The pin

Every December I open the small cardboard box, remove the pin, and place it on my winter dress coat.

This is the fifteenth year.

The box is now timeworn but the little poinsettia still sparkles like it did the day I bought it. There it was, right by the checkout counter where I purchased black hose to wear to my grandmother’s funeral.

Not one poinsettia pin.

Three of them, just alike.

I bought them all.

I packed them for the journey to my grandparents’ hometown. The setting of so many idyllic childhood summers, so many holiday and birthday gatherings.

It happened to be her ninety-first birthday when the family gathered at the funeral home on that cold winter’s night.

She was born the day after Christmas. Used to chuckle about not having anything to look forward to the rest of the year, with her wedding anniversary, Christmas, and birthday all in December. But she loved the season more than anyone I’ve ever known. Sending and receiving cards. Baking. Cooking, cooking, cooking. Glass ornaments and colorful lights on the tree. Gifts in festive paper, old-fashioned hard candy in the candy dish. Collecting angel figurines and bells across the years. The aged, sepia-toned Nativity scene atop the piano. Going to church. Carols. Snowfall. Candles in the windowsills, shining in the night. Little children with wonderstruck expressions. She loved it all. She exuded holiday joy.

It was her season.

One of my favorite old photos was taken at Christmas when I was a baby: Granddaddy holds a new shotgun. Grandma holds a poinsettia. It’s their first Christmas as grandparents. Her face is radiant.

I would give her a poinsettia every Christmas in her later years. She would exclaim over each one: Oh, it’s just beautiful!

It had to be red, like her season. Like her name. Ruby. Deep red, precious. Bright as the cardinals that also enchanted her.

I knew she would leave at Christmastime. Seemed written in the stars.

And she did. The day before Christmas Eve.

The holiday was a blur. Arrangements were made. The visitation set for the twenty-sixth because there wasn’t time before Christmas Day.

I would speak at her service the following day. I would read Proverbs 31: Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies…

I would ask that her favorite Christmas song be played. Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…the first song she taught me how to play on her chord organ, when I was around four or five. Her hands guided my fingers along the keys.

I would find the tiny old church of my happy childhood summers laden with red poinsettias. Christmas remnants. I would recall someone giving her a silk poinsettia after she went into the nursing home, and how she lovingly watered it…dementia erasing pieces of the mind, of memory, leaving fragments intact.

I arrived early for the visitation. There was something I needed to do.

Three poinsettia pins, just alike.

I wore one on my coat. I gave one to her last living child, my aunt, who met me at the casket. And I leaned in to pin the third one on the lapel of her suit.

She would be buried with her last poinsettia.

Merry Christmas and happy birthday, Grandma. Sleep in heavenly peace.

December comes again, and again I wear my pin. She is near. In the songs, in the lights, in the color, in the spirit, in the story. As undiminished as brilliant cardinals against the wintertime world.

It is forever her season.

On waiting: Spiritual journey

All dressed for church
waiting for our ride
because Mama doesn’t drive
never got her license:
I get too nervous, she says—

so we wait while she watches
through the picture window
where I see our reflection: 
Mama, little sister, and me
against the empty street beyond

after a while she says
you might as well change
we have been forgotten

her voice is strange 
and when I look up
there are tears

sliding down her cheeks.

excerpt, “Picture Window.” Draft poem, F. Haley

On the first Thursday of each month, a group of us teacher-writer-blogger-believers post spiritual journey reflections. Today Chris Margocs hosts our gathering on her blog, Horizon 51. We are writing around the theme of “waiting, with a side of hope.”

Earlier this year I wrote those lines above, remembering the scene from long ago. My mother had asked another church member to please stop by and pick us up. We waited, and waited…until my mother understood the ride wasn’t coming. And cried.

I might have been six or seven. I wasn’t too upset about changing my clothes (likely a dress made by my mother) and not going to church. But I was sorry for my mother’s sadness. I couldn’t understand being forgotten.

