish relatives. And Rose looked to Mom as a resource for physical transformation. My slender, blond mother, Jean, had always been in the beauty business: she'd won the title of America's Sweetest Girl for her girl-next-door looks when she was eighteen years old, and she'd later worked for a cosmetics company. In Miami, she modeled fashions for New York buyers who escaped to Florida each winter. All our neighbors consulted with Mom about hair color and beauty tips: Rose was no exception.

The halos appeared the first time Rose was a guest in our home. My mother had been Rose's guest for coffee several times, so on this day, Rose came to our house. Because we lived in the popular tract homes of the 1950s, all of the houses for many blocks were identical. It was up to each family to creatively turn its house into a home. As a result, the most thoughtful guest noticed and commented on the decor of the dwelling.

When Rose entered our living room and complemented my mother on the beauty of the drapes and furniture, Mom glowed with appreciation. Then Rose's eyes rested on the picture of the Child Jesus hanging on our living room wall in a gold frame. This reproduction, "The Light of the World," was realistic enough to be a photograph. It portrayed Jesus as a blond toddler against a dark brown background. A radiant golden halo encircled his head.

"Oh, Jean, " Rose exclaimed. "You were beautiful even as a child . . . modeling at such a young age. You haven't changed a bit. Same delicate features. How clever of the photographer to use the circle of background lighting to accentuate your blond curls."

I caught my mother's eye, looking for guidance. I wanted to burst out laughing, but Mom's expression stopped me. Standing behind Rose, her eyes widened as she brought her index finger up to her lips, cautioning me to be still. Quickly, she said, "Why, thank you, Rose. But of course, I've had to bleach my hair to keep up that blond color. Let's sit at the dining-room table. The coffee's ready."

Rose's feelings were spared. In that sensitive moment, I knew that Rose and Mom would be good friends. I sat at the table with them, drinking a Coke, happy that they were too busy chatting to notice I was squinting. You see, I discovered that if I closed my eyes just a little bit while looking at my mother, I actually could see a halo. And when I squinted across the table at Rose, she was wearing one, too.

My Air Force travels are now far behind me. I lead a civilian life, happily grounded in Minnesota. But I've been watching for angels, and finding them ever since that Miami sighting; once you know they exist, they appear. I'm not disillusioned when they act human. It's their nature, after all. But when people transcend themselves in angelic ways, I'm still dazzled. I'm sure Tess and Monica would agree.

Pamela Wilson is a St. Paul writer who is currently completing a book about growing up in a military family, and celebrating the birth of her first grandchild. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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