Each Thanksgiving and Christmas during college, I returned to the home of my childhood, the stable-turned-summer-cottage where my parents had begun their family together. My first chore on arriving would be to empty the Tupperware of refrigerated fuzz and discard the rolled oats webbed with meal moth larvae.
Edible food was scarce in that house, as were, in the winter, light and heat.
Perhaps I should have burned the piled mail that occupied the spaces where people might have sat. Since my mother’s too early death, my father had lived like a castaway marking time until the human world resumed contact. He didn’t seem to expect that contact to come through the postal service.
I worked for pay during these holidays, if I could. Otherwise, I studied in my room, coated, hatted and gloved, going out for fresh air when I found myself jolting awake. My father cushioned the evenings with bluegrass and wine. There was little point in talking: at the time, we both believed that my passion for a woman endangered my soul, and my continual tears threatened my ability to finish college.
One Christmas break, my father lent me his truck to drive a few hours north and stay overnight with a friend. When my friend, still in high school, opened the door of her parents’ home, I saw that the vestibule alone might have swallowed my father’s house. We listened to albums in her room until her father interrupted to say dinner was ready. At his appearance, I straightened up from lounging against the bed, as though he might challenge my intentions toward his daughter.
He championed her as a lesbian, but I felt that he protected her also.
Gathered around the dinner table, each member of the family shared an aspiration. My friend was going to change the world through music; her brother planned to end global hunger. Testing this utopia, I asked the father how it felt to lose a patient. He looked me in the eyes, his voice clear, his face thoughtful as he talked about death.
I had a room to myself in that house, but it was mine only for the night. On the drive home the next day, a wrong turn extended my trip by hours. When I arrived at last, shaky with hunger, I knew I’d returned to smaller spaces and smaller possibilities, shaped by smaller resources, feebler resilience, paper-thin buffers against disaster.
I’d returned to a hard struggle—one that seemed harder than my friend’s—but it was the place from which I had to grow. I was in the home where my parents had braved illness and want. I was with the father who would stand by me as well as he knew how.
I didn’t know then what joys would blossom from the pain of that time, what marvels of knowing others and myself.
I was in the middle of a long journey through despair. I envied my friend’s blessings because mine were still unrecognizable.
We celebrate the holidays with abundance if we’re able, but the holy day of Christmas is a remembrance of earthly lack as well as of heavenly bounty. Jesus’ nativity in the stable is God appearing in the place of small resources. There was scant shelter and assistance for that couple birthing their first child, but God’s arrival didn’t hinge on the sufficiency of anything except God.
It can be the same for all of us who spend holidays in barren places.
Our poverty, our sickness, our isolation are real. The Christmas story doesn’t erase our suffering, but it offers us the hope that the place of need is where divine love arrives.
Photo via flickr user Nietnagel