Over a week. That’s how long a bad storm had gripped the town in Oklahoma where my husband, Steve, and I were living. The weather would have kept me housebound even without the horrible cold I’d caught, which then turned into pneumonia.
Steve was reading the paper in the other room. I lay on the couch feeling achy and empty. Usually by this time in December I’d be halfway through my holiday shopping, writing Christmas cards with a nice cup of tea. This year I hadn’t even set up my mother’s Nativity set—always the official start to my Christmas season. What was worse, I didn’t even care. Christmas seemed as empty as anything else.
It had been 10 years since my mom had died, but I still missed her. Wrapped in my blanket, I could picture her wrapping presents and cooking up a feast. That was no mean feat in our house. Money was sparse, but I never felt poor. Whether it was pulling a satisfying dinner out of an empty refrigerator or stitching up drapes on her old sewing machine, Santa Claus had nothing on her when it came to magically creating something out of nothing.
Unfortunately I had not inherited that gift. Staring at the bare corner of the living room where the Christmas tree usually stood, all I saw was what wasn’t there: no tree, no ornaments, and, worst of all, my mom wasn’t with me. I remembered a day when I was a teenager. We passed a fancy clothing store and I stopped short. “What a beautiful dress!” I said, pointing in the window. It was elegant and sophisticated.
“That would look beautiful on you,” my mom said. I appreciated the compliment but all that elegance came at a price we couldn’t afford. But a few weeks later I walked into her sewing room, and there on a dummy was the very dress I’d admired. Not the dress itself, but a perfect copy she had designed and created all by herself using fabric she’d found somewhere. She’d made something out of nothing yet again.
She wouldn’t let a storm or a cold get her down this time of year, I thought. I pushed myself off the couch and climbed the stairs to the attic. I couldn’t go out for Christmas cards or presents, but the Nativity was right here in the house.
I carried the box of ceramic figurines back down into the living room and sat on the couch. I pulled a wad of newspaper out of the box. Slowly I unwrapped the wise men’s camel. Its paint glowed in the warm light. Its body was smooth to the touch. I remembered the day my mom had talked me into taking ceramic classes with her. I’d just ended a short, tumultuous marriage and didn’t feel like doing much of anything.
“It’ll be fun,” she insisted. “Besides, you need to get out.”
So there we were a few days later, the two of us, and the beginnings of her Nativity set. “We’re all like these ceramic pieces—full of rough edges that get worn off through life,” she said, blowing dust off the body of the camel she’d filed. “When times are hardest, we learn the most.”
Her camel went from a plain lump of clay to a bright, gorgeous animal with a jeweled saddle and a gold chain bridle. The camel was joined by some sheep, shepherds, Mary, Joseph, the magi and of course the Angel of the Lord to watch over them all. In my living room now I unwrapped them one by one and set them out on the coffee table.
Mom’s last piece was the donkey, who quickly became my favorite. “Just one more touch,” she said, adding long lashes to the donkey’s eyes.
She was perfect. A little gray donkey with an intriguing expression. “She looks like she’s got a secret.”
“She does!” my mom said. “She knows the woman she carried to Bethlehem is about to give birth to the Son of God. She’s a special donkey.”
And I had a pretty special mom.
I lifted the last clump of newspaper from the box. “Oh, no!” One tiny gray ceramic ear fell off in my hand. The donkey. She was broken!
Steve poked his head into the living room. “Something the matter?”
I held up the donkey in one hand, her ear in the other.
“I can fix that,” said Steve.
“It’s not just the donkey!” I said. “We’re stuck inside and I’m sick and it’s Christmas and I miss my mom!”
“Well, one thing at a time.”
He brought the donkey and her ear into the kitchen. I looked into the Nativity box. Empty, I thought. That’s what I felt. With a few stray pieces of newspaper… Hold on, there was one final piece. I scanned the figures on the table: Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the angel, the sheep, the camel. Who was missing? I peeled away the paper and gazed down at the Baby Jesus in my hand.
I could almost see my mom shaking her head. You thought you had nothing, but you had Jesus all along.
When the glue dried, Steve helped me arrange the pieces. Hanging the angel on her hook over the manger, I understood my mom’s secret for the first time. All these years I’d thought she made things out of nothing. But her true gift was never forgetting all the things she had.
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