Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Christmas Eve Ever

It was snowing for real. Cottonballs from the sky.

I ran over to Dart Drug to buy a bag of kitty litter—for the car, just in case. Back at the apartment, I filled my Jazzercise water bottle and grabbed a Snickers bar—for my stomach, just in case. Went back to my bedroom and threw my afghan—varying shades of blue in a mountain range pattern—over my shoulder. That’s as far as I went with regards to safety measures. I was in a hurry. When you want something as bad as I did, you throw caution to the sled dogs.

I was excited. My breath came out in little cloudy mushrooms as I brushed and scraped snow and ice off my blue Toyota. I looked at my French’s mustard yellow gloves and frowned. Wrecked. My mouth pulled to the side for a moment, then up into a smile. After Christmas sales.


“Sis, it’s me. I’m here in D.C.,” my brother had said when he called.

“How? When?”

“I took the train from Charlottesville this morning. Thought I’d come up and spend Christmas with Amy and her family.”

“Oh.” So, you won’t be alone on Christmas Eve.

“They want you to come out,” he said. “Amy’s family says no one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”

I looked up at my bangs. “They said that?”

“Yeah. I’m going to put Amy on. She’ll give you directions. ‘kay?”

 I drove Route 50 to the Beltway. Then to an exit. And then some more. I looked in my rearview mirror. All I saw were the parallel black lines my Toyota had left in the powdered sugar snow.

It occurred to me that usually I was afraid to drive in the snow, especially if I was going to work. But tonight was Christmas Eve, and I was going to Christmas in the country. Surely, Christmas there would be different . . . better . . .

 I turned right onto their private road. It wasn’t paved but it wasn’t terribly bumpy. Seemed like it had been scraped recently. Bet they have a John Deere something or other for times like this.

I turned off the radio and cracked the window so I could hear the silence. Country silence is quieter than city silence. That night it was if the world was wrapped in Santa’s beard or in the wool of one of the sheep in the Christmas story.

The road seemed to go on forever. I was getting to the point where I thought maybe I’d taken a wrong turn. Then I saw the light. It was golden and dim. I squinted. What makes that kind of light?

 As I got closer, I saw that the light was lights and they were coming out of the ground. I pulled over to the right and shifted into park. Set the emergency brake. I got out. In the headlight glow, I saw that the light came from bowls, made of ice, holding creamy, chubby pillar candles. Their flames shimmied and bowed to the wind.

I looked up from the ground lights and peered up the road. Where’d that come from? I guess I’d been watching only what my headlights illuminated. At the top of the hill, was a house, very grand and beautiful. There was greenery and a red bow on the outside of every window. There was a candle on the inside of each as well.

I decided to walk the rest of the way. I didn’t want my tire tracks to mess up the perfect snow in front of their house. I got back in my car and flipped down my visor. I watched myself put on Revlon Cherries in the Snow lipstick. I turned the velvet collar of my dress coat up to keep the back of my neck warm.

I walked up the road towards the house. I squinted at it. I’ve seen this house before. Then I remembered where. It looked like the inside of a snow globe I’d seen at the Christmas Shop in Manteo, North Carolina.

When I was about fifty yards from the house, I stopped. After a minute or two, it occurred to me that I was waiting for them to lift up the edge of the glass dome and let me in. Into their world.

I was twenty feet from the porch when the front door opened. My brother and his girlfriend filled the doorway. His buzz cut and her mass of flame-colored waves were backlit. I don’t know why, but I didn’t say anything. I stood in the shadows by the side of the road, watching them.

“She’s here! She’s here!” I heard Amy say. “I can see her car out there.”

“Hallo!” my brother called. “Hallo!” the echoes multiplied.

I stepped into the porch light glow and waved. “Merry Christmas!” I said. My greeting went far, in every direction, in the navy night.

Amy waved excitedly like it would bring me to her faster. I climbed the steps and she threw her arms around me. I’ve never met you, but you sure do seem to like me.

 Inside the front door, Amy held her hands out. “Coat, slippers, cocoa.”

I tilted my head. “Huh?”

 She spoke slower. “Give me your coat. Change into slippers. Then get cocoa from my mom.”

I handed her my coat. I added my boots to the line beside the door. There was a basket of brand new slippers, all colors and sizes, on the other side of the door.

I bent down. “I’ll take . . . fuzzy and red, size small.”

When I stood up, there was Mom with a mug of cocoa and a smile.

“You’re beautiful,” came out of my mouth before I could stop it.

