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Glories stream from heaven afar

It is Christmas Eve. I park my car close to the vestibule, not really sure how early one should arrive for church service. It’s been too long since I’ve done this, too long since I’ve last sat inside my childhood church. When I was a kid, I attended the parochial school that squats on the other side of the parking lot. I had probably skinned my knee at least once in the spot where I parked the car. In fact, I think this the spot where we lined up for windsprints during gym class.

My great grandfather had been a church elder, my great grandmother made red Jell-o with bananas and Cool Whip at least once a week for a funeral or a Ladies Auxiliary meeting. After my mother divorced my stepfather and we moved to the bad end of town and I had to go to a scary school where even the second graders exuded a worldly tough quality and the teachers were beaten and jaded and called every child ‘you’ instead of their names, I called my grandmother in tears and told her I hated school and it hated me. By the end of the week, they had paid my tuition so that I could attend their private school, although at the time, they told me that there was a special rule that allowed the grandkids of church elders to attend for free. I suppose they didn’t want me to feel bad because my mother couldn’t afford the school, but really, I wouldn’t have cared. I was too worried about the fact that I was the only kid in the entire school whose mother was divorced and who had to explain to her friends that the guy with her was her boyfriend, as though they were sixteen and going steady.

I remember when they built this church. I remembered walking through it before there was a floor, when there was dirt instead of pews and a puddle where the alter would stand. I sat through two years of church services in the school gymnasium, on powder blue folding chairs that locked together and needed to be snapped shut and stacked onto long carts and shoved back under the stage after services so that we could play kickball in there on Monday. I was at the new church dedication, everything smelling vaguely of formaldehyde and feeling new and cold and the carpet still squeaked against our shoes. You could look through a dedication book and make judgments about everyone because it listed what they had paid for. There were names associated with each of the 26 long pews and 26 short ones. Certain families made it a point to sit in same pew each week, as though recognizing by sight their own. My grandparents gave one of the short ornate benches that the pastors sat in during hymns, or, I decided, if they got tired during a sermon. They collected money from us at school chapel each week too, so I guess I helped buy a stained glass window of Jesus welcoming the little children and also the simple but sturdy baptismal font. I can still remember carrying my weekly quarter, the feel of it, the weight in my palm. I didn’t get an allowance, but man, I always could get a quarter and never even thought about spending it on something else, like a candy lipstick or something. It would have been stealing from God.

I had wanted Esteban to come to this service with me, but he refused. He is a strict atheist and felt that to participate in the service would be disrespectful. I mentioned that he hadn’t had such a stance when he participated in the baptisms of two children, but he says that it is different and should the need arise, he would take those little girls to church as he had promised. He had apologized to me, apologized that he couldn’t do that for me. I had wanted to say then that I wasn’t just going to the service to reestablish a quaint Christmas Eve tradition but rather because I missed my grandmother every single day and this is one place where I thought I might be able to find a sense of her again. I could have said this, could have played this card, especially because I’m normally the one that deals with death so stoically and he is the one who gets distraught about the emptiness, the one who cannot talk about someone who has passed without getting a tight throat and wet cheeks. I know that he would have come if I had told him that I wanted him to be strong so that I could allow myself to be fragile, but I was angry about his faulty logic and also could not bring myself to invoke the memory of my grandmother, could not even get to the end of the word ‘grandmother’ without losing my composure, so instead I said nothing, said ‘Fine’, said ‘Whatever’, said ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore’ when I was tired of listening to his convenient excuses about faith and dogma.

I get out of the car and close the door, locking it with my remote, and then scuffle my dress shoes across the squeaky packed snow. In sub-zero temperatures, such as tonight, I really don’t have to worry about slipping. Everything is frozen and as stable as Styrofoam. I penguin-walk into the carport and remember how my grandfather always dropped us off under the carport in winter, so that we wouldn’t need to brave the arctic winds whistling between the buildings. I weave my way through the early crowd into the cloak room, could have found my way there in the dark. After hanging my coat, I skirt the crowd and take a bulletin from the usher, who then directs me back to a box of tiny candles with cardboard collars to prevent wax from dripping down. This is a new thing for Christmas Eve service. They always had candles at the end of every pew, but this is the first time I’ve been given a candle as a member of the congregation.

When I was a child, we always sat on the right side of the church. I’m not sure why that was, but it might have been because it was closer to the pulpit and therefore would offer a better view. I swallow hard when I realize that the last time I had walked through those doors was my great grandmother’s funeral in 1996, so instead of going to the right side, I go to the left side, choosing a pew where there is already a single lady sitting at the aisle. I walk in from the other side and then slide into the middle so that there will be room for more on the aisle. When I used to attend Christmas Eve services with my grandmother and sometimes my mother, I remember the services being very full. This is the second service of the night, but the first one had coincided with the last quarter of a very close Packer/Vikings game that would clinch the division title, so I expected the 7:00 service to be very full. I sit there, looking at the faces which are vaguely familiar, and read the movie screens in the front of the church, advising us to turn off our cell phones and remembering a disturbing number of congregation members who are in Iraq, including Eric, the grandson of my grandparents’ best friends. I am surprised because Eric and I are the same age and I usually only think of service men being in their early twenties. Eric and I used to hang out together and wait for our grandfathers to finish their church business. Sometimes, even when my grandfather wasn’t there, I would see Eric outside on the swings by himself after school, and I would keep him company because my other option was to go home to an empty house. He was Luke Skywalker, I was Princess Leia and the monkey bars were our Death Star.

The church bells chime, signaling the beginning of service. The vestibule isn’t even half full, mostly retirees, although some families and younger couples with parents. The pastor walks up. Because I’ve read the bulletin, I know that this is a substitute pastor and that they have a vacancy. They’ve had a number of pastor changes since Pastor Beulow left, the guy I think of as my pastor. He was a self-righteous yet charming white-haired pastor who always exuded a sense of regality and had been with the church since the mid-Sixties. His wife was a prude and their kids were all screwed up. I think while I was in college, there had been some kind of shake up and he either left in a huff or was asked to leave, and took a lot of the congregation with him to a new church. He had always been a fabulous public speaker, and very charismatic, sort of a Lutheran Bob Barker. There was no snoozing while Pastor Beulow was waving his arms around, looking in his vestments like a moth fluttering around the microphone. He always liked me, and on those rare summer Sundays when they would let someone in the congregation call out a hymn request, he would call on me, even if I was up in the choir loft. I wondered where he was now and decided that he must be four hundred years old. Even still, his cadence reading from Matthew would have been lovely to hear on this night.

I check the organ loft and see an old frail white-haired man sitting there and think about how weird it was to not see Mr. Nehring sitting there. My grandfather used to joke that they should have just made an organ bench in the relief of Mr. Nehring’s hindquarters. Mr. Nehring was a teacher in the school and was the first non-family member to tell me that I had a better than average singing voice. He picked me and five other kids in our children’s choir to be angels one Christmas and we got to hold little candles with cardboard circles, candles that they lit with actual fire that illuminated our faces as we flanked the pulpit and sang about hearing angels on high, our mouths forming perfect circles as we sang our Glorias, not knowing what ‘excelsis deo’ was, exactly, but suspecting that it meant that you sang a word for a very long time. Mr. Nehring also had the dubious distinction of calling me out in the All School spelling bee finals when I spelled the word ‘color’ C-O-L-O-U-R. He said ‘Incorrect’ and the entire audience of adults and PTA members groaned at the ruling, knowing that it was the British spelling. I was very very embarrassed, as they had started with the easy words to knock off the younger kids and bam, I was out on a baby word? How could I have gotten that wrong? And why was it wrong? Was I so crazed with stage fright in front of this audience that the word had grown extra vowels? Then I had to stand up there until it was a battle between the 7th and 8th grade finalists. It was little comfort that I would have been out with ‘democracy’ which was the next word that I would have gotten. However, the next day, I marched up to Mr. Nehring with my copy of ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ and showed him that see, this is why I thought it was spelled ‘colour’ and I was right, I wasn’t a stupid baby who didn’t know how to spell a first grade word. He sniffed and said that yes, but he didn’t think I knew that it was a correct spelling, he thought I was just making a mistake. I flip through the bulletin and realize that the white-haired old man IS Mr. Nehring and this makes me happy, because at least there is still one element of my childhood memory still in its rightful place.

The handbell choir walks in, chiming a memorized song until they take their places at a long table in the front of the church. I have never really liked handbells, mostly because they seem to chime strangely and it makes my brain fuzzy. And the gloves they wear are strange. I’m not sure if there’s a musical reason or if they are protecting the bells or what. However, this time, I enjoy their rendition The First Noel and appreciate how much counting must be involved. This is why I’ve never made a good musician. The counting is distracting and I end up memorizing everything rather than thinking about how to make it work.

It is the first time the congregation gets to sing and the song is ‘Joy to the World’. Soy to the World, I think, because we’ve spent most of the morning watching Food TV. My voice rings out once again under this roof that my grandfather helped build and I swear I sound like I’m eight years old. In every other environment, I am a straight mezzo-soprano with a tendency toward the brassy Broadway sound, but between these pews, my high register locks tight and I can produce pure crystalline notes the caliber of a Disney heroine. Behind me, a middle-aged woman wearing one of those sequined Christmas sweaters. She is also singing in perfect operatic pitch, and soon we have both gone from producing tentative churchy notes to full bore choir-level projecting. It’s a dirty soprano fight, finished only in the fourth verse with ‘Wonders and wonders of his love’ when her voice goes flat with exertion and I hit straight and true. Immediately after, however, my cold gets the best of me, so I match her decrescendo and remember to keep my ego in check.

The service is nice. The substitute pastor reads from Luke instead of Matthew and then there is some adult choir music and then the handbell choir again. I like these diversions because I am having a hard time keeping control of my emotions, remembering how the happiest moments of my childhood are connected to this place. When there is music, I don’t think about the empty space next to me and how my grandmother would have been sitting there. We sing ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ which I sort of hate, except it did fit in with the Nativity theme, I guess. It just always reminds me of a campfire song, like Kumbayah or something. Pastor Beulow would have never allowed such plebian fare, favoring traditional organ-heavy songs.

Then a choir solo by a sullen blonde girl with limp hair and an upturned nose that gives an unfortunate piggish appearance. Ah, ‘Oh Holy Night’, my favorite of all religious Christmas songs, one that leaves me breathless and unable to speak. The first time I ever heard this song, I was sitting here in this church (on the right side though) and one of the daughters of one of my favorite members of the church did it as a solo. They were a musical family, and the father went by the nickname Tinsy, laughed a lot, and looked like Richard Dawson. He passed away some time ago and is buried not too far from my grandmother, musical notes winding around his tombstone. However, the evening I first heard ‘O Holy Night’, the choir was in the loft (not in the front of the church, which would have been considered ‘showy’), and Tinsy and his wife were sitting in the pew in front of us, his chest swelling with pride as his daughter wove an austere picture of love and awe, in perfect pitch and tempo. We could not see her, just hear her voice float down as if from on high, as though you could believe that angels had voices. My arms were covered in goosebumps. My mother, a master at suppressing her emotions, had her eyes closed, as overwhelmed by the music as I was. I remember being jealous, then, jealous that anyone could make a sound that beautiful, a sound that could make even my mother lose control, if only for a moment.

I quiver for a second, over this memory, over how happy my grandmother had been to have not only her great granddaughter but also her granddaughter accompanying her to the service, but then the music begins and I can think instead about how the tempo is too fast, the soloist singing in an operatic style with far too much vibrato. She huffs the words like she is going into labor, and instead of teneramente, the whole thing is sung loud and strong like a battle song, like the March of the fucking Valkyries. Soon, she is slurring the words in order to accommodate her vibrato, which is stomping around the room in Doc Martens threatening to spray paint an old lady’s fur coat, and she’s skipping words in favor of more grace notes. It’s the kind of singing that sounds good because she’s maintaining pitch but in reality, she’s an operatic Christina Aguilera, and sadly enough, would have benefited from listening to Celine Dion’s version a few times. With these annoyances, I’m in absolutely no danger of being swept away by memories of that first sweet ‘O Holy Night’ so I relax. I made it in the door, I made it past the song, this was going to be just fine, enough to staunch that ache, enough to hold me for another year at least.

Then, the ushers get a flame from the Christ candle in the advent wreath and walk down the aisles so that we can light our little candles from it, passing the flame down the pew as we sing ‘Silent Night’ to the giddy peals of the organist. But when the ushers get to the back of the church, the house lights go off and there is only the holy halo of candles reflecting up into our faces, each flicker filling the giant space with a golden glow. I feel my voice cut out then as my throat clenches and I start to lose myself in the moment and struggle to recompose but then the organ goes soft and we can only hear the imperfect voices of those around us. It is absolutely beautiful, so beautiful that I can’t even stand it any longer and it washes over me, leaving me destroyed. Utterly destroyed by that moment, by the adulation of the Christmas miracle, by the history of this place, by the sound of belief that could be so strong as to carry a centurys old tune in a darkened church, destroyed just as I am destroyed when someone tells George Bailey that he is the richest man in town.

Somewhere in the midst, I hear my great grandmother’s shaky yet earnest alto, still a step behind and a half a key flat. In the glow of the tiny candles, I look around, unable to speak, unable to breathe, knowing that it had been any number of old ladies around me, ladies whose voices were spent by years of laughter and gossip and cookie recipes. My candle reflects against my wet cheeks and I try to wipe my face without drawing attention. Then I stop trying to sing, stop pretending, and just breathe slowly, listening to the voices, listening to that voice and the history around me. It is Christmas Eve and it feels as though I’ve just come home.

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