My childhood pastor once preached on Isaiah 49:15: Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

I couldn’t understand that either, at the time: How can a mother forget her child? It seemed impossible, inconceivable…

Decades later, as a mother and grandmother myself, I decorate for Christmas with exceeding great joy because of the new baby in our family. As I plan and wrap and make preparations, humming along to holiday music, I can’t imagine ever forgetting my sons, my little granddaughters. I would cease to be me if I did. They’re such joys. Layer upon layer of richness and fullness on all of my days. But mothers can forget. They do forget. There are mental health issues. Addictions. Illnesses. Diseases. Destroyed relationships. A number of things can separate a child from a mother’s love and from her memory.

The Apostle Paul wrote: For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

How this links to God’s promise in Isaiah: I will not forget you.

Christmas is a reminder of exactly that.

We are not forgotten; we are not alone. The prophet Isaiah, again: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (7:14).The Gospel of Matthew repeats this prophecy as fulfillment in the first chapter detailing the genealogy and birth of Christ: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us (1:23).

Words that resonate. God with us. Every day, all the time. How long a wait it was—around eight centuries—from Isaiah’s prophecy to the coming of Christ.

A long, long wait…but we were not forgotten.

That church member from long ago apologized profusely to my mother for failing to pick us up that day. My mother, I presume, graciously forgave. Whenever the weather was nice, we walked to church, my mother, my little sister, and me. I couldn’t know then that my childhood pastor would ordain my future husband to the pastorate one day. I just walked along, hoping Mama would take us to Hardee’s for lunch afterward. The Looney Tunes glasses we collected from those after-church excursions remain in my cabinet to this day, much as memories rest on the shelves of my mind. They are a treasure. I do not want to forget.

My childhood pastor would eventually tell me that when the church’s bus ministry began, my mother was the first person to sign up. No more waiting for rides that might not show. God provided the vehicle to get us where we needed to go.

He always does. In the fullness of time.

Even now, I hear the distant chiming of those church bells of years long gone:

Savior, Savior
hear my humble cry
while on others Thou are calling
do not pass me by.

He hears. He is here. He remembers.

So do I, Mama.

one of my favorite Christmas cards

*******

with thanks to Chris and all my dear Spiritual Journey friends

a blessed Advent to all
the first candle lit on the Advent wreath this week symbolizes hope


Joy

Yesterday I noted this reflection on social media: “All I did in 2019 was survive it.”

Why did I think of the pool of Bethesda and the legend of the angel “troubling the waters“? Was it the sense of just enduring? The lack of hope?

The words stirred my soul on multiple levels.

I can relate to surviving. In 2019, my husband almost didn’t. There is no control in the valley of the shadow of death, only submission. Each long, dark day must be endured; my boys and I waited for the ray of hope.

And the healing came.

It was a year of survival, of change, of pain and loss, of life being altered. But then, joy: On the heels of his father’s recovery, our oldest married, went into the ministry, became a father. This Christmas, our family is bigger. This Christmas, we have so much more life to celebrate. This Christmas, inside the typical clamor, is a deep pocket of stillness. It is like the branches of our tree, frosted silver, catching the light, glimmering with tiny iridescent fire.

We survived, but more importantly, we live. We love. There’s always more love to give, another ray of light just ahead in the darkness, another healing after the troubling of the waters.

Life and hope renewed. Is that not the message of Christmas?

On that note . . . those of you who know this blog will know that 2019 was the first year we were “dogless” for a while.

That aching void is now filled.

I shall leave you with wishes for a holiday in your heart every day that you live and three pounds of sheer joy.

Merry Christmas, loves.

Welcome home, Dennis

So this is Christmas

My boy Cadillac Man and his Dennis nestled all snug in their bed

A different Nativity story

They loved decorating for Christmas, my in-laws.

My mother-in-law had bows and garland running all through the house. Candles in each windowsill and against the panes, wreaths hanging from long ribbon.

My father-in-law took care of the outside. He made a lot of what he displayed—a wooden Santa and sleigh, snowmen. Every year he added a bit more.

In the backyard, which is what people saw first as they entered the neighborhood, stood the Nativity scene. Large, colorful, lighted figures. My father-in-law made a wooden stable to shelter Joseph, Mary, and the Baby. He covered the roof with straw and rigged a star to stand over it.

