TITLE: The Creche
By Kathy Davidson
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Jake Dayton ran home, it was the end of the last school day before Christmas vacation. Jake was glad to leave third grade reading, writing, and arithmetic until the new year. He was eager to see if his Dad had gone back to work at the nearby plant. Dad had been off work for about two months and every night before bed time the family gathered together for night time prayers and asked for God to bless the plant managers so they could open again. Jake knew that each day that his Dad had been out of work, his Mom had grown more worried and though she was working, her job at the chain bookstore downtown did not pay near enough to keep the family going. And worst yet it was Christmas, where would they get money to buy gifts or Christmas dinner fixin’s.
Jake threw off his coat and ran into the kitchen. Dad was sitting at the table newspaper opened. Jake could make out the headline on the front page, “TEXTILE PLANT REMAINS CLOSED FOR HOLIDAYS, MANAGEMENT HOPEFUL FOR NEW YEAR.” Dad put the paper aside, and he and Jake exchange looks.
Jake could tell by his Dad’s expression, that he was about as low as Jake had seen him since the day he came home with his layoff slip. Jake wanted to run into his room shut the door and cry, but he didn’t, he waited for Dad to say something.
“Well, Jake, I guess you can read the headlines here. No work until the New Year it says, I know that you are disappointed and so am I. But good news maybe by January I’ll be back to work. What’d you say? Let’s just postpone Christmas until then,” said Dad.
“Oh, Dad are you kidding, we can’t just postpone Christmas,” cried Jake. He could see Dad was serious. We’ve got to get busy and decorate, Christmas is coming and no matter what, we have to celebrate Jesus birthday, said Jake.
“Okay, Jake, I hear you, and it would make your Mom happy to come home tonight to a decorated house,” said Dad, though he was not cheerful.
Mom was working at the local chain bookstore and would not be home until the store closing at nine. She had gotten the job when Dad was laid off and although Dad did not like his wife working especially while Jake was home, they needed the money.
Dad and Jake went down the stairs and to the closet to pull out all the Christmas decorations. There would be no real live tree this year, but they still had a small tabletop fake pine tree they could decorate. They pulled the tree out and carried it upstairs first. Then one by one Jake and Dad pulled the cardboard boxes from under the stairs and carried them upstairs to the great room above. They had more decorations than tree, so Jake was careful to select the ornaments that had special meaning. He and his Dad left the ball ornaments, garland, and tinsel in the boxes.
Jake could tell that Dad was really not too excited about decorating, so he tried to be as cheerful as possible. They started with the tree and Jake asked Dad about the ornaments. Mom always told Jake each year about where the ornaments came from, what year or something special about each one. Dad did not seem to know any of this information, so
Jake told Dad about the crystal angel that was given to them by Aunt Grace who died last year, and the bell that said “Baby’s first Christmas”, that Mom had bought at the Hallmark store. It was small stocking blue for a boy. Jake unwrapped a white and gold bell with cursive writing, “Our First Christmas, Jamie and Cynthia,” and hung it on the tree. Dad did not seem to care, and in fact the more Jake brought up the memories, the more irritated Dad got with the whole decorating business.
“Jake, let’s just get this stuff out. Mom will be home soon, and she doesn’t want to come home to Christmas mess. We’ve got to hurry,” said Dad.
“But, Dad, this is how me and Mom always do it!” cried Jake.
“Well. I’m not MOM!” shouted Dad. He could see the hurt in James’s eyes, but it was already said. He was trying to be positive, Lord, but all he could think about was the bills, the money, and the thought of Christmas without presents for his family.
Jake got quiet, and together they hung the fir garland around the kitchen, put out the Christmas figurines of Santa and Frosty, and turned on the lights. It wasn’t as good as Mom, but Dad was glad to have the task over with and began to lug boxes back to the basement with Jake
“Jake, crawl under the stairs and I will hand you these boxes. Be careful some of them have picture frames and other breakables in them from upstairs,” said Dad.
“Hey, Dad, said Jake. There’s another box under here.”
“What does it say, Jake,” asked Dad.
“Carpenter crèche? What’s a crèche? asked Jake.
Dad didn’t answer right away so Jake began pulling the box out from under the stairs.
“Leave that box under the stairs, Jake, we’re finished,” said Dad.
“But Dad, said Jake, I want to see what it is! Is it something for Christmas?”
Jake had the box out from under the stairs. It was a very old cardboard box, water stained and the markings were from an old department store that had gone out of business long before Jake was born. Jake opened the box, it smelled old and dusty, and this box had not been opened in a long time.
“Dad, you didn’t answer me, what’s a crèche?” asked Jake.
“Look inside, you’ll see, said Dad.
Jake opened the top wider and looked inside the box. All he could see at first was straw, but then he could see that wrapped in the straw was something wooden.
“Careful Jake, said Dad, those pieces are almost as old as me.”
“What are they Dad?” asked Jake. He picked up a wooden figure, unwrapped the straw from it to see that the figure was of a man with a crooked staff, carved with a robe not pants and shirt. The man had a kind face and was smiling a kind of half smile, kinda like his Dad’s smile. It was funny; the figure reminded him of Dad.
“I haven’t thought about these in years,” said Dad, as he took the box from Jake and carried up the narrow stairway to the great room. Gingerly he put down the box on the dining room table and slowly and carefully unwrapped each figure until the box was empty and the dining room table was filled with the wood carved figurines.
