Exile to Siberia couldn't be worse than this. I wrapped my heavy sweater closer about me as the wind whipped through the converted monastery. A nun led us across the compound, my classmates following eagerly while I felt like I was being shoved into the heart of Siberia.
I grabbed Debbie's arm. “I only know one or two Christmas carols in Spanish!”
She laughed. “Just smile and sing in English.”
“But I can't sing, have you forgotten that?” Panic closed in around me as surely as the stone walls crowded us.
“So? Our being here is what's important to them, not how good we sing.”
How did Debbie get so wise? I decided it came with being born on the mission field, and those of us new to being missionary kids had a lot to learn—fast.
We passed through an arch and then into the commons room where ancient people were huddled around a weak fire, thin blankets wrapped around their stooped shoulders. Watery eyes blinked at us, a few smiles greeted us, and hands reached to touch us, as if they were trying to convince themselves we were real. My friends stopped along the way, holding bony hands within theirs, gently patting shoulders and smiling as they spoke with the people.
I trailed along, shocked by their shivering misery. When a leathery hand clutched my arm, I jumped and pulled back, but the lady held tight. There was wonder in her eyes as she looked at me, and when she pulled me down, I knelt beside her chair. Gnarled fingers gently touched my hair, then combed through my blond curls.
My throat tightened and began to burn. It had been almost a year since I had seen my grandmother, almost a year since she had combed through my hair and crooned to me like this at the airport. This was my first Christmas without her. I knew she had sent gifts, but I would've traded every gift I'd ever received if we could just be together for this one, too.
I joined my classmates and shoved clenched hands deep in my pockets. Singing Christmas carols was the last thing I felt like doing, but Debbie's nudge and smile reminded me of my duty. I looked at the lady I'd knelt beside and found her watching me, her knotted knuckles pressed to her lips as if she was willing me the courage to sing. After several attempts, my voice finally made it past the tennis ball that was lodged in my throat.
I sang, returning the smiles of the old people as they joined in with their rusty voices. Debbie was right. They didn't care that I sang half in Spanish and half in English, and they couldn't have cared less about my bad voice. They were hungry for smiles and a touch of Christmas joy to brighten and warm their cold lives.
Time after time my gaze returned and found her eyes on me. She'd smile and nod, her lips mutely moving. “Oh santisimo, felicisimo, grato tiempo de Navidad! Cristo el prometido, ha por fin venido: alegria, alegria, cristiandad!*” Christ, the promised One—the reason we celebrate Christmas. The reason my family had left home, so others could know Him, too.
Tears ran down the crevices that time had etched on her face, but her eyes shone. She pulled out a hankie edged with green lace and patted her cheeks dry before drawing the edges of her shawl close again.
After singing, we handed out the small candy bags we had made for them, and I returned to her chair, kneeling beside her again.
“Feliz Navidad,” I said as I gave her the bag, marveling at the pleasure the small gift gave her. I wondered when she'd last received a gift, or even a piece of candy.
She looked into my eyes, as only a grandmother can, and pulled out another hankie, edged in purple lace and neatly folded. She pressed it into my hand. “For when you cry. Feliz Navidad, hijita.**” When she gently cupped my cheek and kissed my forehead, her hand was so cold it almost stung my face. At that moment I knew exactly what I was going to do and I felt the joy we had just sung about—Christmas joy.
I took off my sweater, gently wrapped it around her shoulders and dropped a kiss on her wet cheek. With the hankie she had given me, I dried her tears. “Gracias.”
*”Oh Santisimo” A Spanish Christmas carol
**Merry Christmas, little one.
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