The people will be coming for the Christmas Eve service soon. I better look busy. Adam picked up some leaves from a red poinsettia plant that Polly Graham brought in out of the cold wind. There would be a blanket of red at the foot of the altar, formed by the close placement of many Christmas flowers.
People began coming to the church at six p.m. The folks in Middletown were much too practical for a midnight service. Wives had to get up early the next morning to start their Christmas dinner. Adam guessed that God ought to have just about enough practical people by now, with all the ones he had seen in town.
“Mr. and Mrs. Brumble, it’s good to see you this evening.” Pastor Silverman stood near the West entrance and greeted parishioners as they came in. BeeBee was carrying a new, expensive looking leather purse. She must have struck a pretty good bargain with Mr. Brumble when she got rid of the birdcage, basket-purse.
“Good evening Pastor. You too, Adam,” Mr. Brumble smiled. He seemed to stand a little taller since the birdcage no longer dangled from Mrs. Brumble’s arm.
Adam had become an accepted member of the congregation and he had only been in
church one Sunday. It helped that the Bremans and Gundermans vouched for him with their friendship. The fact that he was the church’s newest employee didn’t hurt either. The thought of building a good name with his hard work at the church did not get past Adam.
“Hi Adam.” Fritzy had come up from behind and startled him. He had just dropped down from his perch in the bell tower minutes before Pastor Silverman came in. He was still in transition, between hiding in his alone place and circulating with friendly people.
“I’m going to run down to the kitchen and see if they need any help. We’ll have punch and the cookies we made after this evening’s service.” Frederica pulled on Adam’s sleeve.
There wasn’t anything he needed to do for Mr. G. at the moment, so Adam followed in mocked protest. “Cookies? Who can eat cookies at this hour?”
“You can, Adam Shoemaker, that’s who.” Fritzy continued to lead the way to the church kitchen. The room was bright and warm and full of women dressed in their Christmas best.
The bustle and swish of red and green taffeta, fancy hats with veils and small Christmas pins and decorations attached to the brim, hurried around the kitchen. Small glasses were out of the upper cabinets and fancy Christmas napkins were stacked near the corner of the counter.
“Ah, Frederica.” Fritzy’s Grandma Stafford threw out her arms and hugged her granddaughter. “I’m pleased to see you again too, Adam. Please come over after services with Frederica for some wassail, non-alcoholic of course. The holiday drink is a tradition of ours.”
“Oh yes, please,” Fritzy grabbed hold of that same shirt sleeve.
“That sounds nice Ma’am.”
“Unless you have your own family traditions. I wouldn’t want to interfere with your family’s Christmas plans.” Mrs. Stafford beamed with holiday joy.
“No Ma’am. Not this year.”
“Adam’s mother has been sick, Grandma. Remember, we talked about that.”
“Oh, yes. Fritzy, your mother thought she knew her.”
“Yes Ma’am, Bridget, Bridget is her name.” Adam felt uneasy. He did not like talking about his family. They lived on a farm with no running water. Pops was a deserter and Moms was in a sanitarium. Most people were afraid of TB. The disease was very contagious. Recently, Moms had been treated with the new antibiotics but Adam still had a feeling of shame about the disease. He wished the new medicine would help, but Moms had said not to wish for things. She said the wee ones grant wishes but there is no satisfaction. No matter what wishes came true, the wisher feels more and more empty. When Moms was real sick and Adam was afraid she would die, he had thought he would strike a bargain with the shadow people. A deal with evil wouldn’t make anyone feel empty or unhappy. Because, once they struck their agreement, they would never feel guilty or lonely again. They would have no conscience.
But, Granny had warned, “Don’t even made eye contact with the shadow people. They will offer comfort, even healing, but they are evil. Once they have you, they won’t let you go.”
The old grandmother’s words haunted him as he struggled to turn off the bad feelings that gnawed at him. He wanted to hide from all the Christmas cheer. He withdrew inside himself, far from the happy people all around him.
