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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The Remains of the Day

December 19, 2012

I wrote this two years ago. It seems right to post it again while I recover from neck surgery. I’ve changed the title and I even tried to tweak the content but the literary gods would not allow it. Hope you like it:

The Remains of the Day

I took eight kids ice skating. It was so much better when I imagined it in my head. The day started off great. As I drove around town collecting children, I was singing along with the radio, showing off my Justin Bieber trivia and cracking grade-school jokes.

“Hey, why are teddy bears never hungry?” I asked.

“Um…….beeeecause…….?” wondered my eight year old out loud.

“Because they are always stuffed!” I said.

Laughs.

Encouraged, I continued, “Hey, what do you call a dinosaur that sleeps all the time?”

“Boring. Like these jokes,” heckled my teenage daughter.

“Noooo,” I said while making eye contact with her in the rear view mirror, “a dino-snore!”

More laughs. Squeals from the toddlers and rolled eyes from the teenagers.

“Tell another one, Mom, tell us the one about the cow!”

Blushing with false humility, I conceded, “What do you call a cow in the Hundred Acre     Wood?” I watched my thirteen year-old put on headphones while the rest of us chimed in perfect unison, “Winnie the Moo!” I did, however, catch her crack a smile.

I was feeling unusually optimistic and invincible on this particular day. Maybe it was the Christmas holiday infusing my heart with hope. Maybe it was the grace to rise above personal pain for a few hours. Maybe it wasn’t that complicated at all. Maybe I just felt happy because I was doing something other than laundry. I am not like Ann Voskamp. I find it impossible to discover transfigurational glory in the matching of socks. For whatever reason on that morning, my enthusiasm was genuine.

By the time I was driving home, however, I realized I’d been overzealous in my optimism.  Also, I had grossly underestimated the affects of sugar and caffeine on small children. I was exhausted. At five o’clock as the winter sun began to set, fatigue cast a shadow on my mood. Rather than telling knock-knock jokes, I enforced a strict “no talking” policy while children were returned to their homes. I had thrown my hoodie over my head like some perimenopausal, middle-aged thug. I looked as if I’d narrowly escaped Dante’s Ninth Circle. My eyelid was twitching. I sat staring off into the afternoon traffic like I was looking for my lost soul.

It had, after all, been a rough day. Granted it was not “rough” in a Third World sense but in a First World, single-mommy kind of way. After having laced eighteen skates, bought nine cups of hot chocolate, tied ten scarves, recovered one lost glove and made twenty-six trips to the bathroom….all on skates, my maternal ambition had melted. Somewhere between this Groupon “Deal of the Day” back in November and driving home that afternoon, I wished I had been run over by the Zamboni.

One of the reasons why my Nancy Kerrigan fantasy turned into more of a Tonya Harding reality was the four buses that showed up from the YMCA. Children poured out of those buses like ice cubes from an automatic ice maker. Besides contending with the 60 latch-key kids from the Y, there was also the “professional” skating crowd. They ranged from four-year-old ice princesses whose mothers watched from the bleachers with gluten-free snacks, home schooling manuals and binoculars to a forty-year-old man in a lime green, full-body leotard.

He required an explanation on the drive home.

Then, there was the small minority of the rest of us who simply had the good intentions of making a memory for our children without checking the event calendar on the Ice Center’s website. Clearly, it must have been “Paroled Kids Skate Free” Day because for the next two hours, my kids were bumped, shoved, trampled, run over and used as human catapults. I didn’t even see the eight year old and older crowd that I’d brought with me. At one point, an ambulance showed up and carted some kid away on a stretcher. My four-year-old asked, “Is that Laura?” I gave an ambivalent shrug and sipped my coffee never taking my eyes off of the guy in the leotard. I figured if it was a child with me one of the other kids would show up complaining, “Why does she get to ride in an ambulance?” or “I want a neck brace! Don’t you know the homework I could get out of with a neck brace?” I just hoped for the best while I wondering if that guy bought his man-size leotard online or in person.

