Not everyone was in a charitable mood this holiday season, as a statue of the infant Jesus was reported stolen last month from a homeowner's nativity set on Mount Airy Road. The statue from the set, which was located on the homeowner's front lawn facing Mount Airy near West Oak Street, had disappeared when the homeowner went outside to get his mail around noon on Friday, Dec. 27, according to police. The statue was last seen on Christmas Day, Dec. 25, police said. It was valued at $300. "We would encourage the thief to return the Jesus to his manger," said police Capt. Edward Byrnes. The statue has not been returned as of Monday, Jan. 6.
This article appeared on page 8 of our small town newspaper next to the obituaries, dated January 9, 2014. I pass by the nativity in question because it's on a road that leads to my mother's in one direction, my daughter's in another. Technically, the house is in another town and historically, both towns are highly competitive in school ranking, sports, sidewalks, parking lots, all of the things small towns can get petty about, even houses of worship. Ever since our town decided not to display a Christmas manger and an electric metal menorah next to the generic, boring Christmas tree in the downtown square, (really more of a triangle), this family put up a rather large, tastefully lit manger on their front lawn. My guess is maybe five years ago or longer.
When I read the article, I found it slightly humorous, absurd, and plain old wrong. Before the weather got so consistently cold, I walked over one day to get a closer look, thinking $300 dollars for Baby Jesus was a bit steep. I was also thinking of the family having to report this on their homeowner's policy, as well as a story my sister-in-law's husband once told us. As a parole officer, he had a group of juvenile offenders who had gone through several towns, stealing all of the Baby Jesus statues from approximately thirty five churches, then pouring gasoline and having a bonfire right before Christmas. Of course, when Joe told the story, he named all of the churches, what the kids were charged with and how he had to deal with the community service part of their punishment. He was a great storyteller.
Arriving at the crossroads, I took a few photographs from across the busy intersection, then walked over to get a better view since I'd forgotten to wear my glasses. There appeared to be no one at home, but an old man was slowly walking down his driveway to get his mail at the house next door. I called out, "Sir, excuse me, sir!" He didn't hear me initially, so I said it louder, by now at the edge of his driveway. He turned and I introduced myself and shook his hand. Asking him about the missing Baby Jesus, he replied, "That was from my neighbors'? I read about it and assumed it happened farther down the road, damn shame. They're nice people, always working, no kids...a Polish last name."
Then he launched into his life story, not exactly in chronological order, but fascinating. Born at home, in a house across the street, in the middle of a corn field. Was proud that at 87 he had never been in a hospital for himself, never smoked except once when he was 5 years old, never drank alcohol, shrugged his shoulders about diet and exercise. "All of this was once corn and peaches, an apple orchard down that way," he gestured with his free hand. "Dirt road, none of it paved. I enlisted and married my wife when we were both 17, couldn't let that one get away... then came home from the war and built this house myself, took me almost 10 years. She's been gone six years now, but she didn't linger. After the first stroke, she said get out that paperwork, then had another stroke two weeks later and died in my arms. The love of my life, high school sweethearts. We had over 65 years together, good years. When I went off to war, she got a job, saved up for this land. She was good with money. We weren't rich, but we always had what we needed."
He paused, then asked where I lived. His eyes lit up and he said,"I'm not much of a Christian but as a kid we used to attend that Presbyterian church next door to you, built by the Italian stone masons that lived in these parts and weren't Catholic. Your house was called 'the manse'. I could tell you stories about those days, but I've already bent your ears too much and it's getting cold. Come back any time, young lady. I don't go out much except when my daughter comes on Fridays. I might even have some old photographs of the neighborhood. My older brother was in the war too, but he saw too much killing and the camps. Never was the same. He lived two houses down from here and I have most of his things still in boxes from after he died."
I shook his hand again, then spontaneously hugged him. Our eyes locked and he said, "Well, that sure was nice. Funny thing, if that Baby Jesus hadn't been stolen, we never would have met. I'm not lonely, but it sure was nice to talk with you." I said I felt the same, then gave him a salute and walked home. About a week ago, the nativity set was taken down and a plywood sign was nailed to a tree. PLEASE RETURN OUR BABY JESUS, in large red letters. Yesterday, I drove past and they had added $100 REWARD, in orange.