The Five Dollar Christmas Deal

(Our Christmas 2007 letter)

December 2007

The Five Dollar Christmas Deal

It’s 6 a.m. on a cold, December Saturday morning and I’m fixing coffee and oatmeal.  I still find it hard to believe my wife is in Bali, Indonesia.  I should get over it.  She’s supporting the American delegation (her assignment at the Department of State is to provide administrative support to U.S. delegations at various international conferences… in October she went to Paris and I joined her for a long weekend) to the Climate Control Talks going on there now.  I shouldn’t complain but gosh do I miss her.

Bundled against the windy damp, I begin my early morning walk.  My destination: the Alexandria Market, a 250 year old local tradition.  Here, a community garden lies fallow, awaiting spring and a new cycle of life.  There, I see colonial era homes with wreaths on doors and finely planted front yards of boxwood, herbs, and fading mums, stately sentinels of the fall just past.  And everywhere, friendly Alexandrians out walking their dogs greet me.

I still wonder how we ended up in this historic place.  Alexandria, Virginia, founded in 1746, wears its beautifully preserved, vital, lived-in, Colonial-era Old Town on its sleeve.  Every Saturday morning walking to the market, I enjoy  the brick or clapboard houses, gas lights flickering in front.  I think Robert E. Lee and George Washington (who certainly slept here) would recognize parts of it yet.

We started 2007 in another historic place, Jerusalem, where other well known people slept.  Our apartment overlooked the Old City, parts of south Jerusalem, the snaking barrier wall, the West Bank, and on a clear day, the dramatic mountains in Jordan.  Living in a place connected to King David, Herod, Jesus, Mary, and generations of conquerors, kings, prophets and a mighty river of humanity, was a deep and life changing honor.  It was also emotionally exhausting.  We were sad and glad to leave in early June and head back to the U.S. for two months of rest, before work in D.C.

I love noticing the little touches in these Alexandria homes: brass knockers, high windows, historical society plaques on private residences with dates and original tenants’ names.   I suppose I’m a little more alert to house details since Anita and I spent several weeks this past summer looking for property to buy.  We thought we wanted a place in West Virginia or Maryland or Pennsylvania, 2-3 hours west of the District, but the prices were exorbitant, and nothing we saw was quite right.

At the Alexandria Market farmers and artisans sell fresh fruits and vegetables, creamery butter and cheese, craft items, homemade jams and jellies, fresh baked goods, flowers, herbs, plants and more.  All this is here today plus a Christmas Market!  Vendors sell wreaths, fragrant greens and Christmas displays with candles.  I’m fascinated.  Rolls of white pine cord lie next to piles of fir and spruce boughs.  One thing about Alexandria: it is definitely The South.   Boughs of magnolia decorated with red ribbons, bright green artichokes and dried seed pods on stems to be tucked into wreaths and boxwood kissing balls add a southern touch.  I’ve never seen fruit in wreaths.  On or over many Alexandria doors are circles and half moons of greenery with pineapples, apples, oranges, and pears.  I even saw a festive green wreath festooned with bright red peppers!

I want to buy a lot of this stuff, but the many wreaths, centerpieces, mantle displays, and more are really high priced.  I had hoped to purchase something to take for Christmas in our new Indianapolis home.  At the end of July we closed on a very nice condo on the east side of Indy, a five minute walk from my parents’ home.  Katie has been living there since August.  She took a couple of classes at IUPUI, is studying piano and working at Starbucks.  On three-day-weekend visits, little by little we unpack the bulk of our household effects.  As I despaired at the price of Christmas greenery I saw a rustic, weathered stick basket with a small, painted Christmas carving on the handle, a scant, pretty display of holly and red-painted magnolia leaves nestled within.  The price: $5.00!  I couldn’t believe it.  The chatty 60ish Appalachian woman hollered, “What a price!  I’m cold and want to get rid of this stuff.  Can’t beat it!”  And I couldn’t, so I bought it.

Walking home, I wonder what Aaron and his new wife Ellen are doing for Christmas.  Married in October, they live in Accra, Ghana, where she teaches and he provides IT services at the International School while he works on their plan to buy property and open a resort there.  Ghana is in West Africa next to Togo where both Ellen and Aaron were Peace Corps volunteers.   We visited Aaron and first met her there only a year before.  I’m happy they’re happy, but sad they’re so far away.

On the way home I stop at our cute local supermarket.  Four fifty-something Alexandrian guys stand around a Salvation Army kettle ringing their bells as if Christmas depended on it.  With festive good cheer they greet me, and I, stuffing a few bills into the slot, greet them back.  Their talkative friendliness reminds me of Brooklyn, another community with a proudly lived identity, where Eric lives.  After a year and a half working in a gallery with fine Chinese porcelain, he made the decision this year to change course.  He now works as a server in a Manhattan restaurant and wine bar, and is preparing for his own catering/ restaurant business in the not-too-distant future.

In many ways, 2007 was difficult for us.  With friends in Grantsville, Maryland on New Year’s Eve we were glad to bid it adieu.  We have had more than our share of pain this year, from Anita’s step-mother dying in February, to work-related issues which cast a pall over our last months in Jerusalem, to the angst of house-hunting, house buying, and establishing yet more Childs residences, one in Alexandria, the other in Indianapolis.  I think finding unexpected treasures in the midst of an otherwise often stressful life, like my $5 deal, helps keep me going.  More important and precious than fun surprises like this: a loving family in an often hateful world, and the most rare and unexpected of all: a newborn Baby in Bethlehem.  God, the Infinite, chose to be contained in a finite womb and manger, to join you and me in the pain and failures of living so that later, on a cross and from an empty tomb, He could give hope, healing, life.

About literarylee

I sling words for a living. Always have, always will. Some have been interesting and fun; most not. These days, I write the fun words early in the morning before the adults are up and make me eat my Cream of Wheat.
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