Smith JeaNette_Goates_Image_0There are not many things that I covet.  I do not covet the tennis court in my sister’s back yard, nor her swimming pool, nor her spacious home, not even her her restaurant-sized refrigerator.  But she has one possession that I have to work very hard not to covet.  She owns a 15-piece olive wood nativity with a 13″ high creche that came straight from the Holy Land.  I study the intricately carved figurines, fascinated by the smug expression of the wise men and the somber faces of the shepherds.  I marvel at the myriad of hues in the olive wood, color ranging from almost white to almost black, with every shade of red, brown, tan and taupe in between.  I collect nativity sets and one like hers would make my collection complete.

I had never mentioned my jealousy to anybody, least of all my sister.  I have simply scoured websites, wandered through kiosks at the mall, and concluded that one day I would have to visit the Holy Land myself and hope they still make nativity sets there as large and elaborate as the one my sister owned.  I had absolutely no delusions that my sister would give me hers, even in her will.  I am older than she is and will most certainly die first.  Besides, we aren’t even close.

It’s hard to conjure up familial love at age 50 when it didn’t exist at age 5 or 15.  My sister and I grew up together in what our father called a boarding house.  Just like a boarding house, all eight children came and went as they pleased.  Nobody was ever home at the same time. There was no family prayer or family scripture or family home evening or family vacations.  At Christmastime an evergreen tree sat naked in the living room with a lone ornament or two a child had brought home from school.  Not to be sentimental or maudlin, but a brief understanding of the family history will help you appreciate the miracle of the nativity.

The explanation for this disjointed family was revealed when, with three children still in school, our parents divorced.  Our father stayed in the home with the youngest children and our mother moved time and time again, the oldest brothers banding together each time to rent a U-haul, fill boxes and heft furniture.

Finally, after years of moving, our mother stayed put.  One day she decided she wanted to get rid of all the boxes she had transported from one location to the next, so she rented a U-haul, hired locals to cram her boxes inside and drove it herself to my sister’s spacious house with the tennis court and the swimming pool.

Smith JeaNette_Goates_Image_0_1My sister painstakingly began to open boxes and sift through their contents.  At the bottom of one box she heard rattling.  Eventually she excavated several pieces of wood, all different shades, from almost white to almost black, with every shade of red, brown, tan and taupe in between.  With precision and care, her family glued together a 15-piece olive wood nativity, straight from the Holy Land, with a 13″ creche and a star in front.  Not all the pieces were whole.  The shepherds’ staffs were missing.  The star had lost an arm.  But she had two fireplaces in her house.  Her own nativity looked stunning in front of the fireplace in the front room.  This one fit nicely over the fireplace in the family room.

Throughout the week of Thanksgiving, and well into December, my sister enjoyed her extra nativity set and rejoiced in her extraordinary Christmas decor.  Yet as the she stood at her kitchen sink preparing a Christmas dinner for her family, she was not content.  She couldn’t stop thinking of the sister 2,000 miles away whom she knew collected nativity sets, and how nicely her extra one would complete that collection.

In late December I opened this gift from a sister to whom I’d never been particularly close and felt a bond I had not felt in 50 years.  I remembered Elder Uchtdorf’s poignant Christmas message, “Every gift that is offered to us-especially a gift that comes from the heart-is an opportunity to build or strengthen a bond of love. When we are good and grateful receivers, we open a door to deepen our relationship with the giver of the gift.’

My mended nativity means more than a new, intact, pristine set flown over from the Holy Land ever could.  This nativity is the story of our family.  We know what it is like to have our home shattered, neglected, and cast aside by the owner to whom it held no value.  We know how patiently we have had to build, to mend, to find new parts, and to accept that there are parts that will remain missing.  Most of all we learned that bonds of love can be strengthened through gracious giving and grateful receiving.

I will not look for a new star for this nativity set.  I want the one with the broken arm.  I want it to remind me always of this gift, a gift that is not only from my sister, but from The Lord.  He knows both our hearts, and wants them both to mend.  We both consider this gift a tender mercy from the babe that is depicted on tan and taupe straw lining a manger.