This third original Christmas story is close to my heart because I have entertained a few “angels unawares”, especially this time of year. I hope you enjoy it, dear readers, and will be ready for your own angels when they turn up.
Nella reached the end of the street before she remembered the shopping list still stuck on her refrigerator. She sighed wearily, turning back to face the chill wind and driving snow. Another fifteen minutes of precious time and energy wasted because of her forgetfulness. She contemplated calling a cab but knew she couldn’t afford it and buy groceries too. Her pension check just didn’t stretch like it used to. She pulled her hat down over her ears and trudged back the way she had come.
Snow on the overgrown hedge next to Nella’s back door fell down the neck of the lean youth as he stepped through into her yard. He shivered, glancing nervously over his shoulder before cautiously approaching the door. He figured this would be the easiest house to break into on the street because the old place obviously hadn’t been touched in years and the lock would likely pop without difficulty from its rotted wood frame. John had never broken in anywhere before but he had seen enough TV shows to figure out a few things first. He sure hoped the long, chilly wait behind the hedge would be worth his while. He pulled a flattened piece of pipe from under his jacket and began to pry at the door.
The tears freezing on Nella’s cheeks weren’t just from the cold. She tried to stay cheerful but sometimes she just missed Arthur so much. Especially in small ways, like how he used to be ready with the door open as she came up the walk with the grocery cart. Now as she fumbled with her keys and the cart, she felt like throwing it over the railing and forgetting about shopping. But the cat needed food, and she couldn’t do without her evening tea, particularly on Christmas Eve. She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.
A silver picture frame slipped from John’s fingers at the sound of Nella‘s key in the lock, its glass shattering on the hardwood floor. He froze beside the dresser, his heart pounding fiercely.
“Sammy, are you up on the dresser again, you naughty cat?”
The old lady’s shuffling footsteps came closer, but John had no place to hide. He should have bolted when he had a chance, when the old lady let out a startled cry at the shock of seeing him in her bedroom, but he didn’t. He stood there shaking, not knowing what to do, just knowing he’d blown it again. They stared at each other for a long moment; John seeing a small round woman bundled in an old-fashioned winter coat and hat, her hand to her mouth, and her eyes wide behind thick glasses. Nella thought later that she should have run for it too, but something made her stand her ground. His long lank hair, his thin awkward shoulders; he really was just a boy, and suddenly she wasn’t afraid anymore.
“Can I help you, young man?”
“No….no…I mean, I needed some money, see, and…”
“Well, as you can see,” Nella said, gesturing around the sparsely furnished room, “I don’t have a lot to spare.”
She scrutinized him closely.
“What do you need money so badly for, that you would rob an old lady on Christmas Eve?” In spite of his fear, John took a defensive stance and replied in as manly a voice as he could muster, “I just need it, is all. You gonna call the cops?”
“I probably ought to, but maybe we should have a little talk first.”
Nella unbuttoned her coat and took off her hat, forgetting all about her shopping trip. A stillness in her spirit made her act contrary to what was logical, but she had learned to listen to that quiet inner prompting she knew to be from God. She turned her back on him and walked down the hall to take off her boots. She could get a blow to the back of her head at any second, but somehow she knew he wouldn’t do that.
John found himself stepping over broken glass to follow the old lady down the hall. He could still make a break for it if he needed to, but it seemed to make sense to hear what she had to say. Besides, it was warmer in here than outside where he had spent the last few days. Then he stopped in wonder where the hall opened into a small living room. It was a bower, an abundant garden of flowered furnishings, draperies and ornaments, a surprising contrast to the austere bedroom. Slightly shabby, yet clean and carefully arranged, the room spoke of past seasons, tea served on wicker tables, bird song through an open window. It even held a faint scent of crushed rose petals. The walls were lined with framed pictures of blossoms and botanical prints.
“Take off your shoes, young man,” Nella ordered before he walked on the faded oriental carpet. He obeyed, wondering how the little old lady had achieved an upper hand in this situation.
“Now, before we go any further, have you had anything to eat in the last while? I have a nice little meat pie I can heat up in just a minute.”
John stared at her. “Why are you doing this? I broke into your house to steal from you….you don’t know me….I could be dangerous. Aren’t you afraid?”
Nella tilted her head as if listening for a moment, then smiled gently.
“A book I like to read says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so you may be entertaining angels unawares.”
