Living through 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Beyond what our family lost this year, there was so much we gained.

Christmas miracle: In the classic Frank Capra film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, center) and his family are overwhelmed by kindness after a rough patch.

In the Year of the Bailout, some of us found our inner George Bailey.

This year, as big corporations streamed to Washington for handouts, families like mine – with no groveling rights before Congress – struggled to scrape by. Many of us have spent the year trying to sell, trying to downsize, trying not to be bitter. And along the way, some have discovered the truth behind the clichés: there really are bright sides, silver linings, and second chances. Home is where the heart is. And as Clarence, the unlikely angel-in-training, tells George Bailey, "No man is a failure who has friends."

Remember "It's a Wonderful Life"? As a boy, George dreams of travel and adventure, but grows into manhood trapped by circumstances in Bedford Falls, where he makes the best of it by growing a family and running an S&L with soul. As played by Jimmy Stewart, Bailey epitomizes every man who's ever put the needs of others before his own – not presented as sainthood, but a conflicted reality.

Our family has watched this film together for so many years, I can't remember the first time I saw it. What I do know is that this year I lived it.

For many, 2008 marked the end of our American Dream of home ownership. Faced with houses worth less than we owed, we had to backtrack. No bailout for us, but plenty of lessons to be learned.

Looking back, it's easy to see how our optimism got us in trouble. For decades, real estate was considered a sure thing. Owning a home meant shelter and savings all in one. When my husband, Tripp, and I signed our first papers in 1985 – a miraculous $10,000 down for a home in California's Marin County – we were parents of four and over the moon with joy.

A few years later, we sold for a surprising profit and moved to a bigger house. Leverage, they call it – and we caught on fast – moving every few years to accommodate our growing family (eventually 12) and business, but also to maximize our investment. In some ways we lived modestly: Our most expensive car was a used 15-passenger van, we rarely took vacations, and I cut our sons' hair (saving us some $20,000). But in other ways, our life was extravagant as we tried to give back what had been so graciously given to us by adopting kids with special needs.

Still, the bottom line is that we didn't save for a rainy day. When we lost our home in July, we accepted the death of our dream and soldiered on.

We didn't know the worst was yet to come. Grabbing the silver lining of our reduced costs, we scheduled Tripp's overdue knee-replacement surgery, budgeting for a month's recovery. But a complication resulted in four more surgeries for him and intensive solo parenting for me. Had I really thought losing a house was the worst thing that could happen?

Like George Bailey, whose resigned acceptance of the death of his dream was followed by a disaster that spelled his final ruin, I felt my world turn dark and cold, my heart heavy, my outlook hopeless.

But while no angel such as Clarence materialized – I didn't jump off a bridge, after all – our family did experience the second Bailey miracle. In just the past few weeks, friends, acquaintances, and even complete strangers have rallied to help us in ways we can see and taste and hear and feel. Sixty-two years after George Bailey's Christmas bailout, I find myself, like him, astonished and humbled and changed. For beyond what our family lost this year, there was so much we gained.

The events of 2008 have tended to define "bailout" as the government raiding the public piggy bank to prop up bloated and beleaguered corporations. But we must not forget the truer, more beautiful form: the Bailey bailout, in which everyday people reach deep into not-so-deep pockets to help someone who thought he could do it on his own, someone who would never have thought to ask.

It's telling that Bailey's bailout comes at Christmas, when we remember God sending His son to be born – the beginning of the greatest bailout of all.

When it comes to life on earth, it also helps to remember that nothing will ever be perfect or sure – except for the fact that there is no cap on God's grace.

Barbara Curtis is the author of nine books and blogs at

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