It was hard for her to remember many things, especially what she had for lunch that day, and maybe, once in a while, just where she was going in the hall. Sometimes – maybe it was yesterday? – she didn’t even know which hall she was in.
For years, she had no difficulty remembering the old Christmases with her mother, her father, her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and her ten brothers and sisters. What a big family she had. That was just the way back then. Families had lots of children. They don’t do that anymore.
Memory after memory unveiled scenes of brightness and magic. She and her brothers and sisters, huddled by the window, looking carefully for the first star of the Holy Night. “There, there it is!” she remembered, her own little girl pudgy finger pointing at the joyous glimmer in the cerulean night.
That was the signal for Christmas Eve to begin, and the mystical, magical Holy Supper. How the scenes of those Holy Nights gleamed brightly, like picture slides on a screen, in her mind. Straw tied in bunches and strewn on the table. Candles and wine, honeyed fruit and delicacies prepared just once a year.
She closed her eyes, so she could see and hear. Yes, there was her mother, dipping her finger into the honey, tracing a cross on each forehead. There was her father, with his words of the toast every year, “And above all, my Little Jesus, born this day, bring peace, health and happiness!”
But one day, the picture was not complete. She could not see the other faces – the faces of her aunts and uncles. This time, the carols were not sung. She could not taste the dishes. And she could not remember her brothers and sisters’ names.
She opened her eyes to the harsh fluorescent light of the nursing home where she stayed, where everything was clinical and made to look like a store, where every hall and every room and every meal looked the same.
For the next few times, when she tried to remember, another detail would be lost. More faces would be nameless, more voices fell into silence. The last thing left was the evening star, her finger still pointing, her voice still whispering, “There it is!”
It was the holidays at the Fern Manor Rest Home, with the tree decorated in the lobby, and “Happy Holidays” splashed on the walls and bulletin boards. The sound system was set to “Christmas Mix” – a repeating loop of “soothing stringed orchestrations of sentimental holiday favorites.” Santa and his elves had already decked the halls. Church groups came in occasionally, singing carols and handing out poinsettias.
This group, tonight, was different. They were bringing children to act out the Nativity Scene, complete with Mary and Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the Angels and the Shepherds and toddlers as Sheep, and the Three Wise Men.
It was beautiful, to be sure, and the children sang the carols sweetly: Away in a Manger; Silent Night; Joy to the World; and We Three Kings. The residents of Fern Manor sang along and clapped.
She clapped, too, especially at the Wise Men. They looked so regal, so mysterious, wise and powerful. Their clothes were darkly strange and beautiful, with that deep appearance of having come from far away. They carried gifts for the Baby Jesus. They were on their way to Bethlehem.
“O come, let us adore Him,” they sang at the end. Maybe I should go with them, she thought: the Wise Men know where to go, don’t they? The Star leads them to the Baby Jesus, doesn’t it? And maybe then, if she could see the Star, she would see them all again, and remember.
The Wise Men passed by, following the Star, but she did not rise from her wheelchair. She felt tired and worn and more than a little drowsy. She could stay awake for only so long, nowadays. And in a blurry swoon, she sank quickly into slumber.
She woke in the darkness of her room, and sat up with a start. The Wise Men had called her from the street in the night. They had invited her to come with them, to follow the Star. “We bring gifts for the Newborn King, the Little Jesus!” they announced, “Come with us, and bring your offerings to the Prince of Peace, Health and Happiness!”
“Wait!” she called out in a voice that was strangely silent. “I’m coming with you! I need to find presents for the Baby!”
What to take? What to bring? she repeated to herself, in a wash of energy she hadn’t felt for ages. Her eyes alighted on the macramé lap blanket on her chair: “He needs a blanket in the Manger, the Baby must be cold.” She folded it carefully, as she called out, “Don’t leave without me!”
“A music box to make Him smile,” she announced, as she picked up her disc player, with the only disc she ever played of old-country Christmas carols.
“I’m almost ready,” she said to the door, and to herself she added, “I better hurry … now, for one last thing.”
She reached for her battery table lamp, the kind that turns on with a clap. “Perfect … light for the night, when it gets too dark.”
She bundled the lamp and the player into the blanket, and shuffled toward the door. “I’m coming out,” she called, as she stepped through the threshold.
There was no one. Only a brick street angling between the strangely familiar rowhouses. Familiar, yes, and so was the tang of coal smoke that touched her nose. It was nighttime, but even the shadows told her she was on familiar ground. “They’re going through my town,” she breathed to herself, “The Star is over my town … I must catch up to the Wise Men.”
To anyone else, she ambled slowly in her slippers over the waxed floor of the Fern Manor west wing hall, tottering feebly toward the atrium. But to her, she walked steadily on the sidewalk of her childhood, toward a light just ahead.
It was only a lamppost, not the Star. Behind the door of the rowhouse, she could hear a soft whimper. “Could it be?” she wondered as she pushed through the doorway. In the pale shadows, she knew that this was no place for the Baby Jesus. But there was a tiny child here, who was sitting in the corner, her arms wrapped around her knees, with white woolen slippers on her feet, tears tracing lines down her face.
“What’s wrong, little girl?” she asked.
“I don’t like it dark,” came the stuttered reply, “I get so afraid.”
The tiny girl looked like one of the sheep in a Christmas play she had seen so long ago. There was a light for someone who was afraid of the dark, and she held it in her bundle. “But it is for the Baby Jesus,” she told herself.
Another choked sob and a whimper came from the corner, and she knew exactly what she had to do. “The Baby Jesus will have just two gifts instead of three,” she whispered, “It seems that this little girl needs His light so very much.”
“Here, little one,” she set the lamp beside the girl, “just clap your hands lightly, and the light turns on.” She clapped, and the glow chased the shadows away, the tears melted into a smile.
“Thank you, nice lady,” the girl said, “Now I’m not so scared.”
She left the girl with the light in the room, and stepped back onto the street to follow the Wise Men and the Star. She walked past what seemed like hundreds of houses, squeezed thin together and tall, and then she saw a glow around the corner.
It, too, turned out to be a lamppost. And behind the door of the house she could hear a sound … but it wasn’t whimpering. It was fragments of a song, as though someone was singing a few notes, and then stopping at broken fragments: “Hear the wonderful tidings something, something … Divnaja Nov, Nov … Viflejemi Novina, tra la la la, da de da … Why can’t I remember the words?”
Then, there was weeping. “Could it be?” she wondered, as she pushed the door open. But there was no Christ Child asleep on the hay. Instead, there was an older girl, sitting up in bed, dressed in a gown as an angel. “Angel, did you forget the songs?” she gently asked.
The angel girl in the dressing gown nodded forlornly, about ready to break into a wail. “I used to know all our Christmas songs, all the koljadij, now I can’t even get through one all the way.”
There was music, the melodies and all the words for someone who had forgotten her carols, and she held it in her bundle. “But it is for the Baby Jesus,” she told herself. But the angel girl tried to sing again, and this time, not one word came through her lips.
“The Baby Jesus will have just one gift, instead of two,” she whispered again, “It seems that this little angel needs His music to sing again.”
“Here, angel,” she set down the player beside the girl. “Press this button, and the music comes on.” Immediately, the strains of “On this bright day” filled the room: “That’s how it goes,” the girl laughed and sang, “Boh predvicnyj narodilsja … see? I didn’t forget, I just needed starting!”
She hurried back out onto the street, remembering that the Wise Men might be getting further ahead and out of view. But she could see another gleam down the street. So she quickened her pace and nearly ran past the darkened windows and locked doors of a town shut for the night.
It was another street lamp, not the Star. And it was another door into a house, through which came a sound. Not crying, not the fragments of song, but a chattering instead. A shaking sound, punctuated by short gasps and shallow breaths. “Could it be? Surely, not here,” she told herself.
It wasn’t the place of the Baby Jesus. There was only a boy, shivering in the night, with a shepherd’s robe pulled tight around his shaking frame. He didn’t notice her, as he was asleep, tired and worn from the cold.
There was warmth for someone shivering in the night, and she held the blanket in her hands. “But it is for the Baby Jesus,” she protested to herself, “it is the only thing I have left to give Him in the manger.”
Then the boy shook all the harder, and she could feel the chill through his bones. She knew, then, what she had to do. She knelt down, and wrapped her blanket around the shepherd boy, and slowly the shivering subsided, and his breathing deepened into steady calm.
“The Baby Jesus will have no gifts from me,” she sighed to herself, “instead of three. I hope He will
Her steps were not so light and hopeful. But still she stepped onward toward the greater light, now beaming from around the corner. She was almost there, with the thought that just seeing the Child, just watching from a distance would be enough. After all, that’s what the Shepherds did, didn’t they? They had no presents, and still they knelt down and worshiped. “That would be enough,” she whispered, as she reached the corner.
