Angel Star: A Christmas Story
By Marilyn Walker
|This story is dedicated to my mother, Mary, and to all the angels who left us before their time. You were so deeply loved here, and your gifts brought much light into the world. We were blessed to have known you.
If you are listening, Mom, I understand now.
"If anyone will have it, they will," Lucy thought as she headed across the parking lot toward the Sincerely Yours store, its windows filled with the lights and sounds of Christmas. Passing Michaels with its baskets of wooden stick reindeers and wreaths to paint, walls festooned with ribbons and garlands and candy toys set just at child's-eye level, she mused, "Ah yes, the Christmas season - now you can buy it by the dozen, and it will look homemade." Yet at the same time she yearned to buy at least some of it-to capture the spirit that allowed someone to put together a beautiful wreath from parts bought at discount. Maybe painting someone else's stick reindeer was all anyone had time for anymore, and maybe it was enough. The dull November day was too warm-who could feel right when it was 60 degrees in Colorado, the sky was gray and the trees were brown, and Christmas was coming? "That must be my problem," she thought, "It's this weather. Even if we did buy a tree this weekend, it would surely shrivel up by the 25th."
As she approached Sincerely Yours, a tray with sale merchandise caught her eye. "It could be here, why not? I can't always expect to find it where I think it should be." Lucy glanced quickly at the table. There were giant red Christmas bulb lights, Santa salt shakers, and assorted candy trays and cards, but no angel. "Who needs this junk, anyway?," Lucy thought as she resolutely headed through the door. "I thought this was a real Christmas store, with only good stuff. Well, this is what they're trying to get rid of. Maybe it's better inside."
The sights and sounds of country-style Christmas, all for sale, assaulted Lucy as she stepped across the threshold in the suburban-style strip mall. A huge pile of teddy bears, real teddies with correctly shaped faces and soulful eyes, dressed in winter sweaters and stocking caps of various colors, tugged at her heartstrings. Tinny carols came from the Christmas village display in the window, accompanied by the mechanical sounds of a sled going around an endless track, skaters prancing gracefully across plastic ice, and ghostly children twirling on a carousel ride that never ended. The smells of potpourri and candles filled her remaining senses so much that she almost reeled. "Hold it together, girl. Stay cool. This is only a store." A few minutes of browsing convinced her that this was not the place, and she left quickly before she burst into tears.
Oh sure, she had found angels there. Childlike angels who seemed almost cruel - who wanted to be reminded that sometimes children die, that there are small souls who were no longer here with us? Beautiful angels wearing gowns made by no earthly designer had looked at her peacefully from the shelves. An entire shelf of playful angels were 40% off. But it had been the stand of teddy bear angels, white with blue wings, who had beckoned her to take one home. She ran her fingers across the smooth fur and shivered. "Mom would have loved this," she had thought, and then berated herself, "Mom would have just bought it for herself instead of standing here about to cry, and looking for something that doesn't exist."
Lucy was not a believer in angels, at least, not to the point that she would tell anyone about it. She knew of the tree in the woods west of town that had been quietly festooned with angels over the years, until the city Rangers declared that it was illegal to place religious symbols on public property. But she had never made a pilgrimage. What was the point of hanging a doll on a tree? No, Lucy wasn't after an angel, she was after something else-a symbol of childhood long out of reach. She was looking for innocence.
She could no longer recall where they had found it, but she supposed she had been about 12 years old when the angel joined their family. She stood in the center of a foil-covered cardboard star, her dress and wings made of simple stiff pink and white gauze, lit from behind by a single bulb. Her eyes and mouth were painted on to a cardboard head, festooned with yellow hair of polyester yarn. Her body was a red cardboard tube covered with plastic silver netting, her halo was a bent pipe cleaner. If a single word could have described the angel, it would have been "humble"-just that, and nothing more. Lucy remembered when the angel was new-a bit of a joke between Lucy and her mother. They had known that the angel was humble, simple, just shy of tacky, but it was this humility that helped make her special. There was a pride in owning her-something made of cardboard and foil that could help a family feel whole. Now that was something of a miracle.
