That I wholeheartedly agree with Missy Simpson's lecture about over-sentimentalizing Christmas, that I laud her annual efforts on our church's nativity pageant, and that I know no one more determined to put Spring Arbor Church on the map—none of that alters the fact that Missy Simpson is not my favorite human being.
So I understand why my daughter was owly when I picked her up from church a few nights ago. She had to listen to the lecture. I heard it too, rehearsal having gone about ten minutes late.
Missy Simpson gets her way by a force of character she claims she doesn't have. She rarely thinks things over, which makes her reactions immediate and sometimes brutal. She's great to have on your team; give her a half hour and she can change the world. Oppose her, you lose.
"There's an awful lot of silliness connected to Christmas celebrations already, and we don't want to add to it," she said. She had all the kids—shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph, the whole works—in the first two pews for her address. "Animals singing and all of that? It only sentimentalizes the real story— that Jesus came for us, for sinners. Did he cry? Well, of course he did. He was human. Humans cry. Case closed. So this foolish little line, 'No crying he makes,' is just ridiculous."
I knew how Angela would take that. For most of her life, she's thought The Lion King was the greatest story ever told.
"And let's remember that Jesus was born in a barn because, quite literally, there was no room in town." Missy pointed in the air. "Have any of you ever not found a motel? It's awful. Jeff and I were in Athens, Ohio, once, years ago, and we could find nothing-— but that's another story."
Thank goodness, I thought.
"And Christmas carols in the mall? That's probably the biggest sacrilege of all—the 'Hallelujah Chorus' as Muzak."
My daughter likely has no idea what Muzak is.
"That's why we have to be authentic—as authentic as possible—because we don't want to sentimentalize."
Angela is thirteen, and she understands sentimentality no better than she does the unpardonable sin. Sentimentality has been her way of seeing things. I'm sure she rather likes hearing "O Holy Night" in Wal-Mart.
"And that's why we have to make the truth stick—"
I thought her choice of words somewhat inappropriate because I knew what was coming. She'd given this speech before, and she'd started a big controversy the first time she suggested what she was about to push on the kids.
"Angela," she said, pointing at my daughter, "you live on a farm."
Angela would never want to be thought of as a "farm girl."
"You bring us some manure."
Angela would rather incinerate Pocahontas, Sleeping Beauty, and 101 Dalmations.
"Shepherds were tough hombres," Missy told them, ranging back and forth in front of them like something caged. "Shepherds were low-lifes, and God sent his angels to them for a reason: because they were." Her face lit up. "That's the point of Christmas," she said, as if she'd just stumbled on the gospel. "He came to save ordinary people—not just kings and princes, but the low-lifes."
"So we need manure on the manger. We need it on you guys—the shepherds. We need it around the church." She could have played Moses if Charlton Heston stumbled. "On Christmas Eve this isn't going to be a church, it's going to be a barn."
Angela, the manure pipeline. I knew she didn't like it.
But there's more. Angela wanted to be Mary, but Roberta Dekker got the job. On a scale often, Roberta Dekker is, I'm sad to admit, a nine to my Ang's six. She reads with expression, carries herself in a fashion Bert Parks would admire, and has eyes to kill for. She gets, well, most everything, my daughter would say. So there was that too. Ang didn't want to be a manure-caked, cross-gendered shepherd if Roberta got Mary's song.
She didn't say a word, not a word, all the way home. Only when I pulled into the garage did her mouth open at all. "Whose idea was it anyway to move to the sticks?"
My daughter still has the sentimentality of a child, but time is pushing her farther along toward complexity, where she doesn't want to go. Can we blame her?
We bought her a horse for Christmas, and she's had it since Thanksgiving. I thought there was a verse in the Bible that says your young women will love horses. Angela is on speaking terms with Macintosh (she named it after a computer), but all this schmaltzy Black Beauty stuff?—no way. Actually, I think she likes him, even if publicly she acts otherwise. I've been in the barn with the chickens several times and heard her talking to him. It's our moving out of town that irritates her.
Angela hovers on a precipice of childhood, like the coyote in Road Runner cartoons, and a fall is inevitable. I remember the first time I took her to the dentist, and Dr. Lowell, a kind-hearted guy, stood there in front of her and told her she was going to have to watch the sweets. She couldn't have put on a heavier face—but back then she had no sense of darkness. Today, she does. And it's the mix that confuses her, like it does all of us. She could get along swimmingly in a world of light; and she could, like all of us, learn to negotiate if darkness were forever the shape of things. But it's the mixture that's tough, and that's what she's learning. She still would prefer her Christmases in Norman Rockwell style.
We opened our presents in the afternoon of Christmas Eve this year. Mark is home from college, and Randy brought Lexie, his girl—but that's another story.
At Christmas my wife, who I love dearly, loses all sense of perspective. She claims there's ten times more great presents for a boy like Barry, who's ten, than a girl like Ang. Besides, Barry's her baby. So this year, when Angie's biggest present was a horse far too big to lug into the family room and adorn with a bow, when Barry looked over a range of Christmas booty that threatened to take over the family room, and when Randy and his sweetheart fiddled with his new boom box, our Angela looked down at some tatted hankies from her grandma, a Bible from her parents, and a new sweater, and felt indecently shortchanged. She left the house in silence.
