An almost unseemly green against the otherwise desiccated garden, the peppers peek out from under a lush growth of tousled leaves. Along with a few earnest green beans, the peppers are all that remain of summer’s bounty, thriving among shriveled tomatoes and bolted lettuce.
These late summer days when the hot afternoon sun fades too quickly into the cool of evening always remind me of the last weeks of my father’s life. That fall I took a leave of absence from my teaching job so that I could spend time with him. I got caught up in the rhythm of what was left of his life–the visits from old friends, the care from the in-home nursing staff and the devotion of Randy, the man who mowed my dad’s lawn, shoveled snow, and did odd jobs around the house. Before the nurses and hospice people swooped in, Randy spent nights on the sofa in case my dad needed him.
Randy grew a garden in a corner patch of ground next to my dad’s toolshed. I remember growing sunflowers there when I was a child, but it was never used for much after that. He’d put in a tomato plant or two and sometimes some zucchini, but the peppers were his pride and joy. All that last September, Randy would offer me bags of gorgeous green peppers. He told me how he loved to make stuffed peppers with ground beef and “whatever cheese I got,” smacking his lips and saying, “Man, that’s good eatin’.”
I remember those days as vividly as if they occurred yesterday. They were oddly peaceful and filled with the beauty of small things. I walked to the same corner drug store I did as a child except now instead of ordering cherry cokes, I bought swabs to moisten my dad’s mouth and milkshakes he craved but couldn’t drink after a few sips. I’d go to the post office to pick up the mail, admire Randy’s most recent pepper harvest, and read prayers with my dad at bedtime. Even when my father could barely speak above a whisper, his lips moved when I read the Lord’s Prayer.
I share this story because it seems that so many friends have recently lost parents and loved ones. Even these fourteen years later, I remember what it’s like to live moment to moment, to sit in vigil, to not sleep waiting for a phone call. And yet, there are treasured times in the midst of the pain and anxiety and sadness. People who pick up our burden for a while and make us smile. People who hold us close and tell us to take a leave of absence from our jobs because we’re never going to get this time back again. People who love that person almost as much as we do and offer us bags of green peppers when everything around us is dying.
I always put up two creches at Christmas. The one in our family room came from a 1960’s Woolworth’s, where it was displayed in the same aisle as the plastic window candles and aluminum trees. Some of the figures still have price tags on the bottom that say twenty-nine cents. A few of the lambs are amputees and the original cardboard stable has long since disintegrated, but this is the creche I grew up with, and I still cherish its delightful tackiness.
My other creche is a work of art, one of the things I would save if the house was on fire. My grandmother “did ceramics” as it was referred to in those days, and hand-painted each figurine in exquisite detail. She dedicated countless hours of tedious work to create a gift for my grandfather who built the stable. The wooden box he designed is as solid and unblemished today as it was that very first Christmas. Inscribed on the bottom of each piece are their initials, like teenage lovers’ names carved into a tree, “ALD to JDD, 1959.”
On Christmas Eve, I would walk a block down the street to their home, carefully remove the baby Jesus from his bed of tissue paper in a Carolina Soap box, and gently place him in the manger, followed by my grandparents and me standing in front of the fireplace singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” As staunch Episcopalians, we believed in liturgical correctness, so the baby never arrived in the manger before Christmas Eve, and the Magi were always strategically placed, approaching from the east.
After my grandparents passed away, the creche moved to my father’s home. Even in his last years, he insisted that it be retrieved from the cupboard beside the stairs and set up in the same place as its predecessor from the five-and-ten. And when the creche finally came to me, I wept as I placed Mary and Joseph in that simple wooden stable on my grandmother’s desk, now in my own living room.
Every December, when I unwrap each piece, I marvel at the rich purple colors of the kings’ robes, the almost lifelike eyes of the human figures, the wonder on the face of the kneeling shepherd boy who has earned a place of honor inside the stable itself. I run my hands over the texture of the saddle on the camel, the pointed wings of the angel with her “Gloria in Excelsis” banner, the empty indentation of the manger bed, waiting for its holy occupant. I place that same soap box with the words “Baby Jesus” scrawled on the lid in my grandmother’s handwriting, into a cubby of her desk where it waits, like the rest of us, during the dark weeks of Advent.
I picture my grandmother, in her ceramics room filled with paint-spattered card tables, crumpled rags, and brushes soaking in peanut butter jars. I imagine her sitting there in her smock, deciding on the colors, using that miniscule brush to outline the eyes of the figures and the words on the angel’s banner, applying the extra coat of glaze to give a sheen to the animals’ coats. I think of my grandfather, puttering in his basement workshop after a long day of seeing patients, selecting just the right pieces of wood, cutting, and sanding and nailing them together to create a perfect miniature stable. I think of the joy and pride they must have experienced on Christmas Eve 1959, seeing their gift to God and each other, displayed for the first time between two miniature evergreen trees on the mantel above their fireplace.
The people who celebrated Christmas with me as a child are gone now. But in the ritual of the creche, I feel their presence. Their hands guide me as I unfold and smooth the green fabric that goes under the stable, position the light to shine directly down on the manger bed, and make sure the angel is properly anchored on her little hook. In that creche, I smell the pine branches and the wood smoke from the fireplace as I walk into my grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve, wearing my new velvet dress with the pink rose, ready for my first ever midnight mass. I taste the eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg in my grandmother’s antique crystal punch cup. I hear my grandfather’s slightly off-key singing and years later, my dad’s weakened voice on the phone, asking when I’m going to stop by and set up the manger for him.