“Come on Adam, let’s go up and take our seats in the sanctuary.” Fritzy led Adam out of the kitchen.
As they walked out of the kitchen, Adam slipped his hand down and took hers. “Fritzy, I
don’t want to walk behind you. I want to walk with you.”
Fritzy laughed and squeezed his hand. Adam had taken a stand and it was a good move. He didn’t want to be led around.
The sanctuary was full of Christmas music as Adam and Fritzy entered. The large, horseshoe shaped room was beautiful. There was a huge gathering of poinsettias at the base of the altar that resembled a red coverlet that had been tucked in at the base. Red tapers glowed on the altar and additional ones lit the aisles from candelabra that stood like sentries at the end of each pew. The whole scene was a flickering masterpiece of flame and fire.
“It’s not there,” Adam heard Pastor Silverman whisper to Alfred as they stood just outside the sanctuary door.
“Not there?” Alfred repeated. “That cannot be.”
“What?” Fritzy interjected herself into the conversation.
“The Christ Child carving. You and Adam went down to the storeroom and got the statue out.”
“No Sir,” Adam interrupted. “Remember, you came in and asked us to help your wife? We left the carving in the storeroom.” Adam knew the figure was not still in storage because he was there, in the shadows, when the Christ Child was stolen.
“Yes, yes,” Alfred spoke softly, but Adam could tell from his tone that he was concerned.
“The carving just isn’t in the storeroom anywhere. I looked through every box myself.” The pastor was concerned but restrained.
Adam could not meet their gaze. His eyes searched the floor for a hole to crawl in. He knew what happened to the Christ Child but he couldn’t tell them. It happened at a time when no one should have been in the church. What could he say? Nothing.
“Pastor, there’s a doll in the nursery. I used to play with it when I was a kid,” Fritzy offered. “Let me wrap Baby Bubbles in a blanket. Maybe no one will notice the bundle isn’t our carving.”
“Well, all right. It’s too late to do anything else tonight.” The pastor’s voice showed his disappointment. “But remember, Fritzy, even the work of art is just a carving. The real child of Christmas is in our hearts.”
Adam turned away and walked to the windows in the church doors. He had to think, to sort out his stories, his lies. As he stood there with his eyes fixed on the snow covered street outside, Fritzy hurried to the nursery for the doll.
In our heart? he sighed. The real child of Christmas is in our heart? Most of the time, my heart feels empty. No one lives there anymore, not even me.
Two dark shadowy figures crossed in front of him. He was tempted to ask them for help but he didn’t. He followed them with his eyes until be remembered Granny’s warning and he turned away.
Fritzy hurried back with Baby Bubbles wrapped in a blanket. “The babe doesn’t look too bad. The doll will be okay this time,” she smiled weakly. “With the carving, we always carried it with the blanket underneath so both of the child’s hands and arms could be open, reaching up to his father. Mary will have to carry the infant differently this year.” Anyone could see that Fritzy was upset.
Adam’s eyes darted away from Fritzy’s. He could see her sorrow which made him equally sad. He knew what had happened. He knew who had taken the Christ Child the night before, yet
there he stood, cowering in the front entrance. He was as far as he could get from the worship service without stepping out into the frigid, dark night.
Fritzy handed the doll over to the Mary for that year’s nativity tableau. Silently, Fritzy and Adam walked into the sanctuary and took their seats.
Just before the service started, Mrs. Silverman handed her husband a piece of paper. The pastor read the note, closed the yellow lined sheet and bowed his head.
The chancel choir, joined by the cherubs, sang Away in a Manger while the entire congregation seemed to be focused on Fritzy’s doll. Adam’s stomach felt heavy. It nearly fell to his knees when he saw Buddy and Freddy walk into the sanctuary with their parents.
Those guys come here to church? They pretend to worship in the very place they just robbed? Adam watched as the boys climbed the stairs to the balcony and sat in the section to the right side above the pulpit. Great, I’m going to see them out of the corner of my eye through the whole service.
