The whole family would pack into whatever sad, cheap, crummy car we were driving that year (Ever wonder why they don't make Chevrolet Biscaynes any more? I think my dad bought the last several.) and head off in the dark and cold in the gritty factory neighborhoods of Chicago. Dad carefully driving the snowy streets, gingerly shifting the three-on-the-tree. Snow crunching under the tires. Cloud of blue smoke encircling us at long red lights. In thick winter coats, we all stuffed into the cold bench seats and went to the sanitarium every year at Christmas.
It was a tuberculosis sanitarium. My mother liked to go there for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Mom was a nurse; maybe that's how she found out about the sanitarium, tucked away behind wrought iron fencing that took up an entire block. Nice rolling grounds, with lots of grass and where a cluster of buildings -- including a tiny stone chapel -- peeked out from behind a stand of trees.
Just that alone made it a place of respite in a city like Chicago, at least the city I knew. I was just there not long ago and took my oldest child to see the house where I grew up. God it was sad. My old house wedged in between endless miles of other houses, pinned down and stifled just like my siblings and I stuffed into the car in our thick winter coats. And just across the alley loomed the yellow brick facades of endless rows of factories. And on the other side of the factories were the freight tracks.
I loved it as a kid, but Jesus, we must have all worn blinders to think we had any sort of privacy, any illusion we were separate and unique individuals. I think it drove my mom crazy every year. She was theatrical and creative. I think she wanted something better than a sad little place where you go in the back yard and close your eyes and spin in a wild circle and you can touch all the neighbors' houses as well as their garages.
She must have felt smothered. So every Christmas Eve, off we'd go to the sanitarium and its little chapel. Turning through the wrought iron gates was entering a snow-globe world of conifers and white snow under the moon and at least a sense of breathing room.
Of course my mother wasn't the only person who knew about the sanitarium, and every year the little chapel was packed. It was crowded and steamy, and once you squeezed into a pew you were stuck for the next couple of hours at least.
Dreadful if you were a fidgety kid like my brother. He'd twitch and jerk and roll his head around, and my mom would smack him into stillness in that almost invisible, undetectable way moms have of smacking their kids in public.
So my brother would eventually become comatose, and lean back into the hard wooden pew with his legs folded underneath for scant padding. This was trouble a couple hours later when he had to rise for Communion, both his legs asleep right to the hips.
My poor brother. Here is this buck-toothed, crew-cut kid, hands folded piously together, fingertips steepled and pointing towards heaven, doing his best to lurch and gimp down the side aisle and reach the altar for Holy Communion,
And right behind him is this seething woman, her angry face bent closely over his shoulder as she whispers savagely. Occasionally pulling apart her own steepled hands to whack the back of his head. (My mom.)
Of course, had you been in the pew with us, you'd understand she had reason to be so angry. Even on Christmas Eve. Even at Midnight Mass. Even in the tranquil getaway of the sanitarium. Especially because of all of that.
This was her big night. Her silent, peaceful night. Where all is calm. It's the one night she shouldn't have to be smacking us into shape. The choir of angels might want to lend a hand, don't you think?
The chapel was her holy place, her hour of sacred respite for the year. Of course she told my brother to knock off his fidgeting. Of course she told my brother to no sit on his legs. And when we all rose for Communion and my brother discovered he couldn't walk because both his legs were asleep, Mom jerked him by the collar and hurled him out into the aisle. He wasn't going to miss the Body and Blood of Christ just because he was a goof-off. He'd go and get Communion even if she had to beat him every step of the way. Any mother would do the same.
Still, people were not accustomed to a sight such as this. After all, Jesus H. Himself seemed a lot more laid back when he told the lame guy to cast aside his crutches and walk. The Bible doesn't say the poor guy got shoved and abused in any way. ("Throw down! Throw down those crutches man! What? You think you can't walk? Huh, huh? What are you, a baby?")
That's more like what everybody in the chapel saw. This mean lady smacking around a pious crippled kid. In church. On Christmas Eve at Midnight Mass with the candles going and the incense wafting, for crying out loud. And the priest himself pulling the consecrated body-become-sustenance of Our Lord Jesus Christ out of a golden chalice and raising it high above his head for all to see at the moment of the Great Mystery.
Communion is such a holy moment. And look at that poor kid ... just look at him. He's lurching down the aisle on shaky legs, his torso swinging wildly from side to side. But look at his face. It's so peaceful, so calm. Why, he could be dozing. He is not ashamed of his infirmities. And look at his hands, his little boy hands, folded humbly in prayer as he makes his painful way to the altar.
And he is a child, thus smaller than shoulder-high to adults, so he disappears in the throng around the altar, waiting for a spot at the rail, then kneeling on the pad and staring straight ahead, ears pitched to catch the muttered "bodyofChrist, bodyofChrist, bodyofChrist ..." strengthening in volume as the single priest makes his way back down the line.
Suddenly, there was the lad again. Hands still folded, head solemnly lowered as he carried the weight of the sacred wafer on his tongue (or, more likely, was already using his tongue to scrape the gluey thing from the roof of his mouth).
There was an audible gasp in the chapel as my brother cleared the crowd near the altar and came into view, heading back to our pew down the center aisle.
No limp. Look at that kid. No. Freaking. (excusemylanguage, Lord!). Limp. Kid's walking regular. Gasps and elbow pokes spread the news around the chapel.
A true Christmas miracle had just happened.
And there's that mean mom. Hope you choke on your Host, lady, smacking around a crippled kid on Christmas Eve and all. Look what God thought of him, huh? Cured, lady.
The conclusion of the Mass passed in a blur, the congregation unsettled and unable to focus. There were glances and mutterings as news of the Christmas Miracle Child began to spread.
In the shuffling and swaying crowd headed for the doors after the final blessing, I noticed several old babushka ladies reach out -- quickly and slyly -- to touch my brother on the shoulder or on his head.
They were getting a piece of the miracle, their respite for the year.