“Ha! You need to clean your glasses, lady! I am no angel. In fact, I’m heading in the other direction.” He flinched when she patted his arm.
“Come now, young man. As long as you’re still breathing, God hasn’t given up on you. Now how about that meat pie?”, and she bustled off to the kitchen, leaving him to stare after her. He stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, trying to recover some of the bravado it took to break into this place. Instead, he felt himself succumbing to the peace of this modest home
His artist’s eye took in the carefully arranged groupings of photos and prints on the walls. Close-ups of perfect, velvety rosebuds wet with dew, stately irises, blowsy peonies. The botanical prints looked to be originals. He studied the water color details of root systems and rhizomes, each signed in the corner by “A. Stuart”.
“Those were done by my late husband, Arthur,” Nella said, setting a full plate down on the dining table. “You see, Arthur was an invalid and couldn’t get out much, so the back yard and this house became his world. So I made him a garden, and he made me….these.” She smiled fondly at the photos and prints.
“They’re good,” John said frankly.
Nella studied him for a moment, noticing a sensitive mouth beneath his scruffy days-old beard and an intelligent brow above shadowed eyes. She guessed this Christmas stranger was more than just a common thief. He sat obediently at her table, consuming the meat pie and warm rolls with absorption born of two days without food. She occupied herself in the kitchen, opening a can of tuna for hungry Sammy and fixing herself a cup of hot water and lemon. She moved aside the little nativity scene on the table and joined him.
“That’s right, it’s Christmas Eve, isn’t it?” he said, watching her tenderly handle the tiny figurines.
“Why aren’t you home with your family on such a night?” Nella asked. He shrugged.
“They wouldn’t want me there. I don’t fit in to their uppity neighborhood anymore. I’m an embarrassment to them since I decided to follow my Muse.” His smirk held more pain than amusement.
“And what would that be?”
“I want to be an installation artist.”
“Is that where someone drapes a bridge in orange fabric and calls it art?”, she asked. He was impressed she knew what he was talking about.
“Yeah, only it doesn’t pay very well, as you can see. My last job in a pizza joint fell through two weeks ago and I’ve been on the streets since then.”
“Does resorting to robbing elderly women and possibly ending up in jail fit in with your future dreams?”, she asked sternly.
“Not really.” He ducked his head for a moment, then looked her squarely in the eye. “I’m sorry, ma’am. You’ve been very kind, though I don’t know why.”
He got up from the table, turned to go, then heard her say softly, “Because I see you through the eyes of another artist. My husband was an artist. He would look past the weeds and brown leaves in my garden and see the beautiful lines of a simple daisy or daffodil, then capture them like this.” She looked thoughtfully at the flowers framed on her wall.
“But Jesus Christ is the original installation artist. He can take a common bag of bones like me or you, look past the flaws and brokenness, and clothe us in forgiveness and grace, and suddenly we’re not common anymore. Like a bridge draped in orange fabric, we’re changed into something beautiful, something new. That book I like to read says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
She smiled warmly up at him.
“You wait here a moment, young man, and I’ll be right back.” She returned a few minutes later with her arms full of clothing.
“These were my husband’s. I think they’ll fit you and I have no need of them anymore.” She held out a warm winter coat, a sweater, hat and gloves.
“When you wear these I want you to think about Jesus, who was actually God draped in flesh. He can help you become the best installation artist you can be, if you let Him transform you first.”
John put the clothes on, then Nella pressed a few folded bills into his hand.
“No, I can’t take this.” He tried to give the money back but she gently eased him to the door.
“Maybe there’s enough there to buy bus fare back to your family. You could be the best present they get this Christmas.”
At the end of the walk he looked back. The light behind flowered curtains blurred into a warm orange glow through his tears.
Nella gasped in wonder when she looked out her kitchen window Christmas morning. Her overgrown garden, long neglected since Arthur’s passing, was transformed into a sparkling paradise in the pure winter sunlight. Trees were draped in swaths of silvery paper and crowned with foil stars and moons. Prisms of coloured glass suspended from branches twisted gently, sending rainbow glints like diamonds across the snow. Tissue paper birds like open-winged doves fluttered on the shrubbery. She rubbed her eyes and looked again to see if what she saw was real, then she saw some writing in the snow, scrolled beautifully in silver painted script.
“Thank you, dear kind lady. From John, a new creation.”