Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Un-Decorating

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm. Each year, a few days after Christmas, a small group gathers in the sanctuary to take down the Christmas decorations. Senior Pastor Henry O’Donnell always has mixed feelings about this day. On the one hand, he loves the Christmas season and this final annual ritual makes him melancholy. On the other hand, church secretary Tammy Billings always brings Christmas leftovers – including plenty of pie and cookies. Tammy is an excellent cook but a light eater. And her husband Ralph is a bit of a health nut, which means O’Donnell traditionally gets to overindulge to his heart’s content.

Every year the church has asked for volunteers to help with the project, but invariably the only people who show up are Tammy, Ralph, and Pastor O’Donnell. Normally this was fine with the pastor. It meant more of Tammy’s goodies for him. Last year the church brought on a new young Associate Pastor named Michelle Tellum who felt obliged to help with the un-decorating as well, but O’Donnell didn’t mind because she didn’t eat much. Unfortunately this year she also brought her boyfriend, Ian, and he could eat quite a bit.

To everyone’s surprise one other volunteer showed up as well: Missy Moore, a heavyset woman in her forties. As she dug into a piece of Tammy’s pumpkin pie, she explained that she thought the clean up project would help her burn off all those Christmas calories.

“With so many hands we’ll be done in no time,” Tammy said.

O’Donnell agreed that was a plus, but he was concerned because there were only two pieces of pumpkin pie left. O’Donnell loved Tammy’s pumpkin pie, but wanted to save a slice for when they had finished with the work. And the way Ian was digging into a hunk of leftover fruitcake, O’Donnell didn’t think he could count on the pie lasting that long. So while Tammy was assigning duties to the others, O’Donnell slipped a slice of pie onto a paper plate and stuck it under a pew on the left side of the church.

Tammy was determined to keep the decorations organized this year. She’d listed each type of decoration and assigned it a box, which she had numbered. As things were packed away, she would check them off on her chart. Hopefully that chart would allow her to quickly find things when it came time to decorate next year.

Most of the others tried to follow Tammy’s instructions diligently, but she was usually unsatisfied with the way they folded this or coiled that. However she was too polite to criticize so she would often just surreptitiously repack the items when nobody was looking. After all, everything had to be just so or it wouldn’t fit neatly in the designated boxes.

Ralph was the most rebellious of the volunteers. When he saw something that needed done, he tended to just do it rather than waiting for directions. So he frequently brought things to Tammy that she wanted at the top of a box before the things that belonged on the bottom were packed.

About twenty minutes into the project, O’Donnell saw Ralph carrying a twenty-foot ladder into the sanctuary. “What are you going to do with that?” O’Donnell asked.

“Take down the Advent wall hangings,” Ralph replied.

“That’s a two man job,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t want you climbing up there yourself.”

“Fine,” Ralph grumbled. “You can climb the ladder while I hold it steady. Then you can pass the hangings down to me. Okay?”

“Okay,” O’Donnell said, not quite sure how he’d volunteered to climb a twenty foot ladder. He wasn’t good with heights.

Meanwhile, Michelle, Ian and Missy were taking down the decorations on the two trees that had been put up in the chancel. What they didn’t know was that Bart, a bat who usually lived in the church’s bell tower, had taken up temporary residence in the left tree and was currently fast asleep on one of the inside branches near the top.

Michelle climbed up on a step stool to reach the string of lights wrapped around the top of the tree. As she started unwinding them, she woke Bart up. Startled at the unexpected disturbance, he flew out right in front of her face.

“A bat!” Michelle screeched. It was her first encounter with Bart. She instinctively vaulted backwards, spun in midair, cleared the railing at the edge of the chancel and landed on the front pew. Ian, who was watching from under the piano where he’d dived when Michelle had yelled, thought his girlfriend might have broken some kind of long jump record. As she leaped from pew to pew, her hands fluttering about her ears, he wondered if she was planning to go for a hurdles record as well.

If she was, she failed. On her third jump her toes caught the back of a pew, tripping her. She flew through the air toward Ralph and the ladder. Ralph caught her, preventing a disaster.

