It is the first week of December 2005, and I am shopping at the Commissary grocery store on the local military base. It’s only a few miles from the mobile home park, where we live in a double-wide. We purchased it just over a your ago, taking out a loan that my father-in-law cosigned. There are fruit punch stains on all the carpets left by the previous owner, and although we have a heating system, we still wear two layers of clothes on most winter days. Grocery shopping is grueling and often takes all day. My daughter has finally started walking confidently, but she doesn’t understand the need to stay with me, or move her body out of the way of other shoppers, so she sits in the cart, and her 9 month old brother rides in the fleece sling carrier on my hip.
As I finally reach the checkout counter and pay for the food and diapers I remember that the baby, Daniel, needs socks. For the last year he spent most days in one-piece sleepers with closed foot coverings, but they’ve grown too small now. And since the winter temperature in our house is 70 degrees at best, he needs socks. The Exchange, a small department store available to active and retired military members and their families, is just a walk across the parking lot, so I place the groceries in the car and continue with the babies. In the store it doesn’t take me much time to find children’s socks, and I pick up a large package of 12 pairs of tiny white tube socks. Then I find an open corner in the back of the store and nurse Daniel until he falls asleep.
The oxytocin hit comes a few minutes after I begin nursing, bringing with it a desire to do something special, something different for the Christmas season this year. Last year my daughter, Ida, still didn’t understand Christmas. She was physically capable of opening presents, of course, but she didn’t understand that that was she was supposed to do. She had only a few presents, but Christmas morning dragged on for several hours, and we had to keep coaxing her back to the tree and the presents. It was a small letdown, not getting that adrenaline rush when she opened a gift. But at her birthday party in November she had torn the paper with gusto, and although she still seemed confused by the presents themselves, she loved unwrapping them.
But that’s not what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown, and now that CPS is out of our lives I want to be very intentional about this. I know that, inevitably, kids will look forward to the presents and sweet treats more than advent wreaths and candlelight services on Christmas Eve, but over time and as they grow they will recognize that these events help their build their excitement. Someday I want them to know that solemnity and celebration can coexist in the same moment.
Right now, though, while they’re still in diapers, unable to fully communicate, that sounds like pie in the sky. Wishful thinking at best. It’ll probably never work out that way – not in this family, in this world, where a mother desperate for help is put on trial for admitting she needs support, and a father can carry an ugly, brain-wasting disease in his body for his entire life, only to pass it on to his son, who may have, in turn, passed it on to his children as well. Nevertheless, I’m going to try. I’m going to be intentional and precise about teaching my children about the world, and faith, and love, and Jesus, even if I mess up. When I do mess up, I’m going to tell them I messed up, that I am imperfect, that some days I just can’t hack it, because they’ll have those days too. I’m going to teach them that God wants their love and their loyalty to his teaching, not their perfection, and that he will use their failures to bring them victories.
But what does that look like right now, while I sit here in the corner of the kids’ clothes section of the Exchange, nursing Daniel, and knowing that I only have $20 left in my wallet? What could I possibly do to begin teaching my tiny kids who don’t really even talk much at this point, that God loves them and has a plan for them?
When we walked into the Exchange I noticed a display of Advent calendars. These were the kind that came in a cardboard box shaped to look like a house or gingerbread men, with perforated windows that a child could open each day to find a piece of candy.
When I was little my mom would hang a large poster of cute woodland animals playing in the snow and perforated windows that, when opened, revealed a rhyming poem about woodland animals excited for Christmas.
It’s that kind of short, daily action that I needed for my kids, but I didn’t want the candy or the cute little poem about nothing of substance. There’s nothing wrong with those things, but they weren’t going to serve my children’s need to see the connection to Jesus’ birth, let alone Jesus’ death. There was no tool or learning toy for what I was looking for. I’d have to do it myself.
It took me three laps around the store with the kids until the idea hit me. I went to the tiny craft supply section and grabbed a big ball of red yarn, then to housewares for a pack of wooden clothes pins, to art supplies for red and green construction paper, and finally back to the baby section, where I grabbed another pack of the same tiny white baby tube socks I’d come for in the first place. At home I typed up a poem about Christmas and Resurrection Day, with each new couplet beginning with the next letter of the alphabet. Then I cut the construction paper into squares and pasted each couplet of the poem on its construction paper frame. I tucked each piece into one of the little white socks, strung up the yarn like a clothesline, and fixed each sock in order, 1-25, to the clothesline.
It was ugly. Probably the ugliest advent calendar ever made, but I was proud of it anyway. In a way, it represented a big step forward in my faith and it gave me the confidence to know that I could and would be able to raise my children, teach them our faith, and perhaps, someday, feel like a good mother.
My daughter is now 20 years old. My son, the baby I was buying socks for, is 18, and my third child, a boy born in 2010, is 13. We still share faith practices together on a regular basis. We have never upgraded our Advent calendar. It symbolizes a moment when God offered me hope in the aftermath of trial and in a season of survival mode.