A Christmas windstorm clattered the dry skirts of palm fronds. Rain blew in from the Pacific Ocean and over the Santa Ana Mountains at our backs to fill Coldwater Creek and strip the old leaves off the eucalyptus trees. Outside the air smelled of menthol and ozone; inside the whole three-story old inn filled up with the proper smells of Christmas—roast turkey and mincemeat pies. Glen Ivy Lodge wasn’t an inn any more: the Southern California parish of the Emissaries of Divine Light had purchased it and its run-down spa on eighty acres in 1977. Now a fluctuating number of dozens of us lived here communally, running the renovated spa and cheerfully bent on saving the soul of the world. Good work if you can get it.
I lived on the third floor of the many gabled Lodge in the back. The rooms there had been servant’s quarters back in the day, and they were accessed by a narrow, one-butt set of stairs. My dormer was 8’ x 21’ under a steeply slanted ceiling. Its redeeming feature was an enormous window with a center latch. I could push them wide on a balmy California day or night and sit on the sill with my long skirts trailing, as I imagined, romantically. At Christmas, I circled the window with greenery and tiny lights.
This particular Christmas, across the hall, my good friend Barbara Hausler had called a pre-formal dining room dinner wine-and-cheese party. Ten or more of us perched on bed and chairs and spilled out into the hall. Rich Kenny had taken a break from kitchen duties and had his clean chef’s whites under his arm to spare them red wine spills. I was dressed with a big red camellia in my hair to emcee the Christmas Program that would take place in the performance space by the head table. Bev Petow came straight upstairs still in her artist’s smock having transformed the dining room into a Christmas fairyland setting for an intimate evening of about sixty. Many Unit members (as we called communitarians for reasons that are clouded in history) had gone to their biological family homes for the holiday, but we had visiting construction personnel like John Summerbell visiting for the duration of our current remodel.
The trouble started when Bill Martin decided to fix the huge hole under the sink in Barbara’s room. Her room was next to Janet’s room, and the hole was on the connecting wall. Bill, a prep school Irish New Yorker, had good construction skills, but he also had a reputation for fast and dirty, and the word “feckless” also comes to mind.
“Barbara, Merry Christmas. I’m going to fix that hole in your wall. Right now.”
Advice and plenty of it was in order. Barbara was doubtful. Vince Bond, who might have had a say in the matter, showed up too late to do anything to stop him. In the midst of much discussion and wine drinking, Bill got out his tools and widened the hole in the wallboard in order to square it up and to make sure there was a stud he could nail a patch to. Of course, behind the wall and running up between the two by four studs were an assortment of mysterious wires and copper pipes. Bill cut a wallboard patch to fit the hole, selected a nail and hammered the patch into place. “Good,” he said, “That was solid, straight into a stud.”
“Didn’t exactly sound like a stud to me,” George Carpenter said.
“Sounded exactly like one to me,” Bill replied. He squirted grout out of a tube and smeared it around in place of plaster, and asked Barbara for her hair dryer to blow it dry enough for a coat of Navajo White. We all cheered. About this time, Vince showed up—Vince the water and electricity wizard. Vince of the short legs and strong arms and kabbalistically dark gaze.
Uh-oh, I thought, I’m outta here. “I’ve got to go round up the Three Wise Guys,” I said, “See you later.”
The last thing I heard was Vince saying to Bill, “I sure hope you didn’t hit a water pipe.”
I grabbed my yellow velvet cloak to sling over my finery and ran out into the rain, down the back steps and along the old canal to the McCann’s house. I didn’t want to be late for my last rehearsal of the Three Wise Guys. I was a little extra anxious because three weeks previous, Pam Gray, the ladies focalizer (as we called the pastor’s wife, for reasons that are lost, once more, in the mists of history) had run into me on the track that runs between the Lodge and the other large building on the property, the Chalet. She had genuine consternation in her voice when she said to me, “You missed your rehearsal with Pops, Mike and Lyle for the Christmas skit. I really want this to come together.”
I was surprised because I really had forgotten it. “Sorry!” I said in a strangled voice. I turned right around and went to see the three septuo- and octogenarians in question. I was theoretically rehearsing them for a Christmas skit called The Three Wise Guys, but it was more like herding cats. They were still in what might be called the brainstorming stage. I found them down in the orange orchard beside the Davis’s house standing around a work-in-progress, a handmade, two-wheeled cart, wondering if they could get it into the dining room with the DiGrandi baby in it as the Baby Jesus.
