Hope and a ham

How a bet on a horse opened a world of change
April 23, 2009

Editor's note: With this column, Anne McConney retires from writing for Episcopal Life. We thank her for her wisdom and dedication.

Back in the days before I was born, my family went through some bad times. They weren't alone, of course. The Great Depression of the '30s was raging over the land, and the entire country was mired in economic disaster.

My father and mother and an extended family of parents, brothers and sisters all were caught in a battle, not for success, but for survival. It was during those days, at the end of a long and hard winter, that my father did two things that created a family legend.

In the spring of that year – I like to think that perhaps it was one of those bright and brittle noondays that shine like glass – my father walked down a street with two quarters in his pocket.

Fifty cents could buy you a lot more in those days, but it was not much when you had a household to feed. My father was a man who worried about his responsibilities.

I'm sure he worried on that day, perhaps fingering the two coins in his pocket, perhaps baffled at which way to turn. I don't know
what he thought, but only what he did. Whether in despair or fatalism or trust, acting on impulse or inspiration or mere insanity, my father went into one of the then-ubiquitous bookie joints and bet the 50 cents on a horse.

The horse won. My father bought a ham, and the family feasted on Easter.

The story of my father, the horse and the ham was part of the lore of my childhood, but when I look back on it now, as an adult, I'm not sure whether I'm more amazed by the bet or by the ham.

After all, even the most straightlaced and owlish old prophet may understand the logic of tossing all you have into the lap of fate or luck or providence, or the cogency of hoping that, in an uncertain and often dangerous universe, chance or miracle will fall on our side – as it does more often than we know.

There is wisdom, I think, in recognizing that the ultimate choice for all of us is the choice between hope and despair, and choosing hope even when all we can find to hope in is the strong legs of a horse. Such choices even have their own saint – Jude, patron of impossibilities.

Jude is the saint of the dreamers and the beleaguered, patron of all those who struggle and lose and rise up and go on again. Love may be greater than hope, as St. Paul says, but it is hope that, in the arsenals of the heart, gives us the will to love.

No, it is the ham that is the amazing part of the story. Fate or luck or providence smiled on my father and handed him five dollars in exchange for two quarters and a dollop of firefly courage.

Five dollars was wealth. Five dollars was a possibility. Five dollars would have bought enough potatoes and eggs and beans to feed the family for a long time. My father came home proudly bearing a ham.

And that, I think, is the second nugget of wisdom in this story.

Good fortune, whether it comes by miracle or by chance – however you care to interpret it – is a gift, and all gifts ultimately come from God. All gifts are to be celebrated the best way we can, with joy and gratitude, laughter and warmth, because the greatest gift of all is life itself.

And what, you ask, if the horse had lost? What if my father had lost his two quarters and gone home with empty pockets and empty hands?

Then the story would have been about a man who lost 50 cents but never lost hope, about a family that shared only scrambled eggs on Easter and loved each other and about a wise God who gives us a world of chance and change and one shining certainty.