The Italian Crèchebysr71plt©
Emily stopped at her bureau in the sleeping L off her living space while en route to the kitchenette to warm Margaret's tea. She couldn't help herself. She had to open the top drawer just enough to be able to pull out the old worn coin purse and check inside one more time. With the check her nephew, Jonathan, had sent her for Christmas she just might have enough now. And just in time. At least she'd have enough if they had taken their prices down again. This was the last time they'd do so before Christmas, though. It was already the morning of Christmas Eve.
Well, if not today, maybe in the after-Christmas sales, she thought—if she was lucky.
Yes, it was all there. More than she'd been able to save before. It was such a silly thing to do as much as she had to pinch her pennies, but she'd known ever since it went into the window at Mulberry Junction down in the center of the town in early November that she had to have it. And she'd been holding her breath ever since for fear that someone else had decided they also had to have it before she could save enough.
"Are you OK?" Margaret called out from the living area. Margaret had been such a fussbudget ever since Emily had taken that tumble in the early fall. But it was rather nice to have someone fuss over you. Emily hadn't had much of anyone to fuss over her since her parents had been taken together in that flood—more than fifty years ago now. My, how time flies, Emily thought, with a sigh, as she gently pressed the drawer shut and turned toward her friend.
"Yes, I'm fine, thanks. I was just checking. Now, if only—"
"I'm sure it's still there," Margaret said. "I just know it was meant for you. What are the chances it would find its way to a small town like this otherwise? You say you haven't seen one just like the other one in all these years?"
"No, I haven't . . . and I've looked," Emily responded. "It's one of the few nice things we had. It always made my Christmases so special. But your tea. I came over here to warm your tea."
"Thank you," Margaret said as Emily returned with her steaming cup. "I think it will look just wonderful here. I think we did a great job."
They both stood by the window overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, the window being possibly the nicest feature of the chain motor hotel that had been converted into a reasonably priced retirement home in this small foothills town. Emily often wondered why a town this size had ever been envisioned to support a five-story hotel, but she was happy that someone had tried—and had failed. She didn't think there could have been a nicer place for her to retreat to in this time of her life.
The two women stood there and enjoyed their handiwork for several minutes. A small silver aluminum tree from the fifties reached up more than three feet at one end of the oak drop-leaf table Emily's great-grandfather and wife had taken across the Appalachians in a wagon on their grand adventure into the West. Emily's own father had brought it back across the mountains, dismantled and in the trunk of his Hudson, generations later, and stored it in the attic of their Virginia home on the banks of a lazy stream in a ravine coming down off Old Rag Mountain. The now-somewhat bedraggled tree was the only thing from Emily's family that had been recovered after the rogue hurricane had turned the stream into a torrent in the middle of the night and collapsed the house on top of Emily's parents while she was away in her first year at the teacher's college.
Now the tree looked perfect on top of the table set off against the background of the snow-covered Blue Ridge. The rest of the top of the table was spread with clouds of angel hair. Just waiting for the treasure that Emily had been saving for since she'd seen it in the window of Mulberry Junction a scant five weeks ago. Emily had actually been saving for it for several years, setting aside whatever she didn't need for personal expenses as well as the occasional shortfall monetary gift she didn't turn right around and spend on small notions for her nieces and nephews. Emily just hadn't realized what she'd been saving that money for until she'd walked by the window of Mulberry Junction as they were taking down their Halloween display and putting up their Christmas display.
"I guess I should be going," Margaret said, breaking the spell of their shared reverie. "You'll be wanting to go down into the town. The store will be closing early today."
"Yes, I guess it's time," Emily said, her voice choking from the excitement of making the purchase but edged with the fear that her bubble would burst and either the price hadn't been reduced enough yet or that someone else had snatched her treasure from her. "I'll let you know when I have it. And then I'd be pleased if you came up and spent Christmas Eve here with me. I've also asked Jessica. I know she'll be alone otherwise."
Margaret rolled her eyes, being careful that Emily didn't see her do so. She agreed that Jessica would probably normally be alone this Christmas. The residents here avoided her like the plague. She was loud, grasping, and self-centered—and she had a nasty knack of assessing the cost of anything anyone bought along with the embarrassing talent of usually being right on the money with her loudly announced estimate, which was most unwelcome in a community like this, where everyone was living on the sharp edge of barely muddling through. But this was just like Emily. Always giving; never taking. That was why Margaret was so excited about this extravagance Emily was setting out to undertake. Emily needed something expensive and beautiful like this in her life.
* * * *
Emily almost couldn't bear to look at the luminous windows of Mulberry Junction in the distance as she walked down the main street from the residence hall into the center of the small town. It was getting dark and another light snow had started. The holiday light display was modest, in keeping with the struggling economy of the town, but the duskiness of the late afternoon in early winter, and the snowflakes, helped make the atmosphere festive. Anticipation electrified the air. Emily could see it in how alive the town was with activity. And she could see it in the eyes of those passing her by, either en route to last-minute Christmas shopping or on their way home from the stores.
She couldn't help herself. She had to look for it in Mulberry Junction's window when she was still two blocks away. She couldn't see it, though. For a brief moment she was afraid it was gone, and her heart fluttered dangerously. But then she realized that she couldn't see into the window because a woman and child were standing there.