One year, when my children were small, vandals climbed the backyard fence on Christmas Eve. They knocked the Nativity figures down, coated them with black spray paint, and stole the Baby Jesus. He was nowhere to be found when my distraught in-laws discovered the desecration on Christmas morning.

My father-in-law painstakingly removed all of the spray paint—I can see him in my mind, bending to his task, working gently to avoid doing further damage, until the figures were clean.

My mother-in-law, however, was afraid to display the scene again:

“Whoever did this came over the fence, awfully close to the house. I don’t want to invite them back.”

She asked her son, my pastor husband, if he wanted the Nativity. After all, he and I lived in the country, in a parsonage right beside our church. Seemed a fitting home for a Nativity scene—albeit one without a Baby Jesus.

So we took it.

And put it up in the parsonage yard the next Christmas.

Our youngest son, a preschooler, was fascinated by the scene. He’d put on his coat and go out into the yard to stare at it for as long as we’d let him.

One day, he asked: “Why doesn’t Baby Jesus light up?”

We’d supplied a little wooden manger and a doll in swaddling cloths (i.e., a tightly-wrapped blanket). We simply told our boy that someone had taken the Jesus that lit up; we didn’t know who had done it or why, so we had to use this one.

He accepted that. Furthermore, his fascination rested on Joseph anyway. For a year or two, he referred to the entire Nativity scene as “The Joseph.”

He loved it so much that once people at church heard about it, they began giving him all kinds of small Nativity scenes. He put every one of them up in his room. I told my husband: “It’s beginning to look like a Palestinian South of the Border in there.”

Our boy became interested in the Wise Men next. He identified them by their clothing: the Blue Wise Man, the Green Wise Man, and the Pink Wise Man. He learned that they carried gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of those, myrrh captured his imagination most. I think it was the sound of it.

A few times I caught him out in the yard with a blanket around him, kneeling at the manger.

When I asked what he was doing, he replied, solemnly, “I’m the fourth Wise Man.”

I crept away to a respectable distance, marveling at his devotion.

Wondering.

Many Christmases have come and gone. My in-laws are no longer here. “Ma-Ma” died at the end of November last year.

But my son, age twenty-one and a music minister now, still sets out that very same Nativity on the day after Thanksgiving. When the wind gusts enough to blow the figures down, he’s soon outside, standing them back up. The wooden stable fell apart long ago, but “Pa-Pa’s” star remains.

Oh, and we now have a Baby Jesus that lights up.

See, when our makeshift, non-lighted manger and doll got too weathered to use after a few seasons, our elementary-age son improvised with a stuffed dog that our real dogs had played with. It was dirty and torn. He placed right on the ground in front of Joseph and Mary.

I shuddered, thinking, Is it disrespectful to have such a thing depicting Jesus?

Then I realized . . . isn’t it actually more symbolic? To have a Jesus that’s torn, battered, and stained?

I used this as an analogy in a Sunday School lesson.

That Christmas Eve, church members who had a Nativity scene just like ours came in the night to leave their Baby Jesus in the back of my husband’s truck. On it was a note to our little son, wishing him a Merry Christmas.

And that is what Christmas is all about, is it not.

Redemption.

Pa-Pa removing the paint. The people sacrificially replacing what was taken long ago.

Restoring what seems to be hopelessly beyond repair.

My son pauses by the window. The old Nativity is still standing there in our yard, lighting up this dark Christmas Eve night, as I write. My son goes up the stairs to his room, where he’ll work on his music for a while longer.

And I hear the strains of song, faintly:

With the dawn of redeeming grace . . . .

The star

The first Christmas that we were married, my husband and I bought a star tree topper at a drugstore.

That was over thirty years ago.

The star was silver then.

Eventually I sprayed it gold so it would better match ornaments on the tree.

Every year I have to reinforce it with hot glue and duct tape. And every year I say it’s time for this old star to go.

But it still shines.

And I can’t find another tree topper I like better.

It’s older than our children. It’s presided over Christmas for their entire lives.

