A Grandmother's Prayer: Jan knew what her children really needed for Christmas

“We’ve not found anything, Mom.”

That’s what Ellen told her. Jan might have felt hopeful if the words weren’t always packaged in a deadbeat tone that carried too much finality, and Jan knew—aren’t mothers supposed to know?—that Ellen wasn’t really looking.

So Jan had tried once again, last night, Christmas Eve. “Have you found a suitable church?”

The two of them were sitting alone. Jan had come for the holidays even though she’d not looked forward to the long plane ride to Seattle—alone, now that Jack was gone. She’d not looked forward to the trip itself, but she’d crossed the days off the calendar because she wanted so badly to see her kids, her smart kids who were making so much money in computers—Microsoft this, Microsoft that. She’d never been to their new place before, a flashy condo with windows for walls. But she couldn’t help asking again, as if the topic had never come up before—”Have you found a suitable church?”

“We’ve not found anything, Mom,” Ellen said in a computer voice. And then gave her a smile Jan knew was condescending because, after all, she was Grandma and they were big shots—corporate jet, power lunch. Ellen and Frank were cutting edge, and their mother was an old oak buffet from Iowa.

Jan wanted to tell her daughter that the two of them weren’t going to find a church if they sat on their hams or slept in to catch up from work weeks that had them gone more than home—their kids hostage to some preschool with a big cheery sign with multicolored balloons.

“Have you been looking, Ellen?” she’d asked her daughter. It was Christmas Eve and they were still wrapping the kids’ Christmas presents. Frank was in his office and the kids were off to bed.

“We’ve looked,” Ellen said, fitting a corner on a whole box of electronic games. “Look, Mom—we’re all right, OK? I’ve never stopped thinking that there’s a God. I’m no infidel.” After that first insipid smile, Ellen had never once looked up, which Jan read as a good sign. There was some guilt there anyway.

“Maybe we ought to go tomorrow,” she said.

Ellen dropped her shoulders. “I’m thirty-four years old, Mom,” Ellen told her.

“I brought you into this world,” Jan said “I know exactly how old you are.” She flitted with the ribbons, put the gift under the tree, and sat back on her haunches. I’m serious. I saw this church . . . “

“You just got here—

“I saw this church on the way in—not big either. ‘Ten forty-five—’ it said—’Christmas Service.’” Jan looked directly at her rich daughter. “You and me and the kids? Frank is your responsibility, not mine.”

Ellen rolled her eyes, threw her bangs back out of her face. She looked down at her fingers, pushed back her cuticles, breathed audibly. “Let me think about it, OK?” she said grudgingly.

And now Jan couldn’t sleep. She lay on a roll-out bed in her daughter’s office, the light from some fancy screen-saver bouncing off the walls because Ellen didn’t have the grace to shut the stupid computer off. That machine is more important than I am, Jan told herself when she tried to keep out the glimmers. But she knew Jack would have been proud of her. In all those years of their daughter’s unfaithfulness to God and the church, Jan had been the one who’d constantly begged him to give Ellen space. Just her bringing it up—going to church—was something he’d have been proud of.

The room was dark, the blinds pulled, and that fiend machine kept turning shapes inside out in some never-ending pattern that seemed to her demonic. She hated it—the lit screen that devoured everything good and right in the lives of her own children. It was almost three o’clock when finally she got up, hunted for the plug, and then jerked it. Tomorrow she’d plead ignorance. Jack would have loved it.

It was August when she and Jack had prayed, as they did every night at supper—”Bless Ellen and Frank and the kids”—and usually something else about helping them find the way because, after all, they just hadn’t found anything, had they? It was August, and Jack had insisted on digging up the concrete around the pole he’d put in so their son Tony could shoot baskets when he was a boy, years ago. It was too hot, and it was too much work, but Jack loved sweat, considered himself more of a man if he could soak a T-shirt. They’d prayed for Ellen and Frank after supper, then he’d gone at it again out back, where she saw him an hour later, on his side, not moving. Their last prayer together, like so many before, had been about Frank and Ellen.

“Lord,” she said, her neck strained from such a huge pillow beneath her head, “Lord, help me find something for them.” That didn’t seem like enough. “Lord,” she said once again, “crack their skulls, OK?—I don’t mean it really, but stop them in their tracks. Sink the boat maybe—sink Microsoft, OK? Because there’s nothing here, I’m afraid.

In the middle of that prayer, she imagined those kids in a Christmas Eve pageant, two sweet kids saying things like “Mary pondered all these things in her heart,” Tosha with a little skirt, Edmund in a sweater over a white shirt or something. There were churches all over Seattle—hundreds of them just waiting for families like theirs. “You can lead a horse to water, Lord, but show them you’re here, OK? Make it so that everywhere they look they see Jesus.”

