A Beloved Nativity Set is Returned After 34 Years

She thought the treasured family heirloom was gone for good. Then her prayers were answered.

Posted in , Oct 27, 2021

An illustration of a Nativity sculpture of Mary and Newborn Jesus; Illustration by Sylvie Fong

It was nothing more than a plaster five-and-dime store Nativity, but to me as a child, the heirloom set seemed as beautiful as fine china. I hadn’t seen it in 34 years the morning I picked up the newspaper and recognized the name of my long-ago landlord in the obituaries.

The last time I’d seen my family’s Nativity, I was engaged and living in the upstairs apartment of a home owned by a kind older couple. One day in January, I dropped by to visit my mom. She was boxing up Christmas decorations, including the Nativity that she always displayed on the piano. It had originally belonged to my father’s grandparents. I watched as Mom wrapped each piece in tissue and placed it in the aged pink JCPenney shoebox she always kept it in.

Growing up, I’d loved to rearrange the pieces, moving animals closer to Baby Jesus or positioning the angel to keep a careful watch over the tiny figure in swaddling clothes. Mom would often turn from the kitchen sink and catch me by the piano, strategically placing the sheep in a circle around the shepherd or arranging the three wise men in a triangle as they carried their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the manger.

Turning over the angel, I saw the original price still penciled on the bottom: five cents. My father’s grandmother had collected each piece separately. I handed the angel to Mom. She wrapped her up, tucked her into the box and closed the lid. Then she handed the whole Nativity to me. “I want you to have it now,” she said, placing the shoebox in my hands. “You should have it to display in your own home next Christmas.” I stored it in the landlord’s attic.

I got married in September and moved from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. I couldn’t wait to decorate our tiny apartment that Christmas as newlyweds. I set up a tabletop tree and hung a few decorations. Then I went to the closet for the shoebox. Where is it? I thought, sifting through all the items I’d brought from my apartment. I finally had to accept that the shoebox wasn’t there. It had somehow been forgotten in the landlord’s attic.

Right away, I placed a call to my former landlady. “Could you see if it’s still there?” I asked.

She agreed but returned to the phone only a few minutes later. “I didn’t see it,” she said.

“I was sure it was there, but what could I do from so far away? Despite my hopes to see it again, that didn’t happen. Not even when I moved back to Pennsylvania. My own daughters grew up without ever seeing our family heirloom. But every Christmas, I imagined them arranging and rearranging the pieces as I had.

I knew my former landlady had died, but now, the sight of her husband’s name in the paper sent me into a panic. What if my Nativity was still tucked away in the corner of the attic? What if the house was about to be put up for sale and its contents were cleared out? All these years I’d held on to a little bit of hope that I’d see the Nativity again. Perhaps my seeing the obituary was a warning: Act now, or lose the Nativity forever.

I jumped on the internet to track down an old schoolmate who’d married into the landlord’s family. Did she know what had become of the house? “My son is moving into it,” she said. “He’s started cleaning it out. I’m sure he’d be glad to look in the attic for you.”

I spent the next day in suspense until I heard from her again. “He thinks he may have found your box,” she said. “If you want to go over and see…” I drove right over. My hand shook with excitement as I pressed the doorbell. A young man answered. “Is this it?” he asked, holding up a box.

There it was: the pink shoebox. It looked exactly the same as it had the day I’d stored it in that attic. Inside, surrounded by tissue, was my beloved Nativity. “It’s a good thing you got in touch when you did,” the young man said. “This box was hours away from being donated.”

Back at home, I didn’t wait for Christmas. Unwrapping each piece was like meeting an old friend. I said a special prayer of thanks as I admired the dime-store angel. No doubt an angel like her had watched over the shoebox until it could find its way back to me.

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