“Lyle, do you have any jokes for the Wise Guys?” I asked to get the ball rolling.
He gave me a serious look and said, “Did you know I can get a hair cut for half price?” That was one of his bald guy jokes. Lyle’s head was not only bald, but also shiny from wife Bonnie’s nightly application of orange oil. I remember the drowsy quiet of the sanctuary with Lyle sharing an attunement with me—that peaceful room with its cool shadows under the orange trees, the sound of the fountain in the new courtyard, and the smell of Lyle’s orange-oiled head. Lyle had been a mining engineer in Arizona before he and Bonnie had a house built here for their retirement at Glen Ivy Community.
Mike McCann was the second of the Three Wise Guys, Pam Gray’s father, one good reason for her concern that all go well with this skit. Mike and Dorothea McCann came to Glen Ivy from Iowa, where she had run a beauty parlor. Mike was a tall, lanky fellow sort of like an older Jimmy Stewart, if anyone remembers that classic actor who played “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Harvey,” the six-foot imaginary rabbit. Mike had a laconic humor and had been a mechanical engineer—he had designed the handcart they were all contemplating. “I don’t know any Christmas jokes,” he told me, also with a straight face, “but I’ve always wondered if a bird dog could be called a point setter?”
“I’m snortin’ through my nose, Mike. I don’t suppose Pops has any good ideas, either?”
But Pops was way ahead of me. “One evening, in a busy lounge in the Deep South, a reindeer walked in the door, bellied up to the bar and ordered a martini. Without batting an eye, the bartender mixed and poured the drink, set it in front of the reindeer, and accepted the twenty-dollar bill from the reindeer’s hoof.
“As he handed the reindeer some coins in change, he said, ‘You know, I think you’re the first reindeer I’ve ever seen in here.’
“The reindeer looked hard at the hoofful of change and said. ‘Let me tell you something, buddy. At these fuckin’ prices, I’m the last reindeer you’ll see in here.’”
“Pops, pul-lease don’t say fuckin’ in the dining hall.” He cackled like a kid who had just gotten away with saying a naughty word in church.
Pops was Bill Martin’s father, a recovered alcoholic from Brooklyn. He was an Irish New Yorker through and through, but without the Catholicism. He had assayed import tax on goods coming into the harbor back in the days when all that math was done by hand and head.
Mike and Dorothea, like Lyle and Bonnie, had had a house built for them, but Pops lived in one of the old, somewhat remodeled guest cottages. Pops was a cartoon of a New York old guy, all grizzled gray hair, thick-lensed glasses and attitude. He lived on saltines and television. He constantly complained about the superb food that overflowed our kitchen in cornucopial abundance. Pops was a plain meat and potatoes man, and anything involving fresh greens, whole grains, fruit or fish other than frozen fish sticks were suspect and muttered about as if we were slopping out prison gruel.
Pops was ironic about living in what was technically a seminary. It wasn’t any place he had ever imagined himself living. Lyle and Bonnie were both here out of personal conviction. Dorothea and Pam were the true believers in the McCann family, and I had a sense Mike was along for the ride. But Pops was here strictly because of Bill; the religious aspect didn’t confuse him for a moment. We used to all hold hands for a blessing before meals. Into the respectful silence following the amen, Pops would stage whisper to the visitor, “Know why we hold hands during the prayer? So no one will pick your pocket while your eyes are closed.” The Three Wise Guys skit had been his idea.
Christmas evening before dinner, I came in out of the rain into the McCann’s front room. They were struggling with costumes that seemed to involve a fireman’s hat and an Arab burnoose fashioned out of one of Dorothea’s sheets. We clutched props to our chests as we took a side wind on the way back to the Lodge, where we ducked into the antechamber of the dining room, a sort of mudroom where they milled around putting the pieces of the costumes back on. I was mystified by Lyle’s fireman’s hat, but I hadn’t coached these guys, just sort of rounded them up and made sure they showed up at the right time and place.
I slipped through into the back of the dining room. Seven long tables sat ten to twelve people each. Bev’s eucalyptus and holly berry swags swept each house post with silver and red, long plaid ribbons perfectly tied. Each table was dressed in white linen with centerpieces of greenery and gold and red candles. She was the kind of artist who could track mud in the house and make it beautiful. Barbara and I used to mimic her gift-wrapping tricks, but no matter how we fluffed the tissue paper or snipped the ribbon, our efforts ended up looking like something a pack rat might enjoy unwrapping in its burrow. We thought this endlessly amusing; it was our way of praising Bev’s artistry.
Pam caught my eye immediately with a shadow of anxiety. I gave her the thumb and forefinger okay sign. Barbara slid out of the back kitchen door and whispered in my ear, “See anything funny?”
“Funny as in ha-ha or funny weird?”
“Look at the ceiling over the head table.” The head table was set in front of the fireplace, a little apart from the rest of the tables to create a serving and performance space. A modest chandelier centered it, and above that…my eye paused. The ceiling distinctly bulged directly over John and Pam Gray’s heads. Dorothea McCann sat beside Pam and then John Summerbell and a few others all dressed in their Christmas best.
“What is that?” I hissed.
“Water. Bill hit a water line.”
“Oh my gawd! What’s keeping it from breaking through?”
“Five coats of Navajo White. Vince is upstairs trying to fix it.”
I was mesmerized by the bulge. The more I stared at it, the bigger it seemed to grow, the greater the potential for chaos. “Does John know?” I asked.
Barbara gave one of her fabulous, classic shrugs, “I know I didn’t tell him.” She grabbed for my hand, “Shhh, it’s time for the blessing.” I bowed my head as John stood up and hand-to-hand the great circle of family praised the coming of Christ and the many spiritual gifts of Christmas. I kept one eye open on the paint bulge.
“Amen,” John said, and all the people said, “A-men,” and Pam nodded at me to begin the Christmas pageant. First, someone did a reading from the Word, which is what we called the transcribed services of our spiritual leader, Bishop Martin Cecil. Then the JTS-ers, our Sunday schoolers, our YES Groupers, the teens; I’m up there em-ceeing, getting the groups in and out of the dining room, practically under the bulge myself. Out of one eye, I see Vince slip out of the kitchen and place a stockpot a few feet behind the head table. A leak, then.
“And now,” I announced, “All the way from the Holy Land to be with us here tonight, the Three Wise Guys.” The full dining room as one turned to watch the men enter from the back door—Mike tall with a fake beard and a shepherd’s crook; Lyle in his fireman’s hat, Pops in a burnoose with a lantern held up like Diogenes looking for an honest man. Honestly, I had no idea what they would actually do when they got up front, but these three old friends shuffled up front in high good spirits, cavorting and cackling like kids cutting up.
“Hey Lyle,” Pops called, “Why are you wearing a fireman’s hat?”
“Because it says in the Bible the Wise Men came from afar.” It took about two beats before the crowd processed this and responded with groans and laughter.
“Mike, tell us what happened when we arrived to visit the child lying in the manger,” Lyle said.
“I was so tall that I bumped my head on the doorway when I entered the stable.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I shouted, and Joseph said, ‘Write that down, Mary; it’s better than Clyde!’”
“Pops,” said Mike, “I hear you went to Ensenada this year. Tell us, what do Spanish sheep say when they wish each other a Merry Christmas?”
“Fleece navidad! And do you know what Joseph’s wife was known as on December 24th?”
Uh-oh, I saw this one coming and tried to head it off at the pass. I said, “Thanks for visiting us, Three Wise Guys,” just as Pops delivered the punch line, “Ho-ho-ho!” I avoided Pam’s eye and hustled them off stage, hoping she hadn’t heard. I knew John had—he was doubled over.
Grinning and mugging, they shuffled back the way they had come in. I can still hear the roar of laughter from the festive guests, still feel the underlying tension of not knowing whether the bulge would break and drench the head table with hot or cold water; I can still see Pam’s peaches-and-cream face glowing with love and pride and relief, Dorothea busting up with laughter beside her until she broke into her hacking smoker’s cough. I can see Rich Kenny in his chef’s whites standing in the kitchen door shouting, “There’s no plate like chrome for the hollandaise.”
The Tree of Life must be an evergreen because the sap ran freely that Christmas. One drop fell into the Glen Ivy dining room at the very moment the Three Wise Guys lifted us up into an ebullience, every face lit when the resin dropped, catching us all in amber.