Emma wiped sticky lime juice off her fingers before she answered the phone. She suppressed a sigh as she heard Cheryl, her oldest daughter, on the line.
“Have you decorated for Christmas, yet?” Cheryl asked after the initial chit-chat.
Emma turned her back on the plate of hot rice and vegetables before her, and leaned wearily against the counter.
“Not yet, dear,” she answered.
“Mom it’s the middle of December—“
“It won’t be the 15th until next Wednesday.” Emma said.
“That hardly makes a difference.” Cheryl turned off the Christmas music playing in the background. “I know it’s going to be hard for you without Dad this year.”
“I really need to eat dinner, dear, it’s getting cold.”
“Mom, Dad loved Christmas. He would want you to celebrate. The kids are going to come over this year and they’ll be disappointed because the house isn’t decorated. They always love how pretty the house is every year.”
Emma wondered if Cheryl realized how much effort it took to get the house in that type of shape every year. Sure, Cheryl had a whole army of children to make her paper chains and cotton snowmen, but she must realize how hard it would be to get the Christmas tree up alone, and to string the lights. It was hard enough this year with Ethan gone.
“I’ll talk to you later, dear.” Emma said with a touch of motherly firmness that stopped further argument. She put down the phone and returned to squeezing fresh lime-juice over her dinner. It was a trick she had picked up from her daughter-in-law, Maria. She put lime juice on almost everything now.
Late Saturday the doorbell rang when Emma wasn’t expecting it. She opened it to find her son William on the doorstep with a Christmas tree in tow.
Emma’s fingers fluttered up to her forehead. “What’s this?”
“We thought you could use a little Christmas cheer, and some help getting a tree,” he said.
Emma peered around him to see her bright brown-eyed grandchildren bouncing to come in and surprise grandma. She laughed and invited them in. Maria came trailing in last with a mug of hot wassail.
“Feliz Navidad,” Maria said. As usual her dark hair was beautifully arranged and she had chunky jewelry dancing along her thin wrists.
“Merry Christmas and thank you,” Emma answered and gave her a hug. She had a hunch that Cheryl had complained about Mom to her older brother, and they had come up with this little plan.
“The idea was our little Marcus, truly.” she said. “He wanted to help his abuela.”
William asked her where the Christmas decorations were, and Emma directed him to take out the nativity boxes, the wreath for the door, and a box full of Christmas linens so she could decorate the table. It wouldn’t be as elaborate as when Ethan was alive, but it would do.
The little children were so excited to decorate another Christmas tree, especially for grandma that she couldn’t help but be touched. They gave her little ornaments they had made themselves: picture frames made out of popsicle sticks. Five grinning faces smiled at her from the branches of real pine-tree.
She stopped them as they tried to get the nativity out. “I’ll set that up tomorrow. Leave it be.”
Before they went home William insisted on reading the scriptures as a family. They decided on Luke, and Emma listened as William read.
“And there was one Anna, a Prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, in which departed not from the temple but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.”
Could she live without Ethan for eighty years?
Imagining such a thing brought such a sudden rush of grief that she trembled with emotion. She hid it from her grandchildren, but she knew by the way Maria herded the kids out of the house that she had noticed. William left her with a bear hug, and Emma sobbed softly on his shoulder a few moments before he left.
“Will you be alright? I can stay or Maria…” he asked.
Emma shook her head. “I n-need to b-be alone.”
He nodded. “I’ll call in the morning.”
Emma shut the door.
Emma lifted each figurine of her Nativity from their boxes. She unwrapped each piece from its packaging, and then set it on the table. She hesitated to withdraw her fingers from each figure, as she set them upon the table, as much as to insure their steadiness as to caress them with affection.
Each piece brought back a tender memory to her. Ethan had given Mary to her the first year they were married, poor and living in his parent’s basement. She thought it rather depressing that she stood alone on their table that Christmas, a symbol of the poverty and simplicity of their situation.
She remembered the warm Christmas the next year, living in a city far from family where Ethan had recently gotten a job. The strong lines of the Joseph figurine curved ever so slightly in a protective stance. He seemed to represent to her the unity of their relationship. The safety and security they had achieved over the last year.
The gift of the little Christ child came as she was pregnant with her first child, her strong William. That Christmas was especially tender, as she often pondered the look of love carved into the gentle Mary’s face, and the joy of an innocent and new born babe.
She smiled as she took out a little lamb. Each one represented the births of her other children. The wise men were bestowed in times of wealth along with their camels. A shepherd stood for a new home, an angel for the death of her mother. A stable, a star, and other miscellaneous animals reminded her of a lifetime of Christmases spent together.
