When your father is a car dealer, you see him mostly on Sundays. Sometimes he is home during the week for coffee in the middle of the day. Sometimes he appears before supper with a babysitter and a bag of hamburgers in tow – just long enough to whisk your mother away for dinner at the country club with business people. And sometimes – he shows up in your kindergarten class on Valentine’s Day with Heart Cookies and Ice Cream for everybody. But mostly, he is not home at night during the week because people buy cars after they are done working and after they have eaten their hamburgers.
Most nights Dad would come home after 10 – after the last deal was closed, the titles and money were put in the safe, after the doors to the dealership were locked. My mother would make them a drink and he would eat the food she’d kept warm for him since supper time.
My mother would spend long nights waiting for Dad to come home. After all the babies were in bed, she would make herself coffee, turn on the television, and settle into her chair to do embroidery or crewel work. She still does this nearly every night although Dad has been dead for 4 years and the babies have long since grown and produced grandchildren of their own. And she has replaced the coffee with wine or scotch.
In those days of the early 60s, people still came to our house. There were salespeople who came with vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, brushes for everything you can imagine. Dr. Cutshall would come with his big black bag when I had tonsilitis. The grocery store routinely delivered mother’s grocery orders in cardboard boxes that the store’s boy (who was sweet on our next-door-neighbor’s high school daughter so he was extra speedy) would schlep into the house from the delivery station wagon.
Few people came to our front door at night – and my mother, ever appearing polite while hiding her sewing scissors behind her back just in case, always answered the door. It was usually someone’s child selling magazines or chocolate candy bars for school. Dad would buy anything someone came to the door to sell. But not Mom. She always said no and turned them away.
I’m not sure why I was up on the December night of the Moravian Stars – but I was. My mother kept a strict household – typically all four of us were in bed by 7:30 promptly. I had probably finagled my way into staying up for a particular Christmas show by promising to be very quiet and to go straight to bed when the show was over. In any event, there was a knock on the front door – and I followed my mother (and her scissors) to the door when she answered it.
Under the front light was an old lady – small and bent over, her head wrapped in an enormous, colorful, and otherworldly scarf. She had a worn coat with huge buttons, odd shoes and a cloth bag from which she pulled a blue and white Moravian Star. When the woman spoke, she had a strange accent to her voice – and she asked if my mother would please buy some of her stars. As my mother smiled her undecipherable smile, the peddler explained her purpose for selling the Moravian Stars – a purpose I no longer remember but a purpose that caused an indescribable feeling to well up in me. It was not pity – as my mother called it later, it was compassion. It broke my heart to wonder why this old lady – so like my own grandmother – needed to be out in the cold December night selling Moravian Stars. I felt tears burning in my eyes.
What I do remember is thinking “Please,” under my breath, “please, Mom. Please buy some stars. Please.” I feared this would end as typical front door sales calls would end: with a big No. “Please,” I prayed.
And after a long pause, my mother said to the woman, “Wait here.” And she closed the front door. While she went to the kitchen, I continued to watch the old woman through the glass beside the door. She reached into her bag and pulled out more colored Moravian stars: green, pink, yellow, orange – hooking each on a finger. My mother returned, opened the door, and gave the woman some money. Mom told me to pick four stars quickly – which I did. I chose the blue, the green, the yellow, and the pink ones. Then my mother curtly said goodnight to the woman, pulled me back inside behind the door and closed it.
I hung the stars on the tree. I kissed my mother good night and went bed – just as I promised I would.
Each year when we decorated our Christmas tree, I searched out the stars and hung them myself. I’m not sure there are words that describe what I felt about those stars, but they were to me – especially when I felt otherwise – evidence of my mother’s compassion for others.