We lived on Harland Street in Grand Rapids when I was in kindergarten. We rented a simple white house. It’s the one on the east side of the block with a diamond-shaped widow on the side by the driveway. The house was divided into two apartments. The landlord lived upstairs, we lived downstairs.
A couple times a year I drive by the house and remember things. It was there that I first went to school. My dad and I walked from there to the barber shop for my first real haircut one Saturday morning. When I received my first poor report card my mom took we for a walk to the top of the hill on Harland Street. We stood by the fence and looked down on the construction that would later become I-96. Most of my memories there are good ones.
When I slow the car and look at the house I realize the picture window like so many things from childhood was a lot smaller than I remembered. One of my earliest, sweetest Christmas memories is associated with that window.
I was walking home from school on a beautiful winter day in December. Christmas decorations were going up throughout the neighborhood. I walked past Ted’s Market and passed the neighbor’s house. When our house came into view I could see my mom in the window decorating for Christmas. We had no money for lights or store-bought decorations. My dad was a student at the time.
Mom had taken a bar of soap and covered the inside of the window like a snowstorm. She then took a razor blade and scraped a manger scene complete with cr?che, angels, shepherds, a star. When I asked about the wise men she informed me that according to the Gospel of Matthew they came later.
I never see that window without thinking about that winter afternoon, the Christmas music of Helen Barth, Gloria Roe and Larry Whiteford, and my mother’s joy in celebrating the birth of Jesus. All that for a few pennies worth of soap.
A couple years ago I was having my annual titanic struggle against the spirit that tries to destroy the joy of Christmas. It was the lights again. Always a missing light or blown fuse or a tangle that would frustrate Houdini. Out of five strings of lights I could only coax two of them to work. I called my Dad for technical support. He laughed and must have sensed my frustration. He reminded me of a year when he was a young father trying to make Christmas happen for his children. He was out of money and out of lights and out of patience. Eventually he just strung the lights he had on the tree. He counted them and years later he remembered the number. There were only seventeen lights. They were the big old-fashioned ones, but there were only seventeen of them.
I hung up the phone and smiled. I have the sweetest memory of that wonderful tree and I was thirty-five years old before I realized it only had seventeen lights on it.
It’s easy to buy into the hype about the kind of high-tech toys you have to have in order for Junior grow up to be a well-rounded child. I say, it’s about Jesus and he came to earth to save sinners. He was born into a poor family and lived a very simple life.
My advice: make some memories, love the people in your life. Celebrate Christmas. Don’t spend all your time counting the lights.