This year she was alone.
Tears rolled into her collar as she set the pieces in good order, but she didn’t organize them as precisely as she usually did, fingers lingering over precious memories. Each memory only reminded her more fully of her loss. Ethan had died several months earlier from a brain tumor. She’d hoped for one last Christmas together but he had faded too fast. The lack of a figurine this Christmas would be symbolic of her husband’s death.
The nativity felt wrong when she looked at it. In previous years, she made a habit of clearing a space, a little hole in the design in preparation for a new figurine, a new memory, a new Christmas. She hadn’t made a space this year. It seemed the hole hadn’t taken its place upon the table but in her heart. With a heavy sigh she headed off to bed.
That night she dreamed that she was walking down an empty street. Buildings made out of rough off-white stone surrounded her. The road was made of the same stone, but worn smooth from use, and covered with a fine layer of dirt that crunched beneath her sandals.
The morning sun warmed the air, and she walked through the streets until she saw a large structure ahead that looked like the ancient Jerusalem temple. She stood and wondered at it until she saw an older woman pass by her. She wondered why she took her notice when so many other people were wandering by now.
She wore a worn grey dress with a white shall over her head. She was old, very old. Her shoulders hunched over thin legs that hardly seemed strong enough to support her. Yet the old woman moved with a surprising energy. Emma followed her, watching as she approached a couple with a child.
She was close enough now to see the old woman’s face. The angle of her cheek bones were sharp, and her blue eyes sunk into sagging folds of skin. Yet, there was something piercing about those eyes, a light that told of a continuing lucidity and intelligence.
“God be praised!” her trembling voice carried across the air. “I’ve lived to see the child who will bring redemption to those who have waited upon the day of his coming.”
A thin, trembling had smoothed the downy infant hair, as she smiled down into the babe’s face.
The parents looked surprised, but the mother turned the baby so the woman could see him.
“The day of rejoicing is at hand!” the woman cried.
The old woman’s eyes met Emma’s over the head of the child, full of joy and hope. A thrill shot through Emma, emotion stirred in her chest, and she reached out to touch the child too. Then she awoke.
Emma glanced at the clock and found that it was 6 am. As her hands worked through her morning routine her mind lingered on the dream. It wasn’t until she sat down to read her scriptures after breakfast that it came to her.
She had dreamed about Anna the Prophetess. William had read the story when the children came to decorate the tree. She turned to the story in her bible. Anna had seen the Christ child and rejoiced despite being a widow for many years.
Emma still felt the strength of her voice. “The day of rejoicing is at hand!”
There hadn’t been much to rejoice about recently with Ethan gone, but as she read of this woman’s example, she felt hope. What kind of redemption did the babe in Mary’s arms signify to Anna? Christ redeemed everyone from their sins. Emma had a feeling that a woman who prayed and fasted to God all day in the temple really didn’t have any earthshaking sins.
Perhaps Anna would feel happiness for the fact that Christ made it possible for her to be reunited with her beloved again. The grief Emma felt over the last month was still so close, so real, and the emptiness inside her was still there. Yet, she did believe like Anna. She knew she would be with Ethan again. Why didn’t she feel more peace? Shouldn’t she be more excited to celebrate Christ this year instead of missing Ethan so desperately?
That night Emma made herself a cup of cocoa and curled up in front of the fire. The Nativity scene lay before her. The memories of Ethan were pleasant in the warmth of winter fire. Though, she ached for him to be next to her on the couch.
Her thoughts focused on the little babe in the manger, and the face of Anna in her dream, so full of joy. She wanted to feel the happiness and warmth of the season she had felt in years past. Capture a little bit of the childish excitement she had seen in her grandchildren’s faces when they decorated her tree.
She wanted to find comfort in the memories of the past instead of grief. She spoke no words in her mind, but pictured putting her sorrowful heart into the cupped hands of her savior. With only the crackling of the fire filling the silence, the warmth on her skin slowly spread around the heavy places around her heart. The heaviness in her chest was replaced with lightness. She saw Anna’s face in her mind again full of joy, but also with the light of love.
Then Emma’s heart filled with love as the quiet moment continued, feeling grateful for her savior and life full of happy memories with a wonderful husband. In that moment she could feel Ethan’s love surround her like a hug. He would wait patiently until they could be together again.
Their Christmas traditions should continue. The nativity shouldn’t go without a new figurine this year or any other year. Tomorrow she would find a statuette of Anna the Prophetess.