“My friends,” Pastor Silverman began his sermon, “some of you may have noticed that our carving is not in the manger this year. I know how hard that is for all of us. I left by the back door, but my wife found this note attached to the front door of the parsonage when she left. It reads: ‘We have your carving.’”
The congregation gasped. Mrs. Brumble mouthed, “What? How?”
Adam thought he was going to be sick. To add to his misery, he saw Freddy elbow Buddy in the ribs and both boys stifled childish giggles.
The pastor continued. “That’s all the note said. My friends, we have to believe that someone is playing some sort of trick on us and they will return the statue. Maybe not before Christmas, but perhaps we will have the carving back for next year’s celebrations. The note doesn’t say more, so I can only assume that they think this is a funny trick and we will get the carving back soon.”
They have no intention of returning that statue. They already have a buyer! Adam screamed inside and thought his head would burst.
“Good friends, we are not going to let this prank spoil our Christmas Eve service. As much as we have loved having the carving over the years, a wooden Christ is not whom we worship. We don’t value the representation. We worship the real thing. Only truth is worthy of our praise. They were probably just children playing a childish game.”
Adam heard the boys gasp and wondered who else may have heard them. Go ahead wise guys, get loud enough and you will give yourselves away. Adam actually hoped they would do just that, then he wouldn’t have to do anything. But, deep down, he knew he wouldn’t speak up. He didn’t last night when the carving was stolen and he wouldn’t say anything now.
The pastor talked no more about the Christ Child carving. He said that love came to earth a long time ago and remained here for those who would accept that love.
The whole service touched Adam. He marveled at the beauty of everything, the warm candle light, the music, and even a doll with straggly hair that had substituted for the son of God.
Adam didn’t talk about the doll either. He was afraid if he opened his mouth the whole story would pour out, including the fact that he had been living a complete lie.
Only truth is worthy of our praise. The words echoed in his ears, like a bully’s taunt. But, he knew that silence contributes to a lie, not clears up the mystery. Adam had done nothing wrong but hide himself from those who tried to care for him. He was just an empty shell of a person, visible but unknown, there but not there.
Shaddi, what should I do? But, the wind was silent. In the void, dark shadows moved from the corners. Adam saw them and knew how easy it would be to let them help him. But, calling on the forces of darkness to find the Christ Child carving was wrong. That partnership would be like two apposing worlds colliding in space and Adam didn’t want to be under that fallout when the debris rained down.
“Over here,” Fritzy directed after the Christmas Eve service was over.
She grabbed her coat from the cloak room, scooped up Adam’s jacket and hurried him to the church door. He put on his jacket as he stepped out onto the freshly shoveled sidewalk. The snow fell gently but had not corrupted his hard work. Adam smiled with pride.
The Breman’s hustled Adam into their station wagon as they followed the Stafford sedan out of the church parking lot. He looked out the back window of the car at a long procession of other friends that joined in the fun.
“They’re all coming,” Fritzy smiled when she saw Adam count each vehicle. “The church is a family and a family celebrates Christmas together.”
“It has been a long time since I’ve experienced ‘family.’ It’s a little mind-storming.”
“Boy, you can say that again. I know I find my family overwhelming sometimes.” Jim Breman joked.
“All right now, Jimmy,” his mother reminded. “Adam is talking about feeling a little smothered about having so many family members around at one time, not that he doesn’t appreciate his family.”
“Yes, Mother Dear,” Jim mocked. “You’ll have to excuse me Adam. I am trying to figure out if I’m the man my college expects me to be or the little boy my parents want.”
“Trust me, Son,” Coach laughed, “for what college costs, there had better be a man coming out the other side at graduation, not a perpetual little boy.”
I’m fifteen and I’m on my own. Adam smiled inside. I’m growing up for free.
“The biggest decisions at Grandma and Grandpa’s house will be, one: which cookie
didn’t I get to taste at the church and, two: do I want a cinnamon stick in my wassail or not.” Fritzy giggled and wrapped her hand through the crook of Adam’s arm.