“And you,” she said, as she handed me my cup.

I stuck my nose inside and felt cocoa steam collect on my face. I lifted my head but kept my eyes closed. I inhaled.

“What do you smell?” Mom said.

My face squinched in concentration. “A peppermint at the bottom of the cocoa . . . pine . . . a wood fire . . . paperwhites . . . wassail maybe? Or is it oranges studded with cloves?”

I opened my eyes. She was still smiling. “You should be a sommelier.”

“A some of what?”

She chuckled and tucked her arm inside mine. “A sommelier--sort of a wine expert,” she said. “You have an excellent nose.”

 We walked down the central hallway. Suddenly she stopped and turned to face me. “I’m sorry,” she said. She put her hands on my shoulders and kissed the air beside each of my cheeks. I smelled her perfume—Ralph Lauren’s Lauren. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas.”

I looked away from her eyes. They looked like swimming pools and I felt like I was falling . . .

“Where is everyone?”

“Probably under mistletoe somewhere,” she said. “We’ll find them. Sooner or later. Would you like a tour?”

I nodded, my eyes huge.

We ended up in the kitchen. “Does every room have a fireplace and a Christmas tree?”

“Just about.”

“And nativities,” I said. “Do you collect them?”

“We do.” She picked one up and put it in my hand. “This one’s from Israel, like Jesus.”

“It’s beautiful.”

I sat in front of the fireplace in the kitchen ‘til my cheeks burned. I put my fingertips to them. Hot. Dry.

 “Come here,” Mom said.
I joined her at the island in the middle of the kitchen.

She patted the marble surface. “Put your face here.”

The marble instantly soothed. I flipped my face to cool the other cheek. I stroked the chilly top. “Italian?”

She nodded.

I looked up at the soaring ceiling with its tic, tac, toe beams. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”

She gazed up too. “Do you get Metropolitan Home magazine?”

My mouth fell open. “Wow!”

We were silent for awhile and it was fine.

“When I grow up, I wanna be just like you.”

 She smiled a little.

 I bit my lip. “Did I say that out loud?”

 Her smile grew.

 I put my face back on the marble. “Sometimes I think I have Tourette's.”

 She reached across the island and rested her hand on my hair. “You’re so much like your brother.”

I sat up when Amy burst into the room, in song. “Here we come a caroling . . .” She looked at Mom, then me. “It’s time! To the music room.”

 I looked at Mom. “You didn’t show me that one.”

 She shrugged. “I knew we’d end up there eventually.”

My brother stood behind Amy at the island. Amy drummed her fingernails and took turns staring at me, then Mom.

The side door to the kitchen opened and a sparkly wind blew a man in. He was tall and his cheeks had been whipped ruddy by the wind.

 He looked around the room and then his eyes camped on me. “Welcome, and Merry Christmas!” He squinted. “You’ve got your brother’s blue eyes.”

 He turned to face my brother. “The fireplaces are hungry,” he said. “We must appease them.”

Together they went out into the night.

Amy and Mom led me down a back hall. “Was Dad a Marine or a model?” I said to their backs.

“A lot of the first. A little of the second,” Amy said over her shoulder.



You know you’re in a rich person’s house, when there’s a music room. And, you know you’re in a rich person’s home when just about every wall is glass and you’re not cold, even in the dead of winter.

 We stood around the grand, not a baby, piano and sang every Christmas carol in the hymnal. Mom played beautifully. Her fingers had perfect piano playing posture. Amy sang beautifully, her voice a sweet, clear soprano. When she sang O Holy Night, I almost cried.

 “It’s time,” Dad said when there were no more songs to sing.

 I looked from face to face. “For what?”

Everyone followed him into the room with the biggest fireplace of all. The furniture was Shaker—elegant but not soft, so I opted for a floor cushion the size of my car.

 When everyone was seated and staring at him, Dad began. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” He recited the whole thing from memory--no notes, no Bible.

 The fire warmed my cheeks. The story warmed my heart. After he said, “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,” he reached into a basket beside him. He took out a candle and lit it from the fireplace. He handed it to me. He did it four more times, one for each of us.

 It’s perfect. I didn’t think this night could get better, but now it is.

 We sat in our little circle, each of us staring at our flames. We watched them flicker and bow. I let a drop of hot wax splash into my palm. I pressed a finger into it, to make a print. I smiled.

I glanced at my watch. Midnite, on the dot. I closed my eyes and sighed. I opened them when I heard Amy sing.

“Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” One by one, we joined her. I looked up at the ceiling. Adopt me. Please.

