There is no snow.
The landscape on Rt 11 bleeds a bleak brown in forty degrees.
Christmas comes anyway.
Twinkle lights have been strung on the small lilac tree at the side of the house and the big wreath with its old red bow graces the fence.
A peeling shutter bears a smaller one with a sign telling the postman where to leave the packages so the rain doesn’t slog all over them. Window boxes are filled with pine and winterberries. At the edges of a dark kitchen Handel’s Messiah can be heard playing.
I can’t find the candles I put on the windowsills. When the Fiery Irishgirl moved in last Thanksgiving, I put boxes on top of boxes to make room at the inn and I promptly forgot what it all is and where it all needs to be. It has become one big puzzle shuffle of boxes and cartons and totes.
A year of living with my black-haired beauty and her little man turned ten makes the house merry and bright and we are learning how to make room for the things we are hungry for.
A bit of space.
A bit of quiet.
A bit of beauty.
The rest of our things, the rest of our life, has been stacked, towered and leaned and we are learning to just go with it.
There are so many.
We think we need them because of the life remembered that comes through them.
A ticket stub.
A baseball cap.
A recipe scrawled and butter dripped by a grandmother. A dish polished smooth by a great-grandmother.
Today I pull Christmas boxes from a closet cave.
In one of the boxes buried beneath sword-wielding nutcrackers and winter wonderland snow globes lies the nativity story told in yarn and plastic. There is a bit of reverence here as I peel back the paper, humble lodgings, this. So like God to tuck away majesty in the ordinary.
I am remembering the day Geraldine came bearing gifts.
My eye caught her awkward gait going past the window one day just before Christmas. She banged on the door threatening to crack it wide open. I opened up to see her standing there in a huge black Russian fur hat, (which she wore all year long), a man’s coat and two or three dresses layered over stained trousers tucked into broken down work boots. She stepped into the kitchen and promptly shoved a package wrapped in convenience store wrapping paper and wreaking of cigarettes into my hands. Merry Christmas.
A not-so-quite old woman, hair white and wild from never combing, toothless, a Harry Potter-esque scar on her forehead, (“A beer bottle come flyin’ out a window and got me right in the head back when I was livin’ in Auburn. Stupid people.”) I’d find her pacing in front of my kitchen window every few days, her signal that she wanted a visit. As I’d step into the driveway to greet her she would, with shoulders leaning forward, take two steps back. Like she wanted to be close, but was afraid.
My hands were deep in mulch the first day I met her. Cleaning out a small flower bed just days after moving into our new house, I leaned back on my knees and caught a slight movement to my right. Pushing away leaves, a flicker of white flashed. I looked up. At the corner of the neighbor’s house stood this woman dressed in a stained white slip layered over a frayed housecoat. Her legs, bone china sticks, peered above a pair of work boots.
I said hello.
She inched closer. I shielded my eyes to get a better look at her.
Her white hair stuck up and out in every conceivable direction. When she turned slightly I could see it had matted and there was burdock stuck all through it like she’d taken a nap in field somewhere.
She stood before me filthy, smelling like cigarettes and urine. Small crusts of dried food edged the top of her hairy lip. Rocking forward, her voice cracked.
Right off Geraldine wanted to know my name and she wanted me to know hers. From that day on she spoke my name every time she saw me. She spoke my children’s names. She shouted my husband’s name. She loved him best, I think. She spoke the dog’s name and got it wrong. Instead of Gideon, he was called Gilligan until the day she moved away.
In the beginning she wouldn’t come into the house. Truthfully, I wasn’t too keen on it, either.
The smell of her.
It was a presence that settled into the room, settled into you long after she’d gone. When she began patting, then hugging me, I had to brace myself for the assault of what it means to truly be unclean.
The Christmas Geraldine came with her gift was the Christmas when a sword pierced my heart and I realized I wasn’t doing her any favors by being her friend. I wasn’t doing her a favor by being nice to her, or trying not to stiffen when she touched me. There was no goodwill in the occasional sighing and whispering complaint when she showed up unannounced wanting company. Instead, it was me God was doing a favor for by allowing her to become my friend. This strange, dirty, simple-minded woman, who some might count among the least of these, schooled me that day.
Geraldine rocked and swayed in the way she always did, smiling toothless.
“It aint’ much and I figured the kids would like it too cuz of the baby Jesus and everything….”
I unwrapped it, my head bowing, my eyes spilling.
Cuz of the baby Jesus…
How did she know? Had I shared the gospel with her? Had I told her about Jesus? How did she know that His story, His coming, told in plastic and yarn would be the one thing that would mean the most?
Would be the best gift.
Yes, Geraldine schooled me that day when she saw past my religious do-gooding, which turns out to be nothing but starched up kindness and propped up politeness.
The sort of kindness that drops off Christmas cookies, but won’t step into the squalor of a dirty apartment. The sort of politeness that will speak to the unlovely, but never look them in the eye.
Geraldine could see better than me. She knew what would bless me the most because somehow she knew me. No token gifts from this lady. No propped up religiosity. No proper pretty packages, no crafted tags and bows.
These days Geraldine’s Christmas story is given a prominent place in the dining room. I put it right where I can see it. Truly see it. The majesty cloaked in the ordinary.
Like Geraldine. My friend.