12 Epiphanies

ix. It’s seldom what we expect.

Kate found a Christmas tree propped against her door when she returned from shopping for the feast on Christmas Eve.

“Found this in the alley. Heard you were having a party. Thought you could use it. –A Neighbor”

She hadn’t planned to get a tree–environmental reasons: Trees belong with their roots in the earth and their crowns in the air. But since it had been found abandoned, and since it had been delivered here in a gesture both thoughtful and kind, she hauled it into the apartment and set it up in a corner.

She strung popcorn and cranberry garlands and found lights and decorations in the donated boxes.

The apartment smelt sweet, spicy, and deliciously acrid. It smelt like Christmas.

Near midnight, the tree decorated and a fresh batch of cookies out of the oven, Kate sat to plan the meal for tomorrow. She didn’t know what people’s dietary restrictions and preferences would be, so she planned a vegan feast, with plenty of gluten-free dishes. Vegetables were remarkably accommodating!

Kate had no idea what to expect the next day.

She certainly hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors would come dressed in a full raccoon costume.

Nor that Bertha would wander up in her nightgown and bunny slippers.

“Are you feeling all right, Bertha?” Kate asked, wondering if she should call her son.

“Yes, yes, dear. Quite well. Quite merry. Merry Christmas, dear.”

And Bertha began to dance and hum to Bing Crosby.

She hadn’t expected that one of her neighbors was Ishaan, the artist she’d spoken with at the center earlier that week, nor that he’d be one of her guests, along with a fashionable young woman about her own age.

She hadn’t expected that by the time the meal was ready, the apartment would be filled with happy, dancing people, strangers who were neighbors who were in the process of becoming friends.

She hadn’t expected she’d pull out a tiny bell from the box of decorations and call her guests to dinner, using the same words her father had used to announce the serving of every Christmas feast:

“Supper is on!
Hunger begone!
Let’s feast with friends
Until the year ends!”

Everyone contended that they’d never had such a fine meal, and no one, not once, asked where the meat dish was.

They shared stories and memories. They laughed and joked. They sat in that comfortable silence that comes after a good meal.

She hadn’t expected that the guests would bring presents, but they had, each and every one, so after the meal, they gathered around the tree.

“I hope you like it,” said the raccoon. “Just something I found while out foraging one day!”

But it was a real gift that her neighbor had brought her, not a raccoon’s idea of a joke: an infuser and a bottle of pine essential oil, “to keep the spirit all the year.”

“Now you relax,” said Bertha, after the presents were opened. “The host never does the dishes!”

So Bertha and the fashionable neighbor cleared up, while Kate relaxed on the couch, listening to more stories.

As her neighbors began wondering about coffee, desert, and tea, the doorbell rang.

Kate hadn’t expected, when she answered it, that she would learn the identity of the neighbor who had started this all, the one who’d left the box of decorations beneath the bulletin board.

“I hope I’m not late,” said Geeta, Kate’s next-door neighbor, whom she was meeting for the first time. “I just finished up at my son’s and thought I’d swing by, since I said I would come.”

“You’re just in time for desert,” said Kate.

“Oh, the place looks lovely!” said Geeta. “So much better than all those bangles sitting in a box in my closet, yes?”

She hadn’t guessed that it would seem that her neighbors would never leave.

The meal had been eaten and cleaned up, the presents had been opened and admired, the coffee drank, the tea sipped, the cake eaten, and still, they lingered.

Perhaps no one wanted to end this feeling of community they had crafted together on a Christmas day in the city, when each of them, otherwise, might be feeling very much alone.

She hadn’t guessed that, even after they decided on a late-night walk in the cold Christmas air, and each one went down to their own apartment to put on their winter clothes, and they met up on the stoop outside the building, then strolled and raced along the waterfront, that they would return, breathless, tired, and happy, all of them together, to her apartment, once again, to continue the celebration.

And she certainly hadn’t expected to find their landlord there, dressed as Father Winter, handing out a last batch of presents to his tenants.

He gave a box to each of them.

A coupon for a month’s free rent!

“It’s a Christmas miracle!” chuckled Stefan, and each one shared what they’d do with the godsend.

Kate hadn’t expected any of it, not the strangeness, nor the weird joy, nor the happy feast, nor the sudden friendships, nor the feeling of community they created, which maybe, had always already existed, and they had only to discover it.

When, after all the other guests had finally left, and she discovered Ishaan curled up, peacefully asleep on the loveseat in her study, she realized that, Christmas means “all are welcome,” and she had never expected to discover that.

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12 Epiphanies

viii. We have an impulse to share with others.

Kate still faced the question of what to do for actual Christmas, the day itself. With the apartment feeling more cheerful, she didn’t want to spend it alone.

