Portrait of Charles as St. Francis

by Susan L. Miller

Christmas Eve, a cold Friday,
after hours of cleaning and packing,
I called Charles to see if he would come over

for homemade chicken soup.
We had to eat it all; we’d leave the next morning
for Massachusetts, where Josh’s mother

was still strong enough, despite her cancer,
to spend the day with family.
Our midnight Mass for the English-speaking

would be held at 8, choir music first,
then the procession of the infant Christ
to the creche behind the altar.

Charles arrived with packages:
our wedding present, two years late
but no less sweet,

and a mysterious box taped and taped
with yellowed scraps of cellophane,
plus a plastic bag that held what looked like

another box. Cut open, it revealed
a creche constructed from a peach flat,
its labels still visible under its bottom.

The other box, of course, was filled
with paper towels wrapped
around the Holy Family, German

figures painted in delicate pastels,
and a strange mismatched menagerie:
two glass birds, two camels,

the ass and the cow with one horn,
sheep flocked with fuzzy velvet,
some handsome angels. This angel

I won as an attendance prize at school, Charles said.
In the kitchen, Josh put on the soup,
then suggested, Why don’t you set it up,

so I cleared the coffee table,
and down it went, the easter grass
marked “Hay” laid in its floor,

the cotton marked “Snow”
on its roof. I didn’t know back then
there wouldn’t have been snow,
Charles said.

He insisted the ox and ass be placed
beside the manger (they kept him warm.
The Bible says so
.) When I set

the tallest angel in the back corner,
Charles rejoiced: That’s just
where I used to put him, too!

I always wanted it to go to a family,
Charles said, as I set the cardboard manger
into the hay, and Should we put Jesus

in tonight? I asked. We all agreed
we should, and I laid him in a cotton wad
on his side, his sleeping face crowned

with a halo. Charles sat back on the couch
and surveyed the array: it seemed to suit,
and after our bowls of soup

we walked the six blocks to church,
where families had brought their own
images of Christ, icons arranged

in bassinets or boxes lined with cotton.
Look, the tiniest one! said Father,
lifting a doll the size of his palm.

Charles leaned over Josh in the pew. Next year,
he whispered, we’ll bring ours too. And then we rose
to face the procession, the deacon bearing

the cross of San Damiano, both priests solemn,
and a boy lifting Jesus high
like Charles did one Christmas as a child.