When Ginny and I were around thirteen, Mama and Daddy started giving us someday house presents: a set of pewter candlesticks, iced tea glasses, a piece of silver. I romanticized the gifts, of course, and thought of them as a kind of modern dowry.
When Jamie and I moved into our first apartment, I unpacked those someday house treasures from my steamer trunk, where they’d been stored since I was a teenager. As a new bride, there were lots of happy dreams in each candlestick, hand-carved wooden bowl and tablecloth I put on our very first mantle, bookcase and kitchen table.
Ever the feminist, I made sure Jack received his first someday house present last year. (Girls aren’t the only ones who need treasure!)
When Jack was a newborn, we nicknamed him Jack Rabbit. So, last year I gave him a carved wooden rabbit. It’s a sophisticated carving and out of dark wood, so I thought it was mature enough that he wouldn’t dislike it, but he didn’t say too much. He’s still young, I thought. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned? Maybe my boys won’t appreciate someday house gifts?
Last summer, Mama, Daddy and Miss Judy Newberry went to an estate auction. Mama bid on one piece of glassware and was delighted when she won the bid for $25. When she went to collect her piece, however, the auctioneer said, “Oh no, ma’am. You were bidding on this entire table of glassware, not just the single item.” Mama and Daddy came home from the auction with boxes and boxes of glassware and housewares they’d not intended to buy. Always someone to try and make the best of something, Mama washed and dried and polished and shined all the pieces they’d brought home. Then, they invited Ginny and me to come “shop.”
When Gin and I got there, the dining room and kitchen tables were covered with pieces, as were the kitchen counter tops. Miss Judy came over to watch. She gave Ginny and me pieces of paper with our names written on them, so we could claim one piece at a time in turns. Mama explained anything we didn’t want or couldn’t use, she would donate to the church yard sale.
We had great fun that afternoon, wondering about some of the pieces, telling stories and making picks. As we were wrapping our pieces for transport home, Jack came up behind me and rested his chin on my shoulder, “Whadja end up getting, Mom?” I showed him several of my picks. “Didn’t anybody want that?” he asked, pointing to a tall, glass decanter with five matching liquor glasses, a schooner etched into both the decanter and matching glasses.
It was a pretty piece, but neither Ginny nor I thought we would use it. It was destined for the yard sale and I explained that to Jack. “You think Deets would mind if I took it?” he whispered cautiously.
I spun around to look at him with a big smile, “I’m sure you can have it, but why do you want it?” I couldn’t believe he had shown any interest at all. “Well,” he explained, “if I’m going to be the general manager of a professional sports team, dontcha think it would look cool in my office one day? I mean, I’d be over twenty-one and all. We could box it up in my someday house stuff until then.”
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. Someday house things – I knew he would appreciate it eventually. The decanter set went home with us that day.
One of the someday house gifts Ginny and I received every year was a piece to a Fontanini nativity set. Both Ginny and I were gifted an identical Holy Family and stable. After that, our pieces weren’t always the same. Gin might get a little duck and I’d get a standing angel. That way, we each had a set, but they were our very own.
Thirty years later, my Fontanini nativity set is a sight to behold. After years of collecting pieces, not only do I have the typical figurines you would expect: sheep, the three wise men, an angel, some shepherds; I have some unique pieces, too: three kittens for the stable, some townspeople and children, several kinds of angels, and even a sheepdog.
When I set out all the pieces, it takes up our entire dining room buffet. The setup is quite a process. First, all around the flat top of the buffet, I place stacks of books in varying heights and then cover them in burlap. Then, over the burlap, I place a short, starched ivory tablecloth. Then, once the levels look right, I nestle shiny green magnolia leaves, sprigs of nandina with red berries, some pine straw and green pine needles into nooks and crannies. Once it all looks right, I place small glass votives in the greenery. Then, come the figurines: old men, little girls and boys, the cats tucked away in the stable, Mary’s donkey, and a shepherd with his dog. The townspeople fill in: a carpenter carries a lantern, a woman with a basket full of roses of Sharon walks from behind a magnolia leaf, children stand on their tiptoes to peek over into the manger. It takes a while to get it all just so.
