Blue-Eyed Baby Jesus

December 18, 2014

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One of our family’s annual Christmas traditions is setting up my mother’s handmade ceramic nativity. Actually, I’m the only one that sets it up. My kids watch because I won’t let them touch it.

Welcome to my merry madness.

The reason they can’t touch it is because this nativity is special. It represents one of the only happy memories I have of my mother—let’s just say she was on the naughty list. Because of her personal demons, there weren’t many moments of ‘heavenly peace’ in my home but this was one of them. And every Christmas, my children watch me become as neurotic as my mother as I carefully resurrect this childhood relic from its cardboard vault and meticulously unwrap each piece, careful not to break the fragile memory of my mother.

When I was six years old, my mom made this nativity out of chalky lumps of clay. She cast, fired and hand-painted each piece to her idea of perfection. It was a painstakingly slow process. Each figurine sat upon its own pedestal, receiving my mother’s undivided attention. Regularly, she sponge-bathed the little nativity people, keeping them in pristine condition as she painted. She filed and smoothed their rough edges and at the end of every day, she inspected each piece with her careful artistic eye. She gave special attention to the newborn babe and I wondered what my life would look like had she given as much care to me.

I was jealous of baby Jesus.

It may seem cruel to write about one’s mother this way (mine has passed) but I have writer friends with entire novels waiting to be written about their mothers. Let’s admit it. Mothers are lightening rods of emotion, even if you have a good one. And my mother was the equivalent of standing barefooted in a puddle during a thunderstorm while holding a 20-foot metal pole.

This nativity was the one “holy night” of my childhood and my candy-covered kids aren’t about to touch it. As a child, I was allowed to watch but not participate in my mother’s nativity creation. And now my children do the same; they look on while I unpack Jesus and the gang along with a lifetime of hurt. We drink hot cocoa with peppermint sticks as the scene unfolds.

I pour Schnapps in mine.

My mother was an artist. Her “studio” looked like a Category 5 hurricane had blown through it, and it had. By my account, she was the storm of the century. Tables were buried under hundreds of tubes and half-empty bottles of paint—some had caps, most did not. Pools of dried paint covered the surfaces and floor leaving a road map of past projects. One puddle was from her ceramic elephant phase. The green stain was a three-foot leprechaun. One year everyone got metallic-gold praying hands for their birthday. I had to dig mine out of the back of a closet whenever she came to visit. One Christmas my mother made adorable little Santa boots filled with chocolate treats for my third-grade class. To my horror, she walked into my classroom carrying them in an empty Miller Lite cardboard case, half of which she must have drunk before arriving. She smelled like the Santa at my dad’s office party.

She had a kiln that sat in a dusty, dark corner of our garage. It looked part lunar module, part nuclear reactor. I stood on a footstool looking down into its belly wondering what would happen if I fell in. Would she even notice? What if I was one of her precious projects? Would she put me on a pedestal and gently tend to me like she did baby Jesus?

Every project required new materials; the tips of used brushes lay ruined from the dried paint of her last piece. Dried-out sponges, pencils with broken leads, half-empty glasses of gray water and her sanity were strewn all over the room. Along with her creative flare came a burning inferno of crazy. But while she painted, she was as calm as that storied silent night. She summoned beauty out of those lumps of clay. It was the only time she seemed extraordinary for something other than her madness.

I remember watching this nativity come to life before my eyes. The most vivid memory is that of my mother bedazzling the magi with faux gems and silver beads. I wondered if they were real jewels. No, of course not. She would be wearing them if they were (my mother had a gift for gaudiness). Once she had several smaller pieces of tacky jewelry melted down into one giant piece of tacky jewelry that she proudly wore on her middle finger. It gave her bird-flipping a certain pizazz. I watched with amazement as she glued each bead to the magi’s crown. I leaned in for a closer look and to my complete surprise, she asked me if I would like to help. It was the first time I’d been invited into her creative world. “Just one tiny little drop,” she whispered as if not to wake the sleeping baby Jesus. She demonstrating the technique with a toothpick dipped in glue. She allowed me to do the rest. I carefully placed each bead in just the right spot. “Like this, Mama?” I asked, hopeful to have done it properly. “Yes, that’s right, honey.” And it was for a moment.