Perhaps she could volunteer. She imagined herself, wearing her bright green sweater and the cap with the pom-pom, serving in the line of a soup kitchen, which, of course, on that day would be offering a savory feast. “Have seconds,” she’d say, with a smile, and the old person (always, in her imagination, it was a grizzled old man that she served) would smile back, his eyes twinkling. She could feel the spread of warmth.

But when she called the Salvation Army, they had no slots for volunteers that day. Neither did Four Corners. Nor United Way. Nor Kitchens Not Borders.

“It’s this way all over,” said the director of Our Home. “We see plenty of volunteers over the holidays. It’s nice, of course. Not complaining. But it’s after the holidays we need help. You really want to contribute? Come back some dreary Friday in February when everyone’s forgotten about us.”

Kate promised she would, and she marked down her calendar on January 25 to call the director back so she could schedule some times to help there.

But that still left her with this Christmas Day without a plan.

One of the cooking channels broadcast “A Very Holiday Feast,” and she thought it would be fun to cook a spread, with cranberries, wild rice, roast veggies–the works.

Her apartment building was bound to have other lonely souls–Bertha, for example, if she wasn’t spending it with her son. Or what about that nice anonymous person who’d left the boxes of ornaments?

She could do something similar.

What if she put out notices on the bulletin boards on every landing, inviting neighbors to her feast?

First she wrote a thank you note to post for the kind person who’d left the decorations. Then, she drew up six colorful invitations, with pictures of dancing butternut squashes, singing cranberries, smiling onions, and frolicking heads of garlic.

“Come to a Feast!”

When she checked the next morning, she found a note scrawled in blue felt-point pen beneath her thank you note.

“You’re welcome,” it said.

In the same hand-writing, with the same pen, on a different scrap of paper, were the words:

Take a moment to breathe. You will only have this breath once. But the moment in which you experience this breath will connect you to every moment of breathing in and breathing out. Breathe. It is all you need to do.

And the same blue pen also wrote “I’ll be there!” on her feast-invitation. Underneath that, in red pen, someone else had written, “So will I!”

It looked like Kate was going to be cooking a feast for her neighbors. This Christmas, she wouldn’t spend alone.

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12 Epiphanies

vi. Bertha’s Story

In the evening, Kate found her neighbor Bertha, dressed in robe and slippers, wandering through the courtyard square outside their building.

“Are you all right, Bertha?” Kate asked.

“Oh, I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘all right,'” replied Bertha. “I feel fine, really fine, dear, though I think something is not right with my meds. Either I took them, and I wasn’t supposed to, or I didn’t take them, and I was. But I feel fine. Just fine.”

“Maybe we should get you home,” Kate said. “Is there someone we can call?”

“Yes, yes,” Bertha replied. “My son. But there’s no rush, really. It’s just… it’s such a beautiful night. Let’s just stay out a little longer. Christmas spirit.”

Bertha began to sing.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
, hehe.”

She had a beautiful contralto. Kate watched her breathing, looked in her eyes. She supposed a few more minutes outside wouldn’t hurt. The cold air smelled like chocolate from the truffles factory down by the wharf, and the hissing of steam from the vents and clatter of the street car offered a rhythmic accompaniment to Bertha’s performance.

Though it’s been said,
Many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas
–did I ever tell you about Christmas of 1967?”

Certainly, she hadn’t, seeing as this was their first actual conversation, if you could call it that.

“I was young. I was a young nurse. It was my first year as a nurse. Oh! That year! That was the year that…” Bertha chuckled. “Well, my son came out that year. A doctor. Never married. That is, he never married me. He was already married. Mrs. Doctor Clive Barton. But oh, my. Clive. The times we had! Well, my son is proof of that. Living proof. What was I saying?”

“Christmas of 1967?”

“Oh, yes! Clive. 1967. Well, that was my first year as a nurse. So of course, I got the holiday shift. Christmas and New Year’s Eve, both. Do you know? It was, maybe, the most meaningful Christmas I had. Ever. People died. Two people, on my watch. Babies were born, and I was called in to help with one of them, we were that short-staffed, being Christmas, and all.”

“That must have been terrible,” Kate said.

“It was wonderful,” said Bertha. “It was Christmas, so it was already magical. I don’t know if you realize this, but there are some times when the veil tears, and you can see through to the other side. Christmas is one of those times. Death is another. And birth is a third. And to have all three on one night? Oh, and love! Let’s not forget love. Dr. Clive was on duty that night, if I remember correctly. Oh, there were no veils that night. Everything softened. It softens in death, you know. And in birth, too. And of course, Christmas. And love, goes without saying. So it all softened, and I was there, I was young, I was in the middle of it. Did you say you were going to take me home?”

“Yes, I’ll take you, Bertha,” Kate replied.

“And call my son?”

“And call your son.”

“And fix me tea?”

“Sure. I’ll fix you tea.”

“Good. I think I am done telling stories now.”

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