catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 23 :: 2006.12.15 — 2006.12.29


Unto us

Part 3 of 4


The family nativity scene that we set up each year and placed our gifts
under was a purely commercial product, the characters essentially
elaborate pictures pasted onto cardboard.  Each flat cardboard cut-out
fit into a flap that stuck up from the faux-grass cardboard base so it
could stand upright.  There was a cardboard stable, then, with a
cardboard backdrop of a hilly, Romanesque Bethlehem on either side.

Though I remember envying other families who had more elaborate crèches
with individual carved figures that moved around, it was still a treat
when, in early December, my mother brought out the boxes labeled
"Christmas" from the attic.  I'd take the rubber band off the worn box
that held our manger scene and set up all the little pieces.

A few years ago I moved back to Kenilworth, a neighborhood in
Washington, DC where my family for many years lived as missionaries. 
My siblings and I grew up bi-culturally between that neighborhood—an
urban, low-income, African American community—and the Amish-Mennonite
enclave of rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home for our parents,
grandparents, and their parents before them for several generations.

I returned to the neighborhood to reconnect with it, though none of my
family lived there any longer, and to do some research and writing
about my family's experience there.  One fall there was a Romare
Bearden show at the National Gallery of Art in downtown D.C.  Bearden
was an African American artist who used collaged cut-outs to picture
scenes of his life, some of them very personal.  That Christmas I
decided to combine Bearden's collage idea with the personal research I
was doing to create a family-based scene for my sister's yearly crèche.

It was a lot of fun, and a labor of love, to find the pictures—some
from family albums, some that I took myself—photocopy them, then cut
them out and paste them to thin cardboard saved from cereal boxes.  I
patterned it after my family's traditional crèche, with cut-out figures
clustered in front of a three-panel background.  To the left I put
photos from the Kenilworth neighborhood in DC.  To the right I put my
father's family farm in Pennsylvania.  And in the middle I put slices
of all the houses that my family has lived in.

There are the three wise women, then, older women significant in my
sister's life.  There are pictures of her grandparents.  Then there are
more pictures of family along with photos of people from Kenilworth, a
multi-cultural presence at the birth to reflect our family's
bi-cultural experiences.  And then, of course, my parents—Elmer and
Fannie—are Mary and Joseph, and my sister Lois is in the manger.

Packing for the drive from D.C. to join my family in Pennsylvania for
Christmas, I forgot the most crucial piece—the manger.  Kicking myself,
I considered turning around and driving the two hours back to DC to get
it—it was that important to me.  In the end, though, I quickly made a
substitute manger.  Because all of the copy stores were closed for
Christmas, I ran copies on a small printer that belonged to my father's
Amish boss, which was hooked up to a car battery to make it run.

I had kept the project a secret from my family.  When I set it up, they
immediately recognized it as a crèche patterned after the manger scene
we used for so many years.  It took others awhile, though, to figure
out that this was indeed a nativity scene.  I felt the joy of discovery
every time I prompted someone to look closer at the figures to piece
together what they were supposed to be.  Family and friends loved
looking at it and reminiscing.

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