Mrs. Pearl Frerking owned the shop and studio where we took ceramics. If Pearl had been a man, I would probably describe her as an old codger. She usually had a cigarette in her hand, with voice and words as scratchy as sandpaper. I think we were all a little scared of her.
I was never as good as the other girls in my group, but it was still fun to work with green ware and glazes while we wondered and wandered through adolescence into young adulthood. Several girls in my Camp Fire group spent an entire year cleaning and painting nativity sets in detail. Pearl and I silently agreed that probably wasn't a good choice for me. At least not then. Several years later, a nativity set allowed Pearl to be a messenger of grace to me.
I love the holidays! I love the sights and sounds and smells, the textures and tastes! But I've learned that the holidays are not happy for everyone. The year America celebrated her bicentennial, Tom and I were excitedly expecting our first child. Our baby was due the first part of February, so Christmas cards went out letting friends and family know about our great expectation. But things don't always go as we hope and plan. Our son lived only a few hours due to a congenital birth defect.
I'm not sure what made me stop into Pearl's shop that summer, several years after taking a class, but it seemed like a good idea. My friend, Karen, agreed to go to classes with me once a week. For several weeks I worked on a few simple pieces. Then Pearl intervened, and asked if I'd be interested in doing a nativity set. Actually, she wouldn't take no for an answer. Pearl told me not to worry about detail, I could do an antiquing glaze. What about the gold accents? If I wanted her to, Pearl offered to paint those for me.
We were never sure what loss Pearl had experienced, but there was something. Sometimes a little sadness would slip out unexpectedly. Whatever it was, Pearl knew the upcoming Christmas was going to be a hard one for me. So, she put something in my hands to work on. She made sure I would be successful, and she made sure the nativity set was finished by Christmas. Pearl kept me focused and productive, and helped me create something lovely and tangible, something to hold in my hand.
I won't lie and say making the nativity set took away all the hurt of not sharing Christmas with our first child, but I will say it helped. I surprised my mom with the set as her gift that year. I know it meant as much to her as it did to me because it was always displayed in a place of honor in her home. When Mama passed, it came to me.
The nativity set has been displayed for nearly forty Christmases. I like the way it looks on our mantel. And every year when I gently unwrap the pieces I think about Pearl and Mrs. Bishop, and thank God for people who allow themselves to bring hope and comfort and reassurance to others when they need it most.
By the way, as hard as that Christmas was, the next one will probably always be one of my favorite ones. Our daughter, Mary, was born on December 18, and we came home from the hospital on Christmas Day to families with open arms and open hearts, and more than a little thankfulness for this new life.