An ancient rocking chair groaned as its owner settled down. Familiar with the smooth planes of it's worn arms, the old woman eased seat to wood and sighed, bones jockeying to rest.
Content as the cheery fireplace washed over her mind, she yawned and watched as flames spun colored ribbons of neon, comforting Agnes with angel-kisses touched by warmth. They crackled and popped lullabies, tiny sparks of fire, bursts of light crisp against the neatly stacked logs, sampling the air with song. Nearby, an old-fashioned large French window seeped a late afternoon sun shaft to fan a fluid golden gauzed dance floor bridge across the room, spilling small particles of dust dancers to crowd around the occupied wooden rocker’s slates, swirling to waltz in dizzying circles as she pulled a blanket over her lap.
Momentarily freed from daily lists pursued, the old woman’s hands snuggled deep into a Christmas colored afghan. Her breath slowed to touch the cotton of dreams in, the day's tensions out.
As the hearth matched partners of sparked light with shadow, each caressed short bursts of color across Agnes' weathered face. Curious and empathetic, each paused to offer comfort, to kiss dry a lone tinseled tear as her head began to gently nod. Her eyes drew heavy shades closed, and with cadenced breathe, memory’s legs chased trails of winter’s sun beyond her freshly laundered tied-back curtained window.
Dreams knitted of innocence, of pearled youthful energy; an oven filled with gingerbread; the rich aroma of a freshly cut pine tree with it’s emerald arms outstretched seeking to embrace a room, waiting to be dressed with treasured boxed decorations. The high-pitched voices of two small boys sang off-key, kneeling over the filled boxes dragged in from the garage. Both boys were dressed in warm blanket pajamas, zipped up from knee to neck against cold winter nights. Agnes waited as the children settled down before opening the first of many cardboard containers. She choked back tears, swallowing hard, as they sang of Jesus being 'Away in th' manger...'
A unexpected shadow, warm and inviting stood inside the doorway, and Agnes’ heart leaped for joy. Her sons scrambled from the floor, dodging boxes, clinging to their Daddy, still in uniform. He dropped his large duffle bag, and she ran into his arms, soaking in the energy, the love of her family. She rubbed her cheek against his rough-stubble face, the tips of noses kissed and caressed before their lips touched. Tears burned at her eyes. She missed this man, her Love!
The awaiting night forgotten, the rocking chair became new. Winter mornings with winds fresh as peppermint became real; driven by giggles, the warmth of hugs, the taste of hot cocoa. Agnes helped unwrap each fragile glass blown decoration. They worked together, untangling snarled lights, testing each bulb, then gently wound the thick green wires, primary colored Christmas lights clacking together, around the tree. Next, four strands of bubble lights disguised as candles were found places of honor to show up best. She plugged them in, watching the faces of her loved ones as they anticipated the faux candles movements, impatiently waiting for the first flicker through the narrow glass bulbs, warmed by electricity to merge imagination with hope.
She smiled there, in the dream. The grin reached through the past, to what she became, pulled the corners of her lips up, scrunching laugh-lines, relaxing other muscles. REM movement jerked without rhythm behind fragile onionskins of her closed eyelids. Oblivious to time’s forward movement, she was young again, participating in childlike wonder through small children of her own, and each touch was a gift .
The rocking chair slightly moved forward...back, following dreams.
Agnes’ head snapped up. The cold fireplace held no hint of spark. Her living room window’s edges pulled weak light from neighboring homes decorated with pearlescent grays, silvering the space around her, casting much in an eerie otherworld-like glow. Startled and confused, she frantically flayed, jerked to poke fingers through the blanket’s wide webs. Fighting through the darkness, she disentangled herself with an unlady-like snort, huffed, impatiently and tossed the blanket aside. Wiggling her toes back to life, she winced as pinpricks poked from mid-thigh down, nerve endings loudly complaining.
She slowly struggled to stand, dragged the curtains closed and shuffled down the hall to prepare for bed.
The first two Monday afternoons, at exactly 4:30, Agnes called her grown grandson to remind him to stop by, pull her lawn decorations from the garage eves. The third Monday, she called and reminded him that this was a commitment of choice, a tradition. One which he used to enjoy doing.
Agnes was not one to voice vulnerability. But as she'd hang up the phone, her countenance was that of concern. She was starting to worry of being the lone home on her block with a darkened gap commiserating cheer.
As days flew by, her weekly calls doubled, condensed as sharp words absent of mannered protocol. “When are you coming over?” she’d ask, then bribe him with a home cooked meal of his choice.
Two weeks before Christmas, she watched as the second to the last undecorated home showed signs of holiday preparation. The neighbor across the street carried boxes and a ladder from his garage.
Anxious, the last voicemail to her Grandson was unsubtle, consisting of three bulleted words hissed electronically, followed by an irritated slam of the phone, “Where are you?”
A mediator was forced into the family holiday campaign mix when Bill, her grandson got wind of Agnes' message from his wife Linda, whom called him at work. “If you don’t go there Saturday, buddy, pack up and leave. She’s your GRANDMOTHER. Call her now. Oh, and Merry Christmas.”
The digital clock on Bill’s truck consol read 6:45 AM, fifteen minutes late past the promised arrival time. Parking the vehicle curbside of his Grandmother's home, he suppressed a yawn, stretched sleepy muscles and pasted on a false grin. Glancing to the rearview mirror, he quickly ran fingertips through uncombed cowlicks, and wished he'd taken the time to get a haircut. Grandmother would notice. Checking the mirror again, he practiced adding a twinkle to his eye meant to charm, unlocked the door and braced himself for the early morning chill...and spotted her waiting outside.
Watching from the porch, Agnes crossed her arms. One foot impatiently tapped; warm breath blossomed visible cold puffs.
William was in trouble.
Jumping out of the truck, he tried for distraction. “Grandma, Aren’t you cold?”
She wrapped an ancient Christmas jacket’s belt to cinch tighter, lifted the thick collar with needle-pointed heralding angels to hug her neck and ears then shoved bare hands deep into the hand-made coat’s pockets. With a snort, she answered, “I’ve been waiting here since 6:30, hoping that you didn’t go sliding off on a patch of ice.”
While Agnes supervised, Bill precariously balanced over a rickety wooden ladder and wrestled the well-wrapped life-sized plastic crèche gatherers to huddle on the chilly cement garage floor. Cautiously redistributing his weight to the sturdier rungs, he climbed back up to retrieve more. "I shoulda brought the metal ladder from home. One day I'm gonna fall, die at the feet of the Holy Family," he muttered under his breath.
“You want me to take the wrappings off them b’fore putting them out on the lawn?” he grunted as he pulled the last of the stubborn sheep from the rafters.
“Now, Billy, you know that’s my task. You’re doin’ plenty well.”
“Want me to bring down baby Jesus too?”
“You know better ‘en to ask. No. Just bring down the trough please. I won’t use a plastic baby.”
The predestined artificial family and common animals were firmly planted to the front lawn, protective coverings still intact. Bill uncurled the boxed floodlights and lined them up on the walkway. Back inside the garage, he folded the ladder and put it away. Out of the corner of his eye, he nonchalantly observed his Grandmother as she twisted a sprayer to the working end of a water hose. She squinted at the sprayer settings and turned it this way and that, unsatisfied. “Bright Eyes, come check this out, the writing saying what’s what in how to use it has worn off.”
Wordlessly, he readjusted the settings to a gentle mist, volunteered to turn on the faucet, and then stepped aside as Grandma washed a year’s worth of dust from the bubble-wrapped plastic family.
Sensitive to tradition and hungry, Bill shared a breakfast of too-dried pancakes left warming in the oven. Once finished, he rinsed his plate and brought the Christmas tree he bought for his grandmother in from the back of the truck. He had the stand put on at the Tree Farm, and checked it carefully for proper balance, knowing his grandmother was a stickler for such things.
His only other requirement following this portion of the holiday tradition was to hang the top third ornaments in the right pre-ordained spots of Agnes’ Christmas tree. Then, buying time for the bubble-wrap outside to air dry, he helped her neatly fold the squares of tissue which protectively covered each formerly boxed decoration, and carried the empty containers back to the garage.
Finishing his third cup of coffee, Grandson and Grandmother shook the bubble-wrap hanging on the clothesline and agreed that not one bit of moisture hid in the crevices.
With a hearty, honest ‘Thank you, give everyone a kiss for me, and I’ll see you come Christmas’, she drew him into a warm embrace then nudged him towards his truck. Bill turned to wave one last goodbye. She responded with a grinned command to stop off at the barbershop.
With refolded bubble-wrap shelved and out of the way, Agnes busied herself with a spray bottle filled with a cleaning solution, a rag and muscle, wiping unseen dirt from Mary’s shoulder. “Whatcha doin’?” a voice behind her startled.
Dropping the spray bottle, she spun around, grabbing onto Mary’s plastic shoulder for support. Holy Mother and Agnes swayed.
She faced a young girl on a tricycle. The non-plastic of the two drew up tall as both Agnes and Mary stopped bobbling. “What do you think I’m doing?”
Scratching the scalp of one blond pigtail, it wiggled with a pert pink bow on the end. The younger pondered, thoughtful. “Looks kinda like you’re cleaning up Jesus’ family.”
“Yeah, you got it right.” Staring her down, Agnes had no recollection to hook this child to a familiar neighbor’s family. “Are you new here?”
Braids wiggled like two hungry snakes with pink tongues searching the air as she enthusiastically nodded, pointed down the street to the “blue house with the big tree,” She shared that her Mom made her ‘to go outside and make some friends.’
Agnes’ only comment was that she “keep your tricycle off my grass, and go have fun.”
With solemn eyes, the child nodded once as if understanding. "Need some help? I can wait b'fore making more friends besides you."
“No thank you.”
“Well, how comes you’re cleaning them off if they’re outside on th,’ grass?”
“Because they’re dirty.”
“Wasn’t Jesus borned in with cows and horses?”
“In a stable, yes.”
“You don’t have no stable?”
“But if you did, then you wouldn’t need t’ always clean them off. It would be real, an' keep the dirt off 'em all.”
Hinting that the conversation was over, Agnes curtly responded, “I don’t have one made.” Slowly squatting down, she reached for the spray bottle.
“Where’s the baby?”
Irritated, Agnes told her that she wasn’t done setting up the manger scene, that Jesus would be the last brought out.
“Where you gonna put him?”
Pointing to the trough filled with store-bought hay, she let her actions speak alone.
“It’s like the real ones in the pictures, huh?”
“Yes. Now excuse me, but I am busy…”
“Do you got the swaddley stuff that goes around him?”
Was there no end to this child’s questions? “No, Dear, He’s only going to be in a diaper so that everyone can see what he looks like from the street.”
As Agnes sprayed more cleaner into the folds of Mary’s robe, the voice behind her asked, “What’s your name?”
“Agnes. Have a fun day, child, I hope you meet lots of nice friends.”
“My name’s Mary. Just like hers.”
“Good, now go off and play.”
No tricycle squeaked. Agnes pretended to ignore her.
“You should cover him up with a swaddle-thing.”
“Dearest. Swaddling is just a term for a blanket wrapped real tight.”
“It’s supposed to be cold t’night.”
“He’ll be fine. He’s God’s child.”
“But He’s a newborn. I got extra blankets if ’en you need some.”
“Thank you, but no. I’ll leave it as I wish.”
“I could help you make a stable. I used a hammer once sometimes.”
“No, trust me on this young lady, He will stay warm. Now scoot and have fun.”
Another evening was cut short as sleep overtook Agnes facing the fireplace in her rocker. As was the night before, she woke disoriented, confused. Waiting for her limbs to wake, she shuffled towards bed without turning on lights, and paused to sniff the air. Was that gingerbread baking?
Early the following morning, armed with rag and spray bottle Agnes stepped out to the lawn. Starting with the shepherd boy, she sprayed him down, wiped dew and cleaning solution off. In an orderly fashion, she worked from shepherd to sheep, to a calf.
Something pink caught the corner of her eye. Puzzled, she turned to face the trough.
Baby Jesus was wrapped in a bright pink blanket.
