The Nativity

I remember it as if it was yesterday, it was Thanksgiving Day 1981; I was but a five year old girl. My mother, father, 2 year old brother and I had plans to go to Great grandmother’s house for a traditional German/Norwegian Thanksgiving Dinner. My family and I lived in an insignificant rural town in Minnesota, population 882. This is where my father’s roots were. The small farm at the edge of town where his grandmother lived once contained a family dairy farm where milk, butter and cheese were sold to the community.

I was a little girl who was full of life, vibrant and easily excitable. I loved visiting my Grandmother, she always spoke with a gentle and sweet voice of concern, her face continually showed joy through the wrinkles and sparkling eyes that sat calmingly behind the antique frames of her eyeglasses. Though grandma was actually my Great Grandmother, I always called her Grandma just the same. She often related conversation with pieces of stories from her past. When she told her stories, I had always pictured the little girl on Little House on the Prairie.

Grandma’s house was always fun to visit. Upon entering her house the inviting aroma of turkey and pies whisked me up the stairs into her arms for a hug and kiss. Grandpa was already there, He was a gentle man who spoke softly and had a similar twinkle in his eyes as his mother did. I sat on his lap and he asked me if I had been good and hesitantly told him yes as mom and dad stood sneering at my response. He set me down and reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter and handed it to me. I said thank you with big eyes took it and ran off to find grandma’s toys in the frigid front porch. I picked out the coloring books and crayons and some Lincoln logs for my little brother to play with out of an old cardboard fruit box and glanced past the stacks of goodies grandma had been baking all week as I went back into the kitchen to sit and color a picture, one for grandpa and one for grandma to put on her refrigerator.

Everyone visited at the table in the kitchen as grandma finished up the dinner. Mom helped her as much as Grandma would allow. She liked to do most of it herself. Dad helped reach fancy bowls for grandma from the top cupboards and open tightly sealed pickle jars and mash the potatoes grandma had boiled. Daddy was handy in the kitchen because he was tall and strong. Grandma commented that the food was done and everyone chipped in preparing the dinner table. Mommy shooed me and my crayons off the table so she could set the tableware and grandma and daddy began setting the food on the table. Dad pulled a plump golden turkey from the oven and set it on the counter where grandpa did the honors of carving the tender meat off and setting it on a platter. The snowy white mountainous bowl of mashed potatoes was set on the table along with the gravy boat, fluffy pillows of seasoned stuffing, candy apple red slices of cranberry sauce and Grandma’s homemade pies, perfectly crafted apple, peach and pumpkin. Then of course what German/Norwegian family didn’t have the pungent lutefisk and homemade lefse. I had learned to love this awful smelling fish that had been aged in a barrel of lye, it was the last thing grandma had prepared, she always served it boiled and steaming hot. It made the whole house smell like a seaman’s dream.

Grandma, being a Christian woman began dinner prayer, something I didn’t really understand but kind of liked none the less. After Grandma finished prayer, everyone began dishing food onto their plates and passing it around the table. Being careful to remove the long thin bones from this lucid delicacy, daddy added some butter to it then he added a little more butter, some salt and pepper and then he mixed it with the mashed potatoes on his plate and rolled it up in his lefse and ate it, I would copy him after grandma picked out my bones. Lefse was made from potato products which was then rolled out in flour and laid on a hot griddle for a minute or so on each side, they resembled a thin tortilla. The recipe was a sacred secret of grandma’s which nobody dared to ask for.

While everyone ate their meal it was generally typical that everyone also visited and made sure that everyone had enough food on their plates and didn’t need something passed to them. Grandma spoke about the relatives that couldn’t be there with us because they lived too far away and spoke about church and communal stories of her younger days, while grandpa told me about a nativity scene that he had just handmade and said when we finished eating that I should ask grandma about it.

Frequent occasions while we were eating, Grandma asked grandpa if he was feeling well because he was seemingly quieter than his usual self, Everyone grew quiet and looked at him waiting for his response with concern while chewing their turkey, he said he was fine and it was just a bit of heartburn and he just felt tired, which didn’t seem too odd as he frequently had suffered from heartburn.

While everyone was finishing their dinner, Grandma sat picking her teeth and talking about the weather before starting to clear some of the dishes from the table. Mom finished eating making sure one last time that everyone had had enough to eat and helped her put some of the food away. Grandma asked if anyone was ready for pie and my dad sighed rubbing his belly, looking around the room at everyone and laughed and piped up saying “I think we’ll wait a bit on that”. Grandpa sat at the table drinking his pony beer and smoking cigarettes talking to dad. They all joked about how they ate too much and how the natural chemical in the turkey was making them sleepy.

