A spoken word by the talented Tony Sciacca. You can contact Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy the video!
Preparing the Heart
Growing up, my parents often invited people over for dinner the pastor’s family, people from our church, and missionaries traveling into town—sometimes they stayed for weeks. Looking back, I marvel how momma handled this with ease. I’ve lacked that talent for being hospitable. I become a stress case thinking about cooking dinner for anyone outside my family. What if I burn something or something gets cold while I’m making something else. How in the world do you time it all? What if…I poison someone! Welcome to my internal dialogue.
I’m embarrassed to admit the first dinner I made for my husband (we were dating at the time) was boiled chicken. It boiled up and over the pot and made the biggest mess. I plunked that flavorless white chunk of boiled-mess on the plate. Immediately, he ran out and purchased me an engagement ring in an attempt to save me from starvation. (Just kidding here, hmm…but possibly)
In my defense, I can set a beautiful table, but I suppose no one’s going to remember that beautiful table unless there’s something to eat on it.
This insecurity has allowed me to buy into the lie that I don’t have to cook dinner for anyone, and I’ve gone long periods of time without one dinner guest. It’s as if that southern culture my momma created fizzled out in me. I’ve bought into the lie that it’s not my talent therefore let other’s do the inviting and the feeding, but this has come at a cost. Throughout Christ’s ministry many times the personal relationships He developed were over a meal, think about it…the last supper, at Mary and Martha’s house, at the beach when He cooked fish for the disciples.
I read an article not too long ago that stated God wants us to be hospitable. The writer pointed out we must have a willing heart even if it’s something we are naturally not good at because first it’s a sign of our faith (walking forward in uncertainty) and secondly, an act of worship.
Throughout this Christmas season I’ve reflected on Mary’s willing heart. When the angel Gabriel visited her and told her she was to give birth to the Messiah, she asked one question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” At first glance, one would think she was doubting what the angel Gabriel told her, but because of the angel’s response to her we know it wasn’t doubt in God’s power, but innocent curiosity. I love this because it shows God sees the heart of a person and knows us. He understood Mary’s limited experience in her mere thirteen years (or so) of life.
The opposite is true in Zechariah. When Gabriel told him he and Elizabeth would have a child and they were to name him John. Zechariah questioned how he could be sure this would happen since he and Elizabeth were so old. Zechariah wanted proof. This angered God because first—pointing out the obvious—God sent an angel to tell him the news. Wouldn’t that be proof enough? Secondly, Zechariah was a priest and knew the scriptures backwards and forwards. He knew God blessed Abraham and Sarah in their advanced years with their son Isaac. God held a higher expectation from an older priest than a young girl; causing God to take away Zechariah’s ability to speak until after John was born in response to his lack of faith.
Once Mary heard the Holy Spirit would overcome her and impregnate her, she stated simply, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Mary was willing to carry the Christ child even though it was against the law for her to be with child and unmarried. She knew she could’ve been stoned to death, but she was willing.
Four years ago, I felt God impressing upon me I would be speaking. I journaled it as I do when I feel God is trying to tell me something. I can talk the cows to sleep, as my Momma so eloquently will tell you, but I hate speaking. Soon after, I journaled this, the leader from MOPS asked me to speak about Finding Joy in a Sorrowful Season. I had an hour to speak. I walked up to the podium gripping a barf bag. As soon as I began to speak God took over for me, and midway through I watched a tissue box being passed around between the young moms.
Before opening Hallelujah House, I felt the Father impressing on me I would be making videos and speaking in them. This is way out of my comfort zone, so I’ve tried to negotiate my way out of it. One morning preparing for my next Bible study on The Armor of God by Priscilla Shirer, somewhere in the middle of the workbook page I felt His nudging again.
“Why now? Why didn’t you call me in my thirties?” I prayed. “You don’t see 50- year old’s on You Tube!” Not only that—I’m losing my hair from my double mastectomy. I imagined the criticisms that would pour in. The enemy whispered in my ear and filled me with angst. I compromised I’d speak—but off camera, yet I knew in order for the watcher to feel a connection with you and your story they need to see who’s doing the talking. I told myself I imagined it all. God isn’t asking this of me, besides I’m a writer. He wouldn’t ask me to do something I’m not inclined to do. (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.)
Just then my computer screen flashed a tweet by the very person who wrote the study I was working on. Priscilla Shirer tweeted, “Just Obey.” The words hung suspended glaring at me and seared my heart.
I sank in my chair.
I penciled in the date my son and I would do the filming. I pinned my hair back so it wouldn’t flap around in the wind and I sat in front of the camera in a barn stall on a hot morning with a wool wrap on (sweating bullets) and told the message God put on my heart, The Best Gifts Come in Ugly Wrappings. You can see the video here: https://videopress.com/v/0WpWDM7z
In God’s word, the Christmas story not only illustrates a willing heart but a mind inclined to obedience. What if Joseph didn’t take Mary to be his wife after finding out she was pregnant? Or if he chose not to obey when the angel told him to get up and flee to Bethlehem? Or if the wisemen chose not to go home another way as God told them to? Without a heart that’s willing and a mind focused on obedience we could fall out of God’s protection and blessings over our lives.
Are we willing? Are we willing to do whatever it is God has called us to do no matter how uncomfortable, embarrassing, or risky it is? God blesses a willing heart and an obedient mindset. As we face the New Year the best gift we can give the Savior for His birthday is a willing heart and obedience to His call on our lives. Whatever He asks us to do it’s already bursting forth to bring a harvest. He’s gone ahead of us and paved the path to completion; we just need to relinquish our reluctant spirit.
Please note: We will have one more blog written by Lisa Sciacco posted Monday on how to make an easy last minute homemade gift for your loved ones. After that, Hallelujah House will be taking a break through the Christmas holidays. In January our theme will be… drum roll….Spiritual Warfare, so get ready to get on your spiritual armor. We’ve got some great things planned. I’ll catch you on the other side.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Preparing the Heart and Harvest
I wasn’t allowed to believe in Santa growing up, my father didn’t want to ever lie to us or allow Santa more attention than Jesus. Since I wasn’t allowed to believe, I felt I missed out a bit, so I’ll confess my sin right now… I’ve become a deceiver and allowed my kids to believe in the fat intruder. In hindsight, as fun as it can be, it’s also proven to be a big headache. For example, I buy special wrapping paper that only Santa presents get wrapped in, and once I’m done wrapping all the leftovers go in the trash for fear my daughter (the only believer now) will see it and figure it all out.
Over Thanksgiving break, her cousins told her Santa only brings one gift, because that’s what they do in their house…one gift from Santa…the rest from their Mommy and Papa. So, this has become a mess, and I realize now we should have had a parent conference and conferred on the whole how many gifts thing, so we can get our stories straight.
Another problem is explaining the Christmas shoe boxes to my little girl and the Angel tree. After telling her some kids don’t get as much for Christmas, so we are going bless them with some presents, she thought for a minute before stating, “But Momma Santa goes all over the world. He’ll take care of them.”
And let me just add here, parents who move around an elf at night, don’t let your kids tell Bella an elf visits them because I’m just going to have to tell her that your kids are naughty most of the time, so Santa sent an elf to see if they are getting coal or presents.
Stop the madness already!
Even though I don’t have my Daddy’s sense of integrity, I do want my children to realize the reason for the season came wrapped in a manger one night in Bethlehem. I’ve learned to incorporate traditions in our home to instill the true meaning of Christmas, in the hopes some of the following suggestions could help you unwrap Jesus for your children.
- Encourage your daughter to raid the scarves and wraps in your closet and dress up like Mary or your boys dress like the shepherds and wise men and talk about the story as they do. Growing up, my sister and I did this, and my Bella loves to do it as well.
- Keep baby Jesus hidden. In our home, baby Jesus is placed in the manger on Christmas morning. After placing Him in His rightful place, we pray and thank Him for sharing His birthday with us before any presents are handed out.
- Pick a family to bless this Christmas. Each year, we pick a family or several people to give gifts to that probably wouldn’t get as much otherwise. Our children learn Christmas is not just about receiving but giving as well. We emphasize that we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
- On Christmas Eve night read the story of Jesus’ birth in the book of Luke. This has been a tradition of mine since I was a wee one.