Slightly perturbed, she carefully unwound it from the porcelain doll and marched with the blanket down the street and rapped on the new neighbor’s door. Impatient, she shivered against the morning’s chill and pushed the doorbell to ring. Slightly embarrassed, she listened as a loud chime echoed from the inside hallway through the sleeping house. Standing firm, she drew a breath, faced the door as it slowly creaked open, and squared her shoulders.
End Part 1
Defused pale light brightened behind the front door, solidifying color around a large man who looked like he’d rather be snuggled deep in sleep. The right side of his cheek was wrinkled with the truth of a heavy sleeper: a pillow squashed comfortably. Glancing down, Agnes squinted, holding her tongue’s commentary over the worn plaid robe he wore. Her eyes drifted politely back up to his chin, past the tip of his nose, past his eyes and took in his wildly tossed honey-colored hair. “Goodness, you’re a tall drink of water!”
Suppressing a yawn, he leaned against the door-jam, drawing his robe tighter against the morning air. Agnes noted that the pajama bottoms clashed, and his slippers needed replacing.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“Do you have a daughter named Mary?” She held up the blanket for his inspection. He immediately went at full attention.
“Mary? Mary? She’s in bed, sleeping, isn’t she?” Without waiting for an answer he whirled around to check on his child.
Stumbling back to face her, he reached out, grabbed the blanket. “How did you get this?” he hissed. “ No, never mind, wait right here…” and in a flash, he was gone, leaving a blur of blue plaids in his wake.
Just as quickly he returned, large and ominous, blocking the doorway. “Who are you?”
“I’m a neighbor, my name is Agnes. I met your daughter yesterday when I was setting up….”
“Oh yeah, now I remember,” He scratched at his five o’clock shadow. “ Mary was telling me all about it during dinner yesterday.” His eyes narrowed. “She really likes you.”
“Well, yes, an adorable child, but I gave her strict orders…”
A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. The pink blanket looking ridiculous dangling on his arm like a starched white towel carried by a waiter at some fancy restaurant.
“You gave her ’orders’, huh? And how did she respond?”
Agnes curtly nodded towards the blanket. “It doesn’t really matter right now. Isn’t this hers?”
“She needs to be more respectful…”
Did he just stand up a little taller? Straighten his shoulders? “No disrespect intended Miss Agnes, but let me explain how she told this to me and her Mom.”
Quietly Agnes listened as he shared Mary’s concern about ‘baby Jesus’.
Agnes stuck with her routine, shining up the manger scene as husbands and older children were sent to their garages to drag out mowers, leaf blowers and colored lights to replace burnt ones edging homes with color, or family members responsible for tag-teaming the first of Christmas cookie ingredients took lists in hand and universally backed out of driveways, prepared to fight crowds or practice patience while braving grocery stores.
Feeling an unprotected tug deep within her breast, Agnes watched and waved to her next door neighbor as a weary Mom carefully lifted a sleeping child from a car seat. Peter, a four year old boy slide down from the same car, and little legs pumping, left his Mom and younger brother behind.
The old woman’s arms felt empty, she yearned for warmth, the sound of a child sleeping at her breast, lulled by song and story. Watching Peter rocket from car to enthusiastically bang their front door open, Agnes judged - internally insisting that she’d raise them better.
That night, opting for tradition, she pre-slept in her rocker before heading off to bed.
Livid, Agnes paced back and forth on the small front porch of Joe’s home waiting for the door to open. Without a word, she thrust the pink blanket somewhere towards the middle of his wrapped robe, spun on her comfortable slippers and stomped down the two cement steps. Turning back to face the sleepy Dad, her words were curt, to the point, “Teach your daughter to be respectful!”
Later that day, as Agnes moved the soaker hose from the weeded flower bed next to the crèche, a shadow fell, announcing a presence directly behind her.
The visitor politely scooted to be seen. The neighbor boy, Peter, this time sporting remnants of a candy cane smeared across his cheeks.
“Hi,” he said, glued to the lawn.
“Hi yourself,” she muttered. “Can I help you?”
“Nope, I was just wonderin’…” he looked down, pulled an empty cellophane candy cane wrapper from his pocket and wadded it into a ball. Opening his fist, he shyly studied the palmed paper as it crackled back into shape. Looking up to Agnes, he took a deep breath, scrunched the cellophane again. “How come you don’t want Mary’s blanket for Jesus?”
Instead of answering, she asked him to wait for a minute, she wanted to show him something.
Scurrying into her house, she reached down, and with a groan, picked up a large Bible, the one with all the fancy artwork. Wrapped it tightly in her arms, she carried it to the front porch and carefully slid down to sit on the step. Resting the Bible to balance on her knees she patted a spot next to her, inviting Peter to sit.
Agnes flipped through pages to the first group of photos in the first part of the second half of the book. Peter leaned against her, curious. She pointed to a full paged colored photograph and asked, “See this?”
“Most of it, your fingers is kinda in the way…
“You like this picture?” It was Gherardo della Notti’s Adoration of the Shepherds. To the left of the page were two shepherds; behind them partially in shadow was Joseph. The nude form of Jesus was highlighted. Behind him, holding a blanket was Mary.
Agnes turned the page, showing him another manger scene with Jesus dressed the same way. Giving Peter ample time to study the artwork, she turned the pages three more times. In every one the infant was either shown with no clothes on, or bare limbs kissed by hints of lights.
“So, do you understand?” she asked. Nodding his head, he replied, “Yes, you was wrong.”
The four-year-old used teaching skills learned from Agnes, pointing to blankets in each well-documented photograph.
Sighing to stand, Agnes put closure to the conversation, “It’s MY manger scene, and the baby does NOT need a blanket!”
Word travels fast when gassed up by children overcome by sugar. Parents under pressure tuned each out, yet nodded pretending full attention with heads stuck in their refrigerators looking for more butter or eggs. Parents nodded in neighboring homes trying to beat the clock, get Christmas cards finished; parents nodded pretending attention while running vacuums, cleaning out the closets of their guest bedrooms, or with a phone in their ear, scribbling the latest changes of details on flights delayed. The children talked, shared. Parents nodded, and the children, believing this to be the universal signal for agreeing with their plan of action, prepared.