“Hey, Dad, remember, you were gonna tell me, the meaning of crèche, said Jake.
Oh, crèche, it’s French for manger, actually a three dimensional art representation of the nativity scene. But for our sakes here in the United States, we would say that it is a French word for a nativity scene,” said Dad.
“Where did Mom get this one, it sure looks old,” said Jake, while picking up the wooden pieces and examining them one by one.
“Well, Jake, said Dad, they’re not Mom’s, they’re mine. You see Jake; I helped your Great Grandfather Dayton carve these a long time ago. I was older than you. He lived with us after Great Grandmother Dayton died. In fact these carvings were his last; he died before the next Christmas. I had completely forgotten that they were here.”
“Gee, Dad, how could you forget these,” said Jake.
“I don’t know Jake, these sure take me back to another hard time in my life, said Dad, a time like now for my Dad and Mom, and Grandpa Dayton.”
“We need to put them out, don’t you think?” asked Jake.
“Oh, I don’t know Jake, they’re really old and the manger is all crumbling, the shavings we glued for moss is falling off. Maybe we should just put it back in the box,” said Dad.
“Come on Dad, persuaded Jake, let’s glue the shavings back on and while we’re working you can tell me the story. It’ll be just like Mom, when she tells me about the ornaments and decorations and stuff.”
“Okay Jake, I’ll get some carpenters glue from the shop and will gather some new grass for the stable,” said Dad.
Together Jake and Dad went into the backyard to the shed that Dad called his “shop.” Inside Dad kept his push mower, various tools for working on the car and in the house, several rusted paint cans. On his work bench were wood carving tools that he had inherited from Great Grandpa Dayton. They were covered with dust; Mr. Dayton had not used them in years. He had been too busy with starting a family and working ten to twelve hour shifts at the local steel mill.
Dad searched through the assorted cans of DW-40, flat tire fixer, and caulk until he found his bottle of carpenter glue.
“Jake, look around in the back yard for some dry loose grass, Dad said. We can use it on the roof of the stable. I am going to find my bottle of tungsten oil. We’ll polish the figurines with the oil and clean them up real good before we put them out.”
Jake only had to hear Dad once. He was so glad Dad’s mood had changed and was eager to hear the story behind the wood carved crèche’. Jake gathered up the loose grass in a small tin bowl and brought it to the shop.
“How’s this, Dad”, said Jake. He gave Dad the bowl filled with loose dry grass.
“That will do just fine”, Dad said.
Jake and Dad headed back inside. Normally Dad would have used the glue in the shop as a precaution from getting it on the countertops of the kitchen, but night had already fallen, and the temperature was dropping. It was below 32 degrees according to the old clock with temperature gauge that hung in the only window of the shop.
Back inside Dad and Jake rubbed their hands together. Dad had been forced to keep the heat inside on 65 degrees to reduce the electric bill during his lay off. Mom, Dad, and Jake kept light jackets on inside the house and when necessary turned the kitchen stove on briefly to warm the air, then right back off.
Dad got the newspaper he had been reading from the kitchen table, careful to not to use the news or the sales papers that he knew his wife, Belinda, would want to search through on the kitchen counter top.
“Here, Jake, said Dad, you put clumps of grass where I put the glue on top of the stable.”
Dad carefully dusted off the stable, removing the old grass and wood shavings onto the newspaper. Then he dropped the yellow carpenters glue in small curling ribbons on the
roof of the stable. Jake carefully placed clumps of the loose grass he had collected, covering the glue.
“There, Dad said, that should do it. We’ll let the glue dry on its own and then we will take Mom’s hair dryer on slow and cool and finish it. That will also help to remove some of the loose grass as well.”
Dad brought the old cardboard box to the kitchen table and with Jake they took out the carved figurines of the nativity scene. In all there were eighteen separate carvings.
“Wow, Dad these look really good. Better than the ones in the department store. I like them in just the wood with no paint,” said Jake.
“Well, Jake, that is just the way Grandpa Dayton wanted them. He wanted them to be natural, out of God’s stuff, he would say as we carved, said Dad. Grandpa was real particular about the wood he used when carving. And with this he was very particular. He made a trip to the old sawmill outside town for just the right wood. He would not use pine, only oak would do for this crèche’. It took several months to gather just the right oak wood scraps, clean of defect from the mill. He got the wood scraps, because at that time my Dad was out of work and we were just barely making ends meet. Dad was doing odd jobs and Mom was doing other peoples laundry. Grandpa Dayton could not work, he was sick. Later that winter we found out it was serious and before the next Christmas he had passed away and joined my Grandma Dayton. As I look back now, I think that he might have known that this Christmas would be his last.”
“How old were you Dad, when you carved these,” said Jake.
“Older than you son, I was around fourteen, said Dad. I was mad at the world for my Dad not working, mad at my Mom for not buying me the cool stuff to wear, mad at the school for keeping me in classes that I thought were not useful, and mad at Grandpa Dayton for trying to interfere in my world of rock music, video games, and tough guy antics at the local drug store. You see, Jake, I was not a Christian during my growing up years like you. Dad didn’t see the point in going to church, and Mom went on occasion, but she had to spend a lot of Sundays doing laundry that people wanted to pick up Sunday night before the beginning of the week. Grandpa Dayton loved God and wanted to go to church, but with no one to drive him; he had to forgo church attendance, so he spent Sundays out in a shop like mine. He listened to local radio preachers on an old AM transistor radio and many Sundays we would here his booming baritone voice as he sang along with the hymns.”