Perhaps most importantly, she had been their angel. Each year, she was lovingly placed in the most important spot-the very top of the tree-and she shone over their Christmases for many years. Lucy could still, after so many years, hear her mother's voice, a bit too loud, perhaps, a bit too excited, "Okay, where's the angel star? We have to have the angel star!" Yes, Lucy was certain her mother had spoken much too loudly, much too boisterously, but with a childlike excitement that carried the memory. In all likelihood, she had been drinking, but Lucy wasn't remembering a specific time-she was remembering all the Christmases together. Divorce, alcohol, and nasty fights had all been there, making life very painful at times, but somehow, Lucy always remembered happy Christmases, with their angel watching them, her painted on smile sweet and cheering. Lucy clung to that memory, for it reminded her that she had once had a mother, had once been loved unconditionally, deeply and profoundly, in a way that she had never understood at the time.
Before her mother died, she had set aside one box of Christmas things for each of them, each grown child getting one-third of the simple treasures in which so many memories were stored. Opening the box the first time had, of course, brought forth tears, tears for a life that could have been better, could have been worse, but was gone now.
Lucy brought out the angel each year, but could never convince her own family that it was worthy of their tree. And they had a point. The cardboard was wrinkled, the dress was torn, and the halo would never stand up straight. She looked as if she were from the free table at the neighbor's garage sale.
So every year Lucy looked for a worthy replacement. She tried the best stores and the worst. After all, the angel had probably come from the local drug store, and she had probably been on sale. But who knew where she would turn up? Maybe the new angel would be fancier, a modern reincarnation of a humble childhood. Lucy had once been sure that she would find her, absolutely certain that somewhere she would find another angel star, and that in finding it she would know that miracles were real. When she finally did find her, Lucy would take her home, and show her family, "Look! Look what I have found! A perfect angel in a star for our tree!"
Now, after years of looking, she was losing faith. Although she'd never really believed in miracles or angels, she had clung tenaciously to the hope that they could exist. She could be wrong. Finding another angel star was Lucy's "miracle test". But a miracle seemed out of the question now, replaced by a harsher reality that life was a cold and lonely road. The thought seemed to close around her, leaving only the realization that life goes on, and then ends, and in between you got by the best that you could.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the guests had left for their own home early in the day, and Lucy had spent much of the day at home, thinking about how much had to happen in the next month, and with her gone on business travel for 11 days, how could it? How could she do it all in such a short time? Who would buy the tree, and what would top it? There was still no angel, and so, thinking she would give it one more chance, she had set out for the local mall, and had again returned empty-handed. Now the dishes were done and the evening stretched before them. "Hey Linnie, want to go see the Christmas star?" her husband Dave said to their brown-eyed five-year-old daughter.
"Oh yes, Daddy, I do want to see the star!"
"How about you, Hon, do you want to go?"
"Whoever started such a stupid tradition?" thought Lucy. "We all get too cold, we have to hike up that steep slope, and the star was never meant to be seen up close." But she kept those thoughts to herself, and replied in the cheeriest voice she could muster, "Sure, let's go see the star. But please, let's all wear warm clothing this time!" At least one person in this family remembers the important things, she thought to herself.
The Christmas star had been a Boulder tradition since Lucy had moved to the town to begin college in the 1970's. Blessed with a mountain backdrop that provided the perfect setting for a huge star, and a local business group willing to sponsor it each year, the city was the annual recipient of this holiday miracle, a star that literally shone down on the residents from Thanksgiving through the New Year. When Linnie was 1 year old, her father had taken her to see the star up close, holding her in his arms while trekking up a steep, snow-covered mountain slope in the dark. Once there, there was no feeling of a star at all, but only a large circle of cold white light bulbs strung on wires and poles. It was as cruel as revealing the magician's tricks. But that first journey had started a tradition that belonged to Linnie and Dave together, and Lucy, although she might gripe, was not about to take it from them.