Now a word in defense of my daughter. It wasn't a lack of presents that got to her. She knew very well that Macintosh was hers, and hers alone. What bummed her out was a lack of climax. A day after Halloween the march towards Christmas begins. Everywhere you hear music. Dozens of gizmos appear on TV ads only in the months of November and December. Christmas specials air nightly after Thanksgiving.
Angela, the child, lived in anticipation of "Christmas." And "Christmas" to her annually reaches its climax around the tree. That Christmas eve afternoon, her thirteenth, the ritual of presents simply didn't deliver the goods. She wasn't as much angry with us as she was let down by a drum roll that had risen to this very day and then simply fallen away in a whimper. That's what bugged her.
We moved to an acreage for many reasons, but one of them is critters. I wasn't born on a farm, but sometimes even today I think I ought to quit my job at the bank and go to vet school—that's how much I love animals.
So Missy Simpson wasn't wrong. We've got manure in all shapes and sizes. That was my excuse for following Angela to the barn. If the nativity scene was going to grip us with authenticity, I'd have to collect the dung. Ang wouldn't. No way.
When I got out there, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that she wasn't with the horse. I thought she would be, but she wasn't. I found her instead with the chickens, sitting cross-legged on the floor in her sweatshirt and jeans—actually sitting on the straw, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. My daughter is becoming a woman who is, in a way, no longer my daughter. Her shoulders have broadened, and even in that position I could begin to discern an hourglass. If she heard me come up behind her, she didn't say a word.
We had been losing chickens, five of them in five days—a couple of leghorns, a Rhode Island red, and then the one that really angered me—a Buff Oppington, a fluffy and fat brown honey of a hen, if chickens can be likeable. The murderer was a mystery, since the victims were hardly touched, just a plump hump of feathers, necks split. Coons we've had before, but a raccoon doesn't simply drink blood. I didn't have a clue about the murderer when I put out the trap.
Ang had been furious, though not because she likes chickens. Sometimes I have to push her out to get eggs. She had told me that if whoever or whatever was doing the killing would eat them, she could take it, but not this killing and waste. I was mad too. When I saw that Buff down, I would have taken on a skunk with a straw broom.
Christmas Eve, early, as we were opening presents, the murderer arrived and walked into my trap, and there he was in front of her.
"What is it?" she asked me when I came up.
The animal was long, and blessed—graced— with glossy fur. It looked up at her nervously and paced back and forth, back and forth, like the king of beasts. "It's a mink," I said. "Good night, it's a mink."
"Are they rare?" she asked.
"Not rare, but wily. I never thought I'd catch a mink in a box trap. This one must be retarded."
"He doesn't look retarded," she said. "He's gorgeous."
And he was. His tiny eyes were translucent in a face that looked classic, Greek or Roman. Nimble and agile, his body flowed in that cage. Like a cat, he showed no expression, and the stoicism itself granted him nobility. But how can I do justice to the beauty of his fur? He was brown—no, chestnut—no, reddish—mahogany, with a sheen of darkness over the ends of each follicle of warm, beautiful fur, that, even in the soft yellow light of the coop, shone like a red planet. He was beautiful. "You can see why people want coats," I said.
She was transfixed, as if that mink were a kaleidoscope.
"Can we keep him?"
"It's no sheep, Ang," I told her. "You're lucky enough to see him. They're nocturnal, totally. I don't know what brought him in so early—must have figured the place was a piece of cake."
"You think he did it?" she asked.
"I know he did," I told her, pointing at the dead Leghorn across the room.
"I can't believe he's a murderer," she said. "I won't. Why should he? He's too perfect, Dad. He's just beautiful."
"He sucked the blood out of five hens," I told her.
Back and forth, back and forth, the mink ranged through the trap.
And then she said what was really on her mind. "I've been thinking, Dad—you know the story— about what happened?" For the first time, she looked up at me. "About what happened in the stable in Bethlehem?" She shrugged her shoulders, annoyed. "Seems as if you can't even say anything without it sounding like a commercial."
"What happened?" I said.
"That old story—I know it's silly and it's dumb and it's not in the Bible. You know that old story about how all the animals in the barn suddenly spoke at Jesus' birth?"
"Of course," I said.
And then she looked back at the murderer, the beautiful mink, and pointed. "You think it was all of them who spoke?" she asked.
"Even the killers," I told her.
She nodded like someone who was no more a child, watched the beautiful mink and nodded. "It's a big deal, isn't it?" she asked.
"Christmas?" I said.
She nodded again.
"Everything sings," I told her.
She brought her hands right up to the cage. "The lion lies down with the lamb—isn't that right? Something like that?"
"It's Christmas," I said. And then, "You get it, Ang?"
Once more, her back to me, she nodded her head gloriously.
That was Angie's first adult profession, and it couldn't have come at a sweeter time—for her, or for Missy Simpson, who was trying to teach Angie exactly what she learned.
But most blessed is God Almighty, I suppose, who by way of a killer mink on Christmas prompted this first public profession and will, I'm sure, now assign my daughter a bigger role in his great pageant.
Her father liked it too.