by Mary Esselman
To remember Christmas in the abstract is one thing, like shaking a glass snow scene and watching the swirl-a jumble of snow and chill, fragrant pine and turkey, presents and hugs, Zuzu's petals and the Whos down in Whooville, the warmth of firelight and eggnog, the joining of hands at midnight mass. Ahh, Christmas.
But to recall those particular Christmases when circumstance shook your world upside down, when things weren't snow-scene perfect-Christmas away from home and family, a strange place, a sudden loss, a broken heart-to revisit those times is to call into question all that Christmas is supposed to be.
I had one of those Christmases fourteen years ago. I was 22, fresh out of Georgetown, and with the Jesuit Volunteers International (JVI) in Belize, Central America. I was a maestra of high-school English in a Caribbean fishing village; like my fellow volunteers (four other women, five men, Jesuit-trained all), I had arrived in Belize brimming with do-gooder zeal, eager to live by the four tenets of JVI: live simply, build community, work for social justice, and nurture spirituality.
Utterly humbled by December (after four months of tropical heat, uninvited rats, relentlessly energetic students, and our own damn constant volunteer togetherness), we settled for one "tenet"of do-gooder sanity: take a Christmas break.
Christmas in Belize meant my first holiday away from family and friends, from snow and presents. I loved thinking I was on my own, an adult, seeking something authentic in the world, trying to live my faith (after four years of "reflection" in college I wanted "action").
My plan was to travel to Mexico by bus with fellow volunteers John and Pat; we'd go for a few days before Christmas and then on Christmas Eve meet up with the other volunteers and with Fr. Ted Dziak, SJ, JVI director at the time.
The other volunteers did other things that Christmas week-Mary and Mary Louise went to El Salvador; David went to visit Dennis, a volunteer who lived and worked in Dangriga, four hours away on the coast; and Brendan, Moe, and Nancy stayed close to home in Belize City.
Of Mexico, I remember crowded, endless bus rides (making goofy faces with the children), dusty town squares festooned with holiday lights, dank hotel rooms, our gringo-mangled Spanish, and throughout it all, belly-ache laughter. I remember returning on Christmas Eve, and even the heat couldn't smother my giddy excitement. We were heading back to our group to celebrate together.
And I remember Nancy meeting us with the news that there had been an accident. Dennis, the unspoken leader of our group, Dennis, the fearless, tender, wise-cracking New York Irish jock, Dennis the Pied Piper of Dangriga, while teaching some kids how to swim, had dived off a pier and broken his neck. He had been medivaced to Miami in critical condition.
The rest I remember in pieces. All of us together, grim and stricken, praying. Ted coming days later with confirmation of Dennis's paralysis from the neck down. A retreat, already planned, to the south of Belize. Flowers, grass, butterflies, everything too bright, the sky obscenely blue. Wanting to be with Dennis, wanting to be with each other, wanting to throw Christmas back at God, swaddling clothes and all. The Christmas phone call home, trying to maintain the "I'm independent" cool but hearing my parents' voices and breaking down. Just crying, and them just letting me.
It was a long time ago. Dennis (still the joke-cracker, still charismatic) works as a counselor in Boston. The rest of us have gone our own ways, some of us in touch with each other, some not. All of us know, however, that we share the bonds of that Christmas together and of our time in Belize.
This year, as the holidays approached, I decided to look back at who we were then. Holding all these memories somewhere in me, I returned to Belize and visited the current volunteers there. I trekked to the St. Martin's neighborhood of Belize City, sweating buckets, swatting mosquitos, and breathing in the familiar swamp-sewer-backyard fire smell that seems to permeate parts of the country.
As soon as I walked through the door of the volunteers' cramped house, the experience all came back to me. The staggering heat, the mushy spaghetti and moldy bread dinners-and the cheerful, buoyant energy. Did we bellow with happy chatter like that? Did we guffaw over stories of the kids next door or tales of our volunteer hijinks? We did. We really did.
The conversation turned to the upcoming holidays, and I asked the group of four women and one man how it felt to be away from home at Christmas. Three who had been in Belize last year, Anna, a teacher at a girls' trade school, Chris, a religion teacher, and Jen, a youth counselor, launched into animated accounts of Christmas 1997. Listening to them transported me back to my days as a volunteer, sitting around the table with Nancy and Pat and Dennis and Mary Louise, arguing, joking, trying to understand each other, our Belizean communities, and our genuine desire to serve God and others:
Chris: Memories of Christmas last year? Eating.
Anna: Everybody feeding us like crazy. So much black cake, that fruit cake that's really dark, really rich, and really disgusting. Trena made the mistake of saying she liked it, and then everybody and their dog got black cake for Christmas.
