Over the chain link fence

One time, when I was about seven, I climbed the chain link fence in our South Mississippi backyard and landed in another world. Behind the yard was a dense wood, thick and dark and different from any place I’d ever been. I knew to stay close to the fence. I didn’t want to get lost. But I did want to look around. So I walked in a big circle, round and round, behind our house, behind the neighbor’s house. There, behind the neighbor’s house, on the ground in the pine needles, I spotted something. 

It looked like a vase or a trophy cup of some sort–it was ornate and made of sturdy metal. It had handles. I picked it up. The base piece at the bottom dangled beneath it, broken but attached. Still, this object was a thing of beauty. It was a treasure, and I couldn’t wait to take it home so I could show it to the family. 

My father brushed the dust off of it. Then, scrunching up his big, bushy eyebrows, he held it up to the light and studied it for clues. He seemed to be reading something printed on it. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I learned that my treasure was an urn, an urn for the keeping of ashes. It was a funeral urn. In fact, there were still some ashes stuck in the bottom of it. Mama and Daddy whispered to one another, but I could hear. They were talking about the neighbor. And I remembered that one time I had heard the neighbor yelling in his backyard. I had seen him throwing things. My discovery wasn’t a trophy cup, and it wasn’t a treasure. It was the ashes of someone dead, held in a broken urn, chunked into the woods by a broken man.

My discovery wasn’t a trophy cup, and it wasn’t a treasure. It was the ashes of someone dead, held in a broken urn, chunked into the woods by a broken man.

I wish I knew what happened to the urn. I don’t remember seeing it again. Maybe my father returned it to the neighbor. Maybe he lay it next to the fence where the neighbor would see it. All I know is that not much later, that neighbor moved away. A really nice couple bought his house, and that was the end of the yelling and throwing of things. That was the end of finding funeral urns in the woods. 

Months later, one night, at Christmastime, in that same backyard in front of those same woods, my brother and sisters and I, along with a friend who lived down the road, decided to make ourselves into a nativity. I’m not sure where we got the idea. Our daddy was a Church of Christ minister. It was the 1970s. Christmas for us was about parties, presents, Santa Claus and carols. Our church did not put on a pageant. But we saw nativity scenes in our own very Catholic town, and we heard stories about how my older sister had played Jesus when she was a baby, back when my parents had been Baptists. 

For our nativity production, that older sister, now nine, was the director. She told me to wear my long, blue-and-white checked church dress. She took some silver tinsel from the Christmas tree and formed it into a circle on the top of my head. My five-year-old brother was Joseph. The friend from down the road was Mary, and we dressed our toddler sister as a shepherd. I think the director took charge of the stage lights–porch lights and flashlights, if I’m remembering correctly. I read from Luke Chapter 2, because in addition to playing the role of an angel, I was also the narrator. At the end of the reading, we sang “Silent Night.” Our parents had gathered to watch. The nice, new neighbors had come out of their house and were standing at the fence line. Their faces were beaming as we sang “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.”

Their faces were beaming as we sang “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.”

We were children playing dress-up and enjoying the attention of the grown-ups. We were acting out a story that we knew and loved. We were having fun. But when I saw the beaming faces of the neighbors across the fence, clearly moved by these kids dressing up, I was moved, too. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but out of the mouths of us little babes had come praise after praise after praise. We sang. We sang at the edge of the dark wood. We sang good news for yelling drunks and religious folks. We sang good news to the nice new neighbors. We sang good news to the parents of children. We sang good news for the dead, lying in the ashes in broken urns on pine needles. 

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