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.