Unfortunately disaster turned out to be only delayed. O’Donnell had turned at the commotion and discovered the panicked bat was flying straight toward him. He ducked instinctively, throwing the ladder off balance. Without Ralph steadying it, it began to lean.

O’Donnell realized the ladder was going to fall. He reached out and grabbed the nearest handhold – a light fixture hanging from the rafter beams by a three foot chain. He clung to it as the ladder fell out from under him.

O’Donnell was almost as surprised to find himself uninjured as he was to find himself hanging from a light fixture twenty feet in the air. Then a creaking sound drew his attention upward. He could see the three screws attaching the chain to the rafter slowly pulling loose from the wood.

Fortunately, Tammy had kept her head in the chaos. She tossed aside her chart and sprinted over to the ladder. Meanwhile, O’Donnell’s eyes were fixed on those screws working their way millimeter by millimeter out of the beam. He wasn’t even aware that Tammy had righted the ladder under him until she called his name.

O’Donnell stepped onto the ladder with indescribable relief. He made his way down, step by step, his hands trembling. He was greeted by Michelle. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said. “I guess I have a little phobia about bats.”

“Don’t worry about it,” O’Donnell said, just happy to be back on solid ground.

“Did anybody see where it went?” Ian called from under the piano.

They all looked around but Bart the bat seemed to have vanished.

O’Donnell decided it was time for his pie. But when he crouched down to get it, he was startled to discover Bart had beaten him to it. The little bat was lapping at the pumpkin filling curiously. Bart ultimately decided it paled in comparison to a good housefly and took off, planning to relocate back to the belfry. The humans were causing too much of a ruckus in the sanctuary.

O’Donnell thought about what kind of germs bat saliva might contain, then thought about how those screws had been the only thing between him and a painful fall. He decided maybe he didn’t need the piece of pie after all and tossed it in the trash.

He rejoined the others who were excitedly analyzing every second of the brief adventure. Suddenly there was a loud crack above them. O’Donnell looked up and realized the light fixture screws had finally escaped from the rafter beam. Worse, Tammy was standing directly under the fixture. He grabbed her and pulled her aside just as the lamp plunged to the floor and shattered.

“Thank you,” Tammy gasped.

“One good rescue deserves another,” O’Donnell said.

The group finished their chores without further incident and Ian and Ralph took the boxes down to the storage room under the social hall. The following day, Tammy dropped by the O’Donnell residence with a fresh pumpkin pie as a reward for his gallant rescue.

A bit after that, Jose the janitor went into the sanctuary to clean up the broken glass from the fallen lamp. He discovered someone had left a piece of paper on one of the pews. It was full of itemized lists and codes. He didn’t really understand what it was referring to, but it looked important so he put it on Pastor O’Donnell’s desk. Over the next few months it became buried under mounds of paper.

When it came time to decorate the church for Christmas the following year the volunteers had to struggle through without Tammy’s chart. But at least there were no bat encounters.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scott's First Christmas

In the town of Normal, Pennsylvania, there’s a little church at the corner of Wilson and Elm.  Carrie Winslow and her husband Carlos Lopez moved in with Carrie’s parents, church members Del and Karen Winslow, a year and a half ago when the company they worked for went under.  In that time, Carrie gave birth to her first child, Scott. 

In early December, Carrie and Carlos sat Del and Karen down to deliver some big news.  They were planning to go to Carlos’s parents’ house in Cincinnati for Scott’s first Christmas.  The other set of grandparents was eager to get a little time with the lad. 

Karen went pale at this announcement.  It would be the first time Carrie had not spent Christmas with her parents since she was born.  Taking Scott away as well just added salt to the wound.  Carlos…well, Karen liked Carlos but he wasn’t quite in the same league as her daughter and grandson.  Karen put on a brave smile, but the tear that ran down her cheek gave her away.

Carrie saw her mom’s face and quickly assured her they would all partake in every Christmas activity Normal had to offer until time for the young family to depart.  And she was true to her word.  She posted a special holiday calendar on the fridge to keep track of all the once-in-a-lifetime family Christmas events.  

The truth was Carrie’s plan to fill the month with holiday activities was not just for Karen’s benefit.  Carrie wanted Scott’s first Christmas to be perfect.  She had some deep-seated fear that somehow he would miss out on a defining holiday experience that would haunt him for life. However, at ten months old, Scott did not always grasp what all the fuss was about.

So Del and Karen went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.  Scott cried the entire time.

And Del and Karen went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott to a local farm that was offering Christmas hayrides.  Scott spent the ride trying to eat the hay.

Del and Karen also went along when Carrie and Carlos took Scott on a drive to see Christmas decorations.  Scott never looked out the window, absorbed as he was by a talking teddy bear.

Then Carrie and Carlos purchased a seven-foot tall Christmas tree that they decorated with Del and Karen in the living room on a Saturday afternoon.  Scott slept through the whole activity.

Karen dutifully recorded each of these events with her digital camera.  Among the thousand or so pictures she took, she managed to find a dozen where it appeared that Scott was actually in the Christmas spirit.  Those were printed and added to his baby book.

Carrie, Carlos and Scott were scheduled to leave three days before Christmas.  Two days before their departure, Karen set a couple of presents under the tree for Scott.  She sighed and looked at Carrie.  “I guess we won’t get to see him open these.  Take pictures for us.”

“I have an idea,” Carrie said.  “Why don’t we have our Christmas morning right before we leave.  Scott can open his presents from you and Dad then so you won’t miss out.  He can open some of ours, too…we bought him over a dozen things.  There’ll still be plenty of gifts for him to open in Cincinnati.”

So bright and early on December 22nd Del and Karen and Carrie and Carlos and Scott gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents.  For Karen and Carrie it was a bittersweet experience.  Del mostly struggled to stay awake.  The intense schedule of activities had worn him out.  Scott seemed to have a good time opening the gifts, though he was more interested in the wrapping paper than the contents.  And then Carrie and Carlos and Scott left for Cincinnati.

On Christmas Day Del and Karen woke up a bit after nine.  “It’s been a long time since we got to sleep in this late,” Del noted.

“Not since Scott was born,” Karen said with a sigh.

They ate breakfast and opened their gifts to each other.  About that time, Carrie and Carlos called from Cincinnati.  Karen did an admirable job of feigning cheerfulness.

Del may not have been the most sensitive guy in the world but he’d been married to Karen a long time and knew how she was really feeling.  When they hung up he offered to go make her some hot chocolate.  It seemed to help.

About midmorning Karen went into the kitchen to make their traditional Christmas feast of standing rib roast and rhubarb pie.  It was more than the two of them really needed, but both felt the custom especially important this year.  When it was ready she asked Del to set the table.

“Use the good china,” she said.

“Huh,” Del said.  “Another thing we haven’t done since Scott was born.  While we’re at it, maybe we should open a bottle of red wine.”

That elicited the first real smile from Karen all day.

During the meal they found themselves talking about literature and current events.  By the time they finished their pie, Del could tell Karen was actually beginning to appreciate a day with just the two of them, even if it was Christmas.

Then a jazzy song came on the radio.  “Would you like to dance?” Del asked.

“Really?” Karen said.

“There’s nobody to stop us.”  Del stood and extended his hand.  Karen took it and they danced, Del spinning and dipping her through three songs.  She laughed so hard she cried.

“Enough,” she finally gasped.  “I’m not as young as I used to be.”

“You look plenty young to me,” Del said with a lascivious wink.  “Why don’t you rest up while I clear the table.”

Del was loading the dishwasher when Karen called to him from the family room where the computer was.  “Carrie emailed photos of Scott opening his presents this morning.”

Del peeked in and saw Karen’s wet eyes as she clicked through the pictures.

“Someone needs to teach Carlos’s parents how to use a camera,” she muttered.   “These are terrible.”

Oh well, Del thought.  Grown up Christmas was good while it lasted.


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