Grandpa finished his beer and got up heading to the living room to take a nap in the chair everyone called his. Mom took my brother into grandmas’ bedroom and laid him down for a nap too. Dad sat in the kitchen at the now empty table reading the Sunday paper comics digesting his food. I asked grandma where the nativity scene was that grandpa told me about and if I could see it yet.

Grandma took mom and me upstairs to see it. Dad said he had already seen it and started a crossword puzzle he found in the paper. Daddy always had his nose in the paper if he wasn’t outside working or visiting with someone.

On the way up the stairs grandma said that she had something for me, this animated me as I asked, “what is it grandma, what is it?” grandma said we’ll just have to see dear, as she opened the spare room door. Behind which door grandma stored all sorts of natty looking trinkets and treasures. There were vibrantly colored Christmas decorations and gaily patterned fabric overflowing the brims of cardboard boxes and stacks of clothing patterns around a sewing machine table. In this room she had a spare bed for company and kept things that she had bought on clearance or on sale that later became gifts to her neighbors, friends and relatives on their birthdays, anniversary’s and other special occasions.

Grandma hunched over and revealed from under the bed a box and handed it to me. I opened the box and gasped as I pulled out a white snow boot and slipped my foot into it. The boots were white as newly fallen snow and felt as soft as lambs’ wool on my feet. I squealed with excitement, “it fits, it fits grandma”. Grandma giggled as she knew I would enjoy them. My mother caught my attention saying, “Wow, would you look at this!”, as I went to stand by my mom she said, “Your grandpa made this”. Grandpa had crafted the nativity scene with his own two hands, From the brown stained wood manger stable to the painting of the ceramic figurine’s, it even had real straw inside it and lit up from the back with a tiny light bulb hidden behind a wooden star in the front center of the roof top. My grandma sat on the edge of the bed and told me the real story of the baby Jesus who was lying in the manger and told me the names of the other painted ceramic people who stood around him.

As mom and grandma were visiting, I started back at my new boots that grandma had just given me, I was looking them over inspecting them and admiring them, just as a kid on Christmas morning does when they unwrap a new toy. Grandma was watching me the whole time and says, “You like them boots don’t you”, getting up off the floor, I said “uh-huh” and hugged and kissed her saying thank you.

As we were going back down the stairs, I led the way, in a hurry to show the world my new boots. Mom asked me, “are you going to show Grandpa your new boots?”, “after daddy” I said as I ran ahead into the kitchen. Daddy looked at them and said “oh Boy! Those are neat, where’d ya get them from?” I told him that grandma gave them to me and I seen a nativity scene too, I told daddy that it had baby Jesus in a manger and his mommy and daddy were all painted by grandpa. I told daddy that I was going to go show grandpa my boots and ran into the living room where he was napping. Dad went back to his crossword puzzle while grandma and mom finished cleaning up the dinner dishes and visited.

As I entered the darkly lit living room where grandpa was sat crouched down in his chair, I spoke softly and said, “Grandpa”, but he didn’t wake up, I stepped up a little closer, and said a little louder, “grandpa” and he still didn’t wake, and again, I said, “grandpa” as I tapped his knee, I was waiting for him to jump up with a roar to scare me as he sometimes liked to do when I awoke him from his naps. But grandpa still did not respond to me. I began to feel sad because he wasn’t paying any mind to me; I thought that maybe he was ignoring me like my parents often did when they didn’t want to be bothered. I stood there disappointed that he wasn’t responding to my tiny little voice. Soon my anticipation turned to an atrocious sentiment. I stood there motionless and stared at his chest which didn’t move. After my failed attempts to get his attention I slowly backed up and mournfully walked to the kitchen crying where grandma was standing at the sink doing the dishes and talking to mommy and daddy.

Grandma paused her conversation and looked down at me as I stood there shock faced and sobbing. Grandma said “what’s the matter honey?” as I was too shook up to speak, Grandmas concern grew as she grabbed a dish towel from the hanger above her sink. I cried out words between muffled sobs that caught everyone’s attention. Daddy dropped his pen and mommy and grandma looked at me hard as grandma peered into the living room where grandpa was, I repeated, “I think grandpas dead”, there was shock and disbelief on their faces as they asked me again and I told them he wouldn’t wake up. Grandma rushed into the living room to check on her son as my parents scolded me telling me to never say something like that ever again. Nobody believed that a five year old child could possibly understand what “dead” was and the seriousness of its definition.

Soon, I heard my Grandmother scream my father’s name from the living room. Daddy jumped up and ran into the living room and Mommy ran to the phone to call for help. I stood there still lamenting as everything around me seemed to be in slow motion. I felt scared and alone as I was pushed into a corner by all the upheaval. Mommy sat in Grandmas bedroom on the edge of the bed holding my little brother who was awaken from the noise as she frantically pleaded to the person on the other end to get someone there fast. It had seemed that everyone had forgotten about me because the attention was focused on my Grandfather who was unsuspectingly having a massive heart attack.

I heard my daddy hollering at my grandpa, he was saying “Dad, Dad can you hear me, are you ok?” Even my daddy’s voice sounded tear choked at this point, which left an uneasy feeling with me as I stood at the kitchen doorway watching through teary eyes. Two strangers in uniform came to the door; they rushed through the door without knocking. My mom pointed them where my grandpa was now laying on the floor. I watched a sense of relief wash over my mothers face as the two strangers kneeled down where my grandfather laid and began to try and awaken him. I sadly looked down at the gleaming white boots that had moments ago brought joy to everyone’s face. They now made me sick as they faded murky through my flooded face.

All sorts of people in uniform took over grandma’s house and Grandpa still lay on the living room floor motionless. The people who wore blue jackets with big letters E, M and T on their backs then put something they called “paddles” on his pale white chest, grandpa looked as if he were trying to sit up but I didn’t get a good look with all the people teeming around him, it was like some sort of sad circus where Grandpa was the main attraction.

As time seemed to linger, I sat in the vacant kitchen, in the chair where Grandpa had eaten his dinner and drank his beer. I thought maybe it was all just a horrific nightmare, I felt as if this was all my fault because I had spoken the words that Mommy and daddy had scolded me for saying, telling me to never say ever again, had my words, “I think grandpa is dead”, killed him?

People poured out of the living room into the kitchen as a man pushed the Thanksgiving table they had all been sitting at enjoying their dinner earlier out of the way as I had seen Grandpa laying on a table with wheels, there was vomit all over. Grandpa’s face looked faded as they carted him off. The strangers put him into a big square white truck with brightly colored blue and white lights and loud urgent sounding sirens and sped off out of sight.

I remember going home but this time trailing behind my parents, who didn’t seem to notice me anymore, as if I were translucent. I absorbed everything that went on around me not really understanding any of it and I remember after we had gotten home mommy and daddy went into their bedroom and shut the door. The house was filled with the haunting sounds of my daddy’s miserable howling. I had never heard this before and the feeling that permeated the house saddened me and made me sick.

I went upstairs to my bedroom, crawled into my oversized bed, and covered my entire body with covers. I could still hear my daddy shouting and weeping so I began to sing, “Jesus Loves the little children” in a whispered voice loud enough to drown out my crying daddy. I finally began to feel safe and calmed and fell asleep envisioning the nativity scene that Grandma had earlier showed. I fell asleep, innocent and unknowing that this day would soon be just a haunting memory of my past.

I can still recall the smell of my grandmas’ house though she has died almost ten years ago in the nursing home where I worked as a certified nurse’s aide and took care of her; I can still see her jovial face. I can still remember the rough fabric of the chair my Grandfather napped in and never awoke. I remember the blistering paint chips that fell off the grass green painted plaster walls of my bedroom where I sat unaided wondering why daddy was still gloomy and when he would stop being sad and angry. He must have been infuriated with me because I don’t remember him hugging, kissing or even tucking me in at night. I tried to say I was sorry but I didn’t want to bother him, mommy said we shouldn’t bother him.

We moved from that house six years after grandpa died and was closer to the cemetery where they buried him; it was only a bike ride away. I often rode my bicycle to his grave, sat upon the grass facing the big stone with his name engraved in it and talked to him. I told grandpa how I missed him and how I wished he could still be here so daddy wouldn’t be sad anymore. I told him how daddy was always working and how every Christmas daddy would set out his nativity scene. I even told him how beautiful it still was and how much I loved it. I sat there and cried hoping he would hear me because I never got to tell him that I got to see it and how magnificent it was.

I’ve grown now and live in Missouri. My dad still lives in the rural Minnesota town. On a trip to my dads’ house one Christmas with my own family I discovered that my father now pulls out the nativity scene. I saw it sitting on its own table in the living room, like a sacred shrine. At first, I wondered to myself why I had never noticed it until now, had he always set it out for Christmas or had he tried to keep it from me. I took my 5 year old little boy’s hand and said “come with me, I want to show you something”. We sat down on the floor in front of it and I told him how my grandfather had made it. I explained the crafted manger and the meticulously painted figurines illuminating the story of baby Jesus to him just as my great grandmother had done with me years ago.


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