It is Christmas day, circa 1975, late morning, perhaps early afternoon. Wrapping paper litters the living room floor, we three boys–Eric, Chris, and I–are putting our new gadgets and games to the test. Mom is performing her magic in the kitchen. Dad is doing whatever it is he does post-Christmas blizzard. One thing he does do: he turns up the radio when the broadcast of The Littlest Angel comes on WHCU. I put my playing on hold and sit in the tall-backed armchair to hear the story one more time.
The narrative doesn’t explain how a nameless four-and-a-half-year-old came to be in heaven, just that he is “a most miserable, thoroughly unhappy, and utterly dejected cherub.” And he is wreaking havoc on the heavenly peace: singing off key, knocking the other angels’ wings askew, allowing his halo to tarnish and slip off his head.
My father gave his first grandchild, my daughter, a picture book version of The Littlest Angel for her second Christmas, inscribing on the inside the cover: “my favorite Christmas story.” Why? What about it spoke to him so? I like to think it was the Littlest Angel’s free spirit. Tony Speno was by nature kind and considerate, yet I believe he had a soft spot in his heart for the good-hearted imps of the world. (I think of the sparkle in his voice as he read to Chris and me from Peck’s Bad Boy…but that is another story.) Tony seemed to admire the uninhibited spirit of children, as if he discerned the divine most clearly in God’s youngest and humblest creatures. In short, he loved the story of The Littlest Angel as a pediatrician–and as a father.
So many people loved Tony and looked up to him. They may have admired his humility most of all. Yet Tony was more than humble: he had a tendency to sell himself short. The father I knew was often painfully aware of his own faults. Flawed characters and underdogs appealed to him, including, of course, the Littlest Angel.
Midway through the story, the “Understanding Angel”–for me at the time and even still, a stand-in for my father–kindly takes the Littlest Angel aside and listens to his troubles. He empathizes, then offers to grant him a wish. The Littlest Angel requests the box of treasures hidden beneath his bed at home which contains a butterfly’s wing, a bird’s egg, two white stones, and his dead dog’s worn collar: mementos of earth that will make the perfection of heaven all the more bearable.
We at 605 the Parkway knew my father as a dreamer, a romantic, an idealist. “Your head is in the clouds,” we would tell him. But my dad’s appreciation for the The Littlest Angel reminds us of his ultimate earthiness. Tony Speno loved life. He loved the things of this world: fresh powder on a Rocky Mountain ski slope, a glass of tinto shared with a sympathetic stranger in a Basque bodega, the graceful stance of an egret in a Kiawah Island lagoon, a home-cooked dinner around the dining room table with Sandy, his children and grandchildren.
In his last years and months, my father was shrinking in stature. Even still, he would never qualify as God’s “littlest angel.” On the other hand–and I think you will agree–he has probably already established himself as being among heaven’s humblest–and gentlest–new angels.