Part of me didn’t want to leave, but part of me did. I wanted to stay with them forever, but I also wanted to go home and write everything down. So I wouldn’t forget. Ever.

When I got out of the Toyota back at my apartment, I saw a basket on the back seat. There were presents in it. I carried it inside and put the packages under our little tree. I unplugged the lights and headed back to my bedroom.

Five minutes later, I came back out. I plugged in the tree and sat cross-legged beside it in my pajamas and robe. I opened the presents. They’d given me the slippers I’d worn. And, there was a pair of beautiful, fuzzy mittens. In a box the size of a coffee cup, I found the nativity from Israel. I stroked the smooth wood.

I looked up at the white paper star on top of the tree. “Star light. Star bright,” I said, then I stopped. I picked up the little wooden nativity and cradled it in my hand. “Actually, I don’t want to make a wish. I want to say thanks. No one should be alone on Christmas Eve, and I wasn’t. And Christmas in the country? It was different . . . and better."

Every Christmas season, I think of that night. The memories are treasures to me. I don’t remember what the people looked like so much as I remember how they made me feel. Even though I wasn’t part of their family, they treated me like I was. Even though I wasn’t a believer, they treated me like I was.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Prelude to The Best Christmas Eve Ever

To me, nothing says Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, like potting the first amaryllis in early December.  Not too long ago, as I tucked the fist-sized bulb for the soon to be huge, glorious and blood-colored flower, into the drier than dry potting medium, I thought back to the best Christmas Eve ever.  It was twenty some years ago and I was all alone, sort of.

It was a Christmas Eve in the '80's, my first one after graduating college.  My roommate had left to go home for the holidays at noon--his home being Moundsville, West Virginia.  My boyfriend would do the Feast of the Seven Fishes thing with his family that night, then he'd get up early the next morning and drive three hours, way too fast, so we could be together before noon on Christmas Day.   Until then, I would be all alone. 

Around six in the evening, I put on my fluorescent orange winter coat.  I didn't buy it because I was a hunter.  I bought it because it reminded me of high school.  I wore a lot of fluorescent orange in high school.  I told people it was my favorite color but really, I liked the attention it got me.  I liked attention--all kinds.  That's probably why I rubbed Skoal and ate popcorn at the same time at that one party in Old Town.  I never did that again 'cause it made me some kind of sick.

I slipped my feet into my duck boots which were knockoffs of the real ones you can order from Lands End.  I tied the long laces in double bows, then zipped my coat and went outside to inspect the silent night.  I shuffled through the snow, trying to make a solid line with my feet instead of a dotted one.  I stood on the sidewalk at the edge of Route 50 in Fairfax, Virginia.  My breath looked like a diaphonous megaphone.  The street lights seemed to have halos. 

I looked left towards Fairfax Circle, and then right towards Washington D.C..  I couldn't even count a dozen cars on the road.   I squinted, trying to see inside the Dart Drug across the way.  Only the manager was there.  He looked lonely too.

I tilted my head back.  I sighed.  No stars.  City lights and puffy snow clouds concealed any and all heavenly bodies. 

I looked over at the Dart Drug again.  The lights on the Christmas tree in the window winked at me.  It seemed they were flashing to the rhythm of Jingle Bells--Blink, blink, bliiiink.  Blink, blink, bliiink. 

The star on top of the tree was big.  Too big really.  It looked like it was fashioned out of gold foil, studded with yellow mini lights.  As I squinted at the star, it seemed to shoot out light beams.  I had a thought.  "Star light.  Star bright.  First star I see tonight.  I wish I may.  I wish I might.  Have the wish, I wish tonight."  I narrowed my eyes and focused on the star.  "I wish . . . I wasn't alone on Christmas Eve."  I said it out loud, so whoever was in charge would hear me.  I waited.  I expected.  Zilch.

I walked back to my building.  Outside my door, I stomped snow and ice clods onto the coir doormat that proclaimed, "'Tis the season!"  Inside the door, I left a trail of boots, hat, mittens, coat, muffler.  Who cares?

In the kitchen, I watched my reflection in the window as it filled a mug with half water, half skim milk.  The Times Journal cup went into the microwave.  A finger pushed, "Beverage," then "Start."  The reflection leaned against the cabinet.  Drummed fingers on the counter.  Jumped, when the microwave dinged.  Three scoops of International Coffee powder, hazelnut flavor, went into the mug.  The reflection paused its stirring, then added another spoonful of powder. 

