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Friday, December 20, 2013

My Ragtag Nativity

 One of my most beloved birthday gifts is a nativity set given to me decades ago by my parents.  I was born in December and a few days before my birthday, my mother and I were out shopping together. Lord & Taylor had a number of nativities on display, but there was one exquisite papier-mâché set that I really loved. Mary was so delicate and beautiful, her expression so loving and serene. How delighted I was when I unwrapped my final present that year ~ the beautiful papier-mâché holy family... 
The following year I was equally thrilled to unwrap three kings crafted in the same delicate papier- mâché. These were the last three, my mother said. One of the kings is damaged, but we took it anyway. I looked. All three kings seemed perfect. Look again, my mother said. I looked again, but didn’t see anything wrong. My mother looked at my father and smiled. The kneeling king was missing a hand, she finally explained, and a gift too! We bought it anyway and your father fixed it.  
My father was one of the most talented people I knew. A commercial artist by trade, I knew him best as a science-poster-advisor who patiently turned into a bulletin-board-advisor when I began teaching. My father died many years ago, but the gift of the third king, the kneeling king, is a perennial reminder of his unfailing creativity and enduring love.

Lord & Taylor eventually discontinued carrying nativity sets. For nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve searched everywhere for additional pieces of the delicate papier-mâché creche. Two summers ago, on a visit to Italy, my daughter and I even traveled to Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, the narrow street in the heart of the city known as Nativity Row.  At Via San Gregorio Armeno hundreds of nativity sets ~ the sacred and the secular ~ the affordable and the extravagant, are squeezed into tiny stalls while merchants and artisans hawk their worth.  My daughter and I checked every crowded corner, but my delicate nativity must be one of a kind. 
No matter. Throughout the years, I've supplemented my starter set with some equally incomparable treasures. 
There’s a clay dog lovingly made by a 3 year old curly-top, as well as a marble horse and sax-playing wooden dog, both carved by my beloved cousin Tommy. There’s a wooden duck that once belonged to an elderly neighbor, and porcelain angels that belonged to my godmother. Two of my favorite pieces are a shepherd with a flute and a three-legged lamb that belonged to my mother. There’s woolen sheep and woolen deer, wooden giraffes and a tightly wound straw dog made in Peru. My most recent acquisition is a willow-patterned elephant. The elephant belonged to my father-in-law and  was one of four items which he kept with him during his travels. I like to think that after a lifetime of traveling, my father-in-law's porcelain elephant has finally arrived home.
 unwrapped & eagerly awaiting placement
  Even my surrounding Christmas village is unique. I’ve a few frosted trees, but the ones I love best are the construction paper ones that were cut and decorated by little hands. I love my paper-bag gingerbread house and the gingerbread house candle given to me by my husband before we were married.

  Few pieces of my nativity are perfect. Most are chipped, cracked, wrinkled or torn. More than one angel has a broken halo or a scratched wing. A few of the animals are unable to stand unless I lean them against the manger wall. I guess my ragtag nativity is not much different than we followers of the Christmas star. In a few days we’ll welcome Christmas. Maybe some of us will be perfectly prepared. More likely, we’ll welcome Christmas with our own ragtag hearts a bit tired and worn, perhaps even a little broken. No matter. Like the gift of my kneeling king, love makes all things perfect.

waiting for Christmas

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Albert & Me

     Though it’s still officially fall, the days continue to grow shorter and the air colder. If I look to the right, out my front door, I see some brown leaves still clinging to trees, but if I look to the left, out my back door, I see only a tangle of leafless brown branches.  A few red berries add color to the yard, but it’s clear that we’re waiting for winter. There are those who love winter ~ and those that don’t. Not a flake has fallen, but already some dread the snow, the cold, the early evening darkness. I'm in court with Albert Camus. In the midst of winter, Camus wrote, I found there was within me, an invincible summer. 
     I wrote this lullabybefore I ever realized that  Albert and I were kindred spirits. 

A Winter’s Lullaby

This time when winter comes
We will not be afraid,
This time when winter comes, 
We know we will be brave.

For we know, in the snow,
Is the soul of summer rain,
Bitter winds may blow,
But spring will come again.

So close your eyes my child, 
It’s been a long, long day,
Rest a little while,
We’ve come a long, long way.

This time when winter comes,
We know we will be brave.
This time when winter comes
We will not be afraid.

♫ ♫