A note from the Editor: The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent focuses on Joseph’s role in the Christmas story. In Joseph, God gives us a model of faith, obedience, and service through sacrifice. I often think about my father when I read and reflect upon Saint Joseph, so it is timely to share a piece my sister wrote about our Dad. I am very proud to share Sarah Underhill’s touching story during this Fourth week of Advent. — Lisa
I recently attended Mary Poppins the Musical at the Des Moines Civic Center with my sister, Lisa. Mary Poppins, like many other musicals, holds special childhood memories for us, so I was delighted to attend with her.
As the story is told, Mary Poppins, who is “practically perfect in every way,” appears out of the sky to nanny two misbehaving children, Jane and Michael Banks. This stern, yet gentle-at-times mystery nanny, uses surprises like her bottom-less carpetbag, a spoonful of sugar, and silly words like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious to captivate the children. As the story goes, it becomes evident that all Jane and Michael desperately want is the love and attention of their father, a banker in London too busy to even fly a kite with his children. Not only is Mary Poppins there to teach the children about life, her presence also helps Mr. Banks become a kinder, gentler father.
There is a scene in Mary Poppins that ties me to memories of my late father, Lenny, who was killed in an accident September 2009. It’s a scene I used to fast-forward through because it bored me. Do you remember the scene with the old lady and the birds? It’s where Mary sings a lullaby to Jane and Michael about an elderly poor woman standing outside St. Paul’s Cathedral begging for tuppence so she can feed the birds – a parable used to teach the children about charity. My dad loved that song, so much that when he and his nephew Jay were together, they would kid around and recite the words from that scene in their poor British accents: “Tuppence … tuppence for the birds” and then smile and giggle together afterward. Like most of Dad’s jokes, it was corny, but always made me smile.
I couldn’t help but think of Dad as I walked into the theater that night, hoping I’d hear “Feed the Birds.” Sure enough, I opened up the playbill, saw it listed, and anxiously awaited the song. When the number played, I was taken surprise by the heavy religious undertones in the song. Here are some of the lyrics:
Early each day to the steps of Saint Paul’s
The little old bird woman comes.
In her own special way to the people she calls,
Come, buy my bags full of crumbs.
Come feed the little birds, show them you care
And you’ll be glad if you do.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare;
All it takes is tuppence from you.
All around the cathedral the saints and apostles
Look down as she sells her wares.
Although you can’t see it, you know they are smiling
Each time someone shows that he cares.
Though her words are simple and few,
Listen, listen, she’s calling to you:
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.
While on earth, Dad truly was the Lord’s Servant, providing and caring for those who needed it the most. He would give you the shirt off his back, even if he wasn’t wearing one. That was Lenny Underhill. He understood what it metaphorically meant to provide tuppence for the birds, and is why he took the stranger to the Maid-Rite restaurant for lunch, served the homeless at the soup kitchen, and clocked in countless volunteer hours of service to his church parish and community.
The bird woman in the cathedral square didn’t seem to have much. All we really know is what we see, and that’s a smile on her face as she so graciously hands the crumbs to these birds.
Come, feed the birds, show them you care. And you’ll be glad if you do.
Some may have thought my father to be a simple man…perhaps similar to the old bird woman in Mary Poppins. And like her example, Dad lived out what St. Francis prayed, “For it is in giving that we receive.” It warms my heart when people share memories of my dad, and I often hear it said how much they loved Dad’s smile. When he smiled, he did so with his whole face and eyes. I can’t help but think that as Dad showed people he cared, the Saints and Apostles were also smiling down on him.
For the first time that night, I heard the words of the song and was moved to tears. Perhaps I would have caught on years before had I not fast-forwarded through it. Perhaps this was God giving me a special grace when I needed it the most. That’s the great thing about grace – it can happen at any time: driving to work, watching children laugh, helping a loved one in need, or attending a favorite childhood musical. The key to grace is recognizing these moments as a gift from God. I know that my father in heaven is smiling and saying, still in that awful British accent, “Tuppence … tuppence for the birds.”