Trinity United Methodist Church
As he guided his grandmother up the stone steps of Trinity United Methodist, Malcolm wondered if this would be the last time the two of them attended Christmas Eve service together. The first time had been when he was just five years old, three months after his mother had left him at his grandmother’s house on Dacian Avenue and never come back. Malcolm could remember the high-collared coat his grandmother had worn that first Christmas, her polished black shoes, the regal air about her. She was still beautiful now, at nearly ninety years old, with a tennis bracelet around her delicate wrist and a shock of white hair.
On that first Christmas Eve with his grandmother, Malcolm had spotted a homeless man at the back of the church, leaning against the wall with his hands clasped over his chest, his eyes closed. The man had looked peaceful and, Malcolm hoped, warm. It had been unseasonably cold outside for a North Carolina winter. The parishioners had brushed past the man on their way to their pews, opening up their hymnals without a glance to this stranger in their midst. Once the service began, Malcolm found himself turning around in his seat, feeling the tight shoulders of his sports coat pull as he did so, worried it would tear at the seams. Each time he turned around to look at the man, his grandmother had tugged his arm and nodded her chin sharply towards the front of the church, where the minister was talking about the Star of David and the Light of the Christ Child and the goodness of giving. The last time Malcolm turned around, his grandmother had hissed at him to stop and then pinched his thigh so hard it made his eyes water. Malcolm stopped, as he always did when confronted with the cold, hard pellets of his grandmother’s rage, each once pressing into him like a marble – condensed, refracted, fashioned to inflict harm.
But then, when it was the time to “greet your neighbor,” a moment in the service Malcolm usually dreaded, he had turned all the way around to shake the hands of the people behind him. The man had still been there, eyes open and glassy, seeming to reflect all the light in the church. But no one turned to shake his hand. The greeting ended and the candles were lit for Silent Night. Malcolm hadn’t needed to turn around to know that no one had given the man a candle.
After the service, Malcolm had snuck away from his grandmother, who was pulling on her gloves and wishing a happy Christmas to the other parishioners, most of them neighbors and colleagues. Malcolm had walked up to the man, holding out his red child’s scarf. “Merry Christmas,” he’d said and the man had smiled down at him. “Merry Christmas,” the man had said back. His voice had been deep and rich like the man who sang his grandmother’s favorite Christmas song, the one about silver bells and Christmastime in the city. Malcolm had offered him his scarf and when the man declined, he’d held it up again, “I really want you to have it,” he had said, and the man had nodded, taking the scarf and tucking it into the pocket of his coat.
Then, Malcolm’s grandmother had appeared and grabbed Malcolm’s arm. In a moment of what must have been confusion, or maybe even shock, his grandmother had apologized to the man. “I’m sorry,” she had said to him, “He doesn’t know any better.” And then, when she realized that what she’d said was the inverse of what she’d meant, she’d gone a scarlet red. It was the first time Malcolm ever saw his grandmother blush, and he hated himself for feeling sorry for her. They were already in the car by the time his grandmother realized that the scarf was missing. Malcolm had apologized, edging as far away from his grandmother as he could on the wide front seat of the Cadillac. “Hand me your gloves,” his grandmother had said. Malcolm did. “Your hat, too.” Malcolm watched as his grandmother tossed them out the window at the next stoplight. “Now you’ll know what it feels like to go without the things that well-meaning people work hard to provide you.” They’d driven the rest of the way home in silence, Malcolm watching the bare tree branches beneath the streetlights. For the rest of the season, the ache in his raw, red fingers reminded him of the red scarf and the man he’d given it to.
Malcolm remembered all of this now as the young altar girls in their velvet dresses passed out the Silent Night candles with the little paper rims for catching wax. One by one the candles were lit and the lights in the sanctuary dimmed. The singing began, soft at first, and then a swell of sound. His grandmother’s voice wavered on the high notes, and Malcolm fought the urge to turn around and scan the back wall for the homeless man of his childhood.
Malcolm waited, when the service ended, for his grandmother to rise, pull her gloves on, and make her slow way into the throng of parishioners. But she remained seated until the church was empty of everyone but two altar boys who were tidying the hymnals in the choir box. The tree was lit in gold and candles flickered on every surface. It was beautiful, Malcolm had to admit, but in the way his grandmother was beautiful – a remote, foreign beauty that inspired both awe and bewilderment, like a painting you did not like, but couldn’t stop looking at. “Do you remember,” his grandmother asked, “when you stole that tin of mints from the grocery store?”
Malcolm did remember. It had been a tin of mints like the ones his mother used to buy to try to disguise the alcohol and cigarette smoke on her breath. He’d picked it up without thinking, remembering her, and had still been clutching it when he and his grandmother exited the store. When his grandmother saw it in his hand, she’d smacked him across the face right there on the sidewalk, in front of everyone. At dinner that night, she had forced Malcolm to sit at the table with an empty plate and watch her eat.
Malcolm’s grandmother was prone to these reflective moments now, as if she were trying to gain traction in a world that was slipping way from her. But Malcolm knew better than to assume his grandmother was seeking forgiveness. He’d discovered, as these strange questions about their past had became commonplace, that his fear of his grandmother had subsided into something more like curiosity, but always, still, a step away from compassion, a thing she had never once shown him.
“Do you remember the Christmas service when I was five, when I talked to that homeless man?”
His grandmother turned to him, searching his face with blue eyes that had paled with age. “A homeless man?”
“At the back of the church? I gave him my scarf.”
“Of course you did,” she said. Then, she pulled on her gloves and grabbed her cane, using its support to rise from the pew and walk into the aisle.
Outside, the cold air took Malcolm’s breath away. The handful of children who’d attended the service were twirling in happy circles on the sidewalk in front of the church, mouths open. “It’s snowing,” Malcolm realized.
First times were like little awakenings – the first kiss, the first communion, the first day of school. And that’s because you knew you were doing something for the very first time. You could savor it, try to make it last. A last time, though, usually came without your knowing. The last time you spoke to your mother, for example. The last time she touched your face with the soft inside of her hand. Malcolm looked out into the dark night, made softer by the swirling snow. But there were those times, too, when a last time revealed itself to you just as it was happening. Then, you could say, “Finally, this.”
Malcolm took his grandmother’s elbow and began guiding her back down the stops of the church, watching as one snowflake after another dissolved on the black wool of her coat.