The 4-year-old, the Sharpie, and the expensive table

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Old and new never become so nearly indistinguishable as they do when one parish calendar is slipped off its hook on the inside door of a kitchen cabinet, and another is put up in its place.

This is the time of year when many of us contemplate what we’ve done in the past and resolve to improve in the future. While we are so focused on what is behind us and what lies ahead, we often miss the impact of what is our here and now.

When my wife and I moved into an actual house with a real dining room — as opposed to cramped apartments with a small table in the kitchen or plastic milk crates covered by a plastic table cloth in a corner of the living room — we bought a beautiful, solid oak dining room set. You could practically see your reflection in the sheen of the table top. The table legs were ornate. The chairs had long backs with elaborate, swan-like designs and seats of soft, tastefully patterned upholstery. It was a beautiful piece of furniture.

Along with a nice piece of furniture comes the stress of keeping a piece of furniture just that — nice. In an attempt to maintain the pristine quality of the table, my wife and I made sure that the seats were covered whenever the children would sit in them to keep the fabric free of stains, and we policed each other not to lay random items lazily on the table when we’d come in from a long, tiring day.

Fast forward a few years. I am wandering through the dining room when I see my then-4-year-old daughter, Hannah, under the table unsuccessfully hiding a Sharpie marker behind her back. Curious, I peek underneath to see what she’s been up to. The underside of the table was a series of large and small capital Hs. H after H after H after H! Big Hs, little Hs, Hs that barely resembled Hs! 

Of course I yelled. That was our table, one of the first real pieces of furniture we ever invested in. I yelled so loud that it frightened my daughter, and she burst into tears.

Fast forward again. Once child number five came along, the formerly beautiful table was now indented from homework, chipped from a collision with a new bike one Christmas morning, stained on the seat fabric from anywhere a kid sat. In short, it was time for a new table.

I remember the morning when I started disassembling the table. I turned it over to unbolt the legs — and there they were: All of those Hs. I had forgotten all about them. I thought about my reaction that day. It was almost as if the table was more important to me than my daughter’s sense of security, her sense of trust in her father. Instead of anger, though, my heart swelled. I stopped working for a moment and sat on the dining room floor, just staring at those Hs. Those Hs not only made an indelible mark on the table, but they had left an indelible mark on my heart. 

I’m reminded of this because it’s that time of year when we contemplate the things we’ve done in the past and resolve to improve in the future. I remember my reaction to those Hs. Had that loud, angry reaction made an indelible mark on my daughter? 

I’m reminded of this because it’s that time of year when contemplation and resolution often bring about renewal. Whenever I think of a time of renewal, I think about baptism. 

Sometimes we are forever changed through an action even though an outward appearance doesn’t change at all.  Think about graduations: one moment you’re not a graduate, and the next moment, you are. And once you are, you are forever, indelibly, changed.

Baptism leaves an indelible mark not just on our mortal lives, but on our eternal soul. Baptism seals us with the indelible spiritual mark of belonging to Christ. And there is no sin that can erase this mark.

As my children have made an indelible mark on me, God has made an indelible mark on them in baptism.

As I sat there, I wondered at what point did the past and future condition of the table become less important to me than being in the moment with my children. Sure, it was an expensive table, but it wasn’t meant for the everyday. It was the kind of table that belonged in a dining room used only for holiday meals. Ours was used for breakfast, lunch, dinner, homework, family meetings, paying bills, doing taxes. I realized it was the wrong piece in the right place because of that indelible mark.

From then on, whenever I spotted a scribble of crayon or marker on the wall, on the floor, on even under a table, it was always a reminder of God’s grace given to my children, and me, in baptism.

Dean P. Johnson teaches in Camden and is a member of Mary Mother of Mercy Parish, Glassboro.