I got bored watching my reflection.  It looked tired.  I got out a can of whipped cream.  I shook it, then sprayed in a circle, sculpting an ascending spiral on top of the foam.  I went to put the can back in the fridge.  I looked left and right, as if . . . then opened my mouth and aimed the whipped cream nozzle inside.  I sprayed until it sputtered. 

In the dining area, I sat on a folding chair at the card table.  I hummed, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" in between sips.  When the faux coffee was gone, I ran my finger around the sides of the mug, collecting the hazelnut dregs.  I slurped on my finger as I relocated to the sofa.

I put my feet on the coffee table and stared at the little Christmas tree.  The tree only wore two things--multi-colored lights and white snowflakes.  I'd cut the snowflakes out of a couple sheets of Xerox paper I brought home from work.  I'd get my decorations for next year the weekend after Christmas when "everything must go."  Maybe my boyfriend and I'd get Poinsettias or Mimosas at Sunday brunch before we shopped.  Cocktails always seemed to help us find better bargains.

I stirred my bangs with a puff of air.  If I went to bed now, the night would go faster and the morning would come sooner.  I glanced at the VCR under the tv.  8:30.  Pathetic.  I rocked myself up and off the sofa and headed for my bedroom.

When the phone rang, the noise bounced off the walls.  It sounded sort of like a Salvation Army bell being rung really fast, pause, again.  I thought about not answering it.  Maybe I want to be alone on Christmas Eve, just to know what it feels like, just this once. 


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Worst Christmas (Eve) Ever

I knew I was in trouble when my husband questioned the pile of packages by the front door.

"I have a good excuse," I said.

One of his eyebrows went up.  "Really?"

Both of my eyebrows went up.  "Really," I said.  "These are the Christmas presents I bought and wrapped for your mother to give to the kids."

 "My mom got them stuff already."

Something in me twitched.  "She did?  Why?"

"'Cause she wanted to."

"But . . . this is how we always do things.  She buys.  I fly."

"Not this year."

Something broke inside me.  My holiday spirit engine gasped.  It shimmied.  And then its chugging stopped.  The Christmas carol soundtrack stopped playing in my head.  The skippy spring to my step flattened.  My shoulders descended a good two inches.  Ah man!

And then, it happened again.  We walked into my mom's house less than a week later and her hearth was covered in red and green packages with smooshed, pointy, pre-tied bows.  Furrows plowed themselves into my forehead.  The two shopping bags of packages I was carrying fell to the floor with a thunk and a rattle.

"Uh . . . Mom?  Did you forget how we do things--you buy, I fly?"

She smiled.  "I don't know what got into me.  One day I got a burst of energy and there was this great sale at the mall . . . "

For the second time in a week, my holiday spirit engine went boom.

I stared at the fireplace for a few minutes--almost hypnotized by the blueish yellow flames licking out of the fake logs.

"They got double presents," I said, without moving my lips.

"Excuse me?" Mom said.

I went into the bathroom and washed my hands.  And put on lotion.  And tried on every shade of lipstick on Mom's vanity.  I put the toilet lid down and had a seat.  I counted on my fingers.  "They got presents from my mom.  They got presents from his mom.  They got presents that I bought them from my mom.  They got presents that I bought them from his mom.  They got presents from us.  They got presents from Santa."

My mom was happy.  His mom was happy.  He was happy.   The kids were ecstatic.  Everyone was high on holiday spirit but me.  All the stress I'd put myself through--making the lists, checking them twice, shopping all over hell's half acre and the Internet, wrapping, hiding.  And I didn't need to do any of it.  Well, I didn't need to do half of it.  I'd put myself out, way out, for nothing.  All that Advil, for nothing.

And that's not all.  The double presents thing?  It fed the fear inside me.  You see, I have this fear that all the stuff, the mile high stack of stuff that no one really needs, makes Christmas Day into Stuff Day.  It seemed to me that all the focus on buying, giving, getting, repeat takes all the focus off the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

My husband had compassion on me.  He patted my back.  He rubbed my shoulders.  He murmured, "There, there, everything will be all right," as I shuffled around mumbling, "It's going to be Stuff Day, not Christmas."  Resentment etched frown lines around my mouth.

A few days later, we headed out for a holiday party.  One of our children dawdled and I growled at her, a little too loud, a little too mean.  We stood in our foyer, the front door open, the cold night air coming in around the storm door frame.  Then my husband said two of the words that are forbidden in our house, and then some. 

