I didn’t know my father; it’s how my mother wanted it or maybe what he wanted. I don’t know. I’d often find my mom staring out the kitchen window while washing the dishes at night. She always seemed to be looking for something or someone or hoping for something or someone. Her face was one of wistfulness…or perhaps it was longing. It’s hard to recall. It changed, I suppose, from day to day.
I never asked about the man who was my father but on my tenth Christmas I gathered my nerve as we put up our decorations. We dragged the artificial tree in from the garage and positioned the plastic Santa and reindeer on the front lawn. My heart pounded as we pulled Grandma’s porcelain nativity pieces from a box of ornaments. I took a small cow from its packaging and placed it on the coffee table. I fumbled for the right words but knew I just had to come out with it. “Do you ever wish my father was here?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the bluish-white cow.
She worked in silence, her hands fluttering like moths. “There was a king once,” she said, peering at me over her glasses.
“Where?” I asked.
“Um,” she said, polishing the shepherd boy’s head with the tail of her shirt. “He lived in some far off land. On a whim he decided to place an enormous boulder in the middle of the road.”
“How’d he get it there?” I asked, lifting a lamb from the tissue paper.
She paused. “I don’t know. I’m sure he had an ox move it.”
“It’d take more than one ox to move a huge boulder wouldn’t it?”
She sighed, pushing her glasses up on the bridge of her nose. “He had six oxen push the boulder.”
“Now that seems like too many.”
“How many do you want him to have?”
I thought it over as I unwrapped the baby Jesus. “Four.”
She shook her head and turned Mary just so on the table. “Okay. Four oxen moved the boulder. The king then threw buckets of water on each side of the rock so there was nothing but mud surrounding it. Then he hid himself and watched as people traveled the road. Many of his courtiers and soldiers grumbled about the enormous rock in the road as they walked through the mud around it. Wealthy merchants and dignitaries from neighboring kingdoms complained about the king and the conditions of the roads in his kingdom yet no one would do anything about the enormous roadblock.” She added bits of straw around the nativity, pushing extra around each animal. “In time a peasant came along carrying a sack over his back.”
“What was in the sack?” I asked. “Candy?”
“Sure,” she said, shoving the tissue paper back into the nativity box. “When he sees the boulder he sets his bag of candy on the ground and finds a fallen tree branch, jamming it at the base of the rock but guess what?”
"It won’t budge,” I said.
“Not an inch. So he climbed on top of the branch and jumped with all his might. He jumped and jumped and jumped but…?”
“Nothing,” I said, picking up the baby Jesus.
“Put Jesus back on the table,” she said, pointing. “Not only nothing! He fell off the branch right into that gloopy, gloppy mud. So the peasant looks all around him again and way off in the distance he sees the oxen coming his way.” I picked up two Wise Men and pretended they were talking to each other. “Please put the wise guys back down before you bust their frankincense and myrrh.” She huffed at me as she lifted the figurines from my hands. “The oxen smelled that sack of candy.”
My eyes bulged. “How’d they smell that small sack of candy from way far away?”
“Oxen have big nostrils,” she said.
“How big?” I asked, moving Joseph closer to the action in the manger.
“Angela Christine!” I looked up at her. She had named me Angela Christine, after her mother and grandmother. She always called me Christine except at times like this when I exasperated her and she’d say my full name through gritted teeth.
“It doesn’t matter. Would you please just listen?” She sounded like an ox sighing and went on. “The peasant harnessed the oxen together with the fallen branch and vines and in moments the boulder was moved away. To his astonishment the peasant discovered a small red, velvet bag filled with gold coins and a note inside it.”
I lay on the couch and threw a pillow high into the air and caught it. “What’d it say?”
She sat on the other end of the couch and put my feet in her lap. “It said, ‘Thank you for removing this boulder. Please keep this gold as a token of my appreciation. Signed, The King.’ And the peasant learned what all of us learn at one time or another.”
“What’s that?” I asked, looking at her.
“Every rock in the road can improve our lives but we might have to get a little muddy before it does.” And that’s how she answered my question of if she ever wished my father lived with us.
I thought my mother had movie star looks. She had dark auburn hair she could twist on top of her head with one flick of her wrist or let hang off her shoulders, her skin was pale and she wore tortoise shell framed glasses for her nearsightedness. She worked in the local bakery and would come home smelling like dough and coffee with a sack of day old breads and pastries that had been poked by one too many old ladies looking for cream cheese filling. I often wondered what my mother would have been if she hadn’t had me. I always sensed that there was another person within her as deep and beautiful as the mystery inside her heart.
There was nothing fancy about my mother or our Christmases together. With the exception of the tree, Grandma’s Nativity and the plastic Santa we didn’t have any other decorations and since there were only two of us Mom would usually bake a chicken for our meal that day with a few roasted potatoes and beans. In the days leading up to Christmas my mother would sit me down and we’d compose two letters: one to Santa that was filled with everything I could find in the J.C. Penney catalog and the other to God, thanking him for everything we could think of: our home, Mom’s job, my stuffed bunny Millie and Oscar my hamster, health insurance, the money to replace the hot water heater, pay the bills and to buy food. As I grew older the letters dwindled to one and we left it under the tree. “To remember,” Mom would say. By some accounts I guess our day was pretty plain but it felt magical to me.
On those magical Christmas days with my mother I couldn’t imagine any rocks in my road. I never dreamed of stumbling along without an end in sight but when I grew up that’s how I ended up living --- day-to- day, survival of the fittest. I guess we’re all like that in some ways. We don’t dare look behind us but we’re not brave enough to look ahead. We’re just stuck. Right here. Waiting. I’m always waiting it seems --- waiting for the right time, the right job, for the light to turn green, waiting on a call, in line, for a repair man, waiting for my past to catch up with me and for my future to begin.
I got to the point in my life where I was so tired of waiting and wanted to know that my life was not just leading anywhere but somewhere. I wanted that childhood sense of wonderment back. The crazy how, and when and why of life finally caught up with me and I realized that there was no Oz, fairytale king or Scrooge waking up from a dream moment that was going to whisk me away from reality and that’s when I wanted Christmas again. The Christmas of the simple tree and polishing the Nativity with my shirtsleeve and holding my mother’s hand in church. I wanted to know that there was a reason and purpose not only behind the boulder in the road but buried beneath it so that when I unearthed it I could brush off that muddy gem and say, “So this is it!” In the moment, it seemed like the wait would never end but looking back it all passed like a misty dream.
I never moved the boulder, by the way; I couldn’t. Several people helped me. Then I discovered the gift beneath it.
Excerpted from THE CHRISTMAS SECRET © Copyright 2010 by Donna VanLiere. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.