Once upon a time I wandered a bit farther than I should have from my hotel in Bogota, Colombia and found myself in a tiny makeshift shop of an old woman who worked with clay.
I was instantly enchanted by her creations, the intricate details of her tiny donkeys and saints scattered across the folding table. The woman looked to be in her nineties, her fingers were terribly snarled and crooked with age. In my tentative Spanish I asked her if she made them all, gesturing to the figures strew about her. She nodded vigorously, then as if to prove it, she produced a tiny burro from her pocket. I could see the clay was still damp and dark. She began to carve and smooth it, holding it up to show me how she worked the clay with one of her thumbnails. She watched me looking over her wares as I tried to decide what I should take, calculating how many of the delicate pieces I could realistically cart back safety.
I had a tiny donkey in each hand when I noticed the nativity behind her. I was immediately struck by the serene expressions on the faces of Mary and Joseph and on the tiny baby Jesus in his crib of straw. It was rustically beautiful. The lines of Mary’s flowing robes and the magical tilt of her face were peaceful and perfectly wrought. In her sweet face one could see all the wonder and mystery of her faith. The touches of white paint on the trim of her hood and the delicate features of her infant were almost magical in their artistry. It was at once both simple and intricate. This nativity had been clearly made, not just by an artist, but by a woman of deep faith and love. It moved me, touched something in spiritual inside me.
I put down the donkeys and pointed to the nativity. The woman broke into toothy smile. Without thinking about how I would manage to get such a fragile thing home in one piece, I handed her a twenty dollar bill – almost twice the price she had told me. She produced a roll of bubble wrap and some crumpled newspaper and proceeded to wrap each of the figures with deliberate care.
My holy family made it home with me unscathed. Every year since, I have gently unwrapped it and set it out during the Christmas season in a place of honor. Over the years, edges have chipped and some clay has crumbled in places. I am dismayed each year to find more clay dust in the wrappings whenever I unpack the figures. I am the only one who handles it and each year I try my very best to minimize any damage. It has become one of my most treasured heirlooms. It is one of the only things I own that is truly irreplaceable. That is why when I came home that first afternoon and saw the anguish on my mother-in-law’s sweet face, I knew. I knew she had broken something. As much as I silently prayed it wasn’t my beautiful nativity, in my broken heart I knew it was.
She had accidently bumped the table and sent Joseph tumbling to the floor. He had been efficiently decapitated, the clay fragments turning to dust on the hardwood floor. She was devastated, asking me over and over if it had been expensive. I assured it that it hadn’t been valuable, and it hadn’t been, at least not in the monetary sense. My daughter’s eyes were like saucers having learned from a very early age that my nativity was never to be touched. She reached for Joseph’s tiny clay head, visibly preparing for the rage she expected was coming. I looked at my mother-in-law in tears and took one very long deep breathe before dismissing her apologies and telling her reassuringly that it was “no problem Mom.”
After, I fled to the driveway to shed my private tears and call my husband.
He listened, understanding at once the gravity of it all. I believe he must have instantly began combing the internet looking for a replacement sending me pic after pic of nativities that were nothing at all like mine. I told him that was pointless. I knew would never find another like it. I told him how awful she felt. We agreed that he would not to say anything more. The damage was done, it had been an accident and there was no sense in making her feel any worse. I reasoned that at least I still had my beautiful Mary and baby Jesus was still safely stowed away until Christmas Eve. I admitted that we could probably try to reattach Joseph’s head, sans his neck of course, and conceded that perhaps no one would notice his missing hands or nose in dim light. I reasoned, I reassured, I conceded…and I cried.
Standing in the driveway in the bitter cold, tears running down my face, I managed to find a surprising element of humor in the event. Suddenly laughing, I told him that how nativity had survived the trek home from South America, three moves, 14 years of being packed and unpacked, life with two dogs and a toddler and yet it could not make it through the first 24 hours of his mother’s visit. If that wasn’t ironic, I didn’t know what was. The laughter made my heart hurt less as laughter often does.
By the time I went back inside, my mother-in-law and I had both recovered from our grief. I thought the most important thing was that my daughter had her grandmother here for the holidays. I thought about how much that meant and how much more meaningful that was than any Christmas decoration, regardless of how much it might have meant to me.
I looked over to the solitary Mary in her corner and saw that the soft glow of the Christmas lights were casting bands of light and shadow over her serene features. She looked as peaceful as always.
I love my mother-in-law. Sometimes she is a virtual tornado that knows no bounds…but…I love her. I love that she loves me and my daughter with the same fierceness that she loves her own children. She treats my daughter like the treasure she is and lives every moment of her life to better the lives of her children and grandchildren and asks nothing in return. I am completely and utterly certain this will not be the last thing she breaks, but regardless, I am blessed to call her mother and to share my home and life with her. I welcome the peace of forgiveness and the humility of realizing that in the end, things are still just things. It is our people and our moments with them that are irreplaceable.