- During the month of December light a candle each night of the Advent and read a Christmas devotional. I purchased an advent wreath from Ann Voskamp and her children’s devotional book. (To be honest, she writes beautifully but a little heavy for my brood) You can see the advent wreath at this link: https://joywares.ca/collections/wreaths/products/cradle-to-cross-wreath-cherry.
- Watch a nativity movie. Tired of those Christmas Hallmark movies with the same plot lines yet? There are some great Nativity movies out there, and for your little ones some great cartoons that emphasize the birth of Jesus like, The Star.
- Take your children to see a Nativity play.
The greatest gift we can give our children is Jesus Christ. He is the eternal, everlasting gift, the present that doesn’t break or require batteries to work. I hope we all take the time to find ways to unwrap Him and keep Christ the center of our Christmas.
What about you? What are some ways you unwrap Jesus for your children? I’d love to hear them.
I unloaded my fresh 2×4’s and sanded wood slabs out of the back of my truck and laid them on the garage floor. Like Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper handing off an assignment to Chip, I sketched my design and pushed it into my son, Christian’s hands.
His brows raised. “Momma really? I mean this is not going to look like a barn in Bethlehem.”
“Of course, it will. I’ll dirty it up when you’re done with some paint. I want a manger scene that’s going to be bigger and better than anything you can buy in the stores. We’re going to show people the real meaning of Christmas.” I patted him on the back. “Get to it. I have dinner to cook.”
The next day, my husband Jay and Christian unloaded old pieces of rotten wood and branches they’d collected from the dumping spot in the woods, out of the back of Christian’s jeep. They cut the branches to size, buried them into the front yard and laid a rotten piece of wood on top and against the back. Inside, they sprinkled hay, made a manger box by leaning rotten scraps against one another, and tossed in some lights. The whole process took less than an hour.
Several neighbors walked by, “That’s the best manger scene I’ve seen.” One of them said.
Another, “I can’t wait to see it when the baby’s in there.”
(The baby will be added tomorrow night (Christmas Eve).)
Our manger scene was made from trash.
In the midst of the Christmas season, we buried our Ompa (Jay’s father). I watched as the men folded the linens in over his face and closed his casket. It reminded me of a day I wandered around his art studio, fingering the brushes, rubbing my hand along the wood easels, while he worked on a painting. His studio was my favorite room in their home. It was where the magic happened.
“Dad, when did you know you were an artist?” I said.
He chuckled. “When I asked God to make me one.” He dipped his brush in the cleaner and spun around in his chair. “I had a friend in New York, who was a great artist. He was so, so talented. He could paint anything. He died young. I stood by his casket at his funeral and prayed that God wouldn’t allow his talent to die with him. I pleaded God would give his talent to me.”
I put my hands on my hips. “Wait. You knew right then you would be a painter?”
“After his funeral, I went out and bought some paints and supplies. That’s faith daughter. The willingness to find out.”
A few days later, I asked God to teach me to paint. I bought the supplies and painted a portrait of a friend’s dog. It still hangs in his office today. We both started with a prayer and a step forward.
I was anxiety- ridden yesterday getting Bella and I dressed for her Christmas pageant. “The note says wear your Sunday best. This is your Sunday best Bella.”
“Humph! But it’s scratchy Momma,” she said. “And I’ve got blisters, I can’t wear those shoes.”
Three minutes late, –for the teacher’s reminder stated students had to be dropped off at 4:30 sharp! — I ran in skinny heels sinking into soft earth, dragging my Bella—wearing a red cotton dress and red cowgirl boots into her classroom. Whew!
But then sitting in a pew…within my messy swirling storm of consumerism and perfectionism that has taken over my spiritualism, I was reminded there’s Jesus. Bella the only angel with red cowboy boots, belted out her songs about her Lord being born in a stable, and I forgot about the mud sticking to my skinny heels, or the wasted fresh wood lying across my garage floor, or the sadness I felt watching the coffin door close over her Ompa.
I’ve thought about how hard we make our acts of faith, when really all God wants is our heart’s devotion. All He wants is men fist pumping over their rotten barn made from trash, a whispered prayer over a willing brush on a canvas, a little angel in cowgirl boots singing her heart out, and a stressed-out Momma melting into Him in a pew.
Remember His yolk is light… Put your feet up and spend time in His presence.
When we’re finding our spiritualism being robbed by our consumerism and perfectionism this Christmas, we must take time to remember our Lord’s imperfect birth will be the only perfect thing about Christmas, and His perfect gift of salvation is free to all.
Here’s an example of my perfectionism. I think the manger made from trash is the most beautiful part. Those white trees have fallen down in every rain storm and I’ve had to tape one of them back together. Strangely enough, the lean-to manger has withstood the storms. I included one of the songs I’ve listened to this Christmas to help me remember to breathe…Winter Snow by Audrey Assad.
I promised to publish Chapter 8. It may not be perfect, but I wanted to post it during the holidays. While chapter 7 was somewhat sad and dealing with the passing of my sister, all the even chapters relfects back to our crazy childhood. I hope you all had a blessed Christmas, and wish you a Happy New Year ahead. Enjoy!
“Remembrance, like a candle, burns brightest at Christmastime.” Charles Dickens
The city of Suffolk spoons the North Carolina border, and like all southern winters ours produced more rain than snow. When old man winter blew through the countryside it was a big deal, for the limited snowplows never found their way down our street. We were yard-locked until the thaw. Momma insured the fridge was stocked, our faucets dripped, and we were layered up in pjs, jeans, and sweats. To be honest, we didn’t know what proper snow gear was. Momma layered our hands with socks and topped them off with mittens. Our boots felt two sizes small due to the layers of fabric covering our toes.
We stepped out onto the porch. I gasped.
In one quiet night, Winter humbled its siblings by shrouding the dead landscape in something beautiful. For a moment, I marveled at the perfection of it all, before Tricia and Brandon dove off the porch and sliced their boots through with destructive intent.
I high stepped in the opposite direction. Hearing each flake was unique, I scooped up a mitten full, but realized each crystal was too tiny to capture its distinctions. I started to drop the snow, just as a snowball slammed into the side of my head. “Ouch!” I said, holding the side of my face. We played war often with pine combs. This left a different kind of sting on my cheek.
“Gotcha!” Brandon said laughing. I balled the snow in my hand and threw it at him as hard as I could, but he dove out of the way. A chase ensued and just as Brandon spun around to run, he slipped on the snow sprawling out by Tricia’s feet. She straddled him and I climbed on. We pounded him with our weaponry.
“Girls! Alright! Mercy!!” He said laughing.
“Don’t you hit me again!” I said. The cold seeped through my mittens and my knees felt wet. I’d had enough. I walked back up to the porch and tried the door but it was locked. I banged on the wood.
“Where you going Tam?” Brandon said. “We just got out here.”
“I’m freezing,” I said.
“Tammy’s a sissy.” Tricia said.
I spun around. “No, I’m not! Take it back!” I said. In our family, there was nothing worse than being called a sissy.
“Yes you are!” Tricia said.
I saw a shadow pass by the window. “Momma let me in! I’m cold.”
“Tammy, I spent an hour bundling you, now get your butt out there and have fun,” Momma said.
“My body hurts.”
“Your blood has to acclimate. Ten more minutes!”
My teeth chattered, my bones hurt, snow was absolute torture. One of my picture books was a story about a penguin who was the oddball in his family and unable to stand the cold, so he fled Antarctica to live on a tropical island. I found validation in that penguin story. Sorry Winter, your good lookin’ and all, but you’re not my cuppa. I like a season that can keep a girl warm.
Ten minutes later, I banged on the door. “Momma. Let me in.” She peered out the window as if I was a bill collector. I yanked off my coat and boots and laid them out on the wood stack to show her I meant business.
It worked. The door opened. “You will be quiet and not make a mess, or I’ll send you back out.” I slipped past her. The aroma of chocolate greeted me. “There’s hot chocolate on the stove if you want some.” Now, hot chocolate was my cuppa.
Inside, I was careful not to bother Momma, for I didn’t want her to lock me out in the snow. By the window, I escaped into another world via my imagination, occasionally glancing outside where Tricia and Brandon rolled snowballs into walls and climb on top, proclaiming themselves “King of the Snowball.” When the snow glowed blue from the moon’s light, they came in for dinner. I practically ran to greet them at the door.
Snow was a rare occurrence at Christmas time. Tricia and I popped Christmas records into the player the day after Halloween. Our favorite record was titled The Christmas Tree that Ran Away. It was a story about a Christmas tree who felt unloved. I puttered around petting and consoling my Momma’s houseplants, leaving their leaves bruised and split.
Every November, we begged Momma to put up the Christmas decorations, but she was a firm believer in savoring each holiday as it came, and Thanksgiving should never be slighted its attention. Granny, Pawpaw, and Aunt Brenda’s family came to our house for Thanksgiving dinner. I think it’s important to note, our maternal grandmother broke the mold. Blessed with a youthful appearance, she wore false eyelashes and heels, and never stepped out without her “face on.” In public, she instructed her grandkids not to call her Granny, but Evelyn instead. Momma and Aunt Brenda rolled their eyes at this, but we found it liberating.
Tricia and I took turns spending the night with Granny and Pawpaw on the weekends, and as much as I loved being with my grandparents, I hated sleeping with Granny. It was like sleeping with the wife of Frankenstein, for she wrapped her hair in toilet paper to keep the style fresh and crossed her manicured hands over her chest. Durning the night, I’d lick my finger and put it under her nose to make sure she was still alive.
“Be still!” Her long red fingernails, whipped around shoving me back into the mattress.
Needless to say, she was a light sleeper.
Pawpaw played dominoes, watched cartoons, and ate junk food. Anytime he saw us he yelled, “Hey Tammy Wammy you big faaat cat, want a coca-cola? Trisha Wisha, you fat cat grab those cookies on top of the fridge will ya?” All his grand kids were fat cats and he showed his love by making us fatter.
Pawpaw and Granny grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Pawpaw claims when he left to serve in the Navy, Granny was a little girl. Upon his return, a beautiful woman caught his eye at the Five and Dime. They dated two months, before he went awol to marry her. By the time the military police showed up to arrest him, he was on the train heading back to port. His captain was furious Pawpaw held up the air craft carrier. He was the only electrician aboard, and they couldn’t leave port without him. Cleaning the heads was his retribution, but Pawpaw said it was all worth it to marry his Moo Moo. I don’t know why Granny put up with him calling her Moo Moo, but then again, she called him Poo Poo which is way worse.
Every Thanksgiving, Moo Moo and Poo Poo arrived toting a bowl of Granny’s potato salad, a staple at our holidays that has become legendary. Granny’s potato salad is a creamy potato concoction with finely diced dill pickles, onions, and boiled eggs. Ya’ll don’t knock it ’til ya try it. At dinner, Brandon sat at the head of the kids’ table, and entertained us with his impressions. We never wanted to outgrow the kids’ table, and to this day wherever Brandon’s sitting I’m beside him. Thanksgiving was the kick off for the Christmas season. Momma always said it’s important to spend time being grateful for what you have before you look forward to gettin’ something more.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Momma lemon oiled the furniture and vacuumed the floors, then out came the manger scene, the elf, the snow man, and long strands of garland she draped on anything that would stand still. We foraged in the woods for wild holly, and filled vases through the house with it.
Every Christmas, Momma insisted she needed the smell of evergreen to fill our home. The years money was tight, Brandon armed with an axe, his rifle, and our dogs disappeared into the woods beyond the fields, while I kept an eye out for him.
“If you see him holler. We’ll help him pull the tree home,” she said. After what seemed like hours, the trees released a tiny figure waving from the edge of the woods.
“Brandon’s back!” I said.
She ran to the window and looked out. “Okay girls, let’s get our coats.” she said. We helped Brandon load the tree into the wagon and pulled and pushed the tree across the field towards home.
Christmas trees are a bit like people I suppose. Throughout their lives, they need food, shaping, and their dead branches cut off, to turn into a tree that points heavenward. A Cedar tree in the middle of a forest grows a bit unruly, and allows wild animals to burrow in its branches, leaving bald spots; but Daddy trimmed it up as best he could and turned the hole towards the corner. One thing is for certain a wild Cedar smells like Christmas.
One Christmas, the morning after decorating our forest tree I found a zillion tiny bugs on the ceiling of our family room. Momma leaned in from the kitchen holding her cup of coffee.“They must have hatched during the night,” she said, noticing what I was staring at.
“How are we going to kill them all?” I said.
“Kill them?” Momma laughed. “Oh Tammy, they’re the good bugs. If Christ can share His Christmas with barn animals, I think we can share ours with a few bugs. Besides, their cute.”
I couldn’t understand the woman who shot the heads off chickens for pecking her flowers, treated bugs as if they were overnight guests. I knew Praying Mantas as pinching hypocrites, not the holy insect Momma believed them to be. I spent the week with my pants tucked in my socks and eyes pointed heavenward for any mantas wanting to end it all. By Christmas, their carcasses were sucked up by our trusty Hoover upright.
In our home, Christmas was all about Jesus Christ. Our parents never taught us about the bearded intruder. Often, Daddy gathered us around the kitchen table to remind us the real reason for the season.
“Kids, why do we celebrate Christmas?” Daddy said.
“Because it’s Jesus birthday!” Tricia said throwing her arms up in the air.
“That’s right. What’s going to happen if you tell any of your cousins or friends there’s no Santa?” He peered over the rim of his glasses.
“You’re going to beat our butts!” Brandon said smiling. “Right Dad?”
“That’s right Son. It’s up to their parents to tell them the truth one day, not for you to do it.” Daddy said. “I’ll never lie to you. It’s okay if you pretend, as long as that’s all your doing and not believing.”
Christmas Eve night we had a party with Granny and Papa and Aunt Brenda’s family. Granny didn’t like live Christmas trees because of the mess they left on her carpet. Her fake tree was covered in lots of 70’s silver tinsel and these large colored bulbs which became really hot to touch. Behind her back, Momma whispered her tree was tacky. After dinner and sweets, we gathered around that tacky Christmas tree and someone read the story of Jesus birth. We prayed thanking God for the gift of a Savior, before handing out the grandparent gifts. It was bedlam, names were called, paper flew, an absolute mess.
One year, I’d asked Granny and Pawpaw for Star Barbie. Barbies all looked the same back then, but Saturday morning commercials convinced you, you needed to have the newest version with a different name. After I pulled her out of the box, I snuck off into the corner to introduce my old Barbie to my new one.
“You guys are going to be best friends,” I said.
Daddy leaned over me.
“Tammy, what happened to her hair?” He pointed to my old Barbie.
“I cut it off,” I said.
“Why’d you do that?” He said.
“Because she’s going in the army Daddy,” I said rolling my eyes as if he should’ve known that.
“My GI Joe is naked because she stole his clothes,” Brandon said.
“You never play with him anyways,” I said. “She needs camouflage if she’s going in the army.”
Daddy smiled and shook his head. “You see what I’m raising here Granny?”
“I see.” Granny smiled over at me. I knew she approved.
“Tammy always walks to the beat of a different drum,” Momma said.
Throughout my life, that was the phrase they used most to describe me. For years, I pictured Indian drums and me dancing by a fire, but then I grew up.
Christmas morning, we woke Brandon and crept into the den. The presents were stacked under the tree, but we were only allowed to empty our stockings until Mom and Dad awoke. I turned to where we laid our stockings out the night before. They sprawled over the back of the sofa… lifeless.
“Momma,” I pushed on her arm to wake her. “Momma wake up.” I pushed her dark bangs back from the one eye not crushed in her pillow.
“There you are. Hi Momma,” I said. “You forgot our stockings again.”
She threw her feet over the side of the bed and stumbled down the dark hallway into the kitchen. We followed. Standing in the light of the refrigerator, we licked our lips wondering what stocking stuffer was hidden deep in the Frigidaire. She pulled it from the drawer and spun around.
“One for you…one for you…and one for you,” she said, plopping tangerines in our hands. She shut the refrigerator and turned for a bowl on the counter. “Some for you…some for you…and some for you.” She piled nuts in our other hand. “There ya go…Merry Christmas.” She sauntered off towards her room. “Don’t wake me until the sun’s up.”
We glanced at our hands and back at her in disbelief.
Two hours later, we peered out the window for the sun to peek over the trees, and when it did. “It’s time!” Brandon said, shoving me. “Go get Momma.”
I tapped my sticky tangerine fingers on Momma’s forehead. “Momma, time to unwrap our presents,” I said.
“David… David…” Momma shoved Dad. “It’s time.”
“You go on now. I’ll be up in a minute.” Daddy rolled over and faced the wall.
We all knew not to wait for that minute. She squatted by the tree and handed out the presents. “Let’s open these first.” She handed one to each of us.
Brandon ripped into his and yelled “Yes!” to the bongo drums inside.
Tricia opened hers and it was a pair of maracas.
I ripped into the paper, and found two wood sticks. I glanced at Momma to see if it was a joke.
“Now, you guys can play music together!” she said. “Try them out.” Tricia stood up and shook her maracas as Brandon banged on his drums.
“Tammy, play the sticks,” she said.
“How do you play sticks?” I said.
“Bang them together.”
I tapped the sticks limply, while Brandon and Tricia rocked out.
That afternoon, after all the presents were unwrapped, and I’d forgotten about the sticks, Momma called us back into the family room. “Kids come play music for your Daddy.” she said. Brandon and Tricia grabbed their instruments, and played and danced. Obediently, I picked up the sticks and banged them together. With each beat, believing Momma loved Tricia more.
Later in the kitchen, as I was setting the table, Momma pulled out a chair and sat down. “I noticed you were not enthusiastic over your instrument,” she said.
I shrugged. “Their just sticks.”
“Well, I guess you could look at it that way. They were in a pack, Brandon asked for the drums, so that was a done deal. I had to decide which of my girls would get their feelings hurt the least, and which of my girls had the ability to make music from sticks. I thought it was you.” She stood up. “I guess I was wrong.”
She didn’t apologize for being unfair or for showing favoritism. She didn’t coddle me or assure me of her love. She just stated why I got the sticks. Looking back, I learned a powerful lesson life isn’t fair. When you expect chocolates, you may get a healthy dose of Vitamin C, and sometimes in the midst of the orchestra, God hands you sticks with the expectation you will play something beautiful.
Years later, after Tricia’s cancer diagnoses, we had our annual sibling Christmas dinner and exchanged our usual prank gifts. Tricia handed me a pretty wrapped package.“This is the best gift of the night!” She said bouncing up and down in her chair.
I couldn’t imagine what it could be. I tore open the package.
“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Christmas rushed in without flourish or elation. The traditional aromas of a basted turkey, pumpkin pie, and Granny’s potato salad vacated Momma’s kitchen, as multiple containers from well-meaning friends moved in. Perusing the contents one could surmise fried chicken and ham is Suffolk’s comfort food. Regardless, grief robs the appetite.
Like the scene from Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Carol, where an abandoned walking stick leans against the fireplace and a tiny chair is vacated, Tricia’s imprint survived her. The bird in the Black Forest clock she purchased for Mom, still coos every hour. Part of me wished the bird croaked out of respect for the departed, but I know time is a healer, for it to stop in the darkest hour would be torture for a grieving soul. God ushers us through the darkness by allowing the birds to coo, the sun to show up in the morning, and the moon to work the nightshift.
Tricia’s hand-painted ornaments dangle from the Christmas tree. They hold a sacred value now. Years ago, she gifted us with her first attempt, a messy painted Orca for my son Nick. It broke. I’d do anything to have it back now. Why do we hold the relics left behind tighter after the benefactor departs? Maybe we’re holding onto to a piece of their talent… a shred of their spirit…proof she once was.
Mom’s den is full of us. We remain a loud lot, still talking over one another. Albeit her voice is silent, as if one instrument is missing from the orchestra. I miss her laughter and that ever smack on the arm she gave you when she found something funny, which sometimes threw you off balance.
I never suspected last Christmas would have been her last. Looking back, I wish I’d known, for it wasn’t a joyful Christmas for her. Unfortunately, some announcements have to be made.
Tracey (Brandon’s wife) walked into the kitchen. “Tricia slipped out crying. She drove off,” she said. I dropped the pan I was washing back into the sudsy water and snatched a towel.
“I was afraid of that,” I said. “We have to find her.”
An hour later, Mom and I gathered her in our arms, and together we mourned over the opposite directions our lives were taking. Like a moving walkway, she was going one way and I another, while both of us wanted to put on the brakes.
