Saturday, December 31, 2011

All We Had Was Backpacks

The day after Christmas, we traveled down into the heart of the city to spend a couple hours assembly-line fashion, packing backpacks for a project undertaken by a local Relief Organization that was providing mittens, socks, hats, and school supplies to some of the poorest children in Sichuan province. The day after that, I was lovingly sent off by my husband and children to join a small group that would travel to two schools, and two registered churches in the province, where we would distribute the bags and see some of these communities firsthand.

There were many things about this trip that I was thankful for. The opportunity alone to get out of the city and see the mountain towns and people was enough on its own. Added to that the chance to talk with workers (like our leader, Joy) who are on the ground full time with these people and hear about the issues, concerns, victories, and struggles they are dealing with, as well as hearing the needs and hopes of the local leaders in their cities was something I am rarely able to do, but so thankful for and inspired by.

It was also eye opening on many levels. China is vast and complicated. Many things you hear are true in one place, but not another. So to hear how things are being done, and what the true needs are, was in some ways different than the way things are often presented in media or from decades old realities that are not always the case anymore.

Mostly though, I was just humbled to be in the presence of so many children who treated us as though we were offering them the moon, when all we had brought was simple backpacks with a few necessary items. They lined up to greet us, three thousand strong, and stood in the bitter cold as we bundled out of the bus and were offered hot tea and seats at a long, red table high up on stage. It is the standard practice in China, to do things with grandness and formality far beyond what the occasion may call for, even at a poor school in a rural town. And it is our duty to accept it all with graciousness, and allow them to treat us as honored guests, though I felt more like a sham who should have brought far more to deserve all this attention.

The backpacks mostly went to the poorest of students, and to those who are labeled as China's Left Behind children. These are children who are the victims of a cultural phenomenon of migration by working adults to the cities, where they go from poor rural areas with little opportunity, to be able to provide for their children and parents. Studies estimate that there are about 58 million of these children in China, living with aging grandparents or any family that is able to care for them, and often even being left to board at the schools they attend.

I went into the dorms of some of these children. Plain, unpainted concrete walls, black with mold, and long narrow rooms with no electricity lined on both sides with rustic metal bunkbeds, a simple slab of wood for a mattress and a quilt or two for bedding. This is all they own, besides the pencil and notebook and schoolbooks in their backpack down in the classroom.

We also visited a small woman and her fellowship. The small room, open to the outside was half filled with mostly old men and women, and she cried grateful tears as she told of their Christmas service which had gone so well, and had allowed them to go out on the streets. They sang, offered us more hot water for our freezing hands to hold, and shared with us their burdens and needs that they asked us to join them in remembering. It is remote there. Not many workers want to come. It is hard work, and slow- lonely at times.

The aging group is without a generation to follow it, and the young children are without a generation to parent them. It is a burdensome thing to see.

The church calendar traditionally celebrates Christmas for 12 days. On the fourth day, December 28th, we celebrate the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, which is to remember the atrocity of Herod as he slaughtered all the two year old's in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the threat of the Messiah he had heard about. As I hugged these children who smile at me so willingly, but whose lives I can't imagine, the words of Bobby Gross, as he described the significance of remembering Herod's evil act, came to mind.

" To remember Herod's atrocity is to strip sentimentality from the birth of Christ. On this day we confront the evil in our world, the violence of the powerful against the weak, the sorrow of those who suffer injustice and the very real darkness into which the light shines."

Yes, Christmas is far more than just remembering it as Jesus' Birthday. There are real powers of darkness and suffering going on here. And there is a very real light that has come into the world and is coming again. It is not just a nice analogy.

Just as we shouldn't look at the manger with sentimentality, so we shouldn't view these children in that way either. There are many things about their lives that I am too far away from to understand or make conjectures about. But I am thankful to follow in footsteps of those who are far closer, and do what I can to be a hand or a foot or even just a big stubby toe.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Unlikely Gift :: Part IV

Part IV
copyright © Christine Keegan 2011

It was true, the storms were arriving. Gray clouds blanketed every stretch of sky you could see, and the sleet began mid morning, then turned quickly to a driving snow that made driving almost dangerous. Maggie had worked in the morning, and Warren and Bud both had Christmas Eve off, so they were all at home by the time the afternoon rolled around and the snow was really coming down in earnest. It seemed to cheer everyone up, almost making them giddy in a way that rarely happened in their patched together little family.
Maggie had turned on some holiday music, and they sat around half smiling at each other, offering tidbits of conversation while munching pizza Hanna had picked up on the way home from the salon. “Should I make some hot chocolate? Maybe see if there is a Christmas Movie on tonight?” She asked, not quite sure if there would be takers but feeling like she might even be up for it herself. Everyone either nodded or offered to do something and before she knew it, they were laughing over how many scoops made an “adult” hot chocolate, remembering how Hanna used to always try to lessen the kids sugar intake by making something a little more like glorified cocoa water than hot chocolate. As they settled into the living room, Warren with remote in hand, Terry walked in with a big smile on his face.
“Are we… ready to… read?” he asked, his voice halting as he worked to get the words out, and all of them louder than was necessary for their close proximity. A little spittle of drool flowed down his stubbly chin. Warren blinked up at him, “read, Terry?” and suddenly Hanna remembered one of the few small things Mary Ellen had asked her to make sure to do. One was to set a chair in the shower for Terry to use while washing, the other was to take him to his co op if possible, and the third was to do what he had always done with his mother since a little boy, and then with Mary Ellen and Bruce the last couple years, and that was reading the Christmas story straight from the book of Luke.


The IV drip gave out a rhythmic beep next to Eliza’s bed. It was the only sound in the hospital room where Mary Ellen sat beside her mother in law, gazing at the sleeping woman and out the window, where a steady snowfall blurred the images of streetlights and Christmas Eve traffic, giving them a soft glow of twinkling lights that seemed to Mary Ellen, almost beautiful from where she sat.
Bruce had gone to his sister’s to shower and grab some coffee. He was planning to return around lunch time and said he would pick up something for Mary Ellen to eat.
 So far, the morning had been slow and quiet, giving Mary Ellen a lot of time to think. Her mind strayed from all the things she had left undone, or in others hands while they were away, and settled on her children scattered and wandering each in their own way. Their lives weighed on her always, and she felt like the years of hope and prayers on their behalf had grown in her like a lifelong period of gestation, one which she felt should be nearly to the point of a delivery- a giving birth of all that waiting and patience she had borne.
At midmorning, just after the ten o’clock rounds, Eliza woke up. She smiled at Mary Ellen, her eyes moist and breathing shallow. Their hands rested, entwined together on the bed, Mary Ellen’s wrapped around Eliza’s cool, limp fingers in an almost prayerful posture.
“I’m so glad you came,” Eliza spoke softly; her voice had grown weaker in the past 24 hours. The doctors did not think she had too much time left. “My heart is so full of joy when I see you, and I am so thankful for you and Bruce.” Mary Ellen could tell Eliza wanted to say things, even though it labored her, and so she remained quiet to give the woman space for her words.
“I have known you since you were a little girl, and I see you now, a woman who lives to serve and carry the burdens of others. I know you hurt and that you want to see God do something great. I want to tell you that I have seen him work a wonderful thing in your life.” Here she paused for several moments. Eliza’s eyes filled and spilled over, and Mary Ellen felt the surge of emotion well up from deep inside. She wanted a miracle. This was her year. But perhaps she had gripped so fiercely to the present and future that she had forgotten to remember the past, and the scope of all the wonder was woven through her life.
Eliza smiled through her tears, and began again. “I have come to the end of my journey. You know the many things I too have waited for in my life. You have your own waiting to do, and while you do it, don’t lose heart. There is a blessing that comes to she who looks to the hand of her master, and waits upon it for whatever he gives. You have a lot to bear, but like the mother whose name you share, you are highly blessed among women. I hope you can know and believe that. I love you my daughter.”

Later, Mary Ellen sat again in the silent room, with Eliza sleeping and Bruce snoring in a vinyl chair at her side. The sky outside had cleared. Snow covered the sidewalks and rooftops outside, blanketing every surface for a few night hours with its heaven like cleansing. She could see stars blinking in the dark sky, and she felt as though she were nearly being lifted to its heights, as she thought on the words Eliza had spoken over her.
Was this how that young, virgin woman had felt so many centuries ago, bearing the weight of the salvation of the world in her womb, knowing it would both pierce and wash over her life with a wonder she could not fathom. And she had believed. She had waited; for nine months, for thirty-three years, and then until her death when she would have finally seen the face of her Lord in the face of her Son. And she had said, what Mary Ellen knew she too must whisper now with all her heart, leaving it and the timing of miracles all to Him, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to your word.”


