Friday, December 25, 2015

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Cross the Jordan just east of New York and climb through woods and hills to Bethlehem --- where the star still shines as winter deepens, Confidence still is down the road, Promise City farther on.

Once upon another time, long before Vietnam and AIDS, institutionalized incivility and the digital revolution, we sang carols here, ragtag children from places with wonderful names — Rabbit Hill, Dry Flat and the Sunnyslope Church of Christ. Sam Savage was among our shepherds.

In a time and place where none of us had much, Sam's family had less. Except children. They were rich in children.

Visits were magic for an only child — water that ran when you ran to the well to get it, linoleum floors scrubbed and waxed into mirrors and beds everywhere — or so it seemed to a kid who always had a room of his own; an oil-burner and love to keep it warm.

Sugar cookies and cocoa were promised, then simple gifts exchanged around a cedar tree cut in the pasture and draped in construction-paper chains.

But first into that cold December night in Sam's car and others --- and on to Bethlehem.

Once there and ushered into a living room by a middle-aged son, we found his mother in the circle of light from a small lamp, reading her Bible with a magnifying glass. Sharp-eyed children, 60 years down the road now with magnifying glasses of their own, wondered at that.

Next door, back from the road, a white-haired grandmother in print dress and apron had pulled cookies from the oven not long before we walked in the door.

Then Belle McMurry in her rose-colored house. For years, WHO-TV reporters called Belle on Christmas Eve, asking what it was like to be in Bethlehem as midnight neared. As if anyone could describe it.

And so we sang, "Silent Night," "O Little Town," and in return — smiles and thank-yous, God-bless-yous, cookies, candy and more; then into the night again.

Bethlehem is a ghost now, the church gone, recycled into a tiny chapel in a little park, most of the houses cleared and 160 years of Wayne County history planted to corn and beans. Belle, who survived the longest, sleeps on the hill south of town and her cheerful house has been reclad in cream-colored vinyl.

But Bethlehem's star shines still, in my heart at least, even on the darkest and coldest winter night.

"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,

"Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

"Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light.

"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."


Harold Mitchell said...

I love that story, Frank. Thanks for re-telling it.

Elzan said...

A great retelling of a special time...Thanks.