The street shone bright through evening, and all in it slept.
Morning woke Joe not with the alarm, not with Agnes, but with a Police Officer ringing the front door. Standing on the porch, carrying a small stack of blankets, he held them up for Joe to view through the screen and asked, “These belong to you, Sir?”
“Um, only the pink one.” Shivering, he invited the Officer in for coffee. Agnes watched from the sidewalk, fully expecting Joe to walk back outside with his arms handcuffed behind his back.
End part 2
“Are you sure you want to do this, Ma’am? This will be a matter of record.”
Planting her feet firmly, Agnes stuck her cold hands into her robe, weighing the decision’s possible outcome. “I’m not prone to hedgin’ here, Officer; it isn’t as if I didn’t try to work it out with them, but frankly, I see no other recourse. She was defacing my property.” As soon as the words flew from her mouth, she realized how foolish it sounded. However pride raised her chin, and she met his frank stare with her best poker-face.
“Ma’am, the young lady has asked that you talk with her. Would you be open to that?”
Pondering this, Agnes opened her mouth and asked if it was treading into gray legal waters.
The officer sighed, straightened back up then gave her another professional look. With a slight bobble he nodded his head, making sure she understood and metered his words carefully. “I cannot advise you on this, Ma’am,” then leaning down, he whispered, “She’s been crying.”
Following the Officer back to the young girl’s house, Joe met them at the door, silent.
“Mrs. Agnes Matthew would like to speak with Mary Solomon.”
Joe snickered. “Do I need an attorney present?”
Standing toe to toe with Mary’s Dad, Agnes stared him down. “Look, Mr. Solomon, wisdom should suggest that this may be helpful in resolving this issue.”
Struggling to shut his mouth, he led the Officer and Agnes into the kitchen. Warm aromas of fresh brewed coffee wafted. Nodding to the pot, Joe said, “Help yourself. Cups, cream, sugar and spoon are on the counter. Petra just made it. I’ll be right back.”
Agnes was pouring coffee for Officer Harold and herself and did not hear Petra until a low-metered soft voice whispered at her back. “Mrs. Matthew?” Turning on her heel, Agnes splashed coffee over the side of a cup held.
“Oh, I’m sorry! Where do you keep your paper towels…”
Petra stood in front of Agnes with her hand held out to shake. With a puzzled look on her face, she asked, “Did you spill coffee?”
Agnes looked at the spreading liquid on the counter, then at Petra. “Yes…see?”
With a broad grin, Petra answered, “Nope.”
From somewhere around her shoulders, Agnes felt embarrassment flashing to spread up to her face. “Well, good thing. Between the mess I made and my red face…anyway, I clean up my messes so if you would please -.”
“Sure. Turn around. The first cupboard on your right. Right above you.”
Soaking the fluid into the paper towel, Agnes took her time, trying to gather her thoughts. “I didn’t know you were blind.”
“No, doesn’t really come up in conversations. Especially with little girls who are worried about Baby Jesus getting cold, huh?”
Agnes jerked up her head, chin jutting out, defiant. Wadding the paper towel into her fist, she bit her tongue and swallowed hard. Petra leaned back against the refrigerator door, crossing her arms, waiting.
“She needs better supervision.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Why do you think this?”
“She snuck outside at night.”
“No, I mean, then nobody knew. You can’t see…”
“Want some chocolate chip cookies?”
“Mary and I made them last night when she came back from sharing her favorite blanket.”
Confused, Petra motioned for Agnes to sit, reached for the cookie jar, opened the cupboard door on the right to take out a small plate and stacked a generous mountain of cookies. Sitting across from her neighbor, she pushed the plate towards Agnes and grinned.
“Just because I can’t see doesn’t mean I’m blind. I heard her talking herself into giving up this blanket, saying that she can learn to be a ‘big girl’. I heard her say that she couldn’t sleep, worrying about the baby. I went in to check on her, and she asked me to pray with her. Said that you, Agnes,” Petra broke a small chunk of cookie off and deftly dunked it into her coffee, “ ‘was taking such good care of Jesus’ Mom and the other guys’, that maybe you were too tired to hear Jesus crying in the night. I stood at the front door, the light on for her benefit as she ran down to your house and back.”
Rolling up a corner of her napkin, Agnes explained her side. “Listen. Your daughter is a sweetie. I know she has a good heart. I know that she is young, and I am truly, deeply touched that she cares enough to pray for me. But next time she comes over, ask her to look at everything very closely in my front yard. "
Clearing her throat, Agnes’ voice dropped an octave. “The trough was made by my boys when they were teenagers. It was a surprise for me, they said. I laughed when they told me this, since this was a major miracle, those boys were squabbling and wrestling and fighting since before the younger one could crawl. Andrew is 11 months older than Alex. Real boys they were growing up, making fun of the girl in me. Baby Jesus in my yard, he's a doll I had when I was a little girl. I usually kept it on top of my dresser where little boys couldn't break it. They liked to 'kidnap' it, and squirrel it away in one of my drawers. Here I was, their grown Mama, keeping a silly porcelain doll in their house. The only time they didn’t tease me about it was at Christmas, when I’d unload the basket of firewood by the fireplace, put hay in it, and pretend it was Jesus. They'd clamor to all within earshot that everyone but their Mother must have mis-interpreted the Bible, since obviously Jesus was born in a firewood basket.” Agnes chuckled slightly, lost in the memory, and then crushed a crumb of cookie absently into the table. “So they decided to make a real bed for Jesus. Just in case the neighborhood wanted to think their Momma was weird. They locked themselves in the garage, making me promise not to peek. Every once in a while, I’d hear ‘em hollering back and forth, calling each other names starting with ‘stupid’, then winding down to hammer or such.”