She hadn’t even thought of saying that, but when the words ran back through her mind, she liked it—the idea of seeing Jesus in everything, as if the world were a canvas holding Jesus’ face, as if the whole world was the Shroud of Turin. “Make them see you, Lord,” she said, “because in this palace of theirs—” she said, “well, I just don’t know if you’re here.”

She didn’t end the prayer. The petitions just sort of fell into silence, to be picked up again next time—same chapter and verse. Pray without ceasing, the Bible said. That’s what she did all right, she thought.

When she awoke, she heard the kids stirring at the tree, opening presents, arguing, in fact. She brushed back her hair, pulled on her housecoat and slippers, and opened the door. It wasn’t quite fully morning, but the kids had all the wrappings off of dozens of presents. Too many. It wasn’t pleasant.

She walked into the spacious living room, the blinds over all those windows still closed.

“What’s the deal?” she said.

Tosha said Edmund had taken her Beanie Baby and hid it somewhere, and it just wasn’t fair. It was Christmas morning. Edmund looked at his sister as if she were a dishrag.

Jan had had enough. “Maybe we ought to go to church,” she told them, out of nowhere at all. “You and me—maybe the three of us should go to church together this morning.”

“Why?” Tosha said.

Because it’s Christmas,” Jan told her. Because it’s Christmas, and we’re going to celebrate the birth of our Savior.”

I’m not going,” Edmund said. “I got these great toys.”

“You’ve got a great Savior,” Jan told her grandson.

His eyes, blank as clay, hurt her more than a fist because she knew she was speaking a language he didn’t understand. Their own grandson looked at her as if Jesus were a nobody. That Jack didn’t see it himself was a blessing.

Edmund shoved his glasses up on his nose. “Some other time, all right?” he said. “Look at this, Grandma—Nimbus Racer. He held up a game.

She wanted to pray, right there in front of them, but right then, even though the condo was top floor, she was sure there was nothing but thick cement between her and the Lord.

“I think we ought to go,” she said.

“It’s Christmas,” Edmund chirped. “Why do we got to go to church?”

Her insides felt like that screen-saver, turning inside out again and again, and she realized that if she were to open her mouth, there would be no words, only tears—tears that would confuse them. So she walked to the kitchen, fiddled with the coffeemaker, got it going, then went to the west windows.

It was Christmas morning, she reminded herself, and she wished just then that she were with Jack and the Lord. There was too much for her to do here, too much hard work and too much sadness, and she couldn’t do it alone.

She took hold of the strings of the blinds and opened them with a few rapid jerks. Sunlight, Christmas morning sunlight, spilled in like a waterfall, dousing the lights on the tree. Deliberately she looked away from Christmas in the condo across the glaze of water west; and when she raised her eyes to the mountains, in a flash, in a moment, the whole fancy condo seemed to disappear—the Christmas tree behind her, the kitchen. Everything behind her seemed to vanish, the children’s voices dimmed, her own fears muted in the sheer majesty of what she’d suddenly, almost magically, become witness to. Even though the neighborhood beneath the condo was in shadows, the sun, coming up far behind them, stretched its brilliant glory through the crystal morning air all the way across the Sound to hold those monstrous snow-capped Olympics in its own astonishing splendor. There they stood—those glorifying mountains—like might and power. There they stood, a landscape divinely painted across the darkened world, beaming holiness and majesty in the crystalline dawn of a perfect Christmas morning.

“Oh, my God,” she said, because what she saw was far more than mountain beauty. God was here, all right, she told herself. God’s here sure enough.

“What, Grandma?” Tosha said, coming up behind her. “What do you see?”

Jan wrapped her arm around her granddaughter.

“Who’s out there?” Tosha said, on tiptoes.

What could she say? “Jesus,” her grandma told her. “He’s always there.”

“Where?” Tosha asked.

Jan picked up her granddaughter. “Look at those mountains,” she said. “Just look at them.”

Tosha leaned her face closer to the window. Is he a ghost?” she said.

“No,” Jan told her, he’s alive.”

“I don’t see him, Tosha said. “I see the mountains and I see the Sound, and there’s a boat out there, but where is Jesus?” She looked at her grandmother almost painfully. “Grandma, I want to see Jesus.”

Jan already had her granddaughter in her arms, so the hug she gave her wasn’t difficult or awkward. “Amen,” she said, biting her lip. “Let’s just you and me go, Tosha, honey,” Jan said. “This time, this morning, just let’s you and me go. I want you to see him too.”

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.