I had to let her play with them. Fragile porcelain. Possibly antique. To her, they were seasonal dolls. Characters appearing at Advent to adorn the buffet became playmates. I just couldn't say no. And if one or two are now chipped and were not, I really don't remember. But I did find a simple plastic set she could be less careful with—not that she was ever rough with any toys or household decor. But the plastic was small, portable, and could be on the floor, in the car....the bath. That is how it seemed to start. Simply wanting to touch, shuffle, and rearrange.
Then because I had admired the small sets from various countries on my friend's mantle, gifts of new nativities would appear at the return from my husband's business travels.
She loved setting them up. Getting them out of their boxes, remembering where they were placed on the buffet last year....noting the detail in the faces, the clothing. We shared this love.
I was busy cleaning and doing Saturday chores when I realized she had been quiet for some time. I found her in the living room where she had artfully created a very large Bethlehem scene with all of her small dolls. (Sometimes these are called Barbies.) Colored tissue had become robes; markers created beards. Baby Jesus was swaddled and adored by a clan of Marys eager to parent. It is the kind of beautiful scene a mother never wants to forget.
Another year there was the absolute exuberance of her proudly holding up a little brown bag when I picked her up from school, proclaiming that she, herself had made something fabulous, a surprise. I was not to look; I would not be able to guess and would not believe this!
Then, checking on the contents later that night, she sadly had to reveal her surprise early. Ahhhh....from clay, an oval crèche, a simple snowman-like baby laying in broom straw and a piece of cloth ....had been crushed....and she was too. She was right about how fabulous it was. There was nothing else to be done. We (her dad) found the right kind of modeling clay and she remade the tiny saviour. The baby's mother was all cloth, a sweet knot for a head and a simple flowing purple garment. I love the pair so much to this day.
We began collecting them together as we combed stores on holiday. Something unique. This one will be mine, right?
As the collection grew and our home changed, we displayed them on the top of the piano. She was in charge. They were all arranged. Then another quiet weekend afternoon. Silence gave way to creativity. I walked by the piano and did a double take. All the Josephs from various sets stood as one, all the shepherds herded together, all the sheep grazed in kind. The Madonnas and their babies were clustered together, all shapes and sizes, as many nations becoming one in a large multicultural gathering commemorating the birth. It is still something my memory bank can picture and savor.
She began receiving her own as yearly Christmas presents. It was fun finding something miniature or expressively done... by craftspersons from other countries with their cultural perspective and skill.... then putting it away for the upcoming year.
All along, I knew she meant to take them with her. But it was still a bit unexpected when it really happened and they were no longer part of my Advent household. It was an adjustment. This year—and we still don't know how—some of the sets were incomplete for both of us, and we found that the missing pieces were simply separated by household. Perhaps they were adjusting too.
I am always amazed at how she finds such a perfect home for her collection in her transient twenties lifestyle. A shelf, a counter...draped with a scarf.
Wondering if things might be changing, I ask if she would like the gift of nativity to continue. Oh yes, yes, I always get a nativity. And preferably from the fair trade store please.
Arranging my own Bethlehem characters on the buffet, I can't help but feel that somehow maybe I have given her something ... something, even if chipped, to take with her.
Mary Beth Franklyn is a health care attorney with Tennessee Children's Services and altar designer at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN.