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A Day Full of Memory and Meaning

Christmas day 1991 in Paris dawns bright, crisp, and cold, with silver skies and gold leaves along the streets. My dachshund, Frieda, in her Christmas finery, trots along joyfully with me on our morning promenade.

Paris's usual morning bridge-mix of joggers, skateboarders, and strolling citizens of the world - all sentimental about this heart-shaped city - are also out in abundance. Not to mention the strong showing of new puppies, walking their masters, all thrilled to be alive and loved. Dogs have a special ranking in France.

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Holiday decorations hang from many windows, from building and bridges, from boats along the Seine. I hear music. I follow it to Square Jean XXII, which surrounds that looming architectural masterpiece and religious symbol for France, the cathedral called Notre Dame. Christmas brings guests and tourists and the faithful. The view is overwhelming. This Gothic triumph of the spirit draws all to it.

But I want some time alone to think about Christmas. So we turn left into a tiny park, which forms the end point of this old island that is shaped like a ship. I've been here before. The place is a memorial to memory and to love. Christmas morning is a good time to visit.

The carved words on the towering walls and the color of the roses in the garden tell you that you are at the Memorial of the Deportation, a silent shrine to the 200,000 French Jews deported from France during World War II. Yet, nothing here is depressing. Whoever designed the place found just the right voice for that which has no tone, no sound at all. Utterly silent and calming to the senses is this garden. Just beyond, down a long, outdoor staircase, however, another story awaits.

We follow a group of tourists descending the stone steps, which are cut like a narrow wedge to a small open plaza with the Seine swirling all about. We see an iron gate, a padlock, and 20-foot walls. The architect permits you to see nothing more. The lovely, free motion of the Seine is unreachable, untouchable.

We go inside, and there is an eternal light shining on a bronze floor medallion inside the small, cramped room. Ahead of you, there's another gate, another padlock, and a long, narrow chamber lit with tiny lights. Are there 200,000 of them?

In the ceiling, simple statements are carved in French to tell you where you are and what the purpose of this place is. The words of French artists, statesmen, and war leaders are carved on the walls.

Then I hear a voice and turn to see an old man. He speaks to a Nordic family of five - Danes, perhaps - and tells his story. For he was there. He is a living witness, speaking in halting English for their sakes, the young children leaning forward to hear him. The old man is gentle, white-haired, kindly. He touches the blond hair of one of the children lovingly. The memorial is never staffed, yet I sense that he feels he must come here often. To explain.

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And then it occurs to me. Today, he has chosen to talk of reconciliation and love, of memory and forgiveness. He has chosen to speak of these eternal themes on Christmas morning in Paris.

Frieda and I sit on a bench in the garden now. I think of him. He chose the birthday of an obscure Jewish prophet thought of then as a radical, born in a nondescript little village far from here, about the time of the earliest years of Paris itself. But Jesus of Nazareth, the baby born in a stable, bears the name all remember today. A name going on and on over the centuries, and honored by millions today.

We rise up and stroll. I see the glowing cathedral dedicated to Christ's memory directly ahead of me. I see the tour buses; I hear the cameras click. A strikingly large number of young people are walking into Notre Dame. Church bells ring. Music fills the church and pours out into the street. A man carefully turns his roasting chestnuts with a caterer's care. An old lady scatters bread crumbs from a plastic bag she brought with her to Notre Dame's park. Flocks of grateful pigeons, fluttering over and around her like a feathered halo of thanks, leap for them, dining alfresco before Notre Dame's entrance on Christmas morning.

Gratitude. I feel it sweep over me. Puppies, people, architecture, and music and remembrance. I use up all my fingers and toes counting my blessings, and still there is much to be grateful for. I must sit down again. I must think. Frieda claims the only space available on my lap, licking me, curling into a small arc, trustingly closing her eyes. In a moment, she is asleep.

I hold this precious symbol of love and loyalty close as the cathedral bells burst into a Christmas hymn. I listen. But my eyes rest on a rose garden in the Memorial. Roses, silent witnesses to a thing without words. Yet they too seem to sing a song of love and forgiveness at that magical moment, while bells sing a song of faith. I feel within me, and before my gaze, the triumph of the human spirit.

And then I remember the words of the Hebrew prophet Malachi: "Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?"

My grateful heart soars at the memory of the life of a solitary Nazarene. I silently sing a song for the people of this memorial. All of us, children of one Father. Well-remembered, one and all, on this Christmas morning in Paris.

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