Madonna in Lavender
The Christmas gathering was their annual attempt to foster family warmth and congeniality that seemed mysteriously elusive.
It would be safe to say that when the three Parnsley families gathered for the Christmas season, the result wasn’t likely to generate material for a heartwarming Hallmark Channel special. At least…never mind. That’s getting ahead of things.
During interludes of forgetting each other’s shortcomings, Homer and Grace Parnsley had procreated Fred and Stanley. Their talent for zeroing in on flaws had been transmitted seamlessly to the offspring, who from boyhood exercised it avidly on each other, becoming so proficient they could have given a workshop.
Fred had married Eleanor; they were now parents of Amy, 12, and Nora, 10. Stanley and his wife, Marie, were parents of Rob, 9, and Eric, 5.
Two to three weeks before each Christmas, the three Parnsley families assembled to celebrate what Grace referred to as “a very old family tradition,” although everyone knew its creation coincided with her sons’ marriages. They gathered in one of the three homes to decorate that family’s Christmas tree and install the crèche. It was one of Grace’s attempts to foster the family warmth and congeniality which seemed mysteriously elusive. It would certainly help, she often thought, if the others knew how to act right. Their incorrigibility was one of her heaviest crosses, and she complained to the Lord about it frequently.
On this particular Advent Friday evening, the sometimes marginally tense tradition was being held at the home of Fred and Eleanor. The wives Eleanor and Marie were preparing snacks in the kitchen. In the living room, Homer and Stanley were doing their best to make Grace happy by decorating the tree correctly. The children were in the family room, five steps down from the living room of the split-level home. They had been assigned the task of painting plaster-of-Paris Nativity figurines. Stanley had been delayed at work but was on his way.
“Homer, you’ve got too many reds together up there on the left,” Grace instructed from the sofa. “You need to spread the colors around evenly. I’ve told you that. And not too many lights close together, even if they’re not the same color, like you have on the right middle. Lights should be spread around evenly.”
“How come you wear the same color nail polish on all your nails? They’re close together.”
Fred intervened, precluding a rebuttal from his mother. “Here, Dad, let me take over. After all, it’s our tree, so I should know how to get it right.”
“Not necessarily, Fred. You’ve always had real trees up to now, and this one is artificial. Your mother and I have had an artificial tree for years, so I just might know a thing or two more about this than you do.”
Amy bounced up the steps from the family room and across the living room to her grandmother. She held a plaster-of-Paris kneeling Madonna.
“What color should I paint Mary’s coat?”
“Why, Amy, honey, you know what color that should be,” Grace admonished mildly.
“No, I don’t.”
“Oh, sure you do, honey. That’s one of the things they teach you in religion. You’ve just forgotten.”
“We don’t study colors in religion, Grandma. We study colors in art. I don’t like art.”
“If she doesn’t like art,” Homer began, “why are we making her paint—“
“Homer, hush. Every child should have the experience of painting a Nativity set. I’ve often told you that.” Now, Amy…it’s blue, honey. The Blessed Mother always wears blue. Who’s painting St. Joseph?”
“Nora, but she’s sloppy. She got orange on St. Joseph’s hands and face.”
“Orange?” Grace was mildly aghast. “But St. Joseph always wears…oh, well. Are the boys helping?”
“Not really. Rob’s watching TV because he said it’s dumb to put white paint on sheep statues that are already white. And Eric’s making his sheep purple. Eric’s stupid.”
The apples hadn’t fallen far from the tree.