Cowboy has sweet memories of the Christmases of his childhood – a lot of happy family pictures, some video. I have memories too – too many hard candy Christmases before I met Glory, Vi and Max. Today, the holiday is a favorite for us – a time to be together.
We missed a few Christmases – sometimes he was at sea on that special day. If he could get to a phone, he called. There would be something waiting for me on the doorstep, delivered by a sailor or a marine, usually someone I didn't know. Cowboy always reminds me of the significance of the day – not the exchange of presents but the celebration of the birth of Christ. If he was home he'd invite me to go to Christmas Mass with him, something I wasn't keen to do. I'd usually go anyway, mostly to make him happy. I loved the Christmas songs but paying homage to the Christ child was not a part of my religious beliefs. I was respectful but just an observer, not a believer.
"You going to Mass with me, bambina?" he asked that year.
"I think I'll skip this time," I replied with a shake of my head.
"It's at the Washington Cathedral, a beautiful place," he murmured, catching me around the waist, pulling me close. "The Vienna Boys' Choir will be singing this year… the President will be there I bet. You'd be the prettiest woman there."
"I'd enjoy it better if you were with me," he whispered, a kiss on my forehead like a benediction.
"I'd make a bad Catholic." I argued. "All that ritual, confession, communion, catechism. Not for me. At least the Methodists feed you after a service."
"Not asking you to convert, baby. Just want to share the moment with you." A swat accompanied his words.
"I might get carried away by the music and burst into song with everyone else. Then what would you do?"
Cowboy frowned. If anyone was truly tone deaf, it was me. The moment I start to sing, dogs howl and cats run screeching away into the night. I can't even hum in key. Fortunately, I also can't hear myself.
"I'll keep you quiet," my husband promised.
"Don't want to go."
"Don't think of it as a religious thing, bambina. Think of it as a birthday celebration."
"They're having cake? Ice cream? At the cathedral?
A single swat followed that declaration.
"And besides…" I continued the argument. "The priest doesn't like me."
"And he has good reason, imp. You scared the hell out of him when you attended Mass while I was away. Non-Catholics don't just accept communion to sample the wine. The way I heard it, the man spilled most of the contents of the chalice when he realized you were kneeling there."
"Surprised me, too," I smiled. "Didn't expect him to recognize me. Besides, that's a germy thing. Not going to do that again. Everybody drinks from the same cup – probably how folks get the flu."
Another swat followed.
"If it wasn't for Christ's birthday," Cowboy added, "we wouldn't be hosting a party for the kids on base. There's cake at that function." His brows rose knowing cake is usually a good incentive to get me to do something.
"I know there's cake; there'll be ice cream, too. Santa will be there," I rattled off the details. "And presents for every child who shows up, some punch for the parents, jingle bells on every table, several trees all decorated with candy canes and popcorn, a wreath on every door in the mess hall and I forget what else."
"Who's Santa this year?" he asked, pulling me into his arms for a hug.
"Base commandant. Had to promise not to influence the kids to mutiny any time soon," I added. Halloween had been cancelled on base that year and I was mighty indignant about that. Rounded up a bunch of teenagers and aided and abetted their mischief. We raided the mess hall that night – Cowboy was away at the time – and stole all the cakes and pies and cookies. Was a glorious night; we pigged out on all the goodies along with candy I had purchased for the occasion. The next day the base commandant was at my door and he didn't look happy. Somebody must have squealed – tsk. Cowboy wasn't happy when he heard about the prank either and let me know it in his own inimitable way, but he convinced the powers-that-be that Halloween – a holiday that involves candy was not a holiday to mess with. I think my presence on base was more of a threat…
"Anyway, I promised I'd be a positive influence on the kids."
"Uh-huh. That'll work," my cynical husband replied and delivered one firm swat.
"What was that for?" I sputtered, pushing away from him.
"For the mischief you're planning," the psychic man replied.
"You have no faith in me!"
"I have every faith in you," he laughed. "I'm sure you won't disappoint me, either."
We attended a few "birthday" parties that Christmas season. One that really touched my heart was the Christmas dinner and party we attended Christmas week at the local shelter for the homeless. The tables were all full; the overflow crowd – hungry, cold, mostly very old folks – were sitting on their bags of belongings along the wall. I was passing out paper plates filled with warm food when a withered and gnarled hand grasped my wrist.
"Thank you," a voice rasped. "Thank you for this."
I had a quick flashback to my early childhood. I remember being cold; I remember being hungry. I also remember how blessed I was that I came to live with Glory and Vi and Max.
"You're very welcome," I smiled, my heart hurting for this poor soul, not quite sure if I was looking at a man or a woman – so ragged, so wrinkled, so very old, so obviously hungry.
"Don't thank her," a voice from my past replied.
I looked up, startled. We were living in Virginia at the time. The shelter was in Virginia. The voice belonged to someone who lived in Chicago – Gary, a childhood friend - Father Gary.
"Thank our Lord, Jesus," he smiled, reaching out to lay a gentle hand on the person I had fed. "The thanks to this woman," he added, "is for having a big enough heart to do His work even if she doesn't believe."
"Sari girl," he whispered, giving me a quick hug. "So good to see you and to see that some of my influence has rubbed off on you."
All I could think to say was… "What are you doing in Virginia?"
"Your better half asked me to come. Sent a ticket, said you had a guestroom, said you'd cook dinner. Also said you'd attend Mass if I was here…"
I was speechless. Gary was one of my oldest and very favorite friends. Our friendship went way back, long before he went to the seminary, long before he embraced the Church and it embraced him back. He's a "street priest," a man of God who ministers to those who need him most – the invisible people who live wherever they can find shelter.
"I'm happy to see you doing the Lord's work," he told me.
"I'm not…" I sputtered. "I’m just helping out… I'm… You know Cowboy and I always help out at the holidays. It's not the Lord's work; it's just giving back… a little."
"I hear you and your other half help out regularly." He smiled. "Call it anything you want, Sari. It's the Lord's work."
Later I would think about Gary's words. In his eyes it might have been the Lord's work. In mine… Max had taught me that "giving back" was what decent folk did. "If'n you got as much as a body needs, give some of it to those who don't. Bein' able to give to others be a blessin too."
Max and Vi and Glory had a Christmas celebration every year – a celebration of the season for his "ladies," their men friends, children, their pets, the neighborhood street people, and anybody else who came along. He always made sure there was plenty of food, little gifts, and a big decorated tree. I attended a lot of those parties when I lived with them. Max was right; it is a blessing to give back.
Gary made a point of exchanging a few words with almost everyone that night. Cowboy and I served the food along with other volunteers. Later the two of us took turns reading Christmas stories to the children. Santa gave out presents and when the evening came to a close, Gary offered a prayer. There was a chorus of "Amens" and thanks when he finished, mine among them for the gift of this man's humanity, his compassion and mostly, for his enduring friendship.
I went to Mass with Cowboy and couldn't keep the smile off my face while I watched Gary take his turn with the other priests – leading the congregation in prayer and joyful song. In his short sermon, he told us that giving to those less fortunate was a true celebration of the birth of the baby, Jesus. He also reminded us that when the Three Wise Men came to the manger to celebrate the birth of Christ, they were bearing gifts and that we could do no less.
I remain a non-believer but I love birthday celebrations. Christmas gives us another opportunity to give back. For that I am grateful.
Happy Birthday, Jesus.