Chris: And rum popo, spelled rum pope. It's eggnog with rum. They make it by the gallons, and it's unbelievably strong.
Jen: Apples and grapes are a big deal at Christmas time, too. Right before Christmas break, teachers get an apple, the red kind, which are pretty rare here. And it's a status thing to have grapes at a Christmas party.
Anna: It's also the big cleaning time of the year. People buy new floor coverings and paint, making everything nice for having people over.
Chris: Everybody gets decked out, there's that. But the emphasis is different here at Christmas time. It's not like in the States, big sales and all the pressure to buy presents for everybody. They do give gifts, but it's more about spending time with people. Last year almost all the JVIs came up before Christmas. We celebrated with a huge dinner; Fr. Dick Perl, SJ, [in-country coordinator working at St. John's College] and Fr. Maurice Murray, SJ, [math teacher at St. John's] were here. We had, um, a bit to drink and sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but we sang it with Belize parts in it.
Jen: Like "Four stiff rats-"
Anna: "Three mangy dogs-two I don't remember-and a big plate of rice and beans."
Jen: And we had cranberry bread, and the Jesuits gave us a ham . . . We had all these random decorations, and lights up. Molly had her guitar . . . and we had Kahlua, a huge treat . . . And then I remember we went to midnight mass and we sang in the choir, and I felt so full of Christmas.
Chris: And after that we went out with Delma Jean, our next-door neighbor, whose kids come over all the time. And Christmas day we had a gift exchange, just funny stuff like Pop Tarts. I'd already given my gift, a surprise to Kevin and Trena, a married couple who lived in our community last year. They didn't get a lot of time alone. So I made a nice meal for them, dessert and candlelight, and then I left to go to a party. The bad part was I came home late and had forgotten my keys and had to pound on the door to get them to let me in.
Anna: One of the best parts was being with our downstairs neighbors for a big meal. That was a big deal, getting invited to Miss Evelyn's house. I'd hung out on the porch before, but going inside was another thing. We visited other people that afternoon, and then off to the Jesuits for another meal. We ate all day, rice and beans and turkey and ham and potato salad. Christmas Day I talked with my family, and I found myself saying the same thing to every relative who got on the phone, "Yeah it's fine, really hot." I wanted to be with them. But I felt good about being depressed with the other people here. You're in it together.
Jen: I had never missed Christmas at home in Nebraska before. For a moment at midnight mass I did feel, "Hey, Christmas is here!" But the weather was a big thing. No snow. I felt like I should've been home. Why am I allowing myself to miss those things I feel so rooted in? And yet I understand the philosophy of the program. It helps being with everyone else here.
Anna: And we're here with Belizeans, too, celebrating with them and learning from them. The students at my school are all poor. After Christmas in the States, you know how you come back and everyone says, "What did you get?" That's not a focus here. It's not about getting a whole bunch of things. Everybody gets excited about having a vacation. You get three weeks. I even remember last year one of my students saying, "Miss, I was bored. I wanted to be in school."
Jen: The thing that struck me is that there is a need to give. Delma Jean bought a bottle of champagne for us when she can barely afford to feed her family. Bernadine gave us something for Christmas-she's got seventeen kids and can't afford to give anybody else anything, but she does, just to show her appreciation. There are many different levels of poverty in our parish, but sometimes it all comes together. The other day I was in church, singing, holding hands. On one side was Bernadine, who is so poor, and on the other was one of the most powerful and wealthy women in the community, and I just felt the connection with them and with what we were singing, and I thought, "This is it, this is Belize, right here."
I felt it in the room, that spirit, me, the aging volunteer sweating at their dinner table. It's all still here, I thought, marveling again at the familiarity, the common commitment, the daily struggles. Live simply, build community, work for social justice, nurture spirituality. The Christmas story in a nutshell, which of course is not about Christmas but about Christ, about living like Christ.
My nostalgic longing had been to go back and fix that Dennis Christmas of 1984, to find Christmas through these new volunteers, crack open the meaning of it all and, like the shepherds in the field, receive a clear sign, a brilliant star, a miracle baby.
Instead, I found in Christmas what Yeats, in his poem "The Magi," called "the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor." I found the same smelly, happy, struggling group I once belonged to. No heralding angels but tiding-bearers of great joy nonetheless: Love one another. Work for good. Try not to drive each other crazy. I just may have to get in touch with my old Belize comrades to share the news, and a little rum pope Ahh, Christmas!
Mary Esselman, who taught at Georgetown University after graduating from there, is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in People, Modern Maturity, USA Weekend, and En Route, Air Canada's in-flight magazine. She is writing a PBS documentary on how Lima, Ohio, has been affected by the global economy.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, SJ, [email protected] Copyright(c) 1999, Company Magazine. Created: 4/10/1999 Updated: 4/10/1999