Somehow in the middle of all this insanity and just as I was wishing that a disgruntled Olympic hopeful would crush my skull with a crowbar, I ran into a friend from college. We spent the next 90 minutes talking about the ironic and unwanted twists and turns in our lives that were (very much against our wills) making us better women. Between nursing bruises, handing out cash like congressional lobbyists and directing children like traffic cops, we unpacked our lives. My friend asked me what it was like to be a single mother of five, a new job description for me. I said, “It’s like drinking water from a fire hydrant.” I asked her about the difficulty of having a chronically unemployed husband. She confessed, “I blame him for everything that’s wrong in our lives.”  Having found a kindred soul in one another, we shared all we could until each of our tired children made their way back to us. Realizing our time was over, we unlaced skates, bandaged blisters and agreed that grace isn’t overrated and Jesus really is everything He’s cracked up to be, despite our hardships. Finally, with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” blaring over the sound system and exhausted from the energy required to do what was the emotional equivalent of a triple-toe-loop while managing toddlers to teenagers, we said our goodbyes. I had skated a nearly perfect routine as a mom in that everyone had fun and no one was going home in a neck collar (not every kid that was there can say that) and aside from losing my three-year-old at the very end of the day, I felt accomplished.

Gold-medal mommy material.

Four stops and one hour later, I was finally approaching the last exit off the interstate. My hands had thawed from the frigid air inside of the skating rink and I could almost feel my feet again. I was thinking about steeping myself in a hot bath to wash away the stress of the day. I imagined how good it would feel to slip between the cool sheets of my soft bed and fall asleep. Then, I saw her. This waif of a girl, a teenager,  sitting cross-legged on the frozen ground at the bottom of my exit ramp. She, too, had a hoodie over her head. I wore mine to put a barrier between myself and the juvenile annoyance in the back seat but she wore hers to put a barrier between herself and the whole world. Even though her body was buried in oversized clothes and addiction, this girl’s frail frame was no match for winter’s cold.

She held a sign that read, “Please help. God bless.”

I felt around in my purse, pockets and cup holders for money. I drove slowly trying to buy myself more time to gather loose dollars and spare change. As I finally came to the stop, I was frustrated because all I could find wasn’t nearly enough. Most of my cash had been spent bribing my children with food and drinks in exchange for my grown-up conversation at the skating rink. I even asked my eight-year-old to give me back the dollar I’d given her thirty minutes earlier to stop talking. I’m not sure why but I felt desperate to help this young wisp of a girl. I wanted to give her my keys and my hot bath and my cozy bed but all I had left were the remains of our day. Embarrassed, I rolled down my window and handed her the cash. I said, “I’m sorry there’s so little.” As we exchanged the money her fingers skated across my hand like one of those tiny ice ballerinas I had seen earlier. Her fingers were thin and fragile as if they were made out of paper mache. I was surprised by her delicate touch and without thinking I held onto her hand. It was only for a second. I wanted to replace some of the dignity that had been stolen from her with the willingness of my own touch. I hoped my gesture was worth more than my spare change because I wanted her to feel me noticing her behind her hood and her shame. I waited for a chilly response but with her hand in mine, she lifted her head and looked at me with hollow blue eyes. Her face was beautiful and her skin looked translucent like bone china.

Then she smiled.

I smiled back and drove away.

It’s possible that she had a bigger wad of cash in her pocket than I did. I can hear some cynic say, “Well, you know, she probably bought liquor or drugs with that money.” I hope she didn’t. I had no guarantee that she wouldn’t but what I did know was that something is badly broken in that young girl and that badly broken thing forces her to sit in the freezing cold, stripped of all her dignity and ask strangers for money. She didn’t have to prove to me why she needed my kindness or that she wouldn’t abuse it. What she did with my offering didn’t determine if I should give it.

So, there I was driving home with my hoodie over my head, staring into traffic like I was looking for my lost soul when I saw one. Perspective is a gift. I don’t always get it. I don’t think the guy in the lime-green leotard gets it either but, today, I was touched quite literally by a lost soul. In those empty eyes and in her brief touch, I could see and feel the winter kill of her spirit. That young girl could have easily been any one of us and, in a sense, she is and we are. She felt as kindred to me as my friend from college.

As I was driving away, I looked back in the rear view mirror and saw that vapor of a girl sit down again on the cold ground, continuing to hold her sign. Also in my mirror, I could see the happy and laughing faces of my kids safely where they belonged. I pulled the hoodie off my head and made myself vulnerable again to the needs and noises coming from my back seat. When I got home, I took a hot bath. I fell asleep in my king-sized bed under layers and layers of velvety blankets. I did so, however, with less of a feeling of accomplishment and entitlement simply because I’d taken my kids skating but more so with a sense of humility and gratitude.

The next day, Christmas Eve, I returned to the stop sign where she had been sitting to give her one of my favorite blankets but she was gone.

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