The Nativity Scene
My mother was forty-four years old when she got pregnant with me. She had already carried eight children; I was her ninth, born out of devout commitment to the Catholic Church and, I think, a lack of television. My Irish-Italian parents didn’t use birth control. They actually had a TV, but it didn’t work. It was a large, square television set in a faux wooden box, pedestal legs and a smooth, tabletop surface.
My father made several attempts with the antennae. That was 1981. We lived on a farm, a vast thousand acres with so many prime prospects to settle our new antenna. He placed it above the big ridge closest to the ocean—no reception. He placed it on the hill behind our house—no reception. He placed it atop the hay barn—no reception. Finally, it lay adjacent to the grass in the field, an isosceles triangle incapable of bringing reception to our living room. Yet we kept the television to hold the nativity scene, the tiny family we adored each Christmas season. The Virgin Mary, the Three Wise Men, the baby lamb and the angel above and of course, darling baby Jesus nestled in his straw looking so cozy and loved. All in a manger just like the sheep down at our barn. Every year we pulled the set out of the Christmas bin and gently placed the figurines above our unused television set: the perfect perch for our sacred family.
I think of my mother carrying that last baby. Carrying me. I wonder how she felt, eight children in, bringing another into the world, If she hoped for some runway herself, some life as a woman again. But instead she had me and then became chastised by the curse of cancer some seven years later, when she was fifty-one. Cancer in the eighties was a death sentence; cure wasn’t part of the diagnoses, just treatment and prolonging life. I wonder if she felt short-changed. I wonder if she was afraid to die or if she anticipated meeting her creator.
I may carry her genetics and her freckles and her fingers and her love of a good party, but I don’t share her religion. I do, however, carry her nativity scene. I take it out of the bin each December and place it on a blank shelf in our bookcase, nestled below paperbacks. I’m not even sure if my husband of sixteen years realizes I display this small tribute to my mother, to my heritage, to my faith. My faith that I don’t practice. My enchantment with the figurines, the angel and the doves and the beautiful blue veil on the mother and, of course, the baby.
There is a picture of us, her and I, sitting in the Russian River where my aunt and her family spent summer vacations. The water is dark green; the sun is bright, and our eyes are squinting. My mother and I both are plopped down on our buns, She is forty-six; I am two. We are both smiling. I look at this woman and I think, I could be friends with her. I could sit in the river with her. I could swap mothering stories with her.
I am forty-four years old, this year, the same as she was that year she carried me. I wonder about her. I want to ask her what her pregnancy was like, how she felt becoming a mother again, what that first Christmas with me was like. This year I am drenched in thoughts about her as I embark upon the same years that were the last years of her life.
There’s a picture we have. I am three or four; she is dressed to the nines, and we are sitting in front of the fireplace, the nine red stockings lined on the mantle above our head. She’s wearing a scarf and her red lipstick. I don’t see it, but I know the nativity scene is just off to the right on the dormant TV. We are getting ready to go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. She is smiling, and I am safe in her lap, a young child enamored with Christmas and with my mother. I don’t know yet that she is going to get sick and die. I haven’t been burdened with her illness, and she hasn’t either; she is alive and the matriarch of our holiday festivities.
At thirteen years old I climbed the stairs of our church behind my mother, shining, gleaming maple wood carrying her dead body inside. I stared straight ahead, not daring to catch the eyes of neighbors or friends or relatives who filled the church for her final sendoff. When I walked out of the church that brisk November day and the hearse carried my mother to the cemetery, I left the church behind. Quietly, layers of Catholicism peeled away—first the volunteering, then confession, then the Sunday services, and finally any belief at all.
Once you lose your mother, your life is never the same. It is a before and after moment. I grew up in that very instant, that nanosecond when her last breath was taken. I know that it was the defining moment of my life, and I don’t wish it upon anyone. I say I don’t calculate the years, but I am acutely aware of them, the marker that time is in our lives, the reminder of my own mortality. I yearn to pass the age that my mother died, but I don’t dare wish time to speed up. My oldest son just turned thirteen, the age I was when she died. I look into his eyes and see my reflection, and I mourn the little girl who grew up quickly that day so many years ago.
I fear not being here, not having enough life left to witness graduations and marriages and births. I am afraid to think about how old I will be when my oldest son turns eighteen or when my daughter graduates eighth grade, or when my youngest boy gets married. I pray that my children will always be in the before, the time when I am alive and well. I pray that they will stay in the world of childhood, free of fear and loss and sadness. I pray that my husband will not ever have to hold my hand as I die. I pray even though I don’t go to church, and I pray to the figurines when I line them up on my bookshelf.
I look at the Virgin Mary, her eyes adoringly gazed upon her baby, the angel above with wings spread to protect the new life below. A portion of the baby’s manger is broken off, but that’s simply a sign of its years of use and makes it no less beautiful. I’m glad my father never got that antenna to work and that we kept the TV.
Lisa Witz is a writer, teacher and entrepreneur. She grew up the youngest of nine children on a sprawling cattle and sheep farm north of San Francisco. She left the small town to feed her wanderlust, living in Tokyo, Granada (Spain), and the Pacific Northwest. She now lives near San Diego near the beach with her husband and three children.