Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus natus hodie!

Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born!

Well, the actual day is tomorrow, but as I won't be coming on that day, I would like to wish you all a very merry and blessed Christmas now! I hope you all have beautiful, very blessed Christmasses, my wonderful friends! I'll be praying for you all at Mass tonight and tomorrow morning!

And here is a gift for you all - a chapter from my book, "No Greater Love". I hope you enjoy it!

Just to give a brief overview of the story and characters, so you aren't completely lost, as this chapter comes about halfway through the book: Meg is a 14-year-old girl growing up in London, with her widowed mother, and her good friend Jimmy and his parents. Her father's cousin's family, the Lathrops (Mr. and Mrs. Lathrop, Beth and her husband Billy, John, Eliza, Peter, Henry, and Ann) are visiting them from their home in Yorkshire.

Christmas, 1901

Mum and I were very busy the next few weeks with cleaning and preparing for Christmas. It seemed that we were busy from dawn ‘til dusk, but the beautifully clean house and wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen certainly made up for it.

Finally Christmas Eve arrived, and with it Mr. and Mrs. Lathrop, Eliza, Peter, Henry, and Ann from the farm, Beth and Billy from their little homestead, and John from his school. Jimmy had come home the week before. He looked so different, so much older and taller and more serious. I was almost afraid of him – he just didn’t seem like our Jimmy anymore. How I missed the freckle-faced little lad who had been the dear friend and confidante of my growing-up years. Even though we were both only fourteen, I felt that we had both aged exceedingly since we were twelve and I often sighed for the old days. Why did we have to grow up so fast?

Everyone gathered at our house for dinner around 6 o’ clock, and then we sat in the living room and talked for a few hours. There was a lot of news to be shared – John was doing very well at his art school and his professors all greatly admired his work; Billy and Beth had been able to buy another cow, the milk from which was going to help bring in some more income; Alice informed me that a boy at school was “dead gone” on Eliza, who denied this with a laugh and a toss of her pretty head; Mum told them I had received the highest marks in my class for English this term; and Mrs. Lathrop told us about a singing school some people in the village had begun.

An hour before Midnight Mass we all retired into our rooms to change into our best clothes. Beth came into mine so we could do each other’s hair, and we laughed and talked and teased one another. It was just like old times, aside from the growing bump under her dress.

That, however, was one thing we talked about very excitedly. Would it be a boy or a girl? Blonde like Beth, or dark like Billy? We were sure it would be tall, and we knew without a doubt it would be marvelously good-looking. Beth said she would like me to come and stay with her for a few days when it was ready to be born, and I gladly agreed.

We arrived at church half-an-hour before Mass so we could pray and listen to the choir singing all the old carols. As I knelt between Mum and Beth, I closed my eyes and pictured the little stable I had been building in my heart. All through Advent I had been thinking about how to make a welcoming home for my Infant King to arrive in at Midnight Mass. He would be sleepy – it was His first night in our world, after all – so I had strove to be patient and kind to everyone, even to those girls at school I found especially trying. No storm of rage was going to disturb His slumber if I could help it.

But when He awoke, He was going to want to laugh and smile and see something pleasant, so I had tried to always have a smile on my face, a good word for each person I spoke to, a story or remark that would make them laugh. No one wants to be around someone who is always somber and dreary, so I hoped to bring a smile to the face of Jesus by endeavoring to bring a smile everyone I saw.

Our Lady had been the best of all mothers, so to honor her I had tried my best to be gentle and caring to everyone. That fall and winter Sister had put a few of the older girls in charge of helping the little ones into their coats before we went outside for recess or to go home, and I was always smiling and attentive with my small charges. Before Mass each morning, too, I had waited to help old Mrs. Macready up the icy stairs of the church. And like St Joseph, that most privileged man, I tried to take the best and most loving care of those dear to me.

But the Three Kings had brought Our Lord fine, rich presents, and I wanted to follow suit. How well I knew, though, that I had nothing worthy to offer. Even all the good deeds I had tried so hard to practice were nothing but the straw of the stable in comparison with His infinite glory. I knew that it was only through His eyes of love that they transformed into something beautiful and worthwhile. There was only one thing more I could think of would be big enough to give Him, and that one thing was myself. I gave it gladly. Myself was certainly not very much, but I knew that to Him I was more precious than all the gold and frankincense and myrrh in the world. To Him, I was a precious jewel, and so I offered this jewel to Him wholeheartedly.

The high, pure voice of young Frank O’Neil, the most gifted singer in our choir, suddenly rose above the soft tones of the organ and perfectly expressed what my heart was saying at that very moment.