It’s outlasted the gingerbread ornament that my youngest made in preschool. The sweet ornament crumbled after a decade or so—ashes to ashes, dust to dust, gingerbread to cinnamon and cloves. Spice of life, formless and void, fragrant fragments in my hand when just the Christmas before, it was whole.

The star shone on when other lights went out, one by one. Lights in my life, not those of man-made strings on the tree. This star glowed above me as I decorated, year after passing year, listening to a particularly poignant version of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that pierced my soul. The haunting chords stirred an almost unbearable sense of loss. Of time, of people, of the inevitability of it all. For a moment, though, under that star, somewhere in the music, in the light, in the season, those who loved me were near again. Not visible, not tangible, yet present, perceptible. Very near.

It stands within its own circle, this star. I think of all that might symbolize. The circle of life. May the circle be unbroken. A wedding band, a halo, a covenant. Wholeness, holiness.

It is fragile.

It is old.

But the star hangs on. It still shines.

With Christmas grace.

Angel hair

Angel hair

Vintage 1960s Bradford Carillon Spire Tree Topper on eBay

We are decorating the tree.

It’s not a real tree. My mother opens the big cardboard box, pulls out the pole, sets it up. Then she takes the branch sections out. Spots of paint on the twisted metal branch ends match the spots of paint on the pole. There’s an orange row, a blue row, a red row, a yellow row, and then the top section, all in one piece.

The tree is together, whole. 

The string of lights has big colored bulbs. Red, green, yellow, blue. Most of the ornaments are Styrofoam balls covered in silky, hairlike strands. Red, white, blue, gold. They shimmer in the light. I am allowed to hang some of these on the tree.

The most beautiful thing of all is the tree topper.

It is not a star. It is a tall, pointed, gold thing. Three sparkling silver bells hang over a rounded part where gold bars make a swirly cage over a soft, bright, pinkish-coral ball of something.

“Can I hold it?” I ask. 

My mother places the topper in my hands. I can see the room, I can see us, reflected in miniature on the golden surface. The silver bells are frosty with glitter. I am entranced by the pinkish stuff. “What is this?” I ask, pointing.

Angel hair,” says Mama. “Don’t touch it—it will cut you.” 

She takes the strange, beautiful thing from my hands, then, standing on a chair, works it down over the tree top where it sits like a crown. 

I am thinking many thoughts. How can angel hair cut me? My own hair is so soft. It could never cut anything. Are angels so strong, so powerful, that their hair is somehow sharp? Why do angels have hair this color, like the sky at sunset? In every picture I’ve ever seen, their hair is blonde or white. Maybe even silver. I cannot picture hair this color on an angel, or what kind of face such an angel would have. I shiver. Angels are gentle and good, right? Don’t they protect children? A song is on the radio, something about falling on your knees, hearing angel voices . . . I am not scared, exactly. I am still. I am full of wondering. How did the angel lose the hair that is in our tree topper?

Then I think of another song.

Rock-a-bye baby

In the tree top

When the wind blows

The cradle will rock

When the bough breaks

The cradle will fall

And down will come baby

Cradle and all.

—Why would a cradle be in a tree top? Who would put a baby in a place that was so dangerous? Why wasn’t the baby protected?

So many whys. So many things to wonder about. 

My mother shows me how to toss little handfuls of icicles, long silver strings, on the edges of the branches so they’ll catch and hang there until the entire tree shines with make-believe ice and magic.

All the while, I keep looking up at the angel hair. 

Wondering.

* * * * * * *

If I could speak to my little self, if my voice from my vantage point now could reach across the vista of decades, I would say: There will be many angels in your life, with skin of many colors, real  hair of many colors, not spun glass, They will not cut you or harm you. They are the people who bring healing when others bring harm. They will bring comfort and joy that outweigh pain and loss. They will pull the scattered pieces together when things fall apart, so you will feel whole. Things will not always look  as expected; people who should protect make perilous choices, but there will always be better angels who step in when needed most. Always. 

Be strong. Believe. Be the better angel, whenever, wherever you can.

Merry Christmas, child that I was.

And Christmas grace to you, my reader in the here and now, to the child you were and to all of your angels.

Remember. Let the wonder live anew.