Silent Night

It’s Christmas morning, so I call my mother the nun, who lives in Wichita, Kