I ended up drifting past the church again. The parking lot, with the stage growing in its midst, was dark and empty, but the church itself was still blazing with light, even though the last Mass was over. The Parish of St. Cecilia looked as festive as anything else in our neighborhood. Golden lights outlined the exterior of the church—the buttresses, the arches, the angled roof and the cross on top, and almost every window The trees in the churchyard were festooned with small, multicolored Christmas stars or parol, blooming like celestial fruit. More colorful parol hung in rows from the walls, while a magnificent electronic foil-and-plastic parol graced the stained glass window in the center, flashing its stylized green holly, yellow bells and red flowers arranged in a star shape in stately rhythm.
In the cold bleakness of evening the church glowed like a lighthouse, and I found myself dismounting and wheeling my bike inside. Propping my bike in a shed, I slipped inside and wandered among the pews, running my hand across the polished wood, and breathing in the lingering scent of flowers and candles. More white parol hung from the chandeliers and between the statues of the saints and angels. Clearly, whoever had been in charge of decorating the church had a fondness for Christmas stars.
On one side of the sacristy was the church’s pride and joy: the large Nativity featuring half a bamboo hut filled with straw and poinsettias, within which were gathered the terra cotta statues of Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men, a few shepherds, and a dewy-eyed angel, along with several sheep, a cow, and a donkey. But the focal point of all these was the terra cotta Baby Jesus lying in his manger. There was ample space at the foot of the manger; by tradition, this was where people put their offerings of flowers, baskets of fruit, baked goods or anything else they would like to give to the Savior.
Above the hut, another electronic parol flashed like a traffic signal, silver buntings trailing down from its tail acting as its starry rays indicating the location of the Savior’s birth. But at the moment, my attention was caught by a plump figure in a light brown habit and a white coif, perched precariously on top of a small stepladder in front of the Nativity, reaching over to attach something to the roof of the hut directly above the manger. It wasn’t the most secure of positions, and when the stepladder wobbled, I darted forward and grabbed hold of it to steady it, murmuring, “Whoops, careful there.”
“Ooh! Oh my goodness! Thank you, dear, that was quite close.” The figure turned to look at me, revealing a round face, warm eyes in a nest of laugh lines, and the widest smile in the entire town. “Excellent timing, Zoey,” she said, laughing. “Can you imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t come? I don’t think the Holy Family would appreciate my usurping our Lord’s place. Why, I could never look half as cute in swaddling clothes!”
She laughed again, and despite the gray fog encasing me, I couldn’t help but laugh with her. Sister Beth had always been able to coax laughter out of even the dourest people, which was an odd gift to have when you were headmistress for many years of a preschool and kindergarten run by your religious order. Or maybe not. Generations of children, including my cousins and me, have grown up with memories of her quick smiles, her easy laughter, and her open kindness to everyone and everything. Sister Beth was as beloved an institution in this town as our family was. In fact, she often claimed she remembered every single child who’d passed through her school, and I had yet to see any evidence proving her wrong.
“Hi there, Sister Beth,” I greeted her. “What were you trying to do? And can I help?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, I was just adding a finishing touch to our Holy Family’s dwelling place.” She flourished the object hanging from her hand. “This little one is supposed to go…right…here…” She stretched forward again to attach the object to the roof, only to have it fall right on top of the Baby Jesus. “Oh goodness, not again,” she sighed.
As she stepped off the ladder, I picked up the object and studied it. It was a hand-made Christmas parol about the size of a dinner plate, made out of two pieces of construction paper—one side red, the other side yellow—cut in the shape of stars. The two stars were stapled together and stuffed with what felt like crumpled bits of paper to make them puff outward. Two tails made of strips of gold foil fluttered from the parol’s bottom points. Pasted in the middle of the yellow side was a drawing of the Baby Jesus in a manger, with lines of glitter radiating from it like rays. On the red side was a drawing of a long-haired angel in a pale blue dress with yellow ribbon around her waist, a golden halo above her head, her white wings spread out. A glittering aura surrounded the angel.
The parol seemed pretty old. The colors of the construction paper were faded, the gold-foil tails had grown dull, and some of the glitter had rubbed off. But the drawings of the Baby Jesus and the angel, which had been painstakingly colored in with marker, remained as vivid as ever. The parol was a homely little thing, something I usually wouldn’t even take notice of, but as I stared down at the drawings, I felt something begin to stir inside.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it, when you really look at it.” Sister Beth smiled. “A five-year-old drew those, did you know?”
“Really?” I said, surprised. The drawings were childish-looking, but they were a lot better than the crude stick figures my siblings produced at that age.
“Mm-hm. Believe it or not, this little one was a prizewinner in its time.”
“Yeah, but…” I glanced up at the church’s stellar pantheon, then at the Nativity with its splendid electronic parol. “It really doesn’t match the rest of the décor, does it?” I observed doubtfully.
“Not quite, but I happen to believe this is its rightful place. I just don’t understand why it fell off. And where has that hook disappeared to?” she muttered as she searched around the manger.
I checked the parol again. Sure enough, the string that looped from a hole on the top of it had broken. “I’ve got an idea,” I announced. Pulling my cap off, I undid my ponytail and looped my hair elastic through the hole as a replacement for the string, then attached the hook Sister Beth had managed to locate. As I climbed up the stepladder to hang it from the roof above the manger, Sister Beth told me the story of the little handmade parol.
A preschooler named Gabe had made it, she said. This was a few years before I entered preschool, so I didn’t know him. He’d submitted it for a school competition, although by the time I was a student, Sister Beth and the staff had decided to simply give every parol the children made equal recognition. But back in Gabe’s time, it was announced that the best parol would be given a place of honor as the Christmas star in the church’s Nativity.