“Do you remember what his favorite hymn?” asked Jake.
“Yes, yes I do, come to think of it, Love Lifted Me,” said Dad.
Dad began to hum the tune and sang the chorus for Jake. He ended with a loud love lifted….me!
“Wow, Dad, you got a booming deep voice too!” exclaimed Jake.
Dad laughed and it was the first time in a long time that Jake had seen his father in such a good mood. Dad found some old torn white T-shirts in his drawer. Dad cut them to make small rags and together Jake and his Dad put a little oil on them and carefully polished the wooden figurines. The oil removed the dusty build up and the oil seemed to make each pieces come to life beneath the rags.
As life came to each piece with addition of the oil, Jake could see on Dad’s face a peace that he had not seen in a long time, the time before the job loss, and the weeks of rejection in finding other work.
“Okay, Dad, tell me about the crèche’, did you carve it or did Great Grandpa Dayton?” asked Jake
“Well, Jake, said Dad, it was both of us. But I was not a willing carver at first. Some things happened that put me at home for the month before Christmas that year. And at the time I thought it was going to be the worst month of my life.”
Dad was serious now. Jake realized that Dad’s story was not one he wanted to repeat and yet he so wanted to hear about Great Grandpa Dayton and his curiosity about the crèche’ was greater than wanting to finish decorating and fix supper before Mom came home.
“So, Dad, will please tell me?” asked Jake.
“Sure, Jake, I’ll tell you, it something you need to know about me and about Grandpa Dayton, said Dad. I tell you while the glue is still drying on the stable. Look Jake, all the pieces are clean, just let them dry. My I wouldn’t have guessed that these figurines would look so good and stand the test of time, but I guess it is just like my memory of the days we worked, Grandpa Dayton and I, in between the books and talks, was the carving.”
Dad set the each piece on the counter to dry. He counted the pieces and picked each one up examining it for any spots left without oil. As he looked at each he began to tell Jake about the month before Christmas when he was fourteen.
“I was fourteen the year Grandpa Dayton died, began Dad. He and Grandma Dayton had come to live with us when I was five. Their health was not good, Grandma had been diagnosed with cancer the year before and the medical bills, trips for chemotherapy had cost them all of there savings. It became necessary to sell their house and move in with us
so that they could use the money for her treatments and give what little financial help to our family with the small pension checks they received each month.
I was happy at five to have my grandparents come to live with me. Less than two years after they came, Grandma Dayton died. Grandpa Dayton lived on with us; his great faith in seeing Grandma again was a mystery to me. Mom and Dad had not carried me to church much, always busy working, but Grandpa and Grandma Dayton had told me stories from the Bible and I especially loved the stories about the miracles of Jesus. Together we prayed for Grandma Dayton to be well, but when she died, I could not understand why the stories of Jesus’ healing did not happen for Grandma. I was about eight when she died. From then on I had more difficulty in believing Grandpa Dayton, because I had not really believed in Jesus for myself only for Grandma and Grandpa.
The years went on, Grandpa living with us and we were close. Each day I would come in from school to spend hours in Grandpa’s shop as he worked on small machines for pay to help out with the money and when he did not have a machine to fix. a lawnmower motor to repair, he always had a wood carving project. I sat and watched as his big, rough hands would take a misshapen scrap of wood and turn it into a dog, a cat, or many times a figure from the Bible. He carved animals for Noah’s ark, David and Goliath, and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. As he carved he would tell me the stories over and over again. Sometimes he would tell of his courtship with Grandma or about the days when he was a little boy and how his Dad had helped him develop the love of carving. He told how his Dad had related to him the miracle of taking a left over scrap of nothing but kindling wood, and through the talent given to him by God, making that scrap into a carving that spoke the glory of God to all who saw it. Some of what Grandpa was saying went over my head as a little fellow, but the love I saw in Grandpa’s eyes when he talked about God was not, and I longed for the kind of faith he had, but I was always discouraged by the death of Grandma. How could God who delivered Daniel from the lion’s mouth or healed the lame man at the pool, not heal my Grandma? Especially when God knew how much we loved her.
As I grew older, my time became full of after school friends sports teams, and video games at the local arcade. I spent more and more time hanging out with friends who I am sad to say were not good ones. They liked to shoplift candy bars and cigarettes from the local drug store. They knew how to steal drinks from the drink machines and fix the arcade games for free plays. I thought they were cool and that I was tough. I avoided my parents and my Grandpa at home. When he asked me to join him in the shop I would make excuses to do homework, which I didn’t do, or that I had ball practice, which I did not have because of my lack of desire for practice I was cut from the team. If parents asked me about what how I was doing at school I would lie and say passing. My friends helped me fix my report card so that it looked like I had passing grades, when in reality I was making D’s and F’s and the notes that were sent home I got out of the mailbox before they came home and threw them away.