The words of Luke filled the small family room as Maggie read according to Terry’s instructions and a soft light from the fake fireplace flickered from the center of a faux brick hearth. The snow outside had stopped, and Hanna slipped quietly from her chair near the entryway, slipping out the door to look up at the sky, it’s clearing revealing a blanket of bright stars that couldn’t help but make you feel small and grand all at the same time.
She couldn’t shake the feeling of tingling had settled over her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to cry or scream, hug someone or be alone in her room. This place under the stars, with the snow sparkling like a sea of diamonds at her feet, stretching out across the lawns and down the still untouched streets, seemed somehow the most appropriate. She looked up and wanted to spread her arms out and be transported high into the heavens, like one of those angels in the story just now.
It had struck her like a moment of clarity never before, all of them sitting there listening as Maggie’s voice wandered over the room with a story that was centuries old, yet had always seemed rote and too familiar, but somehow removed to Hanna, that the people in those pages were not very much different than those listening to their story just now. Those shepherds, not the smartest or wealthiest or most sought after in society, were the ones to whom the very servants of the Heavenly King had come to speak to. They were given a place at the manger, when the powerful and wise and learned had all been denied.
And Jesus, the baby who the angel had told Mary would be called the Son of the Most High, and holy… holy, something she had always felt was a word spoken in condescension, in rebuke, and in guilt—as something she couldn’t attain,  that Jesus came to a poor little couple, in a dirty little feeding trough. He was holy, but he didn’t care if the place or people he came to were wrecked right through with dirt. He seemed drawn to it, as though he wanted to give them his holiness and not just rub their grime in their faces. She thought of all the dirt in her own life, the weight of worries and failures and mistakes she was always carrying around, and she wanted more than ever to be like one of those shepherds, invited to the manger, spoken to by angels, filled with joy and running through the streets to tell of it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas Pictures

We pause now for a commercial break. Tomorrow I'll be back with the fourth and final installment of my little Christmas short story, The Unlikely Gift. 

In lieu of Christmas cards (if I had my overseas act together), and even facebook (which I am currently having trouble getting on), we are posting our quick little Shotgun-photo-right-after-church-and-while-everyone-is-hungry-and-self-conscious-of-being-stared-at for a Merry Christmas greeting to all our loved ones.

I still can't believe next year, there will be four of them!!
From our family to yours, we wish you blessings and joy this Christmas

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Unlikely Gift :: Part III

Part III
copyright © Christine Keegan 2011

The steering wheel was ice cold against Hanna’s bare fingers. Yesterday the temperature had taken yet another dive, but the sky remained as blue as sea of sapphires, and the sunlight glared intensely through the windshield, making her reach for the heat switch and sun visor simultaneously. Terry had been with them three days now, and she was getting used to loading him into the van in the mornings and dropping him off at his co-op where he stayed until a bus brought him home at 4 pm. Mary Ellen had left the van for their use on the day she brought Terry over, saying it was easier for him to get in and out of and they wouldn’t need it while they were gone anyway. The only problem with it was the tape deck, which unlike most vehicles those days, was still installed per Mary Ellen’s usually unusual and antiquated request. She had even paid extra to locate it and have it installed, claiming that her whole listening life was on her tapes, and she wasn’t about to change over to CD’s now or she’d lose 95 percent of her mind. Hanna just shook her head, imagining the car salesman thinking to himself that he was sure she already had.
The radio was broken of course, and so rather than sit in silence for the twenty five minutes to and from the co-op, Hanna resorted to the pile of tapes in the consul. It held the typical Mary Ellen fare: loads of sermons from her favorite preachers, book review sessions from the radio programs she loved, and a few worship tapes. There were two Christmas Music selections and Hanna flipped one of them in, letting the carols and orchestra music fill the van with their timeless sounds, willing them to bring some level of comfort rather than the cynical weariness that so often plagued her.
So far, having Terry had gone okay. Maggie had sounded a little put out when Hanna explained the situation to her, but she had been working extra holiday shifts at the mall where her latest job at a clothing boutique had landed her and hadn’t been around too much to complain. Warren of course, was accommodating. He didn’t like the drooling at the table, or the nonstop chattering that flowed from Terry’s moth regardless of how much food was in it, and he usually left the table early, finishing dinner as quickly as he could, which left Hanna and Bud meandering through their food as Terry talked.  Bud had always been slow at meals, and more quiet than most. So Hanna nodded to Terry intermittently and tried not to be discouraged by the situation. Only a week she reminded herself, and if this was the worst of it then she really couldn’t complain.
Warren shooing himself out and Bud mutely chewing his food reminded her a little of dinner at home growing up. Her mother had still felt it her duty to get a meal on the table, never mind who was there or who happened to stay around to eat it together. There was always the feeling of tension, and sullenness, which just made the presence of a “family style” meal and the half empty table seem pathetic and lonely to Hanna. She had always wanted different for her own kids someday. Now sometimes she wondered, if regardless of all her improvements and efforts, the sins of past generations would just keep repeating themselves in some form or another. Her own patched together family rarely ate together, and when they did it was with little conversation and everyone seemed ready to flee off in their own direction.
One time, about a year after she had started attending the Nazarene Church, a mother of one of the AWANA kids had asked if Hanna and the kids wanted to come over for dinner that week. Hanna cringed inwardly at the memory. Nothing had gone wrong, it was just that nothing was wrong, and she had felt messy and sad in the midst of it. Donna was a good mother-- that was easy enough to see. She had four children and they all seemed interested in each other and their surroundings. They were friendly, outgoing, and really listened to their parents. Donna’s husband went to work every day and came home every night, while Donna ran the home. They looked like they cared about one another. Donna always said nice things about her husband, praising his abilities and how much of a godly leader he was. And Hanna was sure that he really was. She had felt light years away from their goodness. Maybe she didn’t want that kind of goodness anyway, she had told herself. But somewhere inside she felt a twinge of envy. Was it for a happy marriage? For children who glowed with potential and purity?
Hanna glanced at Terry in the rearview mirror. He was staring out the window, a slight smile sitting calmly on his face. Was it always there even when he wasn’t thinking about anything in particular? Or was he just more easily cheered by things that to Hanna, meant little and so escaped her notice? Hanna wondered what it had been like to raise a child like Terry, doing just what she was doing now, but with him as a five year old, a ten year old, a teenager. Surely Terry’s mother had endured challenges that Hanna knew nothing about, and surely the woman’s dinner table had looked far different from the one Hanna had visited during her church going years. Mary Ellen had always spoken so highly of Terry’s mother, but she had not made it sound as if it was a life without blemishes. Annie just knew where to turn to, when she was all a mess and at the end of her rope, Mary Ellen would say. Hanna certainly knew there had been countless times when she had felt a mess and at the end of herself. She usually just dusted herself off and picked it all up again, each time chipping a little more off her expectations of what life could be. Maybe you just couldn’t expect a lot of goodness when you had come from a family like hers. 


Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and the cheery radio man said storms were headed their way. The sky still looked clear and cold to Hanna, but inwardly she said a little prayer to no one in particular, asking for some blessed snow to whiten up their gray little town.  She had let Warren take Terry to the co op the last two days because she had the early shift at the salon. Today it was her turn again though, and the traffic seemed especially bad. Probably all the last minute holiday shopping that would only increase over the next 24 hours. She was getting a little tired of the same Westminster Choir Carols, so Hanna grabbed something from the top of the tape stack and flipped it in. The sound of a man’s voice, resonant and full but not overly powerful, spoke to her as though he were sitting directly across from where she sat driving.
It was a Christmas message of course, not surprising since Mary Ellen stocked her car full of all the seasonal messages she could find in her tape library during the month of December. Hanna wasn’t sure quite what it was that kept her from ejecting the soothing man’s voice from the deck and reverting back to the hundredth time through O Holy Night, but somehow his words caught her attention, and she leaned in as the blinking tail lights in front of her flashed a sea of red.

“The manger scene is no mere gentle picture of a sweet, idyllic memory for humanity to reminisce about. It is the most powerful place on this earth. For here, the King of all Creation stoops to share not just his presence, but his very life with the lowliest of society. Here, kings will fall on their faces and be shamed, beaten, judged. Here is where the powerful are stripped of their power, and the haughty of their pride. God is not too proud to take on our humility, and he does so point blank, with austere simplicity in the reality of the manger moment. He does so, not to bring God down to our level, but in order to ultimately raise a redeemed people back to their God.”

The words were hard to grasp in their entirety. Hanna wanted to push the rewind button and listen again, but instead she kept on. Those words, no mere sweet memory… stoops to share life with the lowliest of society… were not like anything she had ever heard about Christmas, even from Pastor Gordon. She felt some small feeling of hope trickle down inside her, though she wasn’t quite sure why. Whatever it was, the manger this man spoke of sounded more like one she would have liked to be around.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Unlikely Gift Part II