Ah, yes, it was still there, Emily realized as she drew closer. But her heart continued to flutter and she felt herself trembling with fear and anticipation. Her fear was dispelled as she drew close enough to see that the price had been knocked down to just within her spending capability. This only made her trembles of anticipation increase to take up the slack.
It was gorgeous. The figurines were larger than normal. They were made out of terra-cotta and were painted, obviously by loving hand, in several luminous shades of brilliant colors—not completely covered, the terra-cotta showing through here and there, but in bright enameled dabs of red, blue, green, purple, white, and silver—real silver that had been applied in molten form to the terra-cotta. Emily knew this process had required precision. The silver had to be liquefied enough to accommodate the design, but not so hot as to burst the terra-cotta base. Blue dominated for the figure of Mary, and purple for Joseph. The angel glowed with a bright white, and the Baby Jesus shown forth in a rich, deep red. Their faces and hands were designated in perfectly formed applications of silver. Other figures were there too, a whole complement of them—shepherds and kings and sheep and cows and camels and even the donkey that had brought the family to the large, unpainted terra-cotta stable that framed the Holy Family.
The Italian crèche was beautiful in its own right, exuding a contrasting feeling of delicacy and strength, earthiness and wonder. But to Emily's eyes, it was far more than that. It was as near identical as she could remember across the decades to the crèche her mother had brought with her to her marriage, possibly her family's most precious possession—beyond each other. Emily's mother had brought it out on Christmas Eve every year when Emily was a young girl, and they had put it under the Christmas tree. And it would be whisked away on Epiphany twelve days later. Its appearance and disappearance bracketed the Christmas season for Emily. She had particularly been drawn to the Baby Jesus in his luminous splendor. And seeing the attraction for her daughter, once each Christmas Emily's mother had permitted her to lift this single figurine out of the crèche and stroke the cool terra-cotta and murmur her secret delight to him as he blissfully slept away.
Emily's father had once remarked to his wife that she shouldn't let Emily handle the figurine like that for fear of rubbing the silver leaf away, but Emily had heard her mother respond that Jesus was meant to be shared and that she was just glad that Emily was drawn to him as she was.
The crèche had been swept away in the same flood that had taken the lives of Emily's parents, and memories of it had stayed fresh in Emily's mind, becoming something that she was searching for, some sense to be taken out of a hard life and from seemingly senseless tragedies such as life-taking floods.
Emily had eventually accepted that she wouldn't get the answers she sought out of life; she was just happy that she'd lived long and had been able to touch the lives of so many of her students. And, yes, she was thankful that she had her small apartment in the retirement residence and good friends like Margaret when so many in the world, in this community even, had little or nothing.
Then the miracle. The crèche had come to her small town and had made itself available to her as a goal she could still attain in her life. And here it was. It was still here, and in a few moments it would be hers. Her eyes sought the Baby Jesus. Yes, the same one, its paint perhaps even more luminous than her mother's figurine. New, probably unhandled by human touch.
Emily involuntarily reached out, wanting to touch the small figure in the manger, even though she knew it was behind glass. Her hand instead touched the matted glove of a child, a hand also reaching out and touching the glass just beyond the grasp of the Baby Jesus. Emily looked down, first at the glove, which was threadbare and had a hole in it here and there, and then at the face of the child. She was no more than six or seven, and her eyes were greedily drinking in the crèche. But not the whole sweep of the crèche; she was focused on the figurine of the Baby Jesus.
"Come on, Rose, we have to be going," a young woman with a gaunt, haunted look to her and wrapped in a thin coat inadequate to the elements was whispering to the little girl. "We have to get back to give Ronny his medicine. You know we can't have that. We'll come back tomorrow to see it again, if you like. But we've got to go, Rose. The stove will be needing more logs. You know Ronny can't take cold."
"Just a few more minutes, please," the girl said in a sad, plaintive voice. "Look, he looks so peaceful, Mom. He looks like Ronny."
Emily turned away, embarrassed at having intruded in the intimate family scene, even if not on purpose. She entered the store and stood by the front display until the clerk came forward.
As the clerk was taking the figurines out of the window and carefully wrapping them individually in tissue paper, Emily looked beyond the window. The woman was pulling the little girl away from the store, but the little girl was still turned to the window, her eyes glued to the Baby Jesus figurine. Tears streaming down her face.
* * * *
"How could she afford something like that?" Jessica was hissing under her breath to Margaret as Emily was bustling around her kitchenette putting out cups and saucers and opening a tin of cookies. "I saw a set just like it in the window at Mulberry Junction, and it was as dear as six months' worth of fees in this dump."
"Oh, I think it's been in the family for years," Margaret whispered back, doing her best to keep a serene smile plastered on her face.
"Humph," Jessica chortled. "That or on deep discount. It isn't even all there. It's missing the most important piece. There's no baby. Why does she even put it out, when there's no Jesus here."
"Oh, I think Jesus is here," Margaret said in secret delight. "Emily told me she had an opportunity to give the Jesus figure away to someone who needed it. She said something about Jesus not needing to be kept hidden away—needing to be shared."
"How . . . unusual," Jessica snorted, rolling her eyes at Margaret.
"Yes . . . unfortunately," Margaret whispered back, and then turned away so that Jessica couldn't see her mischievous smile.