by Mike Oliver
See you next Sunday, Albert,” said Father Tom with a quarter-mile stare and slight nod, “and have a Happy New Year.” The Father spoke slowly as if choosing with great care each word spoken – even if they were general pleasantries – and to some he came off as aloof, but to Albert (who always looked forward to Father Tom’s masses) the deliberate pattern made Father all the more human. Albert didn’t always know the right English word to say or the proper way to conjugate a verb, and often spoke with the same careful cadence. Because of it, most people talked to Albert like a dense child – loudly and with wild gestures – but Father Tom always spoke to him in a hushed confidential tone, they way two friends share a secret joke. And Albert always left smiling.
Albert volunteered every Sunday at the Church, handing out fliers, greeting parishioners with a friendly ‘good morning’, and performing whatever little odds-and-ends came up over the course of the morning. At the end of the Advent, the Nativity scene on the grass lot was kept standing until the New Year. A few older voices grumbled that it should be taken down Christmas evening, but most people enjoyed the sight of the Baby Jesus, so there it stayed for an extra week, greeting the members of the flock.
On this New Year’s Sunday when the final mass was completed, a timid volunteer coordinator asked if any of the usual helpers could stay after for a few minutes to box up the Nativity. Albert was the only member who came forward, so he did it alone. As always, Albert smiled.
Albert was left with a large cardboard box for the wooden manger, and a series of boxes for each member of the scene – even the donkeys, oxen, and sheep had their own boxes. The volunteer coordinator handed Albert a key to the rectory before departing, telling Albert, “to…lock…the…door…and…put the…key…through the…mail…slot.” Albert smiled and shook the man’s hand.
“Happy New Year.” Albert called out with a vigorous wave as the coordinator hurried to the parking lot, but the man either hadn’t heard Albert, or had moved on to other matters. The man didn’t wave back.
Albert began by boxing up the animals – if there was a respectful order for dismantling the Nativity, Albert decided it would be most appropriate to begin here. He then struck the Sheppard, mindful when placing him in the foam padding, not to break the delicate wooden crook. Next, Albert collected the three Wise Men, who – Albert felt rightly – shared a single box. Finally, Albert was left starring at the stark scene of Mary and Joseph standing over the Child Jesus, their wooden faces filled with pride and with love and with relief.
Albert removed the star that hung above the wooden barn. He dismantled the roof and the three walls, until the new family was left in the open air – the sun was shining, so Albert didn’t think the Baby Jesus would mind.
Sorry to break this up, Joseph, Albert thought, picking up the figurine, but Mary and Jesus need a minute alone. Joseph’s likeness was heavy and solid, about two and half feet tall, and Albert needed both hands to lay it softly to rest in its box. Joseph’s painted-on face seemed to glow against the bright white packing foam in which it hugged so very closely.
“Thank you, Mary,” Albert said out loud without realizing, as he knelt in the grass to lift up the Mother of God. He cradled her in his arms; in the same way Mary is depicted cradling the Baby Jesus in countless reverential paintings. Mary face was in a state of permanent smile. Albert thought of saying the Hail Mary after placing Her to rest, but he simply smiled back.
Albert lifted the Baby Jesus out of the manger with both hands, though the Child was small enough to fit in one, Albert didn’t dare. He held Jesus in his cupped hands, examining His innocent face and all of the intricate details. Albert was thankful for the opportunity to hold the Christ Child, and thought about communion. He placed Jesus in the cardboard box and sealed the top.
It seemed a shame to keep the Baby Jesus tucked away for so much of the year only to bring him out for a small time, but Albert thought it made him appreciate the Nativity more because its physical presence was finite.
It took Albert five trips to lug all the boxes to the rectory, and beads of sweat dripped from his brow as he locked the door. The key jangled as it slid through the mail slot and landed on the wooden floor beyond.
Albert passed the grass lot out front of the Church, now ghostly in the absence of the Nativity. He knew that he’d miss if for the next couple of weeks – he did every year – and every December its reappearance would surprise him with joy. Albert hoped that he wouldn’t be surprised this year. This year he’d remember. Albert walked home, smiling.