The schedule was full today: three cuts and a color before lunch, and two more colors followed by a slew of cuts in the afternoon. She didn’t mind being busy though, it made the day go by quickly, and Mary Ellen was coming in today. Hanna smiled at the thought of her. Mary Ellen was a one of a kind and didn’t really fit into the demographic of the salon’s clientele, or any salon for that matter. Her clothes reminded Hanna of the girls growing up who had attended that funny Baptist church where you couldn’t wear pants, except that Mary Ellen didn’t stick to drab colors; she threw in every pattern of lace or flowery sweater she could find to make her dresses as romantic and whimsical as possible.
The funny part of it all, was that as much as she tried, Hanna couldn’t even do much with the sole reason Mary Ellen had come to her in the first place, and that was to work on her hair. It was hopelessly outdated, but in spite of all her subtle and sometimes outright attempts to get Mary Ellen to change it, the woman was just too desperately attached to the look she had worn for almost thirty-five years now. It sort of befuddled Hanna what led Mary Ellen to come to this salon in the first place, since it was a little more upscale and known for being cutting edge. But come she did, and she was a loyal client, and more than that, a good friend.
The thing about Mary Ellen was that she didn’t seem like she was trying to prove anything. Sure, she dressed like a woman who been through a time warp, but she did it purely because that was exactly what she liked. And it was the same reason she wouldn’t change her hair in spite of all Hanna’s reasoned attempts to get her to do so. Mary Ellen was of sound mind, she just had a mind of her own. Plus, her heart was so full of goodness and giving that Hanna couldn’t help but be drawn to her.
One of the first things Hanna had learned as a hair stylist was that you had to listen to people. They come in and somehow the chair they are sitting in seems to magically transform into a therapists couch, and all their secrets, woes, and every private thought or problem comes flowing out like spilled wine. Usually, you just try to dab the spots, and pick up the glass to send it back on its way. But with Mary Ellen, it had always been different. She didn’t talk too much, except to ask questions, and somehow she turned the tables on Hanna and got her to share the parts of her life that mostly remained hidden in a place like this. Hanna had learned over the years though, that her spilling onto Mary Ellen was not just a mess to be blotted, but was somehow soaked in and accepted. And if Mary Ellen felt stained with what her friend shared, she never showed it. She seemed to cherish whatever Hanna had to offer.
Today Mary Ellen settled right into her chair like she always did, but her face looked a little more pinched than normal. Hanna started running her fingers over the mass of dark but graying curls, fluffing and massaging as she always did while her client warmed up and let her know what she had in mind for that day’s appointment. “How are you today Mary Ellen?” she smiled into the mirrored reflection of her friend. “Are you flying around in your usual holiday whirlwind?” Mary Ellen’s smile looked tired and she closed her eyes a moment, letting the calming effect of the head massage soothe her tenseness.
   “I’m doing okay, but to be real honest I’m feeling a bit frustrated right now. Just too many things flying at me, and not really any of them working out. Bruce is working so much with his classes and finals and everything that he can’t be much help. Yesterday we got a call from his sister, who said his mom is not doing well at all and wants us to seriously think about coming up in a few days for the week. She sounded really concerned. Christmas is four days away and I have so many commitments. But she’s mom, you know. And then we have Terry. What am I going to do with Terry? No one will be able to take him over the holiday, and he can’t come up there with us because of his physical therapy appointments. Plus it just stresses him out to be out of routine. But ah, you know, I’m sure something will work out. The Lord knows all this.”
Mary Ellen smiled, but it seemed faint and a little less hopeful than she was trying to sound.
Hanna knew about Terry, but had only met him a couple of times, when she had dropped by Mary Ellen’s house to return a book or drop her off after they met up for coffee on a day Mary Ellen had been without a car. Terry was in his mid-thirties, and mentally handicapped to such a degree that his mind was like that of an 8 year old. Mary Ellen and Bruce had taken him in after his mother, a close friend at their church, had passed away, leaving no plans or money for her handicapped and care-needy son. It had not been an easy decision to take him in, and Hanna knew it hindered Mary Ellen and Bruce quite often in their ability to do some of the things they wanted to. Terry needed daily care and supervision, and it was hard to find willing hands to take him when they needed time off. Usually, Mary Ellen and Bruce just ended up just sending one and leaving the other to stay at home, which meant more often than not, they were separated these days.
Hanna listened as Mary Ellen talked a little of Bruce’s mother and the way she was heading downhill rather quickly. She could tell it was weighing on M, who dearly loved her mother-in-law and had always been close to her. But Hanna couldn’t help her mind wandering to Terry, and the predicament her friend was in. She and Warren still had a full house these days, even though most parents her age were finding their nests empty and sending kids off to college. Maggie had shown waning interest in school much like her mother had and after graduation had struggled to find a job or any motivation for keeping one. Hanna was fed up with it, but she felt responsible in some way too. She wasn’t sure what to do about the girl. And Bud was so quiet, but out of the two of them Hanna sensed there were deep waters that ran under that still and gentle exterior. It didn’t seem to make a difference when it came to school though, and so he too was living at home, working regular shifts at Al’s Garage down in the center of town and hoping to get an apprenticeship.
Hanna wondered how her two kids would handle someone like Terry in their midst. Cora at least, was not going to be home. She was in Minneapolis with her mother for a few weeks. Hanna wondered what Warren would think of her idea, or what any of them would think for that matter. She wasn’t even sure she liked that she was thinking it either.
Christmas, as it was, was always hard on Hanna, with too many bad memories and not enough good ones to release any sort of nostalgic repertoire of good cheer. She wanted it to be nice for her family, but any more they were a sad lot on what was supposed to be such a grand occasion according to the commercials and December movie specials. More often than not, she decorated the tree by herself and was lucky to squeeze in a few batches of gingerbread cookies as means of “holiday preparations.” This year she had hung a wreath on their door, one that had caught her eye at Wal Mart as she hurried through her shopping one night. It wasn’t too bad for a fake wreath, and she liked the red berries that reminded her of what an old farm door in New Hampshire would have on them, or something picturesque like that.
More than anything, Hanna felt confused and disappointed by the whole idea. She had been to enough church programs to know that according to history, Christmas was supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but the Nativity Plays and carol sings she had been to all seemed so starchy and removed from reality, especially the ones that proclaimed they were throwing a birthday party for Jesus. Why are we throwing a birthday party for God? If he was God, wasn’t he eternal? And did he really see coming to earth as something he wanted to celebrate with a birthday party every year? It just seemed, somehow trite, compared to all the issues of life and death and salvation stuff that church was supposed to be about. And then there was the simple fact that the whole story seemed so distant from her. Bethlehem and mangers and especially angels visiting people was all so very far away and foreign, and like nothing that had every happened in her life. It was just plain hard and uninspiring to sing Joy to the World when she had struggled so hard to attain the little bit of happiness she had, and even that was often clouded by some issue or another.
She had sort of let all that go though, or at least didn’t think about it as hard as she used to.  Yet even with church issues aside, the scurrying around and all the Christmas hype made her feel lonely in a strange sort of way. She wished she could feel as happy and excited about holiday activities as everyone around her seemed to be. Instead, she felt like it was just another reminder of a way of life she couldn’t create and had never really experienced.
So why not have Terry stay with them? It wasn’t like they had some wonderful big tradition he would be imposing on, or a houseful of relatives that would be put out. They could easily keep him in his routine, and he probably wouldn’t feel much of a change outside of the bed he was sleeping in. It would be hard to deal with the drooling, and he talked quite loud because of his hearing aids, and she knew from the things Mary Ellen said that though he was pretty independent for all his disabilities, he was lacking in social boundaries or sensibilities, and sometimes that was a challenge to know how to work with. But her friend was in a bind, and all the times that Mary Ellen had brought her meals, or been a listening, loving shoulder full of good counsel came to her mind and Hanna felt she had no other choice but to offer.


