Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stop Pulling the Covers, Billy

As a child living in a dilapidated old frame house with a coal burning stove in the center of the living room with no indoor plumbing, no running water, with two bedrooms for six children and two, sometimes three adults, with the outside temperature during the winter sometimes -15 degrees, with snow, fueled by a howling north wind blowing it through the loose window frames, my brothers and sisters and I had the time of our lives.  This was never more true than at Christmastime.

I sometimes wonder today if children in America could ever possibly visualize what it was like to play guessing games or read the Sunday “funny papers” under a mountain of covers on Christmas Eve in a freezing bedroom.  Never mind there was little prospect of any Chirstmas gifts except for the school classroom exchange (local merchants anticipated these exchanges with a good supply of sacks of marbles, dainty handkerchiefs, Big Chief writing tablets and boxes of crayolas.)  I was astonished not long ago to learn Big Chief writing tablets were no longer being made, alas, alas!  There was of course the Christmas Eve church service with children receiving sacks of candy with an apple or orange in the sack.  Later, under our mountain of covers we laughed, imagined, created wonders of our minds, thought of the unfortunate children in India and Africa, told stories, ghost and otherwise to brighten our lives with magic and wonder.  When we would finally settle down for the night it was in anticipation of knowing we had hardly begun to explore all that magic and wonder.  A whole world awaited us.

Most modern families give the best they can for one another in the family at Christmas.  There will be a young person who will receive the gift of a new car perhaps and mom or dad may find a new expensive watch under the tree.  Children will give and receive from the abundance of all the good in the stores of America. We will each celebrate Christmas as we are wont to do, sometimes frugally, sometimes excessively.  This is Christmas as we’ve learned to express it.  But for me, one of the greatest of all Christmases would be if I could have my three-year old brother back, he of the fatally ruptured appendix.  What he and I would do would be this:  He and I would turn down the heat in the house until it was freezing.  We would jump into our bed with a mountain of clothes on and a mountain of covers over us.  We would make a tent of the covers and we would tell stories, ghost or otherwise.  We would play “Three sailors went to sea, sea, sea to see what they could see, see, see.” We would laugh and be merry and would know of a certainty that to be a child in Kansas, in the winter, was the greatest of all blessings.  I like to think, my imagination is at work here, that just before we snuggled down to sleep I would say to Billy, “Merry Christmas, little brother” and he would repeat it back to me.

Such a time that was, so much laughter, so much happiness, so much pleasure, so much joy.  And here is where my spirit soars to the starry sky.  Just before sleep, from under the covers, out of the great winter night, my brother and I might hear, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, to people of goodwill.”


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Laundry

Sometime near the end of the year l980 it was my unchosen duty to help watch over the long decline of seven year old Lizabeth Sterling during her unstoppable Hodgins Disease. As children are, by nature, optimistic and hopeful, she was surrounded daily by her family, her friends and the medical staff. She was encouraged by all these in her upward tending spirit. Children are also, by nature, clairvoyant in a way not open sometimes to adult sensibilities. She knew! No one told her, no one attempted to prepare her, she simply knew she was dying. It was she, seven years old, who brought me into the world of her dying. One day, without warning or hesitation, she asked me what it would be like to die. Her asking wasn't shaded by fear, she simply wanted to know what lay ahead. So we talked about those things that come naturally in such a conversation, God, family, joy, life, and going on to a new life. I held her hand, she watched me to be sure I was being honest with her, and she asked, "Do you think they will have clean sheets for me there?" The question obviously came from the daily condition of her bed with IV's, blood, catheter and more. I said, "Lizabeth, the sheets done in the laundry of heaven are always white as snow." On the day of her death her family asked if new linen could be placed on her bed before she was taken up from it.

Such is the form and nature of our human community. It is always the wanting of newness, the release from oldness that permeates all of Christmas. There is a cleanness somehow buried in the carols and readings and prayers of the Christmas season and we are eager to have our children, our husbands and wives, our family and friends, experience this. I would like to feel no one is excluded by their own inflexibility from what is offered by all the season's presents. The thing about wanting life to be good and hopeful and renewing is that it's always, forever, already good and hopeful and renewing. To feel all this in our spirits we may sometimes need to change the linen. Christmas is not only a season, a holiday, a date on the calendar, it is real when we recognize what is already good and hopeful. No, I can't come and do your laundry. I can do the next best thing. I can point you to a laundromat. For all appearances you might mistake it for a manger.