It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

This is my annual Christmas post. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better story. Merry Christmas, everyone, however you observe this season.

Part One, 1956

I am 4 or 5. Small enough to sleep in two arm chairs pushed together, facing each other. One of the arm chairs has velvety grey upholstery in a swirly design. The other, my favorite, is red velvet. I sleep the strange sweet sleep of that place, of childhood. Outside the window is cold Montana, the clear dark pierced by stars and lit by a distant radio tower. Some nights there’s dance music coming from the Red Barn down the road. Among the songs is Gene Autry singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Trains whistle through the night.

It’s still dark when I hear her, coming out of her room, humming softly, tying on her apron, buttoning her sweater. She walks to the kitchen and lights the stove. I smell the fire catch. She comes back singing.

It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.

“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”
“Yes, Gramma.”
“You want to go with me to get the eggs?”
“Well, get up then. Put on your socks and your boots and your coat. Be quiet!”

Peeeeeaaace ON the Earth, goodwill to men

In the back room she reaches for her coat and a wool head scarf. She ties it over her ears.

“Put this on your head or you’ll catch your death.” She hands me a paisley scarf. Well, she has good reason to warn me. Already by then, I’d nearly caught my death in more than one Montana winter.

Of angels bending near the earth, to touch their haaaarrrrps of GOLD!

The snow crunches under our boots. She opens the hen-house door, “Shoo, shoo,” she says to the hens, “Shoo!” She reaches under the sitting birds, putting their eggs in our basket. “There now. We can make breakfast for Helen and them when they wake up.”

“Helen and them” is my mom, dad and brother — and anyone else who showed up for breakfast.

The snow crunches on our way back to the kitchen. The light comes through the small window of the back room, yellow and human. All around is cold grey/blue light of dim December Montana morning.

And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their Heavenly music floats, o’er all the weary world.

I open the door. The kitchen now warmed by the stove is friendly in the light. “Set the table, baby. There are,” she stops to count on her fingers, “there are four of you, and Jo and them will be down, that’s four more, set it for nine.” I still have to climb on a chair to reach everything. The big table fills the kitchen with its chairs and benches from all epochs of Montana history. I love the chairs. Even then I know that they are chairs with stories.

Gramma’ lays the bacon slices carefully in the black iron skillet. The December sun struggles over the horizon, appearing as a golden gleam. Blue shadows stalk the trees. Morning.

And all the world send back the song, which now-ow the angels sing!

Part Two, 1979

I snarl at the lousy weather, the hanging gray cold, and all the people, I push through the crowd on Seventeenth Street. After two blocks, I catch up to a crippled blind guy banging his cane against the two-by-four supports of the narrow entrance to a construction sidewalk.

“What is it? What is it?” he screams frantically, “Would somebody please help me? Help me!”

“Damn it,” I think. But I squelch my inner asshole, not because I’m a good person but because clearly going WITH this obstacle is more productive than fighting it.

“It’s a new building,” I tell him, catching up. “They’ve built a covered sidewalk. It’s like a tunnel. Here, take my hand and we can go through it together.”

He tells me he is catching the Colfax bus which is now a block behind us, loading passengers. He is about five feet tall, if that, a little shorter than I. I look at him and see that every aspect of him is wrong. His watery pale sightless eyes, his pinkish hair flattened from sleep, his crooked, red, too-large nose, his feet twisting toward each other just enough to make his stride unsteady. Some of his teeth are gone and his fingers are gnarled. He seems to be my age, in his mid-twenties. His helplessness compels my trust.

“Can you run?” I ask. “Your bus is behind us at a red light. I’ll hold your hand. I think we can make it. There’s no ice on the sidewalk here.” We have a half a block to go and the traffic light behind us has just turned green.

“OK,” he says, and we run to the bus.

“This is fun!” he laughs a snorting little laugh.

The bus driver must know the blind guy because he holds the bus at the corner. The man struggles up the steps and shows his pass to the driver. He turns around, facing me. “Merry Christmas!” he says, “Thank you! See you again!”

I raise my hand to wave goodbye, but at the last minute, I put it in my pocket. “Merry Christmas!” I say.

I reach the Presbyterian church on top of the hill just as the carillon begins;

“It Came upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old, of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, the Heavenly host proclaimed. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”

Suddenly my grandmother is alive, singing in her kitchen, and I am only four years old, stretching awake on the bed made for me of two easy chairs pushed together. A Christmas tree stands in the corner of the tiny living room. My mind’s eye sees her in the dark Montana morning wearing her egg-gathering jacket and hat, putting wood in the stove.

“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”

Originally published on December 13, 2015

19 thoughts on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

  1. You got me in the feels and either I’m going soft or your story was so well told that I am helpless in the wake of the words… Merry Christmas Martha Ann!

  2. This is the last post of my night after having spent the day with my parents. Tears are streaming down my face from the beauty of your writing. Christmas, to me, was summed up in your memories. This is in my top favorite of yours (a very hard decision to make) and I will read this to a few of my family members that know of you. It came upon a midnight clear ~peace to you, Teddy, and Bear. Finley and I are sending love and hugs this Christmas Eve. Thank you for being a light and inspiration to us. ✨✨✨🐶❤️❤️

    • My grandmother — and that random blind-man — and the song, yeah. As I trudged up that hill that day with the song playing in the carillon behind me, I felt like my grandma and Christmas were there and that poor man had reminded me of everything. I think he was an angel. When he said, “See you again!” I thought my heart would explode because he would never see me, never see anything, but he still said that. Most of the angels in my life have been some strange, broken little person spouting that exact kind of paradoxical nonsense that wakes you up.

      The only angel who wasn’t like that was a lovely fiftyish woman who suddenly appeared in the road right after I’d (with my car) hit and killed a chihuahua. I carried his little body to the house he seemed to have come out of, but no one was home. I was frantic and sad. Suddenly this well-dressed woman appeared with a notepad and opened her arms to me. She hugged me and said, “I know it’s awful. You would NEVER want to do that, I know. Here, you can leave them a note.” She had that pad of paper and a pen. I wrote a note, put it under the dog’s collar, handed it back to her, thanked her and she vanished. ❤ Bear, Teddy and I wish you, Finn and those you love a happy Christmas ❤

      • What experiences, Martha. I do believe in angels. I’ve had two near death experiences in which an explanation of what “brought” me back to the now would make some question my sanity. I have deja vu and moments that have taken my beliefs even higher than that of the man, Jesus, whom I follow. I hope you 3 have had a good Christmas. It’s a quiet warm one here; no snow. I FaceTimed my kids and grandkids. Spent yesterday with family. Finley not so happy with me since I used clippers to shear her much-too-tangled fur. It’s been a blessing to get outside with her although I dreamt of a White Christmas. ❄️❄️❄️❣️💕❤️

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