Jim jumped out of the car as soon as the wheels stopped in his Grandparents’ driveway. The other visitors parked on the street.
The house was Victorian in design and lit with the glow from hundreds of Christmas lights. A decorated tree was positioned in the middle of a large, round window and even the front yard had just enough snow to create a storybook picture.
Adam stopped on the front sidewalk and tried to take in all he could see. He wanted every light and every ornament to be a memory for him to carry back up to the dark belfry.
“Come on in Adam. The winter wind is cold out here,” Fritzy started to pull on his coat sleeve, then paused and gently put her hand in his.
“Sure, and if I forget to tell you later, Merry Christmas Frederica Breman.”
“And a very Merry Christmas to you Adam Shoemaker.” As snowflakes lit on her nose and lips, she giggled, stuck out her tongue and tried to catch a few crystals of the icy fluff.
“You are always so happy,” Adam marveled.
“Of course. Why not?”
“Why not? We just went through a war that wrapped around the whole world.”
“My point exactly. You put that statement in the past tense. The war is over.”
“Not for me,” Adam mumbled, surprised he heard his own words out loud.
“Sorry, Mr. Negative. The war is over for everyone. That doesn’t mean that every problem is solved for everyone.” She said nothing for a second as they walked into the house. “I am sorry your father is still missing Adam. But, until you know what happened to him, it might be better to believe he is well and he’s on the long way home.”
Adam said no more. People from the church and neighborhood pushed in and around them. Laughter was everywhere. Smiling faces were reflected back wherever he looked.
“Come on in,” Mabel Thornton called as she began to play the piano. “Silent night, Holy night,” the people sang. And, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” was a reflection of the scene around the marble fireplace in the Stafford living room.
“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light,” people sang through the evening.
Fritzy led Adam by the hand into the large kitchen that smelled sweet and wonderful. The linoleum on the floor resembled multi shades of red bricks and looked new and shinny. The cabinets were white and circled the room. Adam couldn’t help compare the room to the farm kitchen he left behind.
“The kitchen looks happy,” Adam observed. Flashes of the farm kitchen flooded his memory. “All Moms had was the black, Home Comfort Range and that huge thing sure wasn’t electric.” Adam laughed, “I remember the story about the day the salesman came by in his horse and buggy and convinced Grandma that she simply had to have that stove. That range was the best that could be bought for a non-electric kitchen. Moms is still using the same range. She’d check the wood in the firebox and if there wasn’t enough, I’d go out back and bring some in to fill the wood bucket.”
“Adam that sounds wonderful!”
“Wonderful? It is primitive, Fritzy!” Adam nearly laughed at the thought that all that work could somehow be wonderful.
“Sure Adam. My Grandma and Grandpa Breman live on a farm and they have the same kind of stove. Jimmy and I used to argue over who got to bring in the wood for Grandma. Sarah was usually setting the table.” She looked at Adam with a look of surprise. “How can honest work be anything but beautiful . . . and fun too?”
“I hadn’t looked at it that way,” Adam admitted.
“I’m a teacher because I wanted to work with kids.” Coach Breman added to the conversation as he got a fresh pitcher of wassail. “I had a favorite teacher I admired—Mr. Anderson. So, I worked hard and went to college,” the coach added. “I don’t mean to interrupt you kids, but a college education is just a degree, not a pedigree. Education doesn’t make you smarted or better. College makes you prepared to choose the work you would love to do, not have to do the work you can find.”
“I guess,” Adam blushed.
“My brother, George, was two years behind me. He graduated from the same college I did, with highest honors, and he farms our parents’ farm. Why? Because he loves farming. Working the land is honest work and you have no boss but God.”
“Honest work?” There was that word again—honesty.
“There aren’t special jobs that are worthy. A day of work is a day of work.” Coach smiled and filled his cup with wassail.
An honest day’s work. Adam thought about those four words.
“Come on,” Fritzy coaxed again. “I want you to meet Grandpa Breman.”