“What can I give Him,

Poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd,

I would bring a lamb.

If I were Wise Man,

I would do my part.

Yet what can I give Him?

Give Him my heart!”

“Give Him my heart!” the choir echoed.

“Give Him my heart,” he finished, and those words, sung in that hauntingly lovely melody, echoed in my soul forever.


The next morning we all arose in time for the 9 o’ clock Mass of the Angels. As I entered the church, dipping my fingers in the holy water, I noticed Jimmy already there, with his eyes tightly closed and lips moving in prayer. I smiled, for I knew he had also attended the 7 o’ clock Mass of the Shepherds, and my heart rejoiced to see him spending so much time in prayer.

Mass was truly overflowing with beauty and happiness, and it spilled into the hearts of everyone there, judging from the merry greetings and brightly-colored packages everyone exchanged after it was over. The vestibule was filled with people, all laughing and talking and embracing.

My arms were full of gifts from my school friends and I almost dropped a few as I made my way over to where Fr. Wiseman and Fr. Lewis were greeting people.

“Happy Christmas, Meg!” said Father Wiseman, laughing as I disentangled my hand from the gifts to shake hands with him.

“Happy Christmas, Father!” I said. “And happy Christmas, Father Lewis!” I added, turning to him. “This is for you both.” I put the packages on the floor so I could hand them the basket of cakes, cheese, and jelly I had been carrying on my arm.

Father Lewis took the basket and looked under the cloth.

“It looks wonderful, Meg!” he smiled. “All this food – ” he gestured to four other baskets piled high with delicacies – “it will make me fat!”

I laughed and then turned to Alice, who had run up to tell me it was time to go.

“I’ll see you at dinner!” I said, and then ran home with my cousins through the lightly falling snow.

When we arrived home, Mum, Mrs. Lathrop, Beth, Eliza, and I all went right to work in the kitchen, while Mr. Lathrop, Billy, John, and Peter set up all the chairs and tables we owned in the living room, and Alice and Henry took care of Ann and arranged the gifts around our Christmas tree.

The Windhams, Father Wiseman, and Father Lewis all arrived right at half-past noon, and it wasn’t long before we were sitting down around the tables and eating all of the wonderful food we had prepared! There was a big ham, a turkey stuffed with oyster dressing, bowls of yams and squash, collared greens and spinach and corn, cranberry jelly, mincemeat pie, plum pudding, and three different kinds of cake. Father Wiseman joked that if he ate any more, he wouldn’t be able to get up from the table!

So then we all moved into the sitting room to continue enjoying each other’s company. As everyone arranged themselves around the room and continued their conversations, I sat down at the little desk in the corner and was rather quiet for some time. I hadn’t really spoken to Jimmy the night before or today, aside from the usual “Hello” and “Happy Christmas”, and I was quite unhappy about this. I didn’t know what had happened to spoil our old camaderie, but something certainly had changed and I didn’t know what to do about it.

Now Jimmy was standing in a corner solemnly conversing with John about school. They had hit it off very well, as I had expected. Jimmy seemed to be avoiding me and almost afraid of me, too, and that hurt. I sighed.

“Meg, take this tea pot and offer some to everyone,” said Mum, who was contentedly bustling between the kitchen and the sitting room. She leaned closer to me and whispered, “I do declare, I always forget how much I enjoy a party!”

I smiled and took the teapot and approached Mrs. Windham and Mrs. Lathrop, who were busily talking. They greatly enjoyed each other’s company, just as I had anticipated. After serving them each a cup, I approached the boys in their corner. I giggled, for a thought had just struck me.

I came up to them and bowed. “Would you young gentlemen like some tea?” I demanded in a pompous tone. “It is the very best quality, straight from China.”

The boys took the hint and made their best bows, accepting tea very politely.

“You still like your joke, don’t you, Meg!” said Jimmy.

Thank heavens he hadn’t lost his Cockney accent, at least!

“Would you believe this young lady used to ask me if I would like a drink of water and lead me to the pump, then proceed to shove me into the trough and pump water on me?”

“I can believe it!” laughed John. “I’m sure you heard about her drowning?”

“Yes, I heard about it,” said Jimmy, his face getting rather grave, as it always did when he thought of that experience. He whacked me on the back and quickly grew jolly again.

“Let’s get those kids into a game of something,” he said. “Could we go outside?”

“I’ll ask Mum,” I said and ran off to fetch her, smiling happily. Perhaps the old Jimmy was not gone entirely!

“Certainly you may go outside!” said Mum. “Just bundle up and take good care of the little ones.”

“Oh, we will, Mum,” I said. “Don’t worry! Alice, Henry, would you like to outside?”

