In this quiet way Christmas approached. I had put out Emma’s old Advent wreath, and she had made it part of her daily schedule of wandering to pause at the wreath and rearrange all the candles. Each evening she sat in front of the wreath, mesmerized, and watched the flames flicker and dance, and I would watch her through the flames, wondering what other little secrets were hidden in her mind, and whether I cared enough to know anymore. Now I was the vague and distant one, automatically giving generic replies to her generic remarks. If Emma noticed that I had withdrawn from her, she didn’t let it get her down. She was still delighted to see me every day, and told me so. She was grateful for my help each evening, though by now I accepted her gratitude as my due. She was never wounded by my sarcasm or offended by my passivity.
As I avoided the library Emma took to haunting it, pulling books off the shelves and flipping through them. Several times I found books in her drawers or tucked in with the dishes, but more frequently she would take down a volume, page through it and read a few words here and there, and put it back in some other spot. Sometimes she would sit watching TV with a book in her lap, every now and then calling a cheery observation to me as I decorated the tree or cleaned out the old fireplace.
Peggy Harriman had offered to keep half an eye on the house and the sleeping Emma while I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and I gratefully accepted. I would take Emma to morning Mass, but the Vigil was to be my own time.
The preparations of the day -- the baking and laundering and bathing -- had excited Emma, and she hovered at my door as I pulled on my good boots and smoothed my thick wool skirt and knotted my scarf.
“When I was your age, we didn’t bother about pinning our hair up,” she pointed out, watching me twist my hair into a bun. “We kept our hair short, let me tell you! None of this fuss! Let me have a brush, and I’ll show you how you should fix it.” By this time she was behind me, trying to pull out my bobby pins. I twisted in frustration.
“No, Emma! I like my hair this way!” I protested, trying to grab her fingers as she unwound my hair. “I never brush my hair unless I have to; it gets fluffy. Ow! Emma, stop!” She was trying to comb through my hair with her fingers, but now she turned and left the room. I picked up my box of pins that had fallen off my bed and searched for the scattered contents, uncertain if I had offended Emma to make her leave so suddenly. But she reappeared in the doorway holding her own hairbrush.
“Here, honey, I’ll fix you up,” she offered, sitting on the bed and patting the spot next to her. I edged out of reach of the brush.
“How about I fix you up,” I countered. “I’ll brush your hair, Emma, and make you look all nice.”
To my relief she handed me the hairbrush without protest, and I sat behind her and gently smoothed her thinning hair.
“You look nice tonight, honey,” she murmured contentedly.
“Thank you, Aunt Emma,” I replied. “I’m going to Mass tonight; it’s Christmas Eve.”
“Oh, I should get ready,” she cried, dismayed, but I continued to stroke her hair.
“No, no, Aunt Emma, you’re going to Mass in the morning. You’ll have more time to get ready then, don’t you think?” I ran the hairbrush softly over her head, and her shoulders relaxed. “Peggy Harriman is going to keep an eye on the house while I’m gone, but don’t worry about it. You’ll be sleeping peacefully. Don’t you think it’s time to get ready for bed?”
Emma brightened at the mention of Peggy. “I haven’t seen Peggy in so long,” she said. “I ought to go over there and chat. When is she coming over?”
“No, Emma, she’s going to be at her house, but she’ll be watching out for you.”
“She’ll be watching me?” Emma didn’t like that. “I don’t like her watching me. When are the folks coming?” Her hands fidgeted in her lap, and she raised one as if to take the hairbrush.
“The folks will be around,” I said smoothly, pulling the brush softly through her hair. “Don’t you worry. Now shouldn’t you get some beauty sleep before Christmas?”
Emma sighed and got up, and I handed her the hairbrush. She puttered slowly down the hall to the bathroom, speaking quietly to herself of Peggy and the folks and visiting. I sighed as well, overwhelmed by an intense yearning to be by myself at the Vigil Mass, to dissolve into the beauty and the peace of Christmas Eve, responsible for no one but myself.
Tucked against the wall at Our Lady of Lourdes, I tried to shut my mind to the ever-swelling crowd in the church. My back pew, which had been empty when I had slipped into it, was now shared with a man in glasses quietly studying a missal and a flustered young couple with a minute infant sleeping in a baby carrier wedged between them. I ignored them. I wanted to lose myself in the beauty of the church and the quiet of the painted creche on the steps of the altar. Ever since I was a child, Christmas Vigil has been the most momentous night of the year to me: all waiting culminating in the joy of the angels and the gentle smile of the Madonna gazing at her miraculous infant. If I were Mary, I would never have put my baby in a manger for animals to sniff and shepherds to gawk at. I would have held my baby close and warm and kept him all to myself, so that no one could steal him from me and ever cause us pain. I thought of Stacy and her tiny baby sheltered safely within her womb, and a stab of jealousy at her happiness surprised me. Being the oldest, she had beaten me to husband and child, and now would spend Christmas in a happy nauseous glow rather than with a senile, irritating woman, for that, I told myself, was what Emma really was.
The choir coughed, the organ rumbled, and I unclenched my hands as the familiar strains of Silent Night brought a measure of peace and perspective to my heart. I was even able to smile sympathetically at the man when he murmured an apology for being shoved against me by the young couple, who were scooting down to make room for another arrival, an impeccably dressed gentleman of immense proportions. This newcomer removed his hat, settled his stately bulk, nodded graciously down the pew, and reposed, immense and unmovable, a bulwark against further encroachment by latecomers. Before us, a mass of people filled the church; behind us, the standing crowds teemed and shuffled. Soon I felt myself wrapped in the warm anonymity of the crowd, and my troubled thoughts eased and cooled.
At that moment the choir burst into Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the congregation struggled to its feet in a flutter of songbooks and missalettes. The acolytes, lectors, and priests processed in, followed by a press of people seeking the last inch of seating. To my alarm, an usher surveyed our pew critically and beckoned to another usher by the doors. People parted with difficulty, and a walker slowly emerged, pushed by an elderly woman in a turquoise jacket. She shuffled to our pew and carefully parked her conveyance as the massive gentleman grunted and edged against the young couple, who with difficulty were shifting copious amounts of baby paraphernalia down the pew. The man and I looked at each other in alarm as we were squeezed even closer to the wall.
The commotion awakened the baby, who wailed inside his cocoon of blankets. His parents flew into a flurry of action, unstrapping him from the car seat, bouncing him, excavating in the diaper bag for his pacifier. He would not be pacified, but sobbed with increasing fury. As the organ swelled out the Gloria, his mother dropped into the pew and began the laborious process of draping the tiny ball of rage in order to nurse him. The space against the wall grew tighter, if that was possible. I gave up trying to follow the words in the flimsy missalette from the pew, and, as I was almost wrapped in the man’s arms anyway, I read along in his handsome volume.
The priest having prayed the Collect, everyone sat as best he could. The elderly lady, once settled, had not risen from her seat. The large gentleman conscientiously gave her plenty of breathing room, so that the young husband had to deposit the diaper bag precariously atop the baby seat. His wife was wrapped up in the baby and his blankets, and I perched as formally as I could without actually sitting on the man’s lap. And then my phone vibrated in my purse.
Usually, in a situation of this density, I would have ignored the buzzing. But at midnight on Christmas Eve, the only person who could possibly been trying to reach me would be Peggy Harriman, calling about Emma. And my purse was tucked carefully under the pew, under the feet of the nursing mother.
“Please,” I whispered to the man, “please, can you reach my purse? I’m afraid it might be important.” He glanced at me and silently rummaged beneath the seat, straightening a moment later to hand me the prize. As I fished for the phone, he tried to push a lock of hair out of his eyes without elbowing the snorting infant. The baby, outraged at having fallen off the breast, howled in time to the refrain of the psalm, and the mother’s harried efforts to reattach him pushed the man even closer to me, so that he couldn’t help reading the text over my shoulder: Front door open. Emma not in house.
Emma not in house. Emma had gotten out, was in the cold and snow wandering, perhaps in her pajamas and slippers. Where could she be trying to go? A sick wave of panic washed over me, but I fought it down as I dropped the phone back in my purse.
“I have to get out,” I explained shakily to the man. “It’s an emergency, and I need to leave now.”
He and I jostled awkwardly as we rose together so I could move past him. The nursing mother glanced up in irritation, having gotten her baby back to sleep, and whether from inability or disinclination, refused to move. The car seat blocked my passage, and the immense gentleman took up the same amount of space sitting or standing. The elderly woman was oblivious to the confusion by the wall, and her walker blocked the opening of the pew. In dismay I squeezed back past the man, but the pew was hard against the wall and would admit no exit. I looked up at the man, who seemed to be my sole ally, and said simply, “I have to get out.”
He considered me for a moment -- his eyes were gray, shot through with green -- before he surveyed the impassable pew, the tight crowd near the door, and, with a glance at the altar, the progress of the mass. After an almost imperceptible hesitation, he put his missal in the pocket of his coat, swung himself over the back of the pew, and held out his hands to me. Now it was my turn to hesitate, as I imagined trying to clamber around in my skirt and boots.
“Isn’t there some other way?” I hissed.
“Do you want to get out or not?” he inquired coolly, but the corner of his mouth twitched as I climbed with as much dignity as I could muster onto the bench and paused awkwardly with one foot on the back of the pew, pondering how best to get over without kicking baby or mother. I was sure he was laughing at me when I put my hands on his shoulders and prepared to jump. But as I stepped up I felt strong hands on my waist, lowering me gently to the ground.
At this moment the congregation stood for the gospel. The crowd behind us surged forward, bumping against him and knocking my ankle painfully against the pew. Stifling a gasp, I clung to the man for a second, pressing my head against the wool of his coat and inhaling the faint scent of bay rum until my vision cleared. Clasping me tightly against his side, he began to shove through the protesting crowd, carrying me along until we emerged out the great doors into the sharp midnight air, the first snowflakes already swirling around us.