My Thanksgiving song

Thanksgiving Day, 1987.

My boyish husband and I have come to eat with my parents. There’s a lot on my mind as I carry dishes from the kitchen to the dining room table. My father’s voice drifts from the adjoining living room, mingling with the Macy’s parade-babble on TV. He’s conversing with my husband, who’s planning to enter the ministry. Beyond the old lace drapes of the picture window where I sat so often as a child, the November day is like a sepia print. Browns of dead grass and leaves, oyster sky, skeletal trees bathed in pale, unassuming sunlight.

Then…another voice.

Singing.

Coming from the television.

I turn to face it, spellbound. I cannot move. I stand stone-still, between portals, as everything else fades away…there’s only that voice. Almost too pure to bear. It wrenches something inside of me, twists and pierces so that tears spring to my eyes… a man singing “God on high, hear my prayer, in my need, you have always been there…”

He sings of protection for a young man in troubled times, afraid, resting nearby. Of summers dying, one by one. He is willing to die for the young man— “he is only a boy”— if God will let him live and “bring him home.”

I stand, tears flowing, aching to the core of my soul, not wanting it to stop, knowing that I am somehow irrevocably changed.

******

The singer was Colm Wilkinson, portraying Jean Valjean from the Broadway musical Les Misérables. The song “Bring Him Home” is a prayer for young Marius, who’s fallen in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. Valjean watches over the sleeping Marius at a barricade during the June Rebellion, or the 1830 Paris Uprising. Broad view: On top of harsh economic times, crop failures, and food shortages, a cholera epidemic killed over 100,000 across France. The poor, especially in the city of Paris, were devastated; they blamed the government and retaliated.

I learned much later that the song was especially written for Wilkinson’s tenor voice—a profound marriage of artistry. And revision. Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer struggled with the English translation. He completed it seventeen days before the show opened. Upon hearing its first rehearsal, the cast was blown away. One member, playing the Bishop, said:“You told us at the beginning that you couldn’t keep God out of the show. But you didn’t say you’d booked God to sing this song.”

My husband eventually took me to see (to hear?) Les Misérables on Broadway. My awe has never diminished; so many songs are hauntingly beautiful, meant to pull on the soul with deep themes of loss, love, faith, sacrifice, death…and, above all, redemption.

I’ve been thinking of Thanksgiving in the time of COVID, how life and gatherings— and parades—are changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We are not allowed to sing at school, for fear of spreading the virus.

But some things never change. We never really know what is to come in a day, a week, a year…or the next moment.

Like Valjean, I grow older, with my heart turned toward the next generation in prayer for preservation. For their peace and joy. My own boys, now grown… the firstborn followed his father into the pastorate. The youngest is a worship leader. A musician and singer. Yes, how soon the summers fly, on and on…the boys weren’t even born yet on that long-ago Thanksgiving when I stood before the TV screen in my childhood home, transfixed by a cloaked Irish tenor in the streets of New York City, as snow began to fly…

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there

It remains my Thanksgiving song, every day.

Always.

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there
He is young, he’s afraid
Let him rest, heaven-blessed
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son
The summers die, one by one
How soon they fly, on and on
And I am old and will be gone

Bring him peace, bring him joy
He is young, he is only a boy
You can take, you can give
Let him be, let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

Songwriters: Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg/Herbert Kretzmer

16 thoughts on “My Thanksgiving song

  1. The power of this song and its position in your history lives in this writing. This beautiful story of memory and reflection, a moment of the particular that grows to a larger universal understanding is moving and precisely rendered. Thank you for this celebration of remembering.

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  2. Fran, you touched my heart today with your memory of time gone by. I truly love Les Mis, saw it on Broadway and viewed the TV version. It is one of my families favorite shows but I never saw this actor singing this version of a deeply moving song. Thank you for sharing the lyrics and I see how potent these words are for the Thanksgiving holiday. May you and yours receive blessings and the hope we all look for these days.

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    • I think what affects me so with this song – and several of the others in Les Mis, certainly the finale – is that humans have the ability to create something so stunningly beautiful. Awe, longing for the divine, and the gift of being alive are all wrapped in it. Thanksgiving blessings to you and yours also, Carol.

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  3. Les Miserables was one of my favorite shows of all time. I listened to both CDs in the car constantly in the late 1980s/early 1990s. As an adult, the songs have different meanings. They are more than just show tunes to sing along to, as you so eloquently pointed out by sharing “Bring Him Home.”

    Wishing you and your family a happy, safe, and meaningful Thanksgiving.

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  4. Les Miserables is one musical that I’ve yet to see/hear. But I will check out this song because when a song has an impact on someone it’s definitely worth listening to. In my opinion, finding out a song that makes someone react the way you did gives me more insight to you.

    “We never really know what is to come in a day, a week, a year…or the next moment.” A very true statement. As I read this other songs from musicals began floating around in my head. From “Seasons of Love” to “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” to “Let the Sunshine In.”

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    • I feel certain you’ll love the musical, Anna Maria. I hope you can see a stage version sometime; the 2012 movie is ok but, in my opinion, doesn’t compare. The Broadway soundtrack – glorious. Would love to know your thoughts when you hear the music. I am fascinated by those songs that came to mind while you read the post! The ongoing soundtrack of our lives… Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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  5. I’m not familiar with Les Miserables, but this song is beautiful. And your post reminds me of the power of music to bring forth memories. I loved reading about your memory of that long-ago Thanksgiving and the music and threads that connect it to this year. I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time–it feels especially strange this year. I visited my daughters in February, and in some ways, that seems like a lifetime ago.

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