While cleaning out my mother’s house, I found Jesus.
The ceramic baby Jesus from the manger we put under the Christmas tree every year was nestled in a ratty cluster of rubber bands in a drawer in the dining room hutch, which was also full of crocheted doll clothes, dozens of florists’ cards (HAPPY BIRTHDAY! LOVE, YOUR SON), melted and warped taper candles in faded ’80s pastels, and fistfuls of elementary school photos of smiling cousins now long in the tooth.
With five other drawers to open, and three full stories of house to be dismantled, I already needed a nap, a nip, and a Motrin.
Eventually, my sister and I unearthed, examined, embraced, reviled, cried over, laughed about, packed up or pitched 42 years’ worth of family possessions into growing piles for donation or, more likely, a landfill.
It was time for Mother to move. Dad had been gone a decade, and the old gal’s knees were starting to give out. She could no longer easily climb the two flights of stairs in the East Boston apartment my parents first rented in the summer of 1970. When we three kids left home, we left a lot of stuff behind. I had no intention of lugging my KISS posters into my new life as a single adult, but I liked knowing they were in the attic in case I was ever feeling nostalgic.
My father presided over a workshop teeming with tools and could not resist buying tantalizing items “As Seen on TV.’’ For her part, it seemed my mother never met a throw rug, valance, vase or place-mat she didn’t like.
Nevertheless, we felt lucky that a fresh start, not grief, led to the daunting task of parting with their gizmos and gewgaws. The specter of sorrow would be ever present, however, as we prepared to shut the door one final time to the place that had nurtured us for nearly half a century.
But the heartache would have to wait until the heartburn subsided. We had a three-bedroom apartment, a full attic, and a full basement to clear in four weeks. And with the holidays bearing down fast, I was determined to find the manger, Mary, Joseph, wise men, and animals to reunite with that junk drawer Jesus when the job was done. I could already picture them under my own Christmas tree.
We found a lot of ungodly stuff first — misfit stuffed animals and dolls my father no doubt bought on the cheap from the back of the station wagon owned by a neighborhood peddler nicknamed “Hot Gus.” (To be clear, that’s “hot” as in “fell off the back of a truck.”)
There was also an airplane made out of beer cans, a phone in the shape of a yacht, a bottle of cologne shaped like a pickup truck (Avon calling!), and all the bridesmaid dresses we’d sworn (truthfully) that we’d wear again. Mother insisted there was a sane explanation for the caboodle of Tupperware stuffed into two black trash bags at the back of the master bedroom closet, but who had time to stop and chat? The manger was still at large.
That’s not to say we did not stop to talk, cry, or laugh so hard that we cried, over a lot of very sentimental things: our long-lost Barbies, our Christening gowns, my father’s jockey licenses from his career at the race track, and, of course, piles of precious family photos. Those, too, were in bags in the master bedroom closet, and for three nights running, I shot up in bed in the middle of the night in a cold sweat convinced that I had sent the snapshots, not the Tupperware, to the landfill.
When all was said and done, there were no heirlooms worthy of “Antiques Roadshow,” no piles of cash between the mattresses. And nothing unexpected that would send us to a shrink. Mother did warn us about some dirty jokes Dad had hidden among the insurance policies (what’s the statement he was trying to make there?!), but we’d seen worse on Facebook that afternoon.
It was merely a mountain of blue-collar furnishings and middle-class flotsam that reflected the life of an average, fun-loving family — albeit one over-served by the Christmas Tree Shops.
Then the last, dusty days had come. The apartment was empty. We found all of our Christmas decorations, but no manger. And just when I began to despair, certain that it must have met its end in the landfill, I reached behind a stack of old doors and pulled out a box with black Magic Marker lettering: MANGER.
We all screamed with delight and, carefully unwrapped the contents, and found — to our utter shock — the entire Holy Family, complete with matching baby savior.
Alas, junk drawer Jesus was a stray who needed a home of his own.
So, with the last load of keepers stowed in our cars — including, appropriately, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” album — it was time to close the front door one final time. I thanked Mother for the wonderful life we’d had there, and the tears flowed long after the house, the street, and the neighborhood had disappeared from the rearview mirror.
Shortly after, when Mother was settling into her new place and had acquired a piece of furniture for her new dining room, she looked at the four big drawers and wondered aloud, “What will I fill them up with?”
“Nothing!” I shouted. But then I thought better of it.
The woman is comforted by accumulating stuff. I might as well give her a meaningful jump start.
So, Baby Jesus is now ensconced on a springy bed of fresh rubber bands in his own new drawer, awaiting the arrival of plenty of company, not the least of which will be a note card attached to the inevitable bouquet of flowers from my brother: HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY! LOVE, YOUR SON.
Fingers crossed they come with a vase. For the first time since Nixon was president, she’s going to need one.