She rounded the turn of the street and the hall, and there she saw it … stopping cold, coming finally to her senses.
It was only the atrium of the Fern Manor Rest Home. It all came clear to her. This was nothing but the place where she had been staying childless, family-less and friendless for so long that she could not remember when she came, or where she came from. The shining light was only the plastic silver star on the Christmas Tree. The picture window revealed not the streets of her childhood steel town, but the empty black parking lot of a people forgotten, severed from a friendlier, homelier world.
Her age thrust down again upon her weak frame like chains of iron, she shuffled agonized steps to the sofa under the window. She fell, slowly, into the cushions, sitting sideways so she could see out through the glass. She lingered, under the window, and remembered how, long, long ago, she was a little girl once with pudgy hands, staring up through a glass such as this, waiting for the first star of the Holy Night.
She could feel the tinges of her dementia returning, as her thoughts were getting harder to tie together. It was chilly here, dark and too quiet. “Where did I put my blanket?” she wondered, and she remembered. “Oh ... I gave to Mr. Burris, who sleeps in his bathrobe. He looked so cold … well, I hope he stays warm through the night.”
Her disc player would have been nice right now. Those voices from the old country would have driven some of the loneliness away. “But I gave it to Angela,” she remembered her bingo friend, always in her white nightgown. “She couldn’t remember the koljadij.”
A light would have helped especially here, to ward off for a while at least, the approaching gloom. But that, too, she had given away. “Rosie,” she thought of the middle-aged woman with wooly slippers, who was at Fern Manor and nobody knew exactly why. “I gave my light to Rosie.” She thought of the woman, who had long stayed up through the nights and slept through the days. “Well, I’m glad I did.”
“And so am I.”
There was a voice that rose like warmth from the sun in winter. She opened her eyes, and there was light in the room, brighter than the Christmas Tree. “I think,” the voice said, “Rosie will sleep well tonight.”
Then she perceived, through the glow, the Baby she had looked for, now grown to thirty-three. “And so strong and magnificent,” she thought, “so serious and happy all at once.”
“I know it’s You,” she said aloud, softly, “but You don’t look like a Baby.”
“I was that only once in time, I am this way now and forever – old and new, young and ancient of days.”
“I looked for You, and I gave all my gifts for You away.”
“You only made one step, Talitha, little girl, I made ninety-nine,” the Bright Man said with a barely repressed laugh, a voice ready to burst into a fountain of diamonds.
“I looked for You, but I couldn’t find You.”
“Child, when you decided to look for Me,” He said, His smile deepening into a joy beyond laughter, “It was I Who did the finding.”
“But I have nothing to give You,” she said with regret.
“You have already given Me everything you have, everything you are.”
Minutes passed at the window, but now it felt like the moments were adding life, not draining it away.
“There, can you see it?” He pointed at the joyous glimmer, in the brightening sky, through the glass darkly.
“There it is!” she whispered, pointing again with her little girl pudgy hand. His hand grasped hers, tender and strong, with the warmth of Eden radiating from His palms and fingers into her arm, her shoulders, her legs, her mind and her heart.
Then she knew, her every memory set in the right place, with nothing lost and everything gained: the faces of her aunts and uncles, the jokes her father made, the seven different smiles of her mother for seven different happinesses, the interminable rules of the games invented by her brothers, each delicate paper outfit on each cut-out doll she made with her sisters.
“No,” she whispered in the morning-dew of thankful tears, “nothing is lost … I didn’t lose a single one – I kept every gift You gave me.”
“Is it almost time?” she asked, with hope jumping from her heart to her eyes, “Is it time for Holy Night? I see the star!”
“Dear one, never again will you hear the word almost. It is always today, here and now. Come with Me,” He said, as they stepped from Fern Manor and out of the old dark streets of the past, “It is time for you to see that all your memories are really promises … promises of the Morning.”
Time passed for those still dwelling in the streets of the past, and the halls of the Fern Manor Rest Home. Rosie indeed slept all through the night, the little light glowing by her bed. Mr. Burris lay content and warm, snug in his new blanket. With the aid of her new player, Angela remembered all the words of the old songs, and even learned some new ones.
And the nursing home staff, who were looking for their mixed-up, lonely lady who wandered the halls at night, finally found her in the atrium, still … and in repose. Her eyes were closed, lips curved in a graceful smile … and her face was turned upward ... as though she were gazing, up in wonder, at the New and Morning Star.