He gave the competition his all. Most of the children did, but Gabe had more reason than most to take the competition seriously. His baby sister was dying from a congenital heart defect, and he’d confessed to Sister Beth that he made a deal with God: He’d make the best parol ever, and if it won, God would let his baby sister live.
His parol won, but his sister died anyway. Worse, she died on the day the winner was announced, like some terrible cosmic joke. And instead of being granted a special spot in the Nativity, the parol disappeared, and Sister Beth found it later in a garbage bin where Gabe had thrown it away. They purchased a new star to complete the Nativity, and the school put an end to the parol-making competition after that.
Gabe and his family moved away several months later, and to this day, Sister Beth didn’t know what had become of him. But she kept the parol he made, and every Christmas, she would sneak it somewhere into the church’s Nativity, giving it a chance to do what it was made to do: light the way to the infant Savior.
“Why?” I wanted to know. “It’s useless. Gabe’s gone and, anyway, that parol didn’t fulfill its part of the bargain to begin with. So why?”
Sister Beth adjusted the parol’s position then stepped back. “A bargain like that should never have been made at all,” she said. “The timing of each individual life is set according to God’s infinite wisdom, and whether one lives or dies, well, that’s solely between that soul and God. But useless? I take offense on behalf of this little one.” She planted her hands on her hips in mock outrage, the twinkle in her eyes betraying her humor. “He makes an excellent mobile, don’t you agree? Very good for our Lord’s cognitive development.”
“Fine, it—he does,” I conceded. “But still…” I looked up again at the clusters of white stars, then at the beauty above the hut, then at the completely non-descript parol hanging above Jesus’ head. “He…doesn’t belong here with all the others,” I found myself saying. “He can’t light up on his own, and he’s so…ordinary. People won’t notice him, he’s practically invisible—”
My throat closed up, and I blinked my tears away. I could feel Sister Beth’s gaze on me, and I realized that she, like everyone else in town, had probably already heard about my utter failure as an Andrada. I found myself cramming a strand of hair into my mouth, spit it out, then plunked my cap on my head instead, never mind how discourteous it was.
Then Sister Beth laid a hand on my shoulder and said: “This little one is not like the others, that’s true. But invisible? When you and I are seeing him right now in all his glory? And he doesn’t light up like the others, because his light comes from a different place. To me, and now to you, this little one is unlike any other star here. He among all the others has a story to tell.” She then clasped her hands together and assumed the air of a schoolteacher addressing a young pupil. “Now, Zoey, if this parol could speak, what would you say to it? Would you say mean things to it? Wouldn’t you rather encourage it and treat it with kindness and tell it to value itself more?”
“What? But I’d never even noticed it before,” I protested with a laugh, then paused when a thought occurred to me. “I’ve never noticed anything until now. I’ve been too busy…”
“Playing catch-up with your family, and never quite catching up?”
I stared at her for a moment, then the tears started to flow in earnest as her words broke the dam inside me. She drew me to a pew and sat beside me as I cried into my hands, murmuring “there, there” comfortingly. Then she stopped talking altogether and simply listened as I spilled everything—from Camille’s nastiness, to my overhearing my aunt discussing my lack of talent, to the loneliness I felt at not having anything worthwhile to contribute to the Christmas concert—everything. The words poured out as if I’d eaten something bad and was now trying to heave out all the toxins I’d ingested. It was as messy as you can imagine.
Finally, my sobs subsided into sniffling, and I mopped my face with the hanky Sister Beth had produced. “There, there,” she said again. “I’ve known you since you were a small child, Zoey, and you’ve always been different from the rest of your family.”
“Really?” I croaked. “How was I different?”
“Well, you never took to singing and dancing like the others did. You wouldn’t touch the piano in the classroom. For a long time, you just stood back and watched your classmates, or you went out to the garden and looked at the plants and played with the cats. You observed everything. Nothing escaped your notice.”
I looked at her askance. “That’s it? That’s all I did? Nothing else?”
She laughed, a happy sound that echoed throughout the church. “That, dear, has never been said of any child since the dawn of time. No, there was something else you did quite often.”
“You drew. Everything,” she said, smiling with fond nostalgia. “You loved arts sessions more than anything else. You adored being surrounded by paper, crayons and paints. And you often told stories as you drew. ‘This is the butterfly I saw in the garden.’ Or ‘this is what the mommy cat said to her baby.’ Or this is what Carlito said one of your classmates looked like, after you drew a horrible monster. Your teacher ended up giving Carlito a time-out after she saw your drawing,” she added with a laugh, and I laughed as well.
“You used to remind me a little of Gabe, you know. And I still think you’d be quite a good artist. Ah, but you don’t draw or tell stories anymore, do you?” she suddenly asked me.
I thought about my class notes, which I tended to intersperse with doodles and illustrations, and my music scores as well. “I—I still do. I think better when I’m drawing, and it helps a lot when I need to memorize something. But no, I don’t draw as much… as much as I…”
“As much as you want to? Is it because you gave it up to be more like your family?”
I nodded, unable to speak. At that, Sister Beth smiled and got to her feet. “Then, Zoey, perhaps now you are being called home to yourself. Or think of it as being guided home. So keep moving forward, child, because all your gifts are waiting in there for you.”
For some reason, I found my gaze drifting toward the little parol hanging above the manger, and the stirring I felt earlier began to put out roots. I thanked Sister Beth, promising to wash her hanky before I returned it, then said my goodbyes.
As I biked home, with my cap hanging from my handlebars and my hair streaming out behind me, the stirring within me blossomed into an idea. And for the first time in a while, I felt something I didn’t think I’d feel again—excitement, hope, and, after being lost for so long, the sweet, half-forgotten feeling of coming home.