Naturally they did, so I helped them bundle up, with the clumsy assistance of Jimmy and John and the capable assistance of Eliza.

Finally we were all ready, and we ran outside. It had stopped snowing and I picked up some of the freshly fallen snow.

“Perfect!” I exclaimed, rolling it into a ball, and threw it at Jimmy, hitting him smack in the face.

“Why you little…” he exclaimed, and soon had one returning to me. John quickly came to his aid and Peter, of course, wanted to help the big boys.

“Help me, girls!” I exclaimed as I was pelted with snowballs from the three boys. Alice ran over to me and hurled handfuls of snow at the boys, most of which missed them. Eliza surprised us all, however, by throwing very accurately. Seldom did one of her tightly-packed snowballs miss its mark.

“By George, we need you on the cricket team at school!” said Jimmy to her. “You’re a better shot than half the fellows there!”

We stayed outside for a good hour, and then came trooping in with rosy cheeks and joyful spirits. Mum brought out the hot cocoa and popcorn, and we spent a lovely evening by the fire.

As I sat beside Beth, leaning my head on her shoulder, I looked at all the faces around me just as I had done a year and a half ago. How long ago it seemed!
There were Mum, Mrs. Windham, and Mrs. Lathrop talking together. I was happy to notice that Mum’s face was a little less tired and sad than it used to be, despite her dark brown hair showing a few threads of gray.

Mrs. Lathrop was as cheerful and sweet as ever. Her golden hair was a little grayer than before, and she had a few more lines on her face. Ann was seated on her lap, cheerfully eating popcorn.

Mrs. Windham still looked so young and pretty, and her curly golden hair puffed out without the least sign of gray. All three mothers were all chattering and laughing and obviously enjoying each other’s company.

Near them sat Mr. Windham, Mr. Lathrop and Father Lewis. Mr. Windham’s face was looking a little older and more tired, but his carefully combed dark brown hair and mustache showed no gray.

Mr. Lathrop’s beard was becoming a regular pepper-and-salt, and he was as quiet as he had ever been. He smoked his pipe and listened to Mr. Windham and Father Lewis, who was very much interested in botany, talk about plants, and added a few words here and there.

Father Wiseman listened to them and gazed into the fire. I saw him looking around the little circle, and I got the feeling that he was doing the same thing I was.

Beside me was Beth. Her sweet face already was taking on the softened look of motherhood and she looked so womanly, dear Beth – only eighteen! On her other side sat Billy, a tall, thin, dark-haired young man, handsome in his own way. He was holding Beth’s hand, and sometimes they would look at each other in a way that made me nervous, curious, happy, and sad all at once. They were in love.

On my other side was Eliza. She was knitting, listening to all the conversation she could hear from her seat, and commenting on it softly. Her red-gold hair fell in big loops down her back. Eliza was now twelve, and was really becoming very pretty.

Alice sat at my feet and gave me bits of popcorn. She was now almost eight and not nearly as quiet and shy any more. She was laughing with the boys right now, her big blue eyes dancing, and I could tell she was having a wonderful time.

The boys lay on the hearth. Peter was lying on his stomach, whacking his heels together. He was a sturdy little boy of ten with a very brainy head on his shoulders, and just as full of lively spirits as he had ever been.

Jimmy sat in front of the fire, looking a little pensive now and then as he gazed into it. I wondered what he was thinking of. He was becoming very handsome, I thought, and looking so much older. It made me sorry in some ways, though – I missed the little Jimmy so much.

John’s hair was just as fiery as ever and his face just as freckly and cheerful. He would be seventeen soon, but still looked and acted very similar to the lad of fifteen I had known. It was nice that at least one person hadn’t changed.

Henry roamed about and solemnly talked to people. Now he had struck up a conversation with Father Wiseman, who was really doing an admirable job at keeping a straight face.

How happy I was! All the people I loved best were around me, and Margie was surely watching us from Heaven. How hard it was going to be to leave them all!

I looked into the fire and sighed a little, and was afraid I would cry. How could I ever leave them all? Courage! I reminded myself. I felt so happy and full of love for all these people that I felt as though my heart would burst and that I could be good very easily. Do you know that feeling? It’s lovely, but it always makes you want to cry.

What a wonderful Christmas that was! I think it might have been the best I’ve ever had.

1 comment:

ssberri said...

Ivy, I very much enjoyed reading this excerpt from your book and would love to read more. I am very impressed by your writing! I love the part where you decribe preparing your heart as the manger for baby Jesus...I had never heard it described in such a way. May we all always give ourselves to the Lord so that we appear most precious in his sight. Happy Christmas!