Petra listened as Agnes slowly slid her cup across the wooden table, taking small sips her coffee. “My sons woke ME that Christmas morning, flying into my room, all energy full of bounce and noise, wanting me to follow them with my eyes closed. There it was, the most beautiful bed a baby could have, leaning over to one side, sort of splintery on the rough cut edges, nails pounded so hard to keep each piece connected that even the bent ones were nailed flush, embedded into the wood, almost like someone painted them on. Inside, they’d layered hay, and on top was Jesus, naked as a blue jay. When I later asked them why, they said that Jesus wasn’t gonna wear no stupid girl clothes, and that was all I had. Alex ran to his room and we could hear him tossing stuff around in his closet. He came running out with his baby blanket, the one that he squirreled away in the back of his closet. The one which he slept with when his Daddy went overseas. The one that he put aside when his Daddy came back, then said he was too big the next time Dad was sent out.”
Agnes set the cup down. “Some Christmas’ we waited and kept the tree up, the decorations up, Baby Jesus in his new bed for a long time until Daddy came back home. The Christmas Andrew was a senior in High School, his Dad was in Viet Nam. God called him home. That was a real tough Christmas. I can't remember if we even lit the tree up after that news. I tried to be cheery, I think as we opened presents, but I gotta confess. There was no way I could step inside a church. Baby Jesus had to come here. I was too angry at the Jesus he was to become."
Agnes pushed a cookie crumb around, considering her words carefully. "Andrew was like his Daddy. He made top grades in school. He could have gone to most any college. But our flags colors, what his Dad was was important to him. Andrew made a decision, and was afraid to tell me. He was going into the Marine Corps. Found out when I walked into the room and both boys was sittin’ next to the tree. Alex was cutting into the blanket we use for Jesus. Both of ’em, soon as they saw me, just looked up, eyes wide, froze. Asked ’em what they were doing. Alex said he was giving Andy a piece of the blanket to take with him. Neither boy wanted to answer me when I asked where he was going. Nobody.”
Both women sat, silent. “We hugged, and cried, and tried to keep our chins up watching him leave for boot camp. Hugged and cried some more and tried to do the same when he graduated."
Agnes backed up in the chair, caught her breath. "Couldn’t do it the next time I saw him. Buried him with that square he carried. His brother had the rest of the blanket. Before this, he said that we'd use it to wrap Baby Jesus in, give him the love and care we expected in return. Boxed it up, stuck it in my garage. Alex left home. Got married, had a baby boy. Left his wife and son. He drinks, trying to forget, find solace. Every once in a while, he’d show up here, crying, asking if I had that blanket. Said Andy needed it.”
Agnes blew her nose into the napkin.
“Yeah…no. Not really. Alex lives on the streets. Rebecca, his wife did a fine job in raising Bill. But sometimes, I have these nightmares that if I’d just been listening to God a bit more, I could have stopped all this from happening that night, that time when I walked in and saw the two of ’em sitting there, on the floor, with the Christmas lights blinking behind them…”
“There really wasn’t anything you could have…”
“Yes I could have! I was their Mother! I could have influenced them both! Saved them both! Instead, every single year, when I take each one of those figures out - every time I clean off the dirt, the dust, a years worth of stuff stuck to them, I scrub, wishing that I could take back, make whole, make clean, give them another chance…” Agnes bent down, sobbing into her hands.
Reaching out, Petra squeezed Agnes’ arm. Neither women noticed Mary standing off to the side with her Father and the officer behind her. Her Daddy cleared his throat. Agnes jumped, whipping her head to the side, seeing them behind her. Shyly, Mary walked forward, and soberly held Agnes’ tear-filled eyes with her own.
“I’m sorry.” Swinging back, she wiggled through the men, and ran down the hall, pausing only long enough to quietly close the door. Petra stood. “I need to see to my daughter. Agnes, please stay here. Joe, pour this Lady a fresh cup of coffee?”
Mary stayed in her room until lunchtime. Thinking. Thinking about God and His Baby and blankets and war and death and blindness and how crying didn’t work at making anyone feel better.
After lunch, she went outside. That night, she promised her Mother that she would not sneak outside.
The following day, word traveled fast, from gossip at the grocery store, to the post office as people stood in lines, to the emergency room where a young mother, panic-stricken had taken her toddler son who seemed to be vomiting blood. Relieved to discover that it was his passion for red M & M’s which caused his discomfort; a local reporter overheard her sharing Agnes’ latest findings with another Mother holding a wiggly child.
The reporter’s story of the local Counsel man’s fender-bender was put on hold, prioritizing Agnes’ conflict.
“Excuse me. I don’t mean to be rude, but did I hear you right? She found what? A blanket?”
“Yeah, you heard right.”
He explained who he was, found out where the neighborhood was, and then went in search of the details.
“No, I’m sorry. There really isn’t a story. She insists that she didn’t sneak out. Opened the back door and walked.”
Talking with neighbors, talking with Agnes, the reporter wrote, and the newspaper printed the details.
Before dinner was on the table that night, the phone rang enough for Joe to unplug it. Before dinner dishes were cleared, the doorbell was being rung.
Mary stole a peek through the closed curtained window. "Momma, may I have a hotdog?"
"Mary, you just finished dinner! Besides I don't have any hotdogs..."
"Can I have some money to buy one?"
Sliding up behind her daughter, she ran her fingers through her curls. "Nope."
"How 'bout some hot chocolate?"
"Yeah, that sounds like a great idea! Let's make some together."
"Um, can I buy some instead?"
Petra paused. Did her daughter want to go for a drive? "Well, hon, you'll have to ask Daddy if he wants to take you..."
Mary turned, facing her mother. "Well, I'm big enough to walk outside by myself."
"But it's too far..."
Mary frowned, crossing her arms. "I'm big enough to stay in the yard."
A bang from the backdoor being slammed shut caused both to jump. A rush of footfall, and Peter exploded from the kitchen, gasping for breath.
Mary ran to her friend, patting his back. As color paled from bright red face, it was easy to see more peppermint smeared to line his lips.
"Yeah...but boy, you are missing some good food and stuff!" He reached into his pocket, pulled out an unbleached napkin to show bright edible decorations from a crumbled cookie. "Here. I saved this for you!"
Petra asked, "Peter is there a party going on?"
"Yeah, it's a pretty good one too. A billion tons of food, a guy is doing balloons. Some guy from the church down the street says that his friends from another church are sending their choir to sing some songs. There's a lady wanting to find out if she could call her sister or something to bring a pet deer over. Maybe I could ride it."