I was leading a life that was deceptive and on the road to criminal acts which finally happened the year I was fourteen. My buddies and I decided to break into the school and paint the walls with graffiti, turn over teacher’s desk, and look for any money left in teachers’ desk. We were particularly angry at our history teacher. He was your absent-minded professor type who loved history and gave reports to write when we acted up in his class. My two best friends at the time, Jeff and Matt, decided to get him back. We especially trashed his room, scattering his collection of World War II magazines on the floor, stomping and tearing the pages, and using spray paint to spray Nazi swastikas on the chalk board. We thought we had gotten away with the whole break in until the next day when the vandalism came on the news and we realized we had forgotten to cover one of the hallway cameras. There we were on the tape!
The police came to our door and I was taken in handcuffs to the police station. Mom and Dad along with Grandpa Dayton came down in the family car. Principal Williams was there to press charges. I sat down on the bench with Jeff and Matt as our parents met with the police, the principal, and the school superintendent. I was ashamed and wished a thousand times I had not let myself get involved, but I couldn’t let Jeff or Matt think that I was a “sissy or a chicken”, so I put on the rough and tough attitude and joked with Matt and Jeff about reform school.
I did not know it then, but inside my Grandpa Dayton pleaded with the school and the police to let him be my prison warden at home. He told them that he would be personally responsible for my education, and my punishment. At first, the police and superintendent were adamantly against it, stating that an example had to be made of the boys or else others would be encouraged to try the same thing. But as Grandpa pleaded for me the principal and superintendent softened and the police stated that it would allow the school officials to make the final decision though the police reminded the school that if this did not go well, the police would have to step in if I ran away or quit school. As for Matt and Jeff, their parents would not accept responsibility for them. They had a long track record for petty crimes and their parents were not willing to try to keep them at home, though they were given the option. In the end, Grandpa Dayton won the hearts of the school and I went home that night, angry and belligerent to be Grandpa’s constant companion until the new semester at Johnson High School. Matt and Jeff left in handcuffs for Pinson Home for Boys in the south, to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas in the reform school. They had a chance to come back to Johnson High in the second semester if they had good behavior and passing grades form Pinson. Matt and Jeff never came back to school. They left the reform school worse than when they went in. Matt ended up in prison for stealing cars, Jeff was luckier, arrested for stealing money from snack machines he was given the option of military service or prison. He went into the Marines and is still there a career soldier.
The ride home that night was pure agony for me. I desperately wanted to say I was sorry, but my pride and my tough guy attitude would not let go. I wanted to cry and feel my parents and Grandpa Dayton say it was going to be all right. But how could I the street wise thug wannabe say it? So I remained sullen and quiet in the back on the ride home listening to the gentle sobbing of my mother and watching my father fight back emotions. Grandpa Dayton sat next to me in the back seat. If it wasn’t for him, I would be heading for Pinson. I desperately wanted to say I was sorry to Grandpa, but again the words became like bile in my mouth and I swallowed them down acidic and painful to my throat, not to mention my mind.
I went to bed that night with a thousand different emotions weighing on my mind. Thoughts of running away kept me awake. I was an embarrassment to myself and my family. I wanted to leave, become a success and return to make them proud. But the odds of a fourteen year old boy in the big city with no money, no skills, no job, the only ending I could see were handcuffs and Pinson.
The next morning started early. Grandpa always got up with the chickens a leftover habit from his days on his father’s farm. So at five o’clock he came knocking on my door to start my day in the Grandpa Dayton Reform School. First thing he said was to eat breakfast, a meal I usually skipped or filled my stomach with an iced Pop Tart. Grandpa Dayton stated that this was the first habit I was to change. From now on it was eggs or bacon, toast, milk or juice, the traditional breakfast. My stubbornness started from the very beginning.
“No way, Grandpa, I will not eat all that stuff. I am not a breakfast eater.” I announced.
“Now, I am in charge, said Grandpa Dayton, you will eat what I say, and with a thankful attitude!”
After the previous night, the fight was not in me for the breakfast food, so reluctantly I put a small amount of eggs and toast on my plate. Grandpa fixed his plate. He said grace over the meal, and I thought okay, so here it goes, the Christian thing, or well, I am not going to fight that either, not now anyway. Together we ate in silence.
I forced down some of the food, cleaned the dishes, washed them and put them back in the cupboard.
Breakfast dishes put away, Grandpa and I sat down at the kitchen table. It seemed that Grandpa too had been awake last night. While I had been weighing the runaway scheme possibilities, Grandpa had been making out a calendar with each day for the next two months filled with household chores, trips to different town landmarks, academic time, Bible study, and afternoon workshop duties with Grandpa.
Page 10 Crèche
“For this to work, said Grandpa, you and I are going to have to come to an agreement. I put my neck out for you, Jamie, and though that was a risk, my greatest fear is losing you to the things of this world. I know that you are angry and that there are emotions and thoughts inside of you that need to come out so that healing can take place. I don’t expect these things will be resolved overnight. What I do expect is cooperation, respect, and a willing spirit.”
“Oh, Grandpa, I said, I am not happy about this whole thing. I don’t have any thoughts that you need to know, I am just being a normal teenager. Maybe not normal to your standards, but you live in a world that I don’t want to be a part of. It is old fashioned, not hip or cool, and I intend to endure these next weeks. I plan to do what you say. My thoughts will remain my own.”
I could see that my response stung Grandpa like needles from a stinging rain, but I did not care. He could force me to do the actions on that calendar, but I reserved the right to my thoughts, and he could not make me like his incarceration, only to endure it.
“Well, Jamie, that is all I can ask for at this point, honesty, that is better than silence.” said Grandpa Dayton.