The next day, we stood outside our parent’s house, waiting on Momma to go shopping in Smithfield. A wall of tension divided us, both riddled with our own guilt for the day before.
“Look, I’m sorry for yesterday,” she said. “It’s not that I’m not happy for you and Jay, it’s just…hard you know?”
“I would have felt the same way,” I said.
“It’s just this…while you’re growing life, I’m growing cancer cells. You’re getting ultrasounds while I’m getting PET scans.” She pointed towards my abdomen. “Your looking forward to the day you meet your baby, while I’m dreading the day I’m saying goodbye to mine. You’re looking ahead and making plans, while I’m remembering the past and trying hard to hold onto what I have left.” Her sad eyes pleaded with me to understand.
I’d chewed on the irony of our situation, but I’d never truly digested it until then.
“Anyway, I just need you to know how I feel,” she said.
I shivered. A cold breeze stirred up the dead leaves. One floated on the wind past us. I resisted the urge to catch it, allowing the wind to spirit it away. I pulled my sweater closed at the nape of my neck. Tricia was never bothered by the cold.
“It’s not fair is it?” My voice cracked.
She shrugged. “It’s life, but sometimes it’s hard to take.”
“I want you to know I’d never try to get pregnant. I had other plans for my…Well, I would never do that since you’re…” Suddenly, everything I wanted to say at that moment seemed cruel.
She smiled understanding my struggle. “You can make it up to me.” she said.
“Just promise you’ll get really fat,” she said.
We laughed. I should have seen it coming, our traditional jab. The laughter filled me with hope. She’d still love me, though I reflected health and vitality, the very things slipping away, like water through her fingers.
She placed her hand on my baby bump. “You’re already showing.”
“My body just knows what to do by the fourth one,” I said.
Her smile faded as her eyes met mine. “When she comes, I will go.”
Like the quick, feathery touch of a hummingbird across your cheek, for a moment I thought I’d imagined the words; nonetheless, I stepped back as if she slugged me. “She? Wait. What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re going to have a girl, and when she comes it’ll be my time.”
I turned away, so she couldn’t see the pain her words caused me. “You don’t know everything Tricia Baines. Besides, Jay’s track record proves he only makes boy babies.”
She grabbed my arm. “Listen, I know.” She needed me to believe her. It felt disrespectful…shallow even… to argue with someone standing on the banks of eternity awaiting permission to cross.
She looked up at the sky and took a deep breath. The sun shined on her yellowish face and the wind flittered through her short twigs of chemo frizzed hair. “I’m not saying this baby will replace me,” she said. “Of course, no one will replace me.” She laughed. “God just knows you will have a tough time, so He’s giving you this baby to…you know…keep you busy.”
Acceptance filled her voice, like a soothing lullaby. She leaned on her faith for strength and dignity, while I carried the burden of survivor’s guilt, the weight of it left me hunched. I’m sorry for being healthy. Sorry for being pregnant. Sorry I get to see your daughter grow up and your boys get married. Sorry…sorry…sorry… There was never enough.
That day, I packed her words away in my heart, and the moment I heard my daughter’s first cry they rushed back. Isabella was born without one push, as if she propelled herself into my world knowing her mission, to save Mommy from sinking into despair. I wondered how God could put such a tender heart in me and expect me to survive the stretch it endured on August 7th, a day of great joy fused with incredible dread of what was to come. Isabella came into my life, as my sister was leaving. For a brief moment in time, two precious feminine spirits met in the physical realm, as if the baton of girlhood was handed off, and the weary one passed on into the spiritual.
Twelve days before Tricia died, Thomas held Bella in front of her, and her eyes focused on Bella’s toes.“I see you eyeing those toes,” Thomas said. “Ya’ know you want to touch ‘em. Go ahead.”
Slowly the back of her cupped hand barely caressed the top of Bella’s foot. It was the last touch Bella felt from her Aunt Tricia and cost Tricia all her concentration and energy to give it. The last bit of love she could muster for an infant she would never know.
True to Tricia’s prediction, Isabella Fawn was born at 4:15 in the afternoon, and Tricia died close to that time, nineteen weeks later.
She didn’t live to see another Christmas.