"Yeah. Some other guy was trying to bring a big truck over with some other reindeer, he said that he had a fake Santa suit, and wanted to set some stuff up to take pictures to sell with a store's name on it, but the guys down the street got mad and put a big truck in the street to block him away. Then more police showed up when the santa guy started to act all big, use bad language. I saw him jump outta his truck, and it looked like they was gonna fight. But they stopped when someone let the reindeer out."
Peter nodded, eyes brightly lit. "Yeah, suddenly everyone was screaming, the reindeer was making a big racket. Older people was running to get out of th' way. But Miss Agnes..."
Petra's hands flew to her chest. "Oh my gosh! Agnes! Is she hurt?"
"Oh, heck no. She was real mad, I could see her in her yard, doing that mean eye thing she does. But when she saw a deer running towards her house, she started to get away really fast. But she don't do that as well as Mom said she did when she wasn't old. The deer ran, then I couldn't see her no more 'cause everybody seemed to run to catch that creature."
Mary's eyes grew huge. "What happened?"
Peter shrugged. "They all stopped."
"Yeah, it was over pretty fast when the reindeer got sick."
He grinned sheepishly. "I thought that reindeer musta liked candy canes. I won a box of 'em playing Spin the Wheel outside. I think that deer ate more than he should have."
"Well, I ran in my house, ran some more up the stairs, ran to the balcony, and then climbed up on the roof to my quiet spot. I saw the deer run right up onto Miss Agnes' front yard, and stopped just like the cartoon animals do."
Peter demonstrated by running to the front door, sliding on his heels to his backside, then using sound effects of brakes floored to stop, bounced back on his feet.
"I could see big chunks of dirt and grass going up. Miss Agnes walked back like this," with his back firmly planted to the door, he felt around for the doorknob.
He grinned. "I love his deer antlers. He took a few steps up to the porch like he lived there with Miss Agnes. Then he stood real still. Then got very sick."
"Ohmygosh! On Agnes?"
"Oh no! But right next to her. Some guys had cameras."
"We need to see Agnes!"
Peter shrugged. "OK. But want to get some money first to buy some stuff?"
"At the party?"
Petra handed Mary her jacket. "I don't think so. Besides what sort of party charges for refreshments?"
Shrugging into her jacket, Petra opened the door, then froze, listening to cameras whirl, voices shout. She yanked her daughter's wool hat over her child's head.
"Mary," She whispered, "I smell popcorn. Hotdogs.."
"Yeah! And there's the one selling hot chocolate too!"
Pushing Mary behind her, she quickly closed the door. "Peter! Quick! Go lock the backdoor!"
Petra tried calling Agnes, but every time she plugged in the phone, it rang. She tried her cell phone, but Agnes either wasn't answering, or had unplugged her phone as well.
Instead, she managed to reach Pricilla, Peter's mom through her cell phone. "You wouldn't believe it! It's like a three ring circus! Ed and I are going around and banging on News trucks to let 'em know that they're pretty close to the mall, and that they're having some pretty darned good sales. Anything to get them to go away!" She paused. "It's getting pretty cool out here. Petra, would you mind doing me a favor?"
"As long as it's from the house, yeah."
"Would you have Mary look outside and see if the hot chocolate vendor is still there? I really need something to warm me up."
"Ok...well then, would it be ok if Peter spent the night at your house? Figured it would be a great time to finish Christmas shopping since everyone is at your place..."
"Sure. Why not. Might be a grand adventure for the both of 'em."
During the night, the camera crews were distracted by a quickly moving fire blazing through a partially built empty group of condominiums on the outskirts of town. Though no one was injured, it provided Mary and Peter with time to run to the Solomon's home unobserved, yet 'watched' by Petra.
Later, Joe didn't stir as Petra rose from her bed, slipped into her robe. She followed Mary and Peter to the porch and stood very still, listening to the quiet voices of children.
Pounding to the door woke Petra. She jumped from the bed, reached for her robe as Joe gently nudged her back down. "I'll take it this time..."
"No you won't..." She scrambled from the bed. "We both will."
On the other side of the front door stood a highly agitated Agnes, a police officer and a large box between them filled with tossed blankets. Behind them stood the eyes of cameras, boom mics jockeying for position between them and a crowd of tossled tired looking specialists in wrinkled clothes.
The officer spoke, nodding towards the box. "Any of these look familiar?"
"Just the pink one Sir."
"The rest is from us other kids."
Peter's voice squeaked from behind Joe and Petra. He pushed his way through the protective bodies of Mary's parents, held his chin up and looked up into the officer's face. "We all decided that Jesus needed warming up. It was my idea, so," he held his thin arms out. "I'm ready to go to jail. You don't have to tell my Mom though, do you? It might make her upset."
The officer cleared his throat. "I don't think it's necessary."
Peter stuck his chin out a little more, took another step forward. Agnes noticed his Superman slippers peeking out from the hem of his too long pajama legs and huffed.
"Well," she sighed, "I suppose their intentions were right. Can't help it if they're unsupervised..."
A voice carried from somewhere in the knotted crowd,:"Nah, he broke the law. You gotta take him in.” The crowd scurried, half towards the waiting patrol car, half waiting with the buzz of electronics to see how it was going to be played out.
Peter piped up. "I know my rights. I watch TV. And I know when I do wrong. Mom says that I should tell the truth, it's never too late. His lip quivered, but the front camera crews pointing low caught the image. "I did it. Throw me in jail. Leave Mary alone."
The officer caught Agnes' look as she rolled her eyes. Made his decision. Reached behind him and pulled out his cuffs. Peter's hands were still extended. The handcuffs snapped, the cameras snapped, Peter lowered his arms, and the metal cuffs slid from his wrists, hit the twin Supermen on his feet and thudded to the cement porch. Wordlessly, Peter crouched, wiggled both hands back inside the bracelets, and holding his hands up, solomnly looked at the officer. "I'm ready."
"Good. Can we go in the kitchen and talk?"
"Yes!" Agnes, Joe, Petra, and Mary yelled in unison. The crowd gasped. Someone shouted, "Better check them cuffs! He looks dangerous!