And so the long days began. Up before daybreak, breakfast, academics, household chores, all the ones I hated like laundry, stripping wood floors and relaxing them under the relentless religious radio station that Grandpa Dayton listened to every day. In the evenings, after a small lunch, we went to visit some landmarks, the Old North Church, the Confederate Cemetery, the monuments for fallen heroes of world wars, Korea and Vietnam. I listened as Grandpa told story after story of who, what, where, when, and how of the visits, and did my best not to show my total lack of interest in the past. What did these old dead guys have to do with me? I was tougher and smarter than to let myself get mixed up in some cause or war which would serve other people more than me. At least three days per week we visited Grandma Dayton’s grave. This was the worst. Grandpa Dayton thinking that one day he would see her again. If God had the power to save her, he wouldn’t have to wait, she would still be here. God was just as dead to me, as all the monuments in all the places we visited.
The days rolled on, past a dismal Thanksgiving. We had hen instead of the turkey which was a part of Dad’s old job, every year each family was given a bird so we didn’t have to buy one. There were very little sweets, sugar just way too expensive. Our television was old and fuzzy, so the traditional football games after lunch turned into staring at black and white splotches on a small screen. Mom and Dad made excuses to the rest of the families for not sharing in Thanksgiving with them. They used work and rest as the excuse which was transparent to the relatives, but they did not push the issue. Dad’s not working except for odd jobs around the community and Mom’s taking in of laundry and
sewing were helping, but making ends meet was extremely difficult. Dad shut himself off from my in-house incarceration, at Grandpa Dayton’s request. I can see now it was just Grandpa’s way of keeping my Dad from more anxiety. Mom was so busy seeking out odd jobs along with Dad, that for the most part my day to day existence was with Grandpa alone.
My academic work was right in line for finishing up the semester. Grandpa kept in contact with all my teachers and each day I had fresh assignments and each night an ample amount of homework to keep me busy. My body was in subjection to Grandpa, Mom, and Dad, and the school board, but my mind was busy conjuring ways to leave and never come back.
The day after Thanksgiving, Grandpa didn’t allow another day of vacation; he woke me up exceptionally early for an errand. He said we were going to the sawmill at the edge of town to pick up carving wood. I reluctantly rolled out of bed to the sound of WDCJC, Christian radio, and headed down for breakfast, barely combing my hair, in my rumpled shirt and pants from the day before.
“Good morning, Jamie, said Grandpa, today we’re headed for the lumber yard. We are going to pick out some good pieces for carving. I thought that maybe instead of just cleaning my shop and watching me work, you could join me in a project.” He ignored my rumpled clothes, my unkempt hair and my attempt to look as miserable at being awake at 4:30 am was not impossible.
“Don’t think so, I said, I am not interested in carving or any shop projects. I like the routine the way it is!”
“Well, Jamie, I wish you would be more cooperative, but whether you’re willing or not that is the plan and I am not changing my mind,” said Grandpa.
I slumped down in my chair, disgruntled and ready to throw the toast and bacon in the trash, head to my room and dare him or anyone else to come into my space. Why does he have to keep pushing me I thought, I was compliant wasn’t I, just stop making me try to like the same things he does! I was growing in defiance to Grandpa and though I knew he loved me and what interested only in my good, I was irritated that he was trying to force his beliefs and his faith on me that was bad enough. Now he wanted to choose my hobbies and interest too! I rebelled in spirit and in body that morning.
“I am not going, I don’t want to, I have done everything you have asked, Grandpa, but I am not interested in wood carving, or burning, or whatever you have planned. I am sick of that stupid radio station, I am sick of all your talking and me just listening, I am sick of YOU! Let me alone, old man, and I’ll finish this semester and then you want have to be
bothered with me any more,” I said. I slammed down my juice and it splashed on the counter top and onto the floor. Mom and Dad ran down the stairs at the end of my tirade
and stood at the bottom mouths open. Dad opened his mouth to correct, but Grandpa shushed him.
“You will go with me, said Grandpa Dayton. I have been tolerant and patient with you, Jamie, but you will do everything I say including this trip to the mill. Now go upstairs, get dressed warmly and make it quick!”
I don’t know why, but Grandpa’s tone of voice and the fact that Mom and Dad were there ready to send me to Pinson changed my mind. I stomped up the stairs, mumbling to myself.
Back downstairs, Grandpa was ready with his walking cane and we headed out into the thirty degree weather. Grandpa could drive, but he chose to walk most places that he could for his health and because he did not like driving in the city traffic. We walked at a brisk pace because of the cold for Grandpa and because of my desire to get to the old mill quickly. The mill was about one mile from our house. You walked sidewalks until you got to the railroad tracks, and then you followed the tracks for about a one-half of a mile. The mill was located near the tracks. The original owners of the mill built their business there to be close to the tracks for lumber sells to be quickly loaded and sent by rail to destinations across the country.
“Well, good early morning to you, Mr. Dayton, said the man inside the small office. What brings you out so early?”
“Hey, Charles, said Grandpa, I’ve come to look over the scrap pieces with my grandson. I’ve got a special project in mind for this Christmas and we’ve got to start right away and with the best scraps we can get. I would like mahogany first choice, second oak, and no pine”
“Mahogany? questioned Charles, must be a very special project. Scrap mahogany is scarce, but Mr. Dayton, you’re in luck. Yesterday we had a special order mahogany dining room set. We made the rough cuts here, and then sent them on to Tennessee for craftsman at the Ashley furniture plant to finish. Follow me and I’ll show you where the scraps are here in the scrap bins.”
“Well, Jamie, looks like the good Lord is showing His approval for my project, said Grandpa as we followed Charles out of the office and to the back of the mill. There was a row of bins labeled scrap wood located near the area where several different kinds of saws were already buzzing on the day’s orders.
“There you go, Mr. Dayton, hunt through the pile to your heart’s content, said Charles. When you are finished bring your scraps to the office and we will settle up on the price.”
Grandpa Dayton and I picked through the pile of scrap mahogany wood with fingers numb with cold. I was less enthusiastic than Grandpa. I felt like one of the beggars on the streets we had seen with their possessions in plastic bags. Or some with shopping carts rusted with age and taken from grocery stores long since replaced by bigger mega marts with their new plastic carts.
As much as I tried not to, I became interested in the wood search. It was a simple treasure hunt for pieces that were good enough to carve. Grandpa stressed we needed wood with no major cracks and the beauty of the color of the mahogany impressed the artistic bent in me. We recovered several beautiful pieces. Grandpa took the ones I had picked with his and we headed up to office to pay for the scraps.
“Good work, Jamie, you found some beautiful scraps,” said Grandpa. In spite of myself, I felt like I had contributed to the search. I fought it though.
“It’s just scrap wood, Grandpa, not gold,” I grumbled.
“But when we finish our project, I hope it will be more precious than gold,” said Grandpa.
“That’ll be $5.75, Mr. Dayton,” said Charles.
“Are you sure? said Grandpa. There’s several pieces here Charles.”
“Yea, said Charles, just let me see what you plan to do with the wood.”
“Deal, said Grandpa, it’ll be the boy here’s first wood carving experience.”
Charles loaded up a cardboard box with the wood and Grandpa handed it to me to carry the three miles back home. The weather instead of warming seemed to have gotten colder, the sun not shining, a gray cloud cover that kept the day dreary.
Back home the morning went as usual. I did my academic work and then had Grandpa to check it and verify with his signature that I done the work alone as part of the requirements by the school suspension guidelines. Grandpa set the table for lunch. The weather prompted him to fix soup several times a week, and though I longed for lunchroom fare, fries and hamburgers, I did not complain. After the soup, Grandpa put on his work jacket.
“Okay, Jamie, let’s go out to the tool shed and see what we can do with the wood we brought home this morning,” said Grandpa.
“I told you, Grandpa, I am not interested in carving some ol’ wood,” I complained.
“Jamie, this is your elective credit for this semester. I called the superintendent and he okayed this “shop” project for credit. It will give you the extra credit you need for passing to the tenth grade but if this is not what you want, and then I will call him again,” said Grandpa.
It had not occurred to me that Grandpa would have figured out my credit deficiency or that he would take it on himself to find out. I had already calculated my credits and knew that my semester suspension would remove my shop credit as I had no shop class to attend and could not make it up at home, or so I thought.
“No, Grandpa, don’t call, I need the credit. I don’t want to be left in the ninth grade for a stupid shop credit,” I stated.
“Then let’s get started, said Grandpa, and he opened the backdoor and out to the tool shed we went to start on my “project”.
The weather was cold, and the tool shed was equipped with a small space wood space heater. Grandpa fed the heater and it warmed the shed quickly. Grandpa tuned his little transistor to his favorite gospel station. His favorite preacher, Brother Green, was preaching and I could tell from Grandpa’s face he was happy and content with his radio and to have his hands in wood. Grandpa carefully picked the wood scraps from the box and began arranging on the work table.
“Let’s look at the color and grain of the wood, Grandpa said. I think I know what I would like to carve from these pieces, but we have to be sure that we have the right amount of wood. I want all the carvings to come from these pieces so that they have color and textures that are the same. Kinda like cutting a dress from the same bolt of cloth.”
“It’s just wood, I said, can’t we just start.”
“Don’t you want to know what we are carving?” asked Grandpa.
“Okay, sure, I said, what are we carving? Some wooden toys or maybe doll house furniture, thinking of some of the projects I had seen at school.
“No, said Grandpa, much more important than toys. We are going to honor Christmas this year by carving our own crèche.”
“A, what?” I asked.
“A crèche, repeated Grandpa. A crèche is a representation of the birth of Christ. It originated with St. Francis of Assisi. He used real humans and animals to depict the nativity. Even back in 1223, St Francis was trying to get the eyes of Christians off the material aspect of Christmas gift giving and back to the true wonder of Christmas, Christ’s birth. I want you and me to carve a crèche for Christmas.”
“Come on Grandpa, don’t you ever give up, I said. That Christian stuff, it just isn’t for me. Let’s just carve some wooden trains or something. We could donate them to a local charity to give away for Christmas.”
“No, I’ve made up my mind, Jamie. There is something down inside that tells me it is the right time for carving this crèche. My spirit won’t let it go,” said Grandpa.
I knew when Grandpa started talking about his spirit, it was a done deal. So we began that afternoon making drawings of all the nativity figures we wanted to include in our crèche. I hoped for just a Mary, Joseph, and the baby and maybe a few animals. Grandpa
was enthusiastic and planned for the Holy Family and three wise men, a shepherd, some animals and an announcing angel. In all Grandpa had planned out about ten different pieces. He also wanted to find some wood to build the stable to house the figures. It was a big project to complete with only about three weeks before Christmas.
