It’s not unusual for people to turn to religious figures for comfort in difficult times. But when I saw my young daughter do it, I grew a little worried.
She was 5 at the time, and her father and I were separating. That’s when she turned to the nativity figurines I had set out for Christmas to play out the angst in our household.
I remember the night my husband told her he was leaving. After supper, when the table was cleared and dishes were done, after her bath was taken and jammies were on, the three of us sat at the maple kitchen table in the designated places we took for dinner each night. Our only child perched on her big-girl chair between us, sensing something was up.
He told her he loved her and that he always would — a promise he has kept — but that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t live with each other right now. I watched her eyes flood with tears and felt mine do the same. He told her he’d found a nice apartment, in the next town over, and that she’d be visiting him there.
A few days before, at a joint therapy session with the counselor I’d end up seeing for nine years, my husband had told me he needed to leave.
I had just gotten sober four months before, after knowing for years I needed to quit drinking. I had poured the alcohol, the glue that held us together, down the proverbial drain. A decision that rattled the ground I stood on, affecting us all. We’d fought terribly the year before I stopped drinking, while our daughter, playing in another room, took it in.
The day after our family meeting, he asked what he could take. Could he have one of the Henckels knives he’d bought me for Christmas a few years before? I gave him the boning knife, his favorite. I told him to take everything that was his. I didn’t want to see his things hanging around the house, while the thought of losing them was unbearable.
Including the bed we’d slept in.
My daughter and I, holding on to each other tight, watched that bed wobble in the back of a pickup as it escaped down the street.
The two of us dealt with our new life in vastly different ways. While I roamed the house wringing my hands, sobbing uncontrollably, slamming doors and cabinets, and eating my way through the fridge, my daughter played out the drama with the plastic figures from the manger scene. It included the stable I’d crafted from a small scrap of wood, twigs picked up around the yard, and hay from our neighbor’s farm.
Through her thoughtful manipulation, Mary and Joseph carried on arguments with each other, similar to the ones she’d witnessed between her dad and me.
She played with them every day, their voices mimicking some of the ugly words her dad and I had said to each other in the heat of our pain. My first thought was to take the figures away. Even though I was a lapsed Catholic who had never had my daughter baptized, I worried that having Mary speak my angry words might not bode well for her soul.
But my therapist assured me that acting out these scenes was healthy play, helping my daughter gain mastery over her feelings, no matter what she used.
Of course, I thought. Still dealing with the emotional wreckage of early sobriety and separation from the man I loved, I wasn’t thinking straight.
She could have chosen Barbie dolls or stuffed animals for symbolic play, but maybe it wasn’t an accident that she turned to biblical figures.
Mary and Joseph seemed to have more meaning to her than just being part of our Christmas tradition, and I soon relished watching her play out her inner turmoil with their help. It wasn’t church, and it wasn’t prayer, but there was something about that little manger scene that helped her to heal.
Each year since then, as I set up the increasingly rickety stable with the same old hay from our neighbor’s farm, and position the figurines in their appointed places, I hear the child my daughter was at 5 giving voice to them, intuitively finding her way through the upheaval in her life, as children often do. And I realize, I too have found my way through.
The figurines are silent now, content.
As that part of our life is blessedly behind us.