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You can go home again - at Christmas.

"And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David's town of Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David" (Luke 2:4).

It's dangerous to go back. You see things. You begin to wonder.

You see the hill you used to slide down during those long Christmas vacations. It seemed so steep then. You remember part of the thrill of the slide was the perceived danger of its dizzying height. You can still feel the little jump you used to get in your stomach when you hit the dip at the bottom and you can hear the warning your mother gave you as you swept out the door in two pairs of long underwear beneath your husky-style blue jeans, thickened thighs brushing against each other: "You be careful going down that hill now. It's steep and there's rocks across the field from it."

You never had to tell her you were going sledding. She knew. And you guessed she knew, too, how every time you slid down that hill you tried to make it across the field to the rocks. How you took longer and longer running starts, clutching the sled tight against your chest, flopping down at the last possible moment, holding your toes just clear of the snow and keeping the straightest possible path for the biggest rock across the field. You never hit the rocks. Never had to test your theory that if you really got close and it felt dangerous you'd just roll off the sled and nothing would happen. You were older when you found out the theory was wrong.

Now you see the hill and it's really a gentle slope, a tiny blip on a placid landscape. The rock pile, though, looks more dangerous and harder somehow, if that could be right. You begin to wonder: How many mountains out of molehills have I made in my life? How many times have I misjudged the hardness of the rocks at the end of the field?

You see the old lady who always used to snitch on you, and she smiles broadly and confidently. Slowly she stretches out her hand and puts forward her cheek for a kiss and you hesitate, thinking: She hasn't forgotten a thing. She winks when she pulls away from you, confirming, in case there was any doubt in your mind, her memories of you.

She remembers the time she had to call your parents because you were smoking behind the school with two of your best friends who had finally gotten you to try it. She remembers the times she called your parents to let them know you'd snuck out of the yard to play with the neighbor kid when you were supposed to be grounded. She remembers the time she had to call your parents when you carved your initials into the church pew with the cross of your rosary. Even the sister who caught you doing it didn't call your parents, but she did.

You remember how you even prayed that she would wind up in some terrible torment the scale of which only God could muster. You see her now, bent over and twisted with terrible crippling arthritis, each flat-footed step deliberate and painful, each bending of the elbow or opening of her hand, inscrutable misery. You wonder: How much does God listen to the prayers of children?

You see the old hotel that had rooms no one ever stayed in. Its dull tin exterior was a landmark strangers couldn't miss: "Turn right at the hotel -- the big tin-covered budding." The date of its erection is still stenciled in black against a peeling white background in poster letters high up at the top -- 1865, under its name, Shilo.

As a kid, you stood in awe of something inspired by the Civil War and built at its conclusion. You never admitted to anyone how you used to touch the tin siding, running your hands across it, venerating it in the same way you saw the old men of the parish kneel on Good Friday, slightly embarrassed, before the speck of wood said to come from the true cross.

Now you remember how you were 18 when you first heard your parents talk about seeing the hotel being built in 1935 -- the end of the drought years. "1935?" you asked. "How come it says |1865' on the sign under its name?" And your parents can't tell you why. No one in town could tell you why. "Probably a joke," someone says. Another says: "Could have been just a little confusion." And another says: "At least it made it seem kind of historical." And you wonder how many of the things you believed so easily and wantonly could be reduced to whim and pleasure and sham if only you knew how they came to be.

You see the cemetery next to the church Some of the gravestones in the older section are listing badly now. Some preside over unusually grassy depressions as if -- as if the roots of grass had reached down, cracked open the coffins and now fed extravagantly off the rotting remains. You know better. The sunken graves cradle water for the grass. But you can't get the image out of your head of long thick roots prying open coffins.

You stand next to the grave of a great uncle you never met who died somewhere in the South Pacific during World War II. He was 19. You remember all the times you stood out in that treeless field in cassock and surplice under the hot summer sun, sweating and wanting the priest to get it over quickly. With both hands clasping the cross you leaned forward, taking the weight off first your right foot and then your left. (No one could ever see under the cassocks anyway.)

Cassocks and pious faces tend to cover what we're really thinking.

You remember how the candles blew out in the cemetery, even on the most still days, and the old ladies' superstition that the number of candles that went out foretold the number of minor apocalypses to come -- how many would die next. Each funeral was a cause for speculation. "Hattie's been sick a long time. That first candle must have been hers. Handy Joe (named, characteristically, because he couldn't -- in the words of his wife who said so one day at one of the bars -- ("fix a darn thing") hasn't been out of the house for the past three weeks. He could be the second candle."

And the next funeral confirmed the superstition -- even if all the guesswork wasn't right on who was taken and who was left.

Now you walk over to the place your parents have told you will be your grave. A gift to you last Christmas, the deed came in a brightly colored and altogether seasonally cheery card, "With all our love to you, our son." You wonder if T.S. Elliot understood the weight of his words: "Were we led all this way for birth or death?" ("Journey of the Magi")

You see the piece of the old side altar someone left as a stand for the tabernacle after the renovations, and you remember this was the place the Christmas crib scene was always set up. You run your hand along the nicks in the soft wood molding near the base and remember the sister who yelled at you when you bumped the altar with a tree stand she had told you to place there.

What an odd woman she was. You knew from her face and most of the things she did and said that she began each day with an inescapable feeling of doom that was only compromised by an unfailing sense of duty. She marshaled whatever strength her faith gave her to "do the right thing -- no matter what," no matter how she felt. That is what she taught you, even as she stuffed pieces of toilet paper under the statues of the sheperds to take away the slouches the original craftsman had given their backs.

She let you put down the manger. Even though plaster straw painted yellow was already in the manger she let you lay in some real straw. This never struck you as odd then but only right. She held onto the figure of the Christ child, holding it up against her chest so you wouldn't see. Its face until midnight Mass. She took the figurine home with her -- "to clean it," she said, "to make sure no one peeks at it before its time." You wondered then why he got to see baby Jesus early. What made her so special? You wonder now what it takes to hold the Christ child against your chest. If anyone can do it.
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Title Annotation:meditation; Christmas
Author:Szews, George W.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 24, 1993
Previous Article:So many people waiting, hankering.
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