Two oz. scotch (cheap stuff will do just fine). 1 oz. tawny port. A handful of namkeen. These were the key ingredients of my grandfather’s 3 a.m. ritual. And, to accompany them in the undisturbed quiet of the early morning, First Things.
There are worse ways to deal with insomnia.
Grandpa gained a taste for namkeen, a spicy snack, during his childhood as the son of missionaries in India, and could eat it by the handful. One crumb of it brings tears to my eyes, as does just the thought of the scotch-port concoction. But Grandpa introduced me to many other fine things, including Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry and C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy, for which I can share his enthusiasm.
I don’t remember his mentioning First Things to me. I stumbled across it during my freshman year, but it was a providential stumble, coming at a time when I needed the journal’s robust and confident assertion of the importance of religion in the public square.
It was only after his death that I learned of Grandpa’s love for First Things, and of his friendship with Richard John Neuhaus. The dignity and sacredness of human life, ecumenical dialogue, marriage—these shared passions had cemented their friendship. Like Fr. Neuhaus, Grandpa had lived a life of public witness. In his forties, he had the guts to attend Jimmy Lee Jackson’s funeral. In his eighties and nineties, he braved the cold and crowds to join the March for Life. And it was through Fr. Neuhaus that Grandpa met Archbishop O’Connor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and eventually even John Paul II. (In the August 1997 “Public Square” column, Fr. Neuhaus writes that “I have been glad to play a little part in brokering some meetings between members of the Bruderhof and Catholic prelates.” Grandpa played a not-so-little part in said brokering.)
Grandpa also planted trees. One of my favorite photographs depicts him on a hill, looking out over an avenue of brilliant autumn maples and a hillside, prickly with the windfall from chestnut trees, that only twenty-five years before had been empty and unshaded. He had planted and cared for the trees, not for himself, but for the generations that would follow. Likewise, his friendship with Fr. Neuhaus and his involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together helped to set the foundation for shared Christian witness. I doubt that Grandpa had me in mind when he subscribed to First Things in the early nineties (I was busy cutting my teeth on Richard Scarry and my older brothers), but he was supporting a resource that would shade and sustain me years later.
It is only by the grace of God, and through small, stubbornly repeated acts of faithfulness—watering saplings, writing letters, convening meetings, fixing apostrophes—that a such a legacy is created. I am happy not only to enjoy the fruits of Grandpa’s labor, but also to share in the labor itself, as a Junior Fellow at First Things. I don’t know whether they serve cheap scotch in heaven, but I’d like to imagine Grandpa and Fr. Neuhaus raising a celestial glass to the continuance of a shared project of lived public conviction.
Connor Grubaugh, Alexi Sargeant, and I have the apostrophe-fixing business cornered at the moment, but you can support First Things by helping us reach our fundraising goal of $500,000 by Saturday, December 31st. With your support, the magazine can continue its mission for generations to come.
Veery Huleatt is a Junior Fellow at First Things.