One Christmas Eve my husband and I invited our flannelled, bushy-bearded neighbor man to join us for our family’s traditional, holiday meal.
We’d known him for a few years. He used to come to his country property every weekend to camp out, but come one Sunday night, rather than leave for the city, he moved into his camp trailer. Permanent. I sometimes saw him at the outlet store where dented and outdated groceries were sold at discount prices, so I knew he had enough money for food. And gas.
He kept to himself and his fire pit, and sometimes we heard him rollicking with noisy, beer-chugging friends. He lived off our shared dirt road—amid the thick trees and heavy underbrush—until a wild, winter windstorm smashed a tree into the corner his place. Soon after, he moved his trailer to a clear-cut. He parked another camper beside it. One for cooking. One for sleeping.
When we heard the stomp-bang of boots on the front porch steps, my husband opened the door and motioned our guest inside. Inside of the doublewide trailer that formerly belonged to his parents. I’d not thought that sentimentality through.
“Oh, you replaced the carpet with laminate floors,” he said as he shrugged out of his wood smoky jacket and craned his neck for an obvious look into the next room. “And you covered the kitchen wallpaper with pine boards.” He chewed his lower lip and sucked air through his front teeth, nodding ever so slight.
Our home was clean, the food smelled great, and a fresh-cut tree blinked white lights in the living room. My husband, our 3-year-old son, my visiting mother-in-law, the neighbor man, and I bellied up to the table. Food items and mismatched place settings were its only décor. In addition to the lasagna, salad, mashed spuds, gravy from a packet, store-bought stuffing, and thick cranberry/apple sauce that had been simmering since dawn, I already had placed small plates of chocolate cream pie at each spot.
While eating we talked of the extraordinary lowland flooding—because whilst our mountainous elevation was high enough to have snow—the nearby freeway, towns, and neighborhoods seeped deep with water. His everyday speech was brazen and thick with cuss words, burning my son’s ears with alarming newness.
“Momma, whazzat mean?” my little feller asked over and over again as he pulled on my elbow.
“I’ll tell you about it later, honey,” I said as I gentle-squeezed his little hand.
“But momma, I don’t know what—“
I hushed his continued queries with extra chocolate pie. My mother-in-law paled and went slack-jaw a often. My husband cleared his throat time and again. And I bit my cheek and refilled coffee mugs.
After dinner we invited him to attend a candlelight service with us. And knowing that his rig wasn’t winter-worthy, we offered him a ride.
He nodded slow and looked low. “Churches aren’t for people like me.” Pointing from frazzled hair to booted feet, he said, “I don’t think they’d want all of this, inside of there.”
We gave protest, but to no avail.
Fast-forward another year and a couple evenings before Christmas… My little feller had tromped about as a shepherd in our church’s play, and at its finish, the pastor spoke to the congregation and guests. Then, in all of his 4-year-old impatient glory, my son clamored over my lap and darted up the aisle, shepherd clothes flapped and snapped against his cowboy boots as he ran. When the pastor bent low to assess the candlelit commotion, my youngin’ grabbed the microphone.
Spinning to face the packed pews, he said, “What he’s trying to say is this part’s over. Jesus is having a birthday party downstairs. And guess what? We brung the cake!”
He fled the sanctuary and I chased after my miniature cowboy shepherd. As I ran toward the stairwell, I recognized a man leaning against the back wall. Although flannelled to his utmost, his wild hair was combed smooth, and he’d trimmed his beard.
Once downstairs, my husband introduced our neighbor man around the room. Folks belted out Happy Birthday, and then we all ate cake.
Some days later as I drove homeward, the neighbor man stepped outta the woods and stopped me on the dirt road. “You know where you go to Sunday service? That place where I watched the Christmas play when your son stole the microphone?”
“Yes, sir?” I asked, leaning through the truck window.
“Those folks didn’t seem bothered by all of this,” he said as he pointed from beard to boots.
I reckon a flannelled, bushy-bearded man who lives in a camp trailer deserves to meet the Man who spent His first earthly night in a manger. And, he did.