"Shut . . . up!" he said.  "You're going to ruin Christmas Eve for everyone!"

The kids looked at me, then my husband, then each other.    I winced and looked at my feet.  I knew I deserved it.  Not in front of the kids, but still . . .  My husband went out to start the car.

I slunk out into the freezing night.  Bitter cold but no snow.  Yet another reason to be a sadsack. 

I climbed into the SUV.  The silence was too quiet, even on the Silent Night.  I turned the stereo on.  Charlie Dodrill sang to me.  "I am under the impression that it's all for me."  I looked at my Granny Smith apple green gloves and waited for someone to say, "Hey, they're singing your song." 

Before we got out of the car to go into the party, my husband put his hand on my sour green apple gloves.  I looked at him cautiously, like a whipped dog.  He looked sad.  "Sorry."  He mouthed the word.  I blinked slowly.

As I remembered that night just now, I figured out something.  That Christmas Day was not Stuff Day.  That Christmas Day was Grace Day.  Three kids got way more than they expected, way more than they deserved.  The half-empty glass person might call it gluttony.  The half-full glass person would call it grace.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I Pity the Fool

Psalm 53:1 tells us, "The fool says in his heart, there is no God."  That scripture makes me feel like a small, white, female Mr. T.  I read it and think, "I pity the fool."

One time I sat in an adult Sunday School class and the teacher said, "If you think God comes to you in visions in the bathtub, you are certifiably crazy."  I never went back.  Know why?  'Cause I don't see dead people, I see God.

I see visions of me on a potting table, made of old barnwood, with a one inch lip on all four sides, for my fluids, just in case.  It's out in an open field and it's a sunny day.  I look like a life-sized, girl version of the board game, Operation. 

God stands next to the potting bench.  His hands are working inside me.  Tweeking a spleen.  Polishing a wishbone.  My friend I ask God questions to said it sounds like part of the Song of Solomon.  I like the translation that says, "You are my private garden, my treasure, my bride, a secluded spring, a hidden fountain."

Another time, I saw God hold my heart.  Actually, I just saw his hand.  It looked like the giant hand chairs outside of Cool Ridge on High Street.  The ginormous hand was holding my heart and my heart was huge too and it was aqua.  God knows aqua is my favorite color.

When I think about God it's like I have to set off a M-80 in my brain.  Not to hurt it but to clear out the junk--the recipes, pin numbers, and vocab lists from high school.  I have to do that to even begin to think on God.  He made and he knows every person--past, present and future.  He is aware of every thought, prayer and deed they will ever come up with before they ever do.  He intimately sees the detail of every creature, every cell.  He knows the greatest thing beyond my peewee comprehension and he knows the least thing ever--sub, sub, sub-atomic stuff.

Sometimes when I pray, I picture God and Jesus and heaven.  Do you ever do that?  There was a lady mystic who did the same thing, centuries ago.  I read about her in an A.W. Tozer book.  I'm glad I'm not alone.  I spend a lotta time wondering if I'll be able to see the Spirit in heaven.  Will he be an aqua silvery mist, hovering over us all?

Some believers poopoo me trying to envision God, saying I'm trying to create my own God like that guy who wrote The Shack.  To them I say, am I so very different from Moses?  He wanted to see God too and Bible scholars call him great.  I just wanna see whatever God will show me, even if it's his back side.

Sometimes I picture myself up in heaven with God and Jesus.  I sit criss-cross, applesauce on the floor of the throne room.  In fact, I sit snuggled right up to them.  My left arm is looped around God's right leg and my right arm is looped around Jesus' left leg.  Don't ask me if their legs are flesh, spirit or polished bronze.  They just are.  God and Jesus pet my hair as I take it all in--endless worship, passionate intercession.  Crowns are flying everywhere and those wild, flying creatures--all eyeballs, wings and praise?  I come undone.

One time . . . no . . . there's been lots, Jesus asked me to dance.  We danced on the crystal sea.  I think maybe it was the Sea of Galilee.  When we dance it's like I'm a cross between a kindergartener and an eighth grader at her first dance.  The kindergartener part of me stands on my daddy's feet to be taller, to let him lead.  The eighth grader in me laces my fingers behind my date's neck and melts against him, longing to be one.  And then the best thing happens.  A hole opens in my chest and his.  And my heart beats inside him and his heart beats inside me.  We are one.

I'm not making this stuff up.  I saw it all with the eyes of my heart.  It's not imagination or  fantasy like some will no doubt say.  Those people who put God in a wet matchbox?  I pity them too. 


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