I spend Christmas Eves now surrounded and loved by other people. People for whom my grandmother’s creche is simply a beautiful decoration. We arrive home from church each year energized by the glorious music and the excitement of Christmas coming once again. We chatter about the service and what time to have dinner the next day, as I pour cups of eggnog spiked with rum and set out plates of homemade cookies.
Before I go to bed, I walk into the darkened living room, lit only by window candles and the lights surrounding the manger. On top of the desk is a picture of my smiling grandparents, standing in front of a Christmas tree, arms tightly clasped around each other’s waists. I still miss them. I close my eyes and thank them for magical childhood Christmases and for teaching me that this creche, made with their own loving hands, is at the center of it all.
I reach into the cubby in the desk and pull out the Carolina Soap box. I remove the baby from its tissue paper womb, and my hands, now speckled with age spots like my grandmother’s, once again place the tiny baby in the manger as I quietly sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
I think I might need an Advent calendar this year. Not those lovely ones made for adults that hold tiny bits of chocolate or miniscule bottles of wine behind each door. I mean the old-fashioned kind, with doors opening to reveal a simple toy or Christmas decoration printed on tissue thin paper—the ones that don’t provide a tangible reward for getting through another day. The kind with beautiful snow scenes showing rosy-cheeked children gathered around the village Christmas tree or manger scene.
When I was a child, Advent calendars taught me patience and the value of waiting. Now that I’m many years a grown-up, I need to be reminded of those lessons. This has been a hard year of waiting. Waiting for our political issues to resolve, waiting for relief from the terrible scourge of this virus and as the holidays approach, waiting for the time when we can once again gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate and break bread together.
This year’s holiday season looms like one long Advent. In order to be safe, we must keep our lamps lit to prepare for the coming of better times and they will come, but not as quickly as we would like. But for now, we have to rely on opening doors to the simplest pleasures—an outdoor visit with old friends on a balmy November day. An unexpected gift of freshly baked bread from neighbors we barely know. A new appreciation for having fewer places to go, although I long for the days when we can once again roam freely without fear of infecting ourselves and others.
I will cook a small Thanksgiving dinner this week, we’ll deliver it to a relative who lives nearby and then all eat together via Zoom. There will still be the smell of roasting turkey and grace said and conversation at our respective tables. We will still decorate for Christmas in our usual over-the-top way even if no one sees it except us and the pets and the neighbors. We will surround ourselves with beautiful Christmas music although the day I can once again put on choir vestments or concert attire and sing with others will be one of pure joy. We will still celebrate Christ’s birth although this year it will be from our living room in front of the TV instead of in a packed candlelit church.
I see all of these little scraps of normalcy as gifts hidden behind the Advent calendar doors. They’re just pictures and reminders of the real thing, but they are enough to get us through and give us hope. I still think I want a calendar this year, though, because every time I open a door, it feels like progress toward something better.
We’re at the Ocean Pines house this week for some fall clean-up after the last rental of the season. It’s beautiful this time of year. The crowds are gone, the weather is still pleasant enough to enjoy the outdoors, and life just moves at a slower pace. No more summer frenzy. As we walked along the boardwalk today, I couldn’t help but think about the family we saw on the beach when we were here in early September.
They had arranged their chairs and umbrellas in a circle, so you couldn’t see what was in the middle. A little girl scampered around, playing in the sand, running in the surf with her dad—just being a kid at the seashore. Parts of her scalp showed through a thinning web of long black hair, and in some places, her hair was completely gone.
The little girl began to chase the seagulls, straying further from where her family was sitting. One of my friends, a daycare director whose wandering child radar kicked in, took her by the hand and led her back to her family. She beamed up at my friend, pointed to the birds, but didn’t say anything.
As we were leaving, they were packing up their chairs and umbrellas. In the sand stood a metal rod that I at first thought was a camera tripod. When I looked more closely I realized that it was an IV pole with an empty plastic bag and tubing hanging from it. The child had been given medication while she was at the beach. That family circled their wagons to surround her and make sure she got what she needed. Whatever it took. Salt air and liquid nourishment. Or liquid poison if it was chemo. Sand buckets and IV bags. Chasing seagulls and chasing cancer. Lord, have mercy.
I keep seeing that IV pole in the sand. I can’t decide if it was a beacon of pain or hope. How does a parent stick a pole in the sand so they can stick a needle in their daughter to keep her alive while she’s playing at the beach? Do you shove it into the sand proudly, fiercely, like planting the flag on the North Pole, saying, damn it, we will conquer despite the odds? Does her family say, “We claim the life of this child as our mission even it means packing bags of medication in amongst the boogie boards and beach towels.”? Did they arrange their chairs in a circle to hide the reality of serious illness from the rest of the vacationers, or did they do it to bring themselves closer to her, to provide her with a canopy of normalcy in what must be a terrifying world for all of them?
I am at the age now when little jolts of illness are starting to spring up among my friends. A cancer diagnosis here. Diabetes and a mild stroke there. Like kids setting off firecrackers on the Fourth of July–snap, pop, an occasional boom. You know to expect it, it’s some distance away, but you’re still startled by the sound. The increasing vulnerability of our bodies comes with the territory. Our warranties have expired and frequent maintenance is essential. It should not come with the territory when you’re three years old. But sometimes it does and if that means bringing chemo to the beach, then that’s what you do.
I wonder what that family thought as they stared out at the ocean. Was the sound of the surf as soothing and relaxing for them as for the rest of us? Or did the constant wash of the tide rolling in and out cause them to think too much about the passage of time? Will we be here again next year? Will all of us be here?
When I was a child, the last day we were at the beach, I would trace the year in the sand, as a sort of good luck omen that I would be back next year. On that day this summer, I wish I would have run down to the water’s edge and written 2017 in the wet sand. A prayer for that little girl.