Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Christmas Story Worth Reading

photo by Charlotte Tai / flickr

(Liz Smith told me her favorite Christmas story years ago. I had her funeral January 2014. Artist, teacher, on the right side of all the issues that matter--as Mary Oliver said about her own life: "I don't want to be someone who just visited this world." Liz Smith was not a visitor.)

When Liz lived in Columbia, South Carolina her Sunday School class decided to do something for the prisoners at the Woman’s Prison outside the city. Liz twisted arms and got her Sunday School Class to buy, wrap and label all the presents according to prison regulations. Her thought was to deposit them to the prison authorities and be on her way. But the Warden suggested that she stay a few minutes and meet some of the prisoners. The gifts would be given to those who received no mail or presents. She said after she was searched the huge iron doors creaked open and found herself in the locked prison gate.

Inside one of the first people she gave a gift to was a black woman named Geneva. The woman asked Liz to be her invited guest at the annual Christmas pageant that would be held the next week. Liz didn’t want to go. She was too busy. Her shopping wasn’t done and she had a drop-in at her house. But she kept looking at Geneva who had nobody else. So she agreed to go against her better judgment.

On the Sunday before Christmas Liz found herself in a long line of cars that turned into the prison gates. After she showed her pass, searched again she was led to a small auditorium. She looked around at the strangest assortment of people. Old, winkled family members. Middle age folk. Some very young—and a few crying babies. They were dressed in fur coats and some in overalls. Black and white. Rich and poor. 

On the stage there was a makeshift cardboard stable decorated with pine boughs. In the center was a manger made from an orange crate nailed to wooden legs.

Suddenly a large black lady in a long white robe and a big red bow came through the side door and sat down at the piano. Everything became quiet as she began to play “Away in a Manger” with a real gospel beat. A host of black and white angels dressed in white sheets and make-shift wings took their places behind the manger. They began whispering and suddenly one of them went running back stage. Later Liz learned that they had forgotten the baby Jesus and some angel went to the rescue. 

Mary and Joseph came on stage and positioned themselves. And Liz said she was speechless when Mary came out. She looked so much like her own blonde daughter. And she remembered jMary was serving time as an accessory to the murder of a highway patrolman. Joseph, with a fake beard came out—all the characters were female.

Suddenly the strains of “While Shepherds  Watched their flocks by Night” began and down the aisle were white-sheeted shepherds with shepherd’s crooks. They knelt by the manger.

As she heard the sound of turning pages from the piano Liz wondered what would come next . As “We Three King of Orient Are” was banged out, there marched down the aisle bearing perfume bottles and a small jewelry box the kings. Some child yelled, “There’s Mama!” In the middle of the kings proud Geneva marched down the aisle. When she saw Liz she smiled and waved as she found her place.

After they had presented their gifts and the angels sang lustily, “Joy to the World” the formal part of the pageant was over and the audience clapped and clapped. Everybody stood up as “Silent Night” started. They all began to sing. By the second verse, Liz said, the singing was muted. Everyone was crying. Old men trying to hold back the tears, Wiping her eyes the pianist played on and on. 

Liz asked me, “Do you know why we were all crying? Everybody there.  Prisoners and matrons, invited guests and family members.” She said, “I think I know why they were crying.” And in the long Southern drawl she answered her own question: “And in the region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them…and the angel said, “Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.” “I think,” Liz said, “that’s why we were all crying.” 

(I sat on the bed with Liz just before she died. She had been sick for weeks and had been in and out off the hospital. 89 years old--and shared as could be. She said that day: "I've got to get out of this bed and write some thank-you notes." Liz--this is one of your many thank-you notes you gave us all.)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com

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