It was her year for a miracle. Mary Ellen could feel it, or she just knew how badly she wanted one, and needed one. It was time for God to come through for her, not that he wasn’t always there for her, she would never have thought or said that, but she just needed something miraculous, something extravagant from his hand to encourage her a little. It had been so many long years of trusting, of waiting, of bearing up when things were hard and believing that He was in control, and always looking to find his grace in the small things. Now she wanted something big and demonstrative, something obvious to everyone. This was her year, she almost felt him whispering it to her.
Bruce almost had the car packed, and Mary Ellen finished wiping up the counter, sweeping her eyes over the kitchen to make sure everything was put away and in place before they left for their week trip up to see Bruce’s mother. It was strange to think of not being here for Christmas. Mary Ellen loved Christmas, and she hated being away from home for it. In fact, in all her years with the children and even those following when they had moved away to other parts of the country, she had been able to avoid spending Christmas away from home. Let them come here, she had always said, and when they couldn’t, let them fill the table with those who needed a place to be. It had become their tradition, albeit a rather risky and uncertain one—never knowing who or what was going to show up to grace their Christmas table. But she and Bruce had grown used to it, and Mary Ellen liked the feeling of food between her hands, full of something tangible to give out and nourish the people around her, knowing they had so much need.
A small part of her was grateful for the break. It had almost shocked her when Hanna had called late that evening after seeing her at the salon, saying the family would love to have Terry stay with them over Christmas. In the few hours of phone calls she had made, Mary Ellen had received so many “we just can’t” and “we’ll be out of town” responses from the friends and neighbors she had asked, that she had resigned herself to the fact that it would be her and Terry home alone, while Bruce went on to be with his mom. It hadn’t even crossed her mind to ask Hanna, who always seemed to struggle so around the holidays, and her family didn’t exactly seem the kind to be up for caring for a middle aged handicapped man for a week. But she had sounded so genuine, and willing to help, and Mary Ellen felt that this was in fact, like all things, “provision.”
Terry was moving himself slowly down the stairs, chattering all the way about things they needed to remember, certain clothes of his and particular toiletries and pills. And of course his activity books and puzzles. Mary Ellen, nodded, giving him vocal affirmations as he listed his concerns and reassured him they had everything ready and that he would be fine. Would he be fine? And would she be fine? Leaving home to see a woman who had been the closest thing to a real mother she had ever experienced, and who could at any moment be reaching the end of her life here on earth? Could she handle another loss? Could she walk through another Christmas with so little wonder to sustain her, with nothing but what felt like wasted bones, wasted from service and weariness in trusting. Yes, she needed a miracle this year. Surely He would give her one, or she’d have to resort to performing them herself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Unlikely Gift

Over the next week, in these last few days of preparations and festivity, I will be posting a short Christmas story in four parts. I hope you enjoy!

The Unlikely Gift
Copyright © Christine Keegan 2011

Part I

 Hanna was sure that the snow would not make it in time for Christmas this year. It rarely did, and it was just another, though perhaps petty, reason why she felt like the whole season was usually such a let-down. The streets of the Midwest suburban town just a few miles outside the City were gray and cold, and seemed barren with an almost hopeless look about them, as though they knew they would have to look this way well into the New Year. Hanna didn’t mind the cold, as long as there was snow to go along with it. But these endless stretches of weeks with the thermometer dipping below forty and no snow in sight almost irritated her, in a way she knew that the weather ought to be entirely unable to do.
Oh well, another Gray Christmas, she smiled to herself in a sort of half amused way, thinking how awful a holiday tune that would make sung over and over on the radio stations that existed solely to belt cheer and good wishes to a land that seemed anything but. Well, at least the sky was clear. And this morning it played faintly with soft swishes of pale gold and pink as she turned the car down the main highway, heading to the large shopping center where the salon was waiting to be opened. A clear sky always brightened things up a bit, even if the sidewalks and store fronts were a little drab looking these days.
Hanna locked up the car, glancing past the metal rooftop to take a last glimpse of watercolor masterpiece strewn above her. Sometimes the beauty of a simple sunrise made her want to keep her gaze straight heavenward. Instead, she headed into the back entrance of the small salon where she had worked for almost 8 years now, switching her attention to more earthly matters, like her reflection staring back through the windows lining the walls where black leather chairs stood cockeyed and facing all directions, vacant and waiting patiently for the stream of dedicated women and occasional men who would come marching in to claim them.
She eyed the deepening lines above her auburn colored eyebrows. They had settled in with permanence, and certainly gave a more aged look to her face, especially with the crow’s feet creeping in at the corners of her eyes, and the skin that was starting to sag a little on her neck. No amount of firming cream would really help, and Hanna remained highly principled in her unwillingness to alter the course of events taking place with her physical appearance through artificial means. But she eyed it all just the same, trying to forget the fact that ninety nine percent of the girls who worked the floor here were in their early twenties and may as well have been light years from worrying about gravity working its wonders on their firm, tight little bodies. Her own middle had thickened a little in recent years, though she still held her shape and worked hard to walk regularly and even fit in a few sets of lunges when she could. But the fact was, everything just hung a little lower than it used to, and there wasn’t a whole lot she could do to hide it.
These small signs of aging didn’t bother her to the extent that they did some people though, and that fact didn’t really fit with her line of work, which was entirely about creating an attractive and age-defying outer image. Maybe it was because there were other things that bothered her more, inner things that stuck to you no matter how few or many wrinkles you had. They were the kind of age lines that a life sometimes wrote on your soul, and more than anything, they were the ones she longed to be rid of.

