01 December 2015
Ours is not an expensive set hand-carved in Italy. With the exception of a black cat made of resin and stamped Singapore, the characters who gather at our manger boast a French connection—they were formed when wet plaster of Paris was poured into little molds and left to harden. Still, some unknown artist(s) took time decorating the figures. Jesus' eyelashes rival any drag queen’s. The sheep exudes personality. A touch of rouge on Mary’s cheeks sets her face aglow.
After my dad died my husband Dave and I helped my mom clean out his workshop in the garage. This manger scene was tucked away on a back shelf. I asked if we could have it. I don't know its history or how my father came to have it. It's not the nativity set I remember from childhood. Maybe he bought it at a garage sale.
It dates to the 1930s or 40s. It’s been cared for, even if its plaster players have suffered setbacks over the years. A previous owner made them a plain wooden stable with three openings: a huge bay that leads onto the front patio, a little window, forward-facing, low and off to one side, and a round hole high up in the back that admits a single small lightbulb.
The homemade manger looks like a watering trough to me. It’s long enough the shepherd could lay down and take a bath in it. We've filled it with grey downy feathers from our chickens to make a soft bed for the Baby Jesus. I bet he once looked cute with both arms intact, outstretched. But he wouldn’t have been able to lay in this skinny manger. With only one arm, he fits in just fine.
This year most everybody huddles inside the stable. Only Jesus, the sheep and shepherd are out on the patio. The donkey sticks his nose out the wide entrance. His ears lie flat against his head. This was a design choice meant to keep them from breaking off, I'm sure, but he looks as if someone's slipped crank case oil into his oats. Or maybe he’s feeling pain in his right hind leg where a chunk of flesh is missing.
O, we are broken people every one, none of us a stranger to injury, indignity and loss. Sometimes we stand on the outside, left in the cold. Sometimes we grouse and grumble from within. Sometimes we’re as befuddled as the shepherd, with a look on our faces every bit as blank and dull as his.
Being human is no cake walk. “Life breaks everyone,” Hemingway wrote. “Afterward, many are strong at the broken places.”
When I worked as editor of my alma mater's alumni magazine I insisted we do more than fill each issue with puff pieces about how wonderful everything was on campus. Who's gonna believe that and for how long? I wanted to remind readers we were human, real, honest.
I relate best to folks who have suffered loss, who aren’t always at their best, who know the taste of defeat. Who keep showing up, year after year, scars and all. The people who scare me are the ones who know everything, have no doubts and no problems. They’re either delusional or divine. Either way I want to watch my step around them.
Each December a black cat with no nose peers out the side window of our stable. I’d like to know where he fits into the story, how he came to join this crew. Yet I’m glad we’ve made room for the unexpected, the unexplained. So much of life is mystery. Let’s celebrate it for what it is.