Outside, snowy and still, little brushes of sound, pools of light, darkness gathered up around the house. Inside, not so cozy, messy, air heavy with yesterday’s argument, and the day before’s. The smell of fish sticks and fries. “Fuss, fussing,” daughter Mary-Ellen says, but she’s five and still hopeful about life, about a puppy (no!), about a baby sister (no!), about suddenly happy parents (probably no! again), even about the troublesome hyphen we, in post birth bliss (me, anyway) inserted in her name.
Such a happy girl, I think of her as arriving with Heaven’s imprint, but that’s probably fading. Still, Mary-Ellen says Christmas is about more than the stocking we’ll hang tomorrow off a knob on the small chest by the front door. She also says, very solemnly, Christmas is about more than the gifts from Santa. I spy a tiny wrinkle of fear shoot across her brow. Santa could be listening.
This year the budget says go to the church pageant down the street, and tomorrow read from my childhood Bible storybook; Christmas morning should slide by just fine with the few things I’ve put on layaway under the tree.
A soft sound outdoors catches her attention. “That was an angel wing tapping the mailbox. We have some mail from Heaven,” Mary-Ellen says in my favorite voice, a baby who can say long words.
“We should check the box when we get back,” I offer, “Now put on your boots and coat and mittens and hat and scarf, or we’ll miss The Grand Processional of Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus.”
And I forget about the mailbox, and Mary-Ellen does, too.
A rather long, unpredictable, marvel of a pageant later, with large stacks of cookies available after the Child and His parents escaped Herod for yet another year, my sleepy girl climbs into her bed. Tonight her prayers are to the point; I’m mentioned, her father, her friends, her aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – many far away, some in Heaven – and, this is new, “Gabriel.”
“Who is Gabriel?” I ask.
She’s too sleepy to answer in a complete word. I hear the car pulling in the driveway. Maybe it will be a little better tonight.
Christmas Eve morning breaks bright on the still shimmering snow; Mary-Ellen is seated in the kitchen with my old storybook in front of her. “Cereal’s all I want, Mommy. I’ve picked out the story Gabriel likes you to read to me.”
“Who is Gabriel?”
“You know, Mommy, what he says, ‘I stand before God.’ It’s in your book.”
So I read and she carefully spoons cereal and milk, no spills, no slurpy noise. I read “Preparing the Way” first, and there’s Gabriel, all right. An angel in the Temple in Jerusalem telling Zechariah good news. John the Baptist’s birth.
Mary-Ellen pleads for more. So I read “The King Is Coming.” Angel Gabriel is now offering more very good news. Jesus’s birth. I imagine Gabriel and Mary on a sunny hillside, maybe seated. Tall grass waving in the breeze. Gabriel too splendid to look at closely.
I ask Mary-Ellen what she thinks Gabriel looks like.
“I know what he looks like.”
When the cat died, my neighbor’s young grandson was so distressed he claimed to be receiving heavenly cat messages. I think about that as I wait for more from Mary-Ellen. But there isn’t any more. She folds her napkin; she carefully takes her glass, bowl, and spoon to the sink. She announces she’s going to have “quiet time” in her room.
But, as I’m running the vacuum and look out the window, there she is, somewhat dressed for winter, weaving through the snow, wearing a look that’s an odd mixture of contentment and determination. By the time I get the front door open, she’s at the mailbox. I step out on the little porch, but a ray of sun blinds me for a moment.
And then I can see she’s coming back, carrying a package and a small, shiny envelope, and she’s smiling as big as she can. “MARY-ELLEN, WHAT-ARE-YOU-DOING-OUT-THERE-IN-THE-COLD? GET-IN-HERE-NOW!”
“Gabriel said I should go. Mommy, I don’t mind having your book for my babies.”
“What?” I sputter. “Who is Gabriel? When did he tell you anything? Babies?”
Choosing to answer only part of what I ask, Mary-Ellen says, “Gabriel came when you and Daddy were fussing, so I said to Gabriel, ‘Come in here with me.’ And Gabriel made himself little, and turned down his blazes – that’s what he said I should call all the light that shines from him. He came to my room and sat on my chair. He’s very nice, and he can be big as a giant or tiny like on top of a pin. He said that.”
“What else did you talk about?”
“Lots of things,” Mary-Ellen says rather airily. “Here’s for you. You didn’t have the flu last week; that’s Christopher making you sick.”
“Who is Christopher?” I ask with a nervous laugh.
“My baby brother. You can go to the hospital to get him right before I start first grade. Gabriel says he’s special to us and special to God. Gabriel made me practice saying all that. I think I said it perfect.”
I can only say, “I’m sure you did,” because I have a funny, funny feeling that she is right. “What’s the package doing here? It’s too early for the postman.”
“Gabriel sent that last night. Open it, Mommy.”
In the shiny envelope is a short note informing me this is another copy of my treasured Bible storybook because our son will want one for his children. It is signed with a big beautiful G – the way my mother used to sign things. G for Ginny, then G for Grammy.
My mom died of cancer three years ago this Christmas.
My husband has the day off; I smile as I hear him come up behind me. “Whatcha got, Honey?” I know he means the package, but I have a better answer than that.
Christopher Gabriel – I think that’s a fine name for our second child, but probably a little too long for a hyphen.