Being the first one in this morning, Hanna started up the coffee, dumping yesterday’s grounds in the bin and cursing as a few clumps flew out and splattered her shoes and pant leg. It was something Warren always did at home, failing to stoop low enough to bang the grounds out, and it irritated her to no end. She would pull the garbage can out to empty it, or clean behind it with the mop and inevitably find a smattering of grounds and dark brown drips littering the floor and can and sometimes even the wall. Just hold it further down in the can when you empty it, she would rant, sometimes inside her head and sometimes letting it burst out loud at him before she could stop herself. She knew she picked on him a lot. And he tried hard, she knew he did, to do the things the way she liked them done.
Warren was steady though, and not easily rocked by her little unreasonable outbursts.  It was probably some arrangement on the behalf of Almighty God, though Hanna wasn’t always sure anymore how mightily involved in her life God was, that she had ended up with Warren. He had been married before, and had a daughter about Maggie’s age. He hadn’t seemed daunted, as so many countless men understandably were, by the fact that she had two kids, by two different men, and none of them in the picture. It was true that by the time he met her, she had been a little more stable than those early years right out of high school, when she had seemed to ricochet from one rocky, immature relationship to the next, each leaving it’s mark with another baby on her hands.
Those years seemed far away now.  But at times, like with the dreams she’d been having lately, or when she looked at her daughter and saw herself staring right back, they still closed in on her, like a grime she couldn’t quite wipe off. In high school, Hanna had practically lived at the neighbor’s house while her father ranted at her mother next door, and her mother fought back with plates and words and whatever else she could hurl at him. Her younger brother had grown sullen and withdrawn, but with a fire burning deep inside him that burned especially against his father. Her older sister, Rachel, had always been the favored one who could do no wrong, with her long black curls and dimpled, chatty charm, and Hanna had grown up knowing she could not compete and she never really did try.
Escape was mostly what she wanted, and when the first boy came along who showed her some interest, and proved to be a way out for the moment, Hanna grabbed at the chance. A few years later, out of school without a diploma, a toddler and a baby in the backseat, and no place to call home, she began to feel that her way of escaping had trapped her in some other awful nightmare.
Warren knew about all that. He had met her when Maggie and Bud (who had gotten his name from Maggie when he was born—she just barely 17 months old and calling him Buddy, which then shortened to Bud as he got a older) were twelve and ten, and Hanna had just finished up with cosmetology school. She was going to church at that time, at the small Church of the Nazarene just off Elm Street, which was directly across from the third apartment she and the kids had lived in at that time. They had started attending the little church not long after moving into the apartment, when Maggie as an independent little seven year old, had wandered over there one day, playing with a friend from school and wanting to use the small play ground that lined the edge of the simple red brick building. A woman and her children had stopped the girls on their way to the car, asking Maggie where they lived and such and inviting them to an AWANA program they held at the Church on Wednesday evenings. Maggie had lit up at the idea of being out on a school night, and ran home to tell her mother about it and to ask permission to please, please go. Before she knew it, Hanna was roped in to Parent Night and a small Bible Study for young moms and Sunday After Church Potlucks.
Overall, she had really liked those church ladies, and all the people that had come along with them. Pastor Gordon had helped her immensely over the few years she had attended; paying bills when the gas was shut off, giving her counsel about how to deal with the fathers of her children, who crept around now and then looking for something from her or the kids but were never keen on sticking around to be a part of daily life or finances. Pastor had taught her a lot about what it meant to be a Christian and how you should live and what would happen when the world came to an end and all that.
At times she had found the words she soaked in there fascinating. And at other times she had felt so weighed down with it all that her life almost seemed heavier than it was before, as though now the sins of her past were able to be lifted, but with so much effort on her part that she felt as if she might drown in the trying. In the end, she just felt too different, and like she had too far to go to become like any of those women with their nice families and husbands who came home every night. It just wasn’t in her blood, she decided.  But she would take from it the good that she could.
After those three or so years with the Nazarene folks, things had settled down for her a bit. She felt she had a better handle on the kind of parent she needed and wanted to be. She knew the things she needed to stay away from to make that happen and she felt ready to be responsible and motivated. She read books on changing your life and finding your worth and determining your goals. She went back to school and made sure Maggie and Bud did their homework and ate something at least slightly more decent than Spaghettios and Mac N’ Cheese.  It felt good to grow stronger, and to sense a little more control over the course of her life.
And she had met Warren. He was full of his own scars, and lived a couple towns away with his daughter, Cora who was just a year younger than Maggie. It had not been easy, bringing their two lives together with all the background and mess of three children who had grown up on the whole with only one parent. The first years had been rough between Cora and Hanna, though Maggie and Bud had warmed to Warren almost immediately. He was easy to love and accept: quiet, unassuming, trying to make ends meet working shifts at the Fire station and running a lawn care business during the summer. He demanded little of her kids, and they seemed to sense he was good for her. Cora, however was a tougher nut to crack. She had a lot of fire in her, the anger just simmering below the surface. It was all Hanna could do to grit her teeth and bear the girl’s obvious suffering.
The pot hissed and popped, signaling the coffee was ready, and Hanna held a mug between both hands, waiting for it to warm her fingers that seemed endlessly cold, something her kids had complained about when they were small and she would pull their shirts over their heads as she helped them dress in the morning. It had bothered her for some reason, feeling like if anything, a mother should have warm, comforting hands to hold and pull around you. But hers never were. Poor circulation, she guessed. Or maybe they were just too thin and bony to hold much, including a wedding ring. It was forever falling off and she had already lost a couple. The one she had now was part of a cheap, fake set from Marshall’s. Maybe some people just weren’t made in a way that let them hold on to what was good.
Some things, like cold hands or big mistakes, you just couldn’t shake or change, no matter how many improvements you made or how many books you read. It was like those ladies who came into the salon almost weekly. You could spot their kind from a mile away and smell them as soon as the door opened, in spite of all the shampoos and coloring chemicals that permeated the air. They were usually dressed in trendy clothes, pants and tops that were too tight fitting or low cut for their age. They wanted their hair blonder, or with more highlights, and they were forever heading in from the gym or some class designed to tone and firm and strengthen and help you lose weight all in one shot. The fact was, they may have looked a step up from some of the other middle aged women with kids off to college and too much time on their hands, but they still couldn’t hide the marks that time was making on them. And they almost looked the worse for trying. Some things you just couldn’t shake, and Hanna felt like even with all the goodness of her life with Warren, and the fact that she was not stuck in a bar somewhere drinking away her sorrows each night, she couldn’t rub some of the dirt off her life.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wonder Baking

A little Holiday Baking going on around here. Some take the privileges of the Baker very seriously.

On my list of goodies to be made this year:
Sugar Cookies (maybe even with royal icing and serious decorating? we'll see)
Ginger Snaps, of course
Peanut Blossoms, see above... and old standby
Mexican Wedding Cakes, my personal favorite
Tea Ring, just like my Grandma always does it
Peppermint Mochas (times 80... for the staff at school... yikes! but fun)
White Chocolate Dipped Pretzels... for gifts

I think that and maybe lettuce and endamame should do it for our diet of the next couple weeks.

How about you? Are there special things you always make, or are trying new this year? 
So far, the making for me has not been too stressful (wait until I get to the Peppermint Mochas) and I am enjoying the pleasure and heightened sense of "something wonderful is happening" that it so easily brings. 
I hope you enjoy your times of special making as well!