The manger was my mother’s. But I hadn’t thought about its history for a long, long time, because the figurines — Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus and the wise men and the sheep and the cow and the horse and the angels — are mine, bought over decades, all porcelain, all white, the small, wooden manger the sole thing that was hers.
It’s in the background of a picture I keep on my desk all year long. Funny how I didn’t notice this until the other day. The photo shows my mother, my mother’s mother, my newborn son, and me. It’s the only picture I have of us together, so I keep it close.
It was taken Christmas Day or Christmas Eve in 1969. My grandmother is holding my baby, who is 4 weeks old and dressed in a red- and white-striped Santa sleeper and hat. His hands are clenched, like infants’ always are, and he is looking at me. My grandmother has her arm draped around my shoulder, as close to a hug as she ever gave, and my mother is on her other side, her left hand touching my grandmother’s white sweater. And there to her left is the manger.
My mother is 44 in this picture and I am 22. Mother, daughter, granddaughter, a holy trinity. Did I know I was so blessed?
The manger witnessed this. But it is wood and glue, inanimate. If it could talk, though, what would it say? What would it remember that I do not?
An angel hangs from the peak of the manger’s roof. She was my mother’s, too, part of the stable, attached to a thin bent nail, which, remarkably, has survived the packing and unpacking of decades.
My mother’s hands touched this angel. She’s not porcelain, nothing so fine. She is more girth than grace and though she has painted golden curls, and a painted blue gown, and great gold wings and arms outspread holding a banner printed with the words, “Gloria in excelsis deo,” she looks more human than heavenly.
What would she tell me, if she could talk, about this picture and the rest of the day and all the Christmases between then and now? “Do you know what I know, angel? Or do you remember more?”
All the years and all the planning and lists and to-doing and people coming and going and gift-giving and singing and laughing and crying and talking. All the Christmas Eves and Christmas Days that are set apart from the rest of the year, framed like museum art by holly and twinkling lights and bells and festooned trees and eggnog and hymns and parties and cookies and song.
Gone, the specifics of these days, all erased by time.
If the angel could talk, would it be different? Would she bring everything back? Would I hear again my mother’s laugh? My baby’s cry? Would I get to relive what happened after the shutter clicked 43 years ago, after my grandmother took her arm away?
Who else was there that Christmas? Did my father take the picture? Or my husband? What about the next year and the next and the next? Why is it that time, even time that is flagged as important, is like money spent, gone, who knows where?
I see my grandchildren opening the little windows of their Advent calendars searching for the Elf on the Shelf, counting the days until Christmas. And I remember Rosemary teaching me “The First Noel” the December we were in third grade. And I remember feeling angel hair for the first time, spun glass that Mrs. Jablonski swirled around her tree. And I remember the piano in the corner of their living room and the big Bible on the coffee table.
But that’s it. The film breaks here and there’s no going backward or forward to the next room or to the next second. There is only this loop.
I will take pictures again this Christmas. I will wrap and read and bake and sing and think, once again, that I’ve captured it all.
But it can’t be captured. And if the angel could talk, that’s what she would say.