We moved around a lot when I was young, but by the time I was three years old, we’d settled into a little yellow cape cod on a suburban cul-de-sac in New Jersey. My dad commuted over the bridge into the city each day for work. My mom taught piano lessons in our living room and worked herself into the plow position with her girlfriends on the Oriental rug.
In the summer my sister and I climbed trees, rode our bikes, and ran through the sprinklers in the front yard. In the fall I walked to school, on a trail that someone had named the Pony Path. But as soon as the temperature dipped just a bit, my thoughts turned directly to Christmas.
Christmas meant Virginia. And grandparents. And more love than one child could ever hold onto.
Each Christmas, my parents packed up the car and drove us South – below the Mason-Dixon line – to the state where they’d both grown up. After hours of driving, we’d pull up in front of my grandparents’ house, my mom and dad weary from traveling so far. No matter what time of day we arrived, my grandmother would fling open the door and come running to greet us. Her arms spread wide, my grandmother called to us as she ran to the sidewalk to squeeze us tight. Each time I thought my heart would burst wide open from all the love that she poured in it.
I thought surely one day the love would just spill out all over the sidewalk and folks would have to step around it on their way to work on Monday. They’d shake their heads and glance up at the porch there where my grandparents lived. They’d say to one another, “Ida’s children must be home again. Looks as if they brought the grandchildren, too. Just look at all that love piled up here on this sidewalk! More love than one child could ever hold onto!”
Inside, I’d sit at the kitchen table with the chrome legs and Formica top that was flecked with spots of color on a white background. On the stove, a dollop of sweet cream butter melted its way to the bottom of a pan of White House applesauce that burped slow bubbles over a soft blue flame. I’d swing my legs and rest my chin on my hands on the top of that table. I don’t know if we talked or not – or if it was good enough just to be there, sharing space with my grandmother and her love.
On Christmas Eve, she’d tuck me into bed beneath a window that looked out onto the alley in back. I’d wait until she’d kissed my forehead and shut the door behind her, then I’d scramble up onto my knees and press my forehead to the glass, and watch for shooting stars that might streak a path across the night. At first light I’d spring from bed and wake the house with fits of joy, then tumble down the staircase into one more Christmas morn.
It was extravagant.
All day long the love dripped from the ceilings and crammed its way into the corners and spilled out from beneath the tree in circles that were piled up high. And it seeped down into the marrow of my bones and found a home and still, it was far more than one child could hold onto. I tried to catch my breath and wondered at the miracle of love so great as this.
One year, on that trip across the highways to Virginia, we breezed past suburbs and bungalows on cul-de-sacs with tiny, sparkling, colored lights glowing and twinkling and dancing as we passed by. It was late and dark and we’d been riding for awhile in silence. But then, my mother exhaled deep and turned from the glass to face us in the darkness of the car. A band of light reflected across my dad’s eyes as he drove us and he watched my mother as she said, “Do you see all of the beautiful lights? Aren’t they just beautiful?” And I remember nodding and thinking that I especially liked the white lights that hung across the garage door we had just passed by. I remember thinking that the world was filled with wonder.
“You know,” my mother said, “we wouldn’t have all of this if it hadn’t been for Jesus.”
I thought that she just meant the lights. We wouldn’t have the lights if it hadn’t been for Jesus. But what she meant was all of it. The love piled up on the sidewalk while applesauce cooked on the stove. The love shared at the kitchen table and the window that looked out over the alley while stars left streaks across the sky. The kisses on my forehead and the love that dripped down from the ceiling and Light to shine and lead the way.
We wouldn’t have this extravagant Love that reaches for us in the dark and fills up our hearts and seeps into our marrow and makes us press our foreheads to the glass to search for light across the sky.