Some years, I feel magic Christmas electricity in the cold snap of the air around Thanksgiving. Gift lists lay around the house in thoughtful anticipation and planning. Cookbooks are scattered next to my chair in the living room, marking space where I’ve spent time going over new recipes and writing out ideas. Stacked high on the piano are Christmas songbooks and hymnals where I’ve practiced special music for church. I pull out all the children’s Christmas storybooks with their tales of anticipation, magic, and hope.
I watch It’s a Wonderful Life while I sit spread eagle in the middle of the living room floor wrapping presents and say the lines with Donna Reed as happy tears spill down my cheeks, “Remember that night we broke the windows in this old house? This is what I wished for.” While matching socks, I sing along with Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas and cringe when Bing Crosby offers her a liverwurst sandwich with buttermilk. I make Christmas cookies and homemade hot chocolate.
The year Colin turned four, though, I was tired. I was teaching high school literature then, and it had been an agonizing semester full of whiny teachers, frustrated administrators, disgruntled high schoolers, dissatisfied parents. Christmas was coming whether I liked it or not, and I was grossly unprepared. I’d not done much shopping, hadn’t planned a menu, nor put any thought into decorating. I tried to manufacture the warm and fuzzies that Christmas usually brings, but they just weren’t coming. We’ve all been there.
This was one of those Christmases that for whatever reason there was very little holly or jolly for me. No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t get there. I resigned myself to enjoying the holiday for the boys but didn’t feel that tingly feeling I usually do.
That Saturday, I had finally gotten the dining room cleaned and decided I’d better go ahead and set out the nativity while everything was dusted. I didn’t want to fool with levels and burlap and votive candles, so I just put out the stable, the Holy Family, a few animals, the wise men, and shepherds. I unwrapped each figurine from their box and placed them in a tableau.
I went on about the work of a Mama on Saturday: sweeping, straightening, cooking. My mind swirled with all the things I needed to do. I felt frustrated, tired and grouchy.
After a little while, I walked back through the dining room and noticed the nativity scene had been changed. Baby Jesus and his manger were pulled out of the stable and were in the center of the buffet. Mary and Joseph were on either side of the manger, looking down. The sheep were as close as they could get to the baby’s cradle, their noses touching his little pink feet, and the wise men, shepherds, and angels formed a close circle all the way around the baby, pressed close together, elbow to elbow, without any order at all. I was irritated. “Colin Grey? Where are you?” I called throughout the house.
The boys, who had been playing in Jack’s room, were suddenly quiet. “What’d you do?” I heard Jack ask. “I’m comin,” Colin replied. He skip-ran down the hallway, his bare feet slap-slap-slapping on the floor. I stood in the doorway of the dining room, hands on my hips, frown between my eyes. “Did you move all the little figures?” exasperated, I pointed at the nativity set. “Colin, I’d already put everything out. You’re not supposed to play with it. Why’d you move everything?”
His hair was so blond then and his eyes so blue. He looked up at me with as much innocence as there is in the world smeared over his little face, “ ‘Cause Mama, aren’t they all there to see the baby Jesus? Now they can all see him,” he smiled up at me matter-of-factly, proud even.
I was humbled and ashamed. My four year old understood it all so much better than I.
Gently, quietly and with all the innocence in the world, Christmas filled every part of me – all at once and in a flash – as I stood in the middle of our dining room. I squatted down on my knees so I could see Colin eye-to-eye. I pulled him to me and hugged him hard. I left that nativity scene exactly the way Colin had placed it for the rest of the season.
When Colin is old enough for someday house presents, I’ll start him with a nativity set. Because he knew, even when his Mama forgot, exactly who we were all here to see anyway.