The profusion of blooming poinsettias in the neighbors' yard across the street and the aroma of carrot "fruit" cake baking were about the only indications that Christmas was anywhere near. The ache in my heart was reflected in the slow motion of my fingers as they reluctantly hung satiny blue ornaments on the white-sprayed tree. Why did my husband have to get a tree, anyway—it only made the lonesomeness that much worse.
Thoughts of past Christmases, when an enthusiastic son and two lively daughters with their friends helped decorate the tree, bake the cookies, and wrap the gifts, made the heartache a bit more intense. All three seemed to be endowed with an amazing capacity for collecting school friends with no place to go for Christmas. And they had possessed an equally amazing confidence that Dad and Mother would provide a nook and a welcome for their friends,
Although sometimes I had felt a slight tendency toward acquiring a martyr complex—for instance, the time one daughter brought home four friends and the other one brought two—I always ended up enjoying the young people more than they could have enjoyed being with us. They never complained, even when their "nook" turned out to be only space to spread out a sleeping bag on the rug. They pitched in to help with everything, and were appreciative of home cooking and the kind of Christmas weather that encouraged picnics on the beach. Memory recreated the young faces for me now—faces with thoughtful blue eyes, and mischievous brown ones. But curly red heads, long straight blonde hair, and waving brown hair faded into the corners of the room as I reluctantly pulled my mind back to the quiet present.
"So what's so bad about a little lonesomeness?" I began a little lecture to myself. "You know you're glad your son is a minister pilot in a jungle area—well, the minister part, at least! And for sure you're happy he has a wife to b ack him up and a little son who keeps life from getting dull." The self-inflicted lecture continued, "Even if you could you wouldn't turn your author-teacher-wife-of-a-brand-new-doctor daughterback into a little girl again, would you? Well, maybe not, but . .."
Just then my hand automatically picked up the star for the top of the tree, and I remembered the day when our younger daughter helped select it. At that point all stoicism collapsed, and tears splashed onto the star, Reflected in the shining drops, I saw our younger daughter as we had last seen her more than a year before through the window as our plane took off from the airport in Queenstown, New Zealand. Even though we were happy she had married a fine young minister, news of her poor health in the past few months was causing us great anxiety. And Australia was literally half a world away!
But, after saying a prayer for each of the three, I firmly placed the star on the tree, hopped down from the chair, and set about putting the house in order. At the same time I was mentally making plans for Christmas dinner the next day.
We had invited a friend of one daughter to bring her parents over for Christmas dinner. She had been baptized a short time before, and was fin ding it difficult to explain her new faith to dad and mom. Then we found out about another couple who were facing their first Christmas without any of their children home, so we invited them.
Some time later, as supper time neared, the house looked invitingly hospitable, and good smells were issuing from the kitchen. The telephone rang. I picked up the receiver and heard my husband's voice saying, "Honey, this is going to be a shock to you, but I didn't know what else to do."
He explained that while working alone in the office (it was a half-holiday) he answered the telephone, and a young woman told him she was in desperate need of help. Several years before she had been a student at the local academy, where she became an Adventist in mind if not in heart. Then she ran away from home to get married, and was alienated from her family. Now she had a three-week-old baby. Her husband and brother were out of work, and they had been put out of their apartment the day before because they couldn't pay the rent. The three adults and the three-week-old baby had spent the previous night on a. park bench. Now they were exhausted and hungry.
"There was nothing else I could do, honey, so I told them I'd go pick them up. You'd better get some food ready because they haven't eaten for three days," he added, and hung up.
Half in a state of shock, I stood holding the silent receiver to my ear for a minute longer. My thoughts were in a turmoil as I put water on to boil for spaghetti. Some of those thoughts were fearful ones. "Is it safe in these days to take strangers into you home?" Verses from the Bible came to mind:
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me"(Matt. 25:45, RSV).
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Heb. 13:2, RSV).
About then I heard the car turn into the carport and I went to open the door. A lean and bedraggled girl who couldn't have been more than 18 or so carried a beautiful baby boy in her arms.
"Do you know how to make formula?" she asked me. "I don't seem to have enough milk for him."
I did the best I could with what I had in the house, and soon the baby was contentedly drinking from a bottle.
When the rest of us sat down to eat, the heaped-high platter of spaghetti disappeared fast. "You're a good cook," the girl's brother said, adding that he had been assistant chef at a tourist hotel.
Then as I went out to the kitchen to refill the platter, I stopped in my tracks as I heard the new father, who was quite a bit older than his wife, refer to his time in prison. He also mentioned his parents' running a business in a small Midwestern town. When I returned to the table I asked him whether he'd like to call his parents, but he replied, "No. They won't have anything to do with me since I was sent to jail."
Later, after the unexpected guests had taken showers and were in bed, my husband, recognizing that the problem was too big for us to handle alone, went to the office and called the pastor of the church we attended. He said that in the morning he would get in touch with a local organization that was set up to handle such cases.
After that, we settled down for the night ourselves. Was it lack of faith or was it prudence that made me lock the bedroom door? Long after my husband was asleep, thoughts on how to put Jesus' teachings into practice in a world plagued with sin and crime kept me wide awake.
On Christmas morning there were no empty chairs at the table. Our three guests again ate heartily. When the church pastor came for them, the husband expressed their appreciation for food and warmth and said it had given them courage to face the future.
At Christmas dinner late that afternoon, we felt a new closeness to the other lonely couple, and we strengthened the friendship already begun with the parents of our daughter's friend.
As I knelt to pray that night, I was astonished to realize that the dreaded lonely Christmas was over, and I hadn't even had a minute to feel sorry for myself. The empty chairs had been filled.