Comments: I hope you will enjoy the last of Fr. Mike's "official" visits to Lancer. I expect he might pop up in another story, but we'll have to see.
Happy Holidays to one and all
Thank you to Cat- whose last minute help was needed and appreciated. Thank you.
I love this time of year. It starts for me the Monday before Advent when we take our vestments out of their cotton wrappers and give them a good wash. There is something about hanging them out on the line that lets you know that the season has really begun.
Then on Wednesday it begins with the ladies of the altar guild decorating the church in red and white satin bows and juniper boughs and white candles. But it's more than the smell of fresh incense and cinnamon and spiced cider. There is a feeling in the air, of anticipation and fun.
The parents have been making gifts for their children and the game of trying to keep the secret in small houses with little leisure time is part of the joy. The children are doing all they can to do their chores, finish their schoolwork and be good for their parents.
I have been reveling in the jubilation of this season and all the new things in this community. I loved the Festival of Guadalupe with all the dancing and music. Every night there is a Posada and the children break a piñata and my new favorite of the festivities is the Ponche con Piquete, which reminds me enough of mulled wine to make me forget any form of homesickness.
And thinking of homesickness, and the lack of it, today I am headed out to my home away from home. Over the last year I have come to enjoy my visits out to the Lancer Ranch as much as any of my daily duties.
Charity sets out with a brisk pace on this clear winter morning, pulling my buggy along smoothly. There was a fog this morning that lingers over the road, only occasionally granting me peeks at a pale blue sky. The meadow grasses have taken on the color of well-baked bread and tiny brown birds and magpies serenade me as I make my way down the dry dusty road. This land is so different than my homeland. There is no rain here, only sunshine and the occasional fog. It's a good thing we have calendars or one would never know the season.
I might have missed my turn if I hadn't been down this road so many times before. As I came down the hill there is a wide spot where I can look down on the ranch. There below me, the buildings look like something out of a fairy tale. The fog has pulled back from the house but the surrounding meadow is cloaked in gray wisps leaving only the buildings standing alone, cocooned and protected from the outside world.
I was almost loath to intrude on the sanctuary, but Charity pressed on. We ride down the hill slowly, Charity's rear legs dug down so we don't take on too much speed and then cross into the meadow before the river. The sun has burnt a hole through the fog here, sending down shafts of light that warm the air.
Off to one side I see a horse, still saddled, grazing contentedly. The horse looks our way, its blond ears flicking this way and that, taking in the rattle and creak of my buggy. As I draw closer I see a man, laid out in the ground, arms spread wide, his dark clothes harsh against the pale grasses.
"Johnny!" I fear he has been thrown and pull Charity to a stop.
"Heard ya' coming ages ago. If you were to drive that buggy any slower, you could leave it at home and walk faster." He got to his feet; it is both graceful and not, as he lashes his hat against his leg before settling it over his dark hair. He walks over to my buggy, his horse following along behind, its reins trailing.
"What are you doing lying out on the ground? Were you thrown?"
He frowns at me – the indignity of the remark clear on his features. "I was just – well, you wouldn't understand." He waves off what ever he was thinking to say and props one foot on the step of the rig. "Did you know, the first time I met you was a year ago today."
I'm surprised he'd remember, although it's carved into my memory. I'd only been to Morro Coyo for a few weeks, still feeling a bit unsettled over the change of my last posting back east. The Lancers were hosting a party and Fr. Salvatore brought me along to make the introductions.
The sight and sounds of that great house as we pulled up the drive and every window was lit bathing it and the yard in a warm glow was fixed in my mind as if etched in glass. A band had played in yard, cheerful mixes of Mexican and European tunes, some classical, some completely unknown to me. I was treated like an old friend that day – and every day since.
"No party this year?"
"No, this year Murdoch is hosting Hogmanay which he does every year. The bash last year was unusual for him. He doesn’t usually do one before Christmas."
"So why last year?"
He gives me a smile, one that makes me feel a bit like a simple child. "Because Fr. Salvatore asked him to."
I'm aghast. The party had been in my honor and I hadn't ever realized. The father must have arranged it so I could meet as many of the local first families as I could, all in one go. He also knew that I would be horrified if I knew the truth at the time.
"Water under the bridge, Padre, nothing you can do about it now."
Sometimes this boy disturbs me with the way he can read what goes on in my mind. I give myself a good shake to flick away the memories of Fr. Salvatore's well-meaning deception. I'm here now, welcome in the community, and much of it lies with Murdoch Lancer's party.
"So what brings you out to the ranch today, Padre?"
"I have come to see your father. Is he at home?"
Johnny tips his hat back, "He usually is this time of day. Go on up to the house."
I'm surprised by his lack of curiosity. Most men would have pestered me for an answer, but not him. And I find I'm more curious than he was. "Come ride with me – and tell me why you were lying in the grass."
His eyes dart away from me, and I begin to fear that the band is coming loose from the wheel he studies it so intensely. "I'm not sure."
"I am, come along." I give a hearty pat to the seat next to me, but first he gathers his horse's reins and ties them on behind.
He nudges me over and takes the line in his hands. "I haven't got all week to get there," he teases me with a boyish smile. With a flick of his wrist and a cluck of his tongue Charity sets out at a fast pace, the countryside whipping past us.
"So, why does a full grown man lie out in the damp grass and stare up at the clouds?"
He's smiling, I can almost feel it. The way his body relaxes, his elbows on his knees, the lines loose in his hands.
"Golly you're pushy." He doesn't sound angry, just resigned and with a huff, he begins. "You gotta understand I grew up with a hodgepodge of traditions for this time of year." I'm not sure I understand completely, but I don't interrupt for fear he'll stop talking. "Every town I went to this time of year I was welcomed. Sometimes folks opened up their homes, but mostly I'm given a place to sleep in the stable." He's actually grinning, but he continues. "You know, a stranger in their midst might be an angel bringing tiding of great joy."
"You took advantage of their good will?"
"Not like that, Padre. Don't make it sound like I did something wrong. I just enjoyed the hospitality. And I always gave something back. Maybe I didn't have money to pay, but I'd clean the barn or fix tack or mend a fence or something. Anyway, I learned a lot of different ways to celebrate. In the Mexican culture they don't give gifts until January 6. In some of the German ones, you do it December 6 on St. Nicholas day. Some do Christmas Eve. Some towns Christmas day ain't nothing different than any other day. But they all got one thing in common. Good food and lots of it. But one year I was down along the border and I spent some time with the Hopi." He held up a hand and stopped my questioning. "It's a long story for another time. Anyway, they have a month of festivals with music and dancing and singing and eating and you make prayer sticks and all kinds of things. I was allowed to go down to the bottom of the canyon with some of the men. You gotta understand, some of these things they don't let strangers see, so I was real proud to be allowed to go with them. We all went down to the bottom of the canyon and the shaman, that's like a padre to them." He's grinning at me again. "He points and makes some gestures and finally I understand what I'm supposed to be looking at. And that freezing cold night the moon rises right through this hole in the mountainside. My friend, he tells me that it happens every year, and signals the end of the long nights and the beginning of longer days."
There is a long silence and I can tell his mind is a long way away. "This time of year, I guess I just like to stop and look for the simple miracles all around me. The ones I don't always see unless someone points them out to me."
"And what did you see, lying in the grass out there."
"So many things. I saw blue jays and swans. I saw a bald eagle grab a fish out of the river. I watched the fog leave crystal drops of water on the bare bark of trees and when the fog burned off the sky was -" He nodded to the sky over Charity's head. "Look at that blue, Padre."
It is a lovely day, and I say so, but I guess I didn't sound very convincing.
"I'm not saying what I want to very good. It's just that you gotta enjoy the little stuff as much as the big parties and the Posadas and the organ music and the incense. This," he waved a hand over the landscape. "This is my Christmas gift. I don't need anything else but this."
"It's a fine thing indeed lad, very fine." I mean it, and he seems to accept that.
We ride on in silence for a bit until we pull under the arch that leads us up to the house. "Now, mind, there's tables full of food in that house, but none of that it is for eating." He waits while I climb down. "It's just not right to put all that temptation in front of a man." He's muttering a bit, mostly under his breath, and as soon as I'm clear he takes the buggy to the barn.
The front door is hung with a wreath tied on with a large white bow. Before I can knock the door is thrown open. "Welcome, welcome." I'm ushered in by the big rancher. "Or should I say 'good tidings'?"
"And peace be with you. I also hope you'll be saying there's some eggnog hereabouts."
He's got a big laugh, almost as big as he is. "Actually we do, and you can help us judge."
"Yes, we are having a bit of a dispute, and you being a man of honor – you are honorable, aren't you?" He continues on, not waiting for me to answer. I so enjoy his sense of humor. "Scott has been raised on eggnog made with rum, I had it with wine in my youth, and Spanish Sherry since I've been here. So," he brings me into the living room, to the blue chair I've come to think of as mine when I'm here, "we have made three pots and are trying to decide which is best." I wonder just how much work is getting done with this judging going one, but I wisely keep my own council.
"Don't let him get you drunk on that stuff, Father." Johnny has come in from the outside, hanging up his hat and gun before joining us.
"Now, Johnny, the good Father won't get drunk on a couple of sips of nog. He's made of sterner stuff than that."
"Once you're all done tasting their recipes, I'll give you mine and you tell the truth whose is best."
I hadn't intended to be the judge of an eggnog contest, but this is the kind of thing that happens when you come calling on the Lancer family. While they go out to make the arrangements, I'm left alone for the moment in the front room.
Murdoch's big desk has been pushed aside, making way for a nativity scene that takes up a good corner of the room. Juniper and cedar boughs tied together with ribbons of red and white decorate the mantle and staircase. White lace clothes cover every table in the room. In the center of the table is the advent wreath, three of its candles burnt, one left for this Sunday. Apple and cinnamon trees scent the air. And there is one long table filled with baskets of cookies, cakes and bread, each decorated with a bow and a tag to show its owner. Poor Johnny's table of temptation. A Yule log stands on the hearth waiting to be lit. The house is awash in decorations that are simple and tasteful. They are a mishmash of traditions that I find endearing instead of distracting.
Murdoch comes back with a tray and three pots. Johnny is carrying one with four hand-carved wooden cups that must be at least a hundred years old, and obviously a family heirloom. "Murdoch says you have to drink eggnog from wooden cups." He's shaking his head as if the idea is silly.
"Give Johnny a chance and he'd drink it out of the pitcher." Scott came in from the kitchen bringing in a plate of sandwiches. "I thought before they get you too drunk to see straight, you'd like something a little more solid."
The plate he brought also has sweet breads and cookies. Teresa brought with her a tray of coffee and four delicate white porcelain cups. I was almost afraid to hold one in my big hands, so let it sit on the table between us. She makes her excuses, which a sly jab about some people having work to do, and leaves us with a cheery smile.
We talk for ages, over nothing
much, as I dutifully taste all three nogs. I must admit I am most accustomed to
the nog with Rum and I'm not sure if that has pre-determined my decision.
"Wait, try this."
Johnny takes my glass and fills it half full of whiskey then pours in the nog.
"Oh my, that is good."
He's grinning. "See, told you."
"I guess that settles it, then." Murdoch concedes graciously.
"No wait." Scott gets up and pours Brandy in the glass and pours the nog in his cup.
"Oh yes, that's good too." I lick my lips and realize I have just reached my limit. One more nog and my noggin won't be able to get meself home. "Now I'm not sure if I can decide, but I do know I can't have another one."
"Then, you'll just have to come back again next year and try again."
"Oh, I would like that very much."
"Will you stay for supper, Fr. Mike?" Always the generous host is Murdoch Lancer.
"Ach, I would if I could, but I can't so I shan't." Where that silly childhood rhyme came from I'll never know. "I must get back before dark and evening prayers.”
"I don't know if you'll see us at Mass on Christmas Eve, although we will see you." Murdoch rose to his feet as his sons go out to get my buggy.
I stand on the front walk, waiting for my buggy. It has been a most wonderful afternoon. I do so enjoy being here at the ranch. It is the simple things, as Johnny said, and a visit with friends is a very fine gift indeed. Gift! Oh, heavens, there was a reason for my visit after all.
Scott is driving my rig up to the door, but Johnny is next to him. "Johnny, lad, can you hand me the little box there under the seat, before you get down." I turn to face my host. "I came with a message from Fr. Salvatore, and a request." I hand him the little box. "Fr. Salvatore says that you are to save that for him, and he accepts your invitation to Hogmanay."
Murdoch opens the box and lets go with another of his laughs that shows he is enjoying life. He holds the bottle up for all of us to see the label, which clearly identifies the contents of Dr. Ludlow's cure for Aches of the Head and Muscles.
"Oh, the good father intends to stay this year." Scott chuckles as he uncorks the bottle. "Oh, whew. If that's the cure, I'd rather have the headache."
I can see Johnny's face screw up after a whiff of the pale green liquid. "You'll be here, too, won't you Padre?"
"Wouldn't miss if for all the tea in China." I pull myself up into my rig, ready to go. I can't help but look at this family. They are so different in so many ways, but the love for family and home shines in the eyes of each one of them. "Merry Christmas, to you all."
Teresa comes up, just before I flick the reins. "From all of us." She hands me a little lap robe made of a fine green flannel. It will do me well on the cold winter mornings ahead. I hope I have expressed my gratitude. I found for once that words seem to fail me.
Their goodbyes and wishes for a Merry Christmas ring in my ears long after Charity climbs the hill to go back to town. What a family. Hardships have not daunted their spirit, only having brought them closer together.
I am lucky that this family has let me into their lives. Their charity, generosity, love and good deeds will make a fine sermon - for here I have seen peace on earth and the good will of men.