“Grandpa, that’s a lot of pieces to carve before Christmas,” I said.
“We’ll finish with the Lord’s help,” he said.
Then Grandpa presented me with an X-Acto wood carving knife. It was not the most expensive, but knowing Grandpa’s budget, it was more than he spent in several weeks.
“Here, Jamie, a carver needs the right tool. I picked this knife out just for you,” said Grandpa.
I wanted to hug Grandpa, to thank him and to let him know how much I appreciated all he was doing to help me, but I didn’t.
“Thanks,” I barely got out, without looking at him.
So we began the crèche that afternoon with a lot of work and a short time to do it in. Grandpa was driven to get the crèche finished. At the time, I thought he was just pushing me toward his religion and thought that I would get as involved as he in creating the crèche pieces. I tried hard not to care, but in the end, I was drawn into the carving and found myself looking forward to the hours of my Grandpa’s “shop” class. Of course, I was still not crazy about the radio station. I wanted to hear Arrowsmith or Kiss, but I knew better than to ask. Pretty soon I got used to hearing the preachers, the teachers, and could even sing along with some of the gospel favorites during the Old Time Gospel Hour.
Due to my lack of skill in carving, Grandpa chose the animal pieces for me. It was work, hard work that made my fingers ache, along with my back. It was slow and tedious work, and some days I wanted to just throw the animal I was working on down and quit. But I would not. I was as stubborn as Grandpa in many ways. I would not let him out last me.
When I thought Grandpa was not looking, I would pretend to be working, but watching his gnarled fingers as he carved delicate faces on the lumps of mahogany. With fascination, I watch as he poured love through his fingers into the bodies and faces of Mary, who reminded me of Grandma Dayton, Joseph, who really looked like Grandpa, and the wise men who resembled my Dad, Uncle Joe and his son, Eric.
The days grew shorter with December. Grandpa and I agreed to start our academics earlier, at six in the morning. A month before I would have strongly protested. School time was eight o’clock, but I was drawn to the tool shed, the carvings, and the time of quiet music and the warmth of the heater and the warmth of Grandpa’s companionship.
Grandpa was winning and I knew it. My grades were good, my attitude changing from rebellion to reconciliation. I had been away from the corrupting influences of the guys at school and I could really say I didn’t miss the pressure to be the tough guy.
“Grandpa, why haven’t you carved Jesus yet? I asked. After all He is the focal point of this whole project.”
“Are you so sure, Jamie, that the carving of Jesus is the point here?” asked Grandpa.
“Well, what else?” I asked.
“Let me ask you a question, Jamie. What do think is different about you, lately?”
Oh, no I thought, here it comes. The you need Jesus lecture.
“Grandpa, don’t spoil what we have here, I said. You know that I have liked the carving, even getting to the books earlier to be out here. I realize that I am calmer and less agitated, but I am not ready to go into the Jesus thing!”
“Jamie, I am not pushing you about Christ. Just think about how you have felt the past few weeks, the peace we have had between us. Search your heart, Jamie, that’s all I ask,” said Grandpa.
I knew Grandpa was right, Jake, but I just felt that old stubbornness rise up in me.
“I don’t have to think about it, Grandpa, its okay for you, but not me!” I slammed down my knife and walked out of the tool shed.
I knew that I had hurt my Grandpa again, but I just could not admit that I needed Jesus, or anybody. That evening Grandpa was unusually quiet. He ate his dinner, and then excused himself to his room. I so wanted to ask his forgiveness for my attitude earlier in the day, but I did not know what to say, so I said nothing.
The next morning, Grandpa was late getting up. I fixed breakfast for us both, his usual egg and toast with black coffee. Just as I sat down, he walked into the kitchen, he looked tired.
“Morning, Grandpa, I fixed your egg and toast. The coffee, Mom, made,” I said.
“Thank you Jamie, said Grandpa, just feel a little puny this morning.”
We ate in silence or rather I did, Grandpa pushed his egg around on the plate, drank a few sips of coffee, and let the toast get cold.
“I’ll get started on my books,” I said.
“No, Jamie, let’s go straight to the tool shed today, said Grandpa. It is so closed to Christmas, and I want to be finished with our crèche.”
“Okay, I can do the books tonight, really nothing more to do but study for semester exam anyway,” I stated.
We put on our work jackets and headed out in the cold morning for the tool shed. I had finished the camel, the sheep, and the cows for the stable scene. My donkey was almost completed. Grandpa had finished all the people, except Jesus. I knew that we still needed to construct the stable, clean and put varnish on the pieces. Maybe today Grandpa would
carve the baby Jesus. I would not tell him, but I was interested in knowing who would be his model for Jesus face.
“It is really cold in here,” I commented.
“Yes, Jamie, it is,” said Grandpa.
Then silence. Grandpa did not seem to be mad. But he was not his usual talkative self. Most mornings he would tell me stories of his childhood, or how he met Grandma. Sometimes it was about the depression and World War II. Sometimes I had heard the story more than once, but I just listened. I liked to hear about his life, for some reason, it gave me peace knowing that I was a product of his family tree, hardworking, patriotic, loyal, and God-fearing.
We worked all through the day. Only stopping at lunch for Campbell’s Tomato soup, Grandpa’s favorite. He ate little and picked at the turkey sandwich. I knew something was wrong, but I ignored it and kept trying to keep my conversation at our normal tone.
Shadows began to fall across the yard. Grandpa and I had varnished all the pieces except the baby Jesus which Grandpa had still not carved. The stable was constructed of some scrap plywood and I picked real dry weeds to glue on the roof. Soon Mom and Dad would be home. I was anxious as to why Grandpa kept avoiding the carving of Jesus, but he had let me know that he would do it on his own time.
We ate dinner again in relative silence. Mom and Dad talked about their work day. Dad was back at the steel factory and Mom had been able to get on at the local drug store. It looked as though our Christmas would be better than our Thanksgiving with holiday food, and even a few gifts under the tree.
Grandpa excused himself early again and went straight to his room. Mom and Dad suspected that we had been at it during the day, but I told them no, that in fact Grandpa had been quiet all day. I began to worry about Grandpa. Curiosity got the best of me and around nine o’ clock I knocked on his door.
“Come in, Jamie, said Grandpa. Finished with your studying?”
“Yea, think I can pass the history easy enough, but English and math will be tough,” I commented.
“You’ll do well, Jamie, I have confidence, said Grandpa. I know why you are here. You want to know about the carving.”
“Well, Grandpa, you know that Jesus is the only piece lacking in the crèche. Have you finished in your room, I thought that you might be working on it in here,” I asked.
“Yes, Jamie, I had to work on it in here. Take a look and you’ll see why,” said Grandpa. He picked up the baby Jesus and handed it to me. It was amazing, the face looked just
like me as a baby. Then I saw that he had been carving on his night stand and that my baby picture was there beside the shavings.
“Why, me Grandpa, I am certainly no model for Jesus,” I said.
“Of course you are Jamie, you see he was born and died for everyone even for you. He is like you in his humanity, but He is God and can take away all the hurt and anger you feel,” said Grandpa.
I knew that Grandpa had labored way into the night to do this carving after dinner. It was his way of showing just how much he loved me, as much as he loved Jesus.
“Grandpa, I want to have Jesus in my heart, can you tell me how?” I asked.
Together Grandpa and I said the Sinner’s Prayer in his bedroom.
We finished the crèche in time for Christmas. Mom was thrilled and Dad was proud of my carving skill. I passed my semester exams, barely. Only one point in Math, but I was encouraged that because of my “shop” grade I would go on to the tenth grade. I was looking forward to Driver’s Education and getting my learner’s permit.
It was a good Christmas. Grandpa enjoyed it all and Dad even carried him to visit some of his brothers and his sister in the southern most part of the state. It was Grandpa’s last Christmas with us. During the spring he was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer that Grandma Dayton was diagnosed with years earlier. He grew weak and feeble and the last few months stayed in the bed. I went into his room everyday to show him my latest carvings, talk about my grades, my friends, and Jesus. I had started attending a local church and when he was able I borrowed my Dad’s station wagon and drove us to services. I knew that Grandpa would not see the summer unless Jesus decided to heal him. And I was right. One bright sunny morning, Grandpa just stopped breathing.
Months before I would have been angry and bitter, but knowing Jesus was with Grandpa and at the moment he took his last breath, Jesus had taken his hand and led him onto the streets of gold. He was reunited with Grandma and the joy he felt I could only imagine. I cried tears of sadness for I would miss him, but tears of joy for his reward.
Jamie had tears in his eyes as he ended his story.
“Dad that is such a cool story. I wish I had known Great Grandpa Dayton,” said Jake.
“I do too, Jake, said Jamie. Jake, I know that this past few months have been hard on all of us. Many times I have felt that God is not here or that He has not listened to our prayers. But seeing this crèche today has reminded me of those hard days of the past and how Grandpa Dayton showed me how we face the hard times. With Jesus, we have nothing to fear and like Joseph we can say that what the world intends for evil, God can make it for our good if we trust in Him. Grandpa Dayton left us a legacy of blessings. Jake, I am sorry that I have not shared this with you sooner. Grandpa Dayton showed me overcoming faith. I had let the world squeeze it out of me, but today I promise you, son, I will do my best and with God’s help we will stand firm on His promises.”
“Its okay, Dad, I know that you have been sad. But I know that God hears us and soon you will be working. I kind of’ think Grandpa Dayton is smiling right now. The crèche was more than just important for that Christmas long ago, it is important today. It reminded us of what really is important about Christmas, Jesus in our lives everyday, every circumstance. Don’t you worry Dad about Christmas presents, having this crèche to remember Grandpa Dayton and the love of our family, that is the best present ever!” said Jake.
Jamie gave Jake a great big bear hug.
“Let’s finish decorating, Dad. I think we should put the crèche on the sofa table. When Mom gets home will you tell her about great Grandpa Dayton?” said Jake.
“Sure, said Jamie
“Let’s cook dinner. How does spaghetti sound?’ said Jamie.
Jake and his Dad finished unwrapping the pieces of the crèche and cleaned them. Then they carefully placed them on the sofa table. It was going to be a good Christmas.
“Thanks Grandpa,” said Jamie in a whisper. He carefully placed the baby Jesus in the center of the crèche.
“What Dad?” asked Jake.
“I said, how about getting that spaghetti started,” said Jamie.
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