“Time to pick up Aunt Lucille!”
We hopped into my dad’s blue 1962 Ford. I adjusted the heavy wool plaid blanket that covered the ripped seats. We were off to pick up my favorite aunt so that she could join our family for Christmas dinner.
The red cellophane wreaths with the giant Christmas candles lit up Main Street and every house displayed decorations, no matter how humble the home or how modest the decoration. Spying a brilliantly lit Christmas tree through a cozy window piqued my curiosity and made me wonder about the family inside. Did they have golden lights on the tree like we did? Did they have a turkey waiting, and stockings by the fireplace, and a beautiful nativity scene, too?
We arrived at Maria Regina Hall, the convent where the Sisters of St. Dominic lived, coasting along the horseshoe-shaped driveway and parking directly in front of the imposing double doors. An ancient nun, the portress, answered the doors and through a series of gestures, invited us into the visitor’s parlor. My dad had to wait in the parlor, but I could walk deeper into the hushed halls of the convent alongside my aunt or one of the many nuns who lived there.
The portress sister rang an intricate set of bells that called my aunt down from her room somewhere high above. While my dad waited in the stuffy formal parlor, I’d peek into the nuns’ dining room. The sunlight room revealed table after table covered with snowy white linen cloths, as spotless as the Dominican habit, white dishes and crystal-clear water goblets. Everything was plain, spotless, perfect.
Hearing footsteps along the carpeted halls, I raced back to the parlor to throw myself into my aunt’s embrace. Her habit always smelled like fresh Ivory soap. I can still feel the scratchy polyester fabric against my face and hear the way it rustled when she walked.
Aunt Lucille asked me, “Do you want to visit the chapel to say a prayer?” I nodded.
She led me through the hallways of the convent, past the parlor where some of the sisters sat and watched television, past offices and closed doors and into the plain little room they called the chapel.
The chapel was cool and dark, lit only by the blue sanctuary light over the tabernacle and a spotlight near the front of the room illuminating the cross. The kneelers were hard. We knelt together and said a prayer. I felt so grown up. I pretended I was a nun even though I was wearing corduroy pants and saddle shoes. I tried to copy exactly how my aunt knelt, how she bowed her head, how she folded her hands.
Then my aunt whispered to me, “Would you like to see the nativity?” Would I ever! It was the most elaborate nativity set I had ever seen.
On a low table tucked in front of the altar was nativity scene depicting every animal, every person in Bethlehem that night. It was so detailed I imagined the artist had depicted the fleas on the dogs’ coats. There were shepherds and plenty of sheep milling about while their masters gazed heavenward at an unseen angel. The three kings, resplendent in purple, blue and gold, marched ahead of their camel, guided by the star. Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus nestled snuggly inside the stable, Mary smiling at her beautiful child. An angel held a banner that said, “Gloria” flew over the stable, tethered by a nail to the ridgeline. I thought that was her name – Gloria.
“Pick your favorite one,” Aunt Lucille said with a smile. I hesitated.
I reached out and touched a shepherd. He had a dog at his feet and a sheep over his shoulders. I picked him because he had animals with him and he looked kind. She lifted the figure and turned it over to reveal its secret to me. The base of the statue was concave, with a little key hidden underneath.
“Turn the key,” she whispered.
I turned the key with a trembling hand. The opening notes of “Silent Night” sang through the chapel.
I gasped and cradled the statue in my hands. The music box played Silent Night as sweetly as if the angels themselves played it in the silence of the chapel. I begged her to listen to it again.
After the second time, she said it was time to go, and so we knelt again, blessed ourselves, and left the chapel.
That Christmas was long ago, and much has changed since then. The convent has been transformed into office spaces for Molloy College, the school that would become my alma mater. My aunt passed away in 2010, and any of the remaining sisters who had once called Maria Regina Hall home moved to their motherhouse in Amityville, New York or other parishes on Long Island. What became of the beautiful, magical nativity, and the shepherd’s secret I’ll never know.
While I was a student at Molloy, the college build a modern chapel for the students, tucked behind the old convent. It’s very Modern with a capital M and lots of abstract stained glass and piped-in music, like a funeral home.
I miss the dark, cool nun’s chapel with the hard kneelers and the magical nativity scene. I miss the nuns who fussed over me whenever I went to visit.
Christmas is a time of joy, a time of wonder and mystery as we contemplate the Incarnation. Nothing evokes that feeling of mystery and wonder to me like the memories of the shepherd’s secret, often evoked by hearing the strains of Silent Night echoing through the church on Christmas Eve.
I wonder where the shepherd is today. Is there a child somewhere who knows his secret? I smile, nodding. Yes. Somewhere is another six-year-old child begging to turn the key, enraptured by the stable of Bethlehem.