The warmth of the day was gone as they headed out into the cold Colorado night, bundled in jackets, hats, and mittens, wearing their warmest boots. Their house sat six miles from the mountain base, exactly at the end of the road that led to the star. Was this significant? Perhaps,if you believed in miracles, it was, but otherwise... They climbed into their aging Volvo, turned on its noisy heater, and headed west, the star shining down on them as the strains of "Prairie Home Companion" filled the air. "Look, there it is!" shouted Linnie from the back seat. Her eyes glowed with excitement as she pointed for everyone to see the star.
"Yep. That's it," replied Dave, who smiled over at Lucy. The two of them shared a look that said, without words, how much they loved the child. The star disappeared behind cliffs and trees as they reached the mountain base and began to ascend the narrow road to their destination. In only a few minutes they had reached the spot, where they parked below the slope on which it stood. Bits of snow lay in the forest, and the light from the star's bulbs played among the trees, casting deep shadows from the middle of a brilliant center. Despite Lucy's dark mood, she was touched by the site, which had a look of magic about it.
The three crossed the road, and Linnie and Dave raced up the slope, hand in hand, while Lucy trailed behind, shivering a bit and still wondering why she had even come along. After all, this was their thing, not hers. But she was here now and so might as well go up. Dave and Linnie began to circle the perimeter of lights, looking at how they were hooked up, and how cleverly a bunch of bare 100-watt bulbs had been turned into a Christmas spectacle. Lucy stood in the center of the circle of light. She shivered a bit, but she thought to herself that the night was indeed beautiful, and she began to let herself appreciate the moment and the evening, standing there in the middle of the Christmas star's brilliance.
She was stirred from her thoughts by the sight of a young child coming toward her, Linnie, saying, "Pick me up, Mommy, so I can see the lights better." Lucy smiled to herself, thinking that being two feet higher would make no difference at all, but lifting the child into her arms without a moment's hesitation. "That's better, Mommy. Oh Mommy, isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?"
"Yes, sweetheart, it's really very beautiful. I'm glad that I came here with you." Lucy was warmed by her daughter's body, and as she looked at Linnie's face, her brown curls creeping from below her cap, her cheeks red with cold, her eyes like deep brown saucers that pulled you into their depths, Lucy was filled with love for the child, her earlier mood almost completely gone now. Linnie leaned over and whispered conspiratorially into Lucy's ear, "Mommy, I have a secret for you."
"What is it?" Lucy smiled and leaned closer, feeling small hands wrap around her ear, and soft, sweet breath on her skin.
"I love you more than anything in the universe. I love you to the moon, then to the sun, and then back around the earth one hundred times."
Lucy blinked back her tears as she looked at the angel in her arms. A rush of love warmed her as she realized that angels aren't spirits at all, but that she was holding one, standing right in the middle of the Christmas star. For what purpose did angels serve except to comfort us, to lift up our hearts and help us know joy? "I love you too, sweetheart, more than I can really explain," Lucy replied, cradling the girl in her arms and kissing her cheek and forehead. Dave appeared and wrapped his arms around both of them. The three of them giggled and kissed and finally made ready to go, their pilgrimage complete. Dave and Linnie ran off laughing and chasing each other down the slope, while Lucy trailed behind. Her search was over.
"Thank you, angel," Lucy whispered to herself. "Thank you for helping me believe all these years, and for showing me this gift." Then she made her way down to the car, where she would travel back down the winding road to the straight road at the mountain base, back to the warm house that sat on the eastern edge of town. There she would sleep and dream with these wonderful people, people she loved more profoundly than she had realized, people given to her as she had been to them. The greatest gift had been there all along, and through the miracle of the angel star, she had felt and understood it.© 1998 Marilyn D. Walker All Rights Reserved
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