The officer stepped between Agnes and Peter and whispered. "On second thought, can someone call his parents and let him know we're going on a little ride?"
"Hey cop! Where's the kid's attorney!"
"If he's late for school, is this gonna be a valid excuse?"
"What about the old lady? We think she's been secretly abusing them reindeer? Did you see how one reacted to her last night?"
"Has anyone called the Animal network station?"
Joe gently pushed Agnes, Petra and Mary inside. Hustling to Peter, he stood on one side of him, the officer to the other. "Any volunteers to visit the jail here?" He asked. The crowd parted, snapping more pictures.
Officer Makirite glared at the crowd, opened the car's backdoor for Peter, and whispered, "Mr. Joe can go with us if you want, son. I'm hungry. Want some pancakes? We'll call your Mom first, then she can meet us over at the restaurant. But it will keep these guys away.
Peter stepped from the curb, balancing one foot inside the car and shook his head. The cuffs fell off again, and cameras caught the action. Scrambling to retrieve them from the dry leaves in the gutter, Peter asked loud enough for all to hear, "They keep fallin' off. Is it ok if I just hold 'em?
"He WHAT?" was Pricilla's only comment after answering the phone, grabbing her keys, and heading out the door.
Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men, all the animals and Baby Jesus were ignored that day by Agnes. She opened her door, spray bottle and cloth in hand. But the barrage of curiosity seekers and neighbors protective towards the younger set were loud and aggressive. "There she is!"
"Is it true that you hate kids?"
"That you're making a statement against Christianity?"
"WHAT!!!" Agnes' head snapped, eyes narrowed looking into the professional media faces prepared to Go On Camera.
A well groomed young woman scrambled to Agnes' porch and frantically motioned for her crew to stay close. She beamed the older lady her famous 5 PM News Smile, then said, "Word out is that you've chosen to add the visual of a baby Jesus with nothing on as a visual image that Christianity has gone cold.
"WHAT!!!?" Agnes started forward, but a strong grip yanked her back, and roughly tugged her back towards the door. Bill, her grandson hissed in her ear.
"Let's go inside."
"Bill! How, when did..."
"Tell you in a minute. Just go inside, please!"
Two minutes later, Agnes stood fuming and pacing in the kitchen, arms wound tight across her chest. Frowning, she spit out words. "So let me see if I got this right. You saw a reindeer getting sick at my feet, heard someone from the news saying that I'm somehow inhibiting the meaning of Christmas with these kids, and that I'm practically the head of a cult that's worshiping satan?"
Bill sat at the table and calmly stirred his coffee. "No, I didn't say that. No one's accusing you of wearing black and chanting leftovers from bad sci-fi movies. They're just saying you ain't being sensitive to kid's feelings. That you aren't HEARING how they feel."
"Well, I FEEL like all I'm hearing is privacy being shredded because people are more willing to listen to a bunch of kids during Christmas time. You know very well that if this would have happened, oh, in August, it would have been ignored or one-lined after the comics."
"Um, I don't think so, Grandma." Bill reached for one of Grandma's Snickerdoodles. "History suggests that Jesus was born in August..."
"Close your mouth Bill."
Bill dropped his chin and smiled into his coffee cup.
Against his Grandmother's wishes, in spite of her grumblings, he spent the day, and the night at her house. She refused to leave.
She woke with a scream. "I can't believe this! Where is Ernie!"
Startled, Bill fell off the couch, fought his way out of the tangled pink sheet and quilt. "What? Who's Ernie?"
Agnes stood at the window, staring outside.
"MY Ernie! The lamb!"
Bill backed his way to the couch and yawned. "What are you talking about?"
"The biggest one. His name is Ernie."
"You named a plastic sheep after your Uncle?"
Agnes paused, "No. I just liked the name. I name everyone out there."
"No. I am not. And look. "
She pulled the curtain aside.
"See? He's supposed to be there, between Rodney and Baxter."
"What about your Aunts? They out there too?"
"Susanna, Ginger, Daisyanne, yes, of course."
Bill raised a corner of the curtain and peered out. The crowd milled about, most bored. What was left of Agnes' green lawn was trampled, and like a missing pulled tooth, Ernie was sorely missed among the Nativity scene. Baby Jesus, comfortably sleeping in the wobbly bed wore a lime green blanket. Hooked to the side was a crib mobile with dancing blue Smurfs, and next to the faux child was a worn teddy bear.
Thank goodness Ernie's disappearance kept Agnes from looking at the infant...
Agnes wedged between the curtains and window, pressed the palms of her hands against the glass and slowly gazed from the yard to the street. As the crowd flowed and clumped into smaller groups, cars of every size and color peeked through the curb as far as her eyes could see. A contingency of cheerful red and green robes from a children's choir neatly snuggled an antsy crew of wiggly bodies distracted by cameras everywhere. Their choir director was frantically waving her arms, the wide bands of her robe flapping like a wounded bird. A bundled character with a dark knitted cap pulled over his ears pushed a cart steaming with hot drinks, stopping to fill paper cups with liquids. Children darted here and there. A line formed next to where Baby Jesus was 'sleeping', and Agnes slowly smiled. Looked like the children finally got the message, wanted to stop and pay respects, ponder on The Reason For The Season.
She leaned forward, her forehead touching the cold glass. She didn't want to go back outside, and for the moment was ignored by all as the choir was being jockeyed into position.
The morning sky was gray, the people lit up by the golden weaves of camera lights.
Below, the lawn was brittle, brown, trampled by hordes of uninvited guests.
Yet, the line of children grew long, beyond Agnes' vision. She lifted the lock securing the window. With a tug, she opened it a fraction, to hear the children's choir now hidden by those in line facing the manger.
Agnes did a double-take, to the child standing closest to the window. A little girl dressed in pink from head to toe, she held a neatly folded square of what looked to be a blanket. Agnes quickly scanned down the line. Every child was holding a blanket, and walking away, their arms were empty.
Pressing closer to the window, Agnes' face washed from inner heat. Someone had placed a bright blue tarp neatly on the ground next to the Manger Scene, and it was stacked with a small hill of colored blankets.
Agnes jumped back, stepping on the long curtain's hem and lost her balance. She heard Bill push the coffee table aside, but it was too late. She watched the French window's squares sink, moving picture frames highlighting the first drifts of snow, listening as the first strands of high voices singing "Away in the Manger," and woke slapping paramedics dressed in white.
A flurry of activity sent soft swirls of lightweight snowflakes through the air as metal legs from a stretcher clanked to the sidewalk. Arguing over the embarrassment and need to be flung and strapped to a wobbly cold gurney Agnes vocalized loudly enough to be caught on tape.
Sticky warm substance wrapped between the back of her head (which hurt) and some sort of material.
Fearing for her life as the bed tilted, rocked, she clung to the cold metal braces and was lifted as on air.
The crowd was silent, still, parted between the door and the ambulance. Agnes shivered uncontrollably. The familiar face of a child held up a blanket, said, "She's cold! Cover her's up!"
As the paramedics wheeled her towards the flashing red lights, Agnes last conscious memory was that of weight covering her.
Agnes' face flushed with embarrassment. The picture hit the newspaper's front page. Bill didn't want to show it to her. She spent nearly 24 hours in the hospital under observation from a concussion and had a small swatch of hair neatly cut from the back of her head. She needed 7 stitches to close the wound.
The hospital was requested to defer all visitors but a select few; she was bored and suffered from a horrendous headache. Even her eyelashes hurt. It was amazing how a head injury could affect the whole body, for every muscle ached.
Turning on the television, even on low proved nothing but shame during holiday-related Newsbreaks. "I guess nothings happening on the war-front, huh?" She grumbled. "What happened to the yearly updates with the temporary shelters and such? Shouldn't the focus be on them, so's folks know that their required moment of Good Cheer in outreach is reaching out?"
"Well, I don't know Grandma," Bill responded with his deep voice, "But the free publicity isn't harming me any. People kinda feel sorry for me once they know that I'm your Grandson. He held up the newspaper again and pointed to the blankets caught in mid-air. The photograph looked as though she was suspended on a metal magic carpet, eyes nearly closed, white faced.
He snapped the page open, folded it and held out another photograph. "Look at this one!"
Agnes adjusted her glasses and winced at the close-up shot of Jesus in the trough, with a wall of blankets behind him.
While Agnes studied the article, a nurse stepped in and whispered to Bill, then quietly left the room. Bill cleared his throat, "Grandma, I have an errand I gotta run. I'll be right back." She absently waved him off.
Bill gently shook her awake. Groggily she accepted a few sips of cold water, not making sense of what he was saying.
Glancing up at the clock, he reached for the television remote and sat in the chair next to her bed. "I think this would give you a better idea, Grandma," and keyed the channel to one of the local stations.
"You like humiliating me or what? I don't particularly want to watch any more nonsense" she primly replied.
"Nah, this is a little different. Just watch, please?"
The camera faded from the pretty blond woman at the news desk to a live feed right outside of Agnes's house. The camera started with a close-up of her Baby Jesus, backed up to show the trough. The young man's voice-over was explaining the story, complete and true, about Alex and Andrew.
"How in the world did they get....?”
"You had no right!"
"It wasn't me."
"...when the Police showed up to arrest the man whom allegedly stole..."
"Stole what?" Agnes spit the words out.
"...he was cheered on by the crowd..."
"...until Miss Solomon insisted that one blanket be left behind for the Christ-child"
"The blankets? Someone stole the blankets? I couldn't keep them off my property, and now someone 'sneaks' in, with a whole crowd surrounding 'em and steals them? Have they all gone stark raving crazy?"
"...but the story doesn't end here, folks. This is a neighborhood just like yours. Like mine. Minus maybe reindeer that get sick from eating too many candy-canes, and little kids torn from electronic games wanting to make sure a baby stays warm. Oh, and perhaps all the hot chocolate you can drink right outside your door."
“Mrs. Agnes Matthew's is recovering in the hospital after falling inside her house. Although she seemed an irritant to the children of this community for her hard-hearted attitude towards draping a blanket over the doll representing Christ at birth, their concern for her was evident, and touching."
Thirty seconds of film showed the drama of a waiting ambulance, Agnes descending the porch like fallen royalty, and blankets snapping to float over her.
He spoke from the television again. "When this gentleman showed up..." One of the cameras caught the tall form of a man with slumped shoulders shuffling away from Agnes' yard pulling a child's wagon filled with blankets. The next short feed showed Officer Makirite handcuffing him. As the officer directed the man to turn, he looked up at the camera. Agnes gasped and leaned forward, eyes burrowing into the television screen.
"He said he was taking the blankets to Open Hands shelter, where he lived. When Officer Makirite verified that this is where he lives, the officer then was able to contact his son. William Matthew gave permission to his father, Alex Matthew to share the much needed blankets. Alex Matthew then confessed to taking Ernie, his mother Agnes' lamb. When asked why, Alex only shrugged his shoulders and said that it was always his favorite sheep when growing up, and he wanted to have something close to him from home."
Agnes wiped tears from her eyes.
"Grandma, there's more..."
The camera swept its eye from the manger scene to Agnes' front porch. The door was plastered with cards, Get Well and Christmas, mostly scrawled in crayon and markers with childish hands. Ernie faced the door.
"Why..." Agnes asked aloud.
"Why, you might ask?" the reporter questioned, "Alex Matthew said that he thought his Mother might need it more.
Three weeks later, Agnes, Alex and Bill officially signed the last of the papers for a non-prophet organization called Agnes' Lamb, and everyone was invited to the party. At the end of the evening, Agnes sat in her rocking chair, warmed by the fire.
Alex quietly stepped behind the chair and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. "Thank you Mama."
She closed her eyes, a soft smile curling her lips. "Going to bed?"
"Don't forget to turn off the outside lights."
Alex peeked through the window first, anxious as always until he spotted the soft material from Mary's blanket wrapped tightly around the doll.
"Is he warm?"
"Yep, he sure is."
"Then all is right in the world, isn't it son?"
“Yes, Mama, I suppose it is.”
Alex turned to go to bed, then faced his mother. Tilting his head slightly, he sniffed. “Mom?”