I continue to unpack the box, trying not to get distracted by the wrapping-paper newsprint from 2004—the year both my mother and father died. I inspect the magi and his gift, admiring the beads I glued on, still there after 38 years. Every season a few of the nativity characters take a hit. How? I do not know. It sits unmoved in a box in a bin in a closet. And this year was no exception—the shepherd lost his staff and the lamb, a hoof. Most of the pieces have been broken over the years. However, nothing is beyond repair.

If only hearts were that easy to mend.

Every year as I set up the nativity scene, I have the same dialogue in my head. My mother had her own lens on life as most artists’ do. My mother saw Mary as a bleach-blonde bimbo. “Good grief, look at this,” I scoff. “What was she thinking? Didn’t she know these people were Jewish?” Mary has black eyeliner, blue eye shadow and cat eyes. She looks like a tart. Yet I handle her with great care.

Next are the magi, two of which are divas. One looks like a pimp and the other, a drag queen donned in hot pink, a feather boa and a diamond-studded headdress. The tallest, most majestic of the three magi looks like King Jesus, which I really love but never noticed as a child. I wonder if she did this on purpose. It’s one of those discoveries you make later in life that forces you to rethink what you thought you knew. There are sleepy shepherds, an angel, camels, an ox (minus one horn—that damn box) and wanderers–what appears to be the little drummer boy and a clarinet player from a bluegrass band although he could be Little Boy Blue. Most interesting of all is baby Jesus. He is blonde and blue-eyed like Mary (which makes sense), looks nothing like Joseph (which also makes sense) and is laying on a bed of hay with his arms spread wide, just like he would do one day on the cross. Standing over him is the magi, “King Jesus,” robed in royal red, diadems and fur. For a second, I see what she sees.

The nativity is beautiful, weird and complete.

I stand back and admire her creation. I love that it’s so “her”—flashy, colorful and strange. My kids stare at it with both wonder and confusion, like I do. Yes, this is in part who we are. Unbelievably, despite her chaos in my life, all is calm and all is bright. I’ve learned to let my kids help me set up the nativity scene in recent years. I even let my youngest play with baby Jesus until I found him in the bottom of her fish bowl. She said she wanted to see if he walked on water. Fair enough.

I guess what’s great about this nativity, besides the fact that it gives me one good memory of my mom, is that it connects me to something bigger. Not just the story of my past or my family, but it’s the story of all our pasts, all our families, the story of a real baby broken to save us from our own brokenness. This strange cast of characters–the wanderers, the divas and unwed mothers–could be members of any family.  The boas, feathers, and fur are what make it look like mine.

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6 Responses to “Blue-Eyed Baby Jesus”

  1. Anthony Boyd said

    Sooo Good, Michelle! Tracy and I laughed and learned from this. Thanks for your words of encouragment. It is hilarious,horrific and heavenly all at the same time!

  2. ginnyharry said

    Brilliant, poignant, real. Thank you!!

  3. Varina R. Hart said

    Laughed, cried, and learned through your words and insight. You have a gift with writing the realness of life.

  4. Dr. Sheila Hardee said

    Such a poignant piece. How I remember coming home to see “The Nativity” proudly displayed in our front bay window. I laughed and cried at the memories surrounding our crazy mom’s creation. By the way, I have “the ring”. 😅

  5. Alan "Bo" Hammock said

    Laughed and learned while reading. Thanks for sharing, Gifted!

  6. Susan Cunningham said

    As always… I love reading your posts… insightful, beautiful!

    Love,

    Susan

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