The gift

I remember what you wrote but I came to find the book anyway, to read the inscription again.

I hold it in my hands and think about you for a long, long time.

You were the baby who was always smiling, the cheeriest toddler, until I had to launder your blanket. Then you leaned your head against the washer and cried.

You were the little boy in preschool who sat beside classmates on the playground when others overlooked them, excluded them. From the start you noticed the outcast, offered comfort, pulled for the underdog.

You were:

The middle-schooler who won an essay contest for writing about the person you most admire, Pa-Pa. You listened to his stories of service in World War II over and over.

The winner of the Principal’s Leadership Award at the end of your senior year.

The college student who started teaching the men’s Sunday School class at church.

The young man who returned to high school, where your Leadership Award still hangs in the front office, to teach Social Studies. Remember how, when you were setting up your classroom, you cleaned out a cabinet and found your old history exams in that stack of papers?

The teacher who taught your students to dance the Charleston—and who taught your own brother in AP U.S. History (your Dad and I weren’t kidding when we said, “Don’t even THINK about calling us in for parent-teacher conferences”).

The soccer coach who built the program and took the team to the State playoffs for the first and only time. 

An inspiration to so many kids. Their parents still tell your father and me.

—I remember it all.

Teachers don’t make a lot of money; you took an extra job at night.

I remember the call. You’d been taken to the hospital. You’d been assaulted. Emergency surgery, jaw wired shut, liquid diet for six weeks. Having to carry wire cutters if you should vomit, or you’d suffocate.

How you chose to visit that young man in prison, forgave him, became his friend.

How you adopted a rescue dog, reached a crossroads in your life, came back home, quit teaching, enrolled in seminary.

Almost immediately followed by your meeting the loveliest young woman and her little girl.

I think about all these things as setting sunlight spills through the blinds onto this book in my hands, illuminating the words you wrote to me that Christmas, years ago:

It is the first book I read that made me want to change the world.

You may not think so, but you’ve been changing the world since the day you first entered it, baby boy. One word, one breath, one heartbeat at time.

I’m quite sure you always will.

Maybe we should have named you Atticus.  

No matter, for things have a way of working out as they’re meant to. I watch you with your new loved ones. I marvel at the gift of it all, the sheer poetry of life writing itself a day at a time, in the most curious of rhythms—like how pages of a book that stirred your heart long ago should come to us, living and breathing.

In a young mom who loves the same book.

And in a little girl named Scout, crawling into your lap for a story.

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.

The birthday

Birthday fairies

Birthday Party – Fairies Watch Over Us. Alicia ChenauxCC BY-SA

I recently wrote about a professional development activity at my school —”finding your why”— based on the work of Simon Sinek. The principal led staff in recording life moments that left us changed, somehow. These peaks and valleys don’t have as much to do with who we are and what we do, but why.

Here’s one of my childhood valleys, and how it shapes my why even now.

The setting is my birthday. I believe I was turning ten (double digits), or maybe it was twelve (the last birthday before becoming a teenager); it’s odd that I can’t remember, because I didn’t have many birthday parties. I don’t know exactly why my mother decided to throw this one, but it seems turning ten or twelve is right.

I just remember . . . well, here, see for yourself:

More and more people cram into our small living room. Extended family members, some kids from the neighborhood, a couple of friends from school and church. Mom has balloons up, has put out party hats and noisemakers. A stack of  presents in brightly-wrapped paper grows larger. I haven’t received this many presents for my birthday before. 

I don’t even know what to do with myself, what to say to everyone. What are they going to do besides eat cake and watch me open presents? Is this going to be any  fun for them? I grow more uncomfortable each minute. When the doorbell rings, I run to open it, to have something to do.

And there he stands.

I can’t believe it.

What are YOU doing here?” I shout. 

My party guests turn to see what’s going on.

He looks down at me with those glittering, snake-green eyes. He’s not smiling. “Your mother invited me.”

“MOM!” 

Oh, she’s right here beside me.

“Come on in,” she says to the meanest boy in the neighborhood. 

I can’t stand him.

He’s awful. 

He’s maybe thirteen, lives next door with his dad, and when I’ve been outside playing with my sister or other neighbor kids, he’s made fun of me, called me names. He threw my bike once, took a ball and wouldn’t give it back. He acts like he hates me and I’ve never done anything to him; I try not to get near him.

AND HERE HE IS AT MY PARTY.

AND SHE DIDN’T ASK ME.

 “Mom!” I suddenly quit caring that everyone else is watching. I stomp my foot.”Why’d you invite him? I don’t want him here! It’s not fair!”

The boy looks like he really doesn’t want to be here, either.

Go! Just go! I want to scream. My heart pounds hard.

My mother looks at me. A long, dark look, her brown eyes nearly black. Her face is tight.

He’s here because I want him to be. You. Will. Be. NICE.”

She ushers him into the crowd of guests, introduces him.

I am stunned.

I almost can’t enjoy the cake, the presents, or any of it, partly because of him, but mostly because of her.

She didn’t tell me, then, in front of our family and friends, that his mother had left his father, that he was having a hard time living with his dad.

I saw a hateful bully; she saw an angry, hurting boy. Who probably felt unwanted before this party.

I saw injustice; she saw a chance for grace. And redemption.

I saw myself; she saw another.

When I saw this boy again, he didn’t call me a name. He didn’t try to terrorize me. He greeted me, not in an especially friendly way, but at least with some decency.

He never mistreated me again.

I think of “Sleeping Beauty,” the only story I remember my mother reading to me when I was little. How the fairies came to bestow their gifts on the newborn Princess Aurora, how an uninvited evil fairy, angry, shows up to curse the baby to an early death, how the last fairy intervenes and lessens the curse.

My mother intervened to lessen the curse.

For him. For me.

This one tiny episode is among my life’s greatest in seeing the story behind injustice, a deep lesson in empathy, in forgiveness, in choosing to take the high road even when you’re hurt. That what’s fair is not always what’s right, and that what’s right isn’t always fair.

A valley that shapes my why, even now.

And maybe this memory calls me to write it for another reason. Maybe because, in real life, good people, like good fairies, go wrong sometimes, and it helps to remember them the way they were.

Before the greater valleys to come, before the brokenness.

That’s what this birthday party has become to me now—a fragment of the good, to keep.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms