Instead of a steeple, the roof had a sculpted hand with a finger pointing up to God. That was just one reason I found our church creepy, why I dreaded dressing up to go there that Christmas Eve. The old organ wheezed beyond closed doors, cuffed my ears with fearsome groans when ushers admitted us.
I held on to my mother’s hand. Everything was dim, the red carpet under our feet almost invisible. One wrong step might swallow you. My family eased into a pew, my sister and I last, closest to the aisle. Mom had a paper bag; inside were two wrapped boxes, presents for unnamed poor families.
I had to crane my neck to see down the aisle to the tree standing on the altar. It wasn’t a pretty one. Its colored bulbs were sparse. After the pastor had everybody pray and lit the worship candles, things looked warmer. All the Sunday School classes were going to take turns delivering gifts to the Christ child, a swaddled baby doll in a cradle waiting on the altar steps.
During the second verse of Silent Night I joined the first graders emanating like ghosts from dark pews. We bumbled to the tree, knocking shoulders, where some helpful Mom with a holly corsage took our gifts and arranged them by the cradle. Most of the presents looked the same, down to the wrapping paper that was on sale at the A&P: poinsettia, candy cane, or reindeer print. Among the modest gifts, though, was a large one with a fancy red bow. Its wrapping glittered like tinsel. All of us saw it and pretended we didn’t.
When it was kindergarteners’ turn to go up, they went one by one. Some had to have a parent go with them, some didn’t. We were on the last verse of Little Town of Bethlehem when Marilyn Lynell started up the aisle on her own. She was a round child, big for her age, with a dumpling face and pale eyes. Her looks mirrored her thin-haired, thick bodied father’s. He sang a sonorous bass in the choir.
Marilyn’s short pinafores always hiked up in the back, showing the creases of her stout pink knees. That night her sash dangled awry as she made her halting way up to baby Jesus. The box she carried must have held a man’s tie: small, flat, easy to carry. Still, not a mother in the congregation wasn’t holding her breath, watching Marilyn’s unsteady progress. The verse ended, and I saw the corsage mom at the altar kneel down to help Marilyn settle her gift among the others. Then the organist fired up O Holy Night.
Underneath the singing I started to hear a sort of twitter. I strained to see. Marilyn was coming back down the aisle and as she went, the people behind her rustled like a sudden wind. Marilyn was not returning to her seat empty-handed. Cheeks crimson, eyes glazed, she carried, in her passionate, plump embrace, a box big as her head: the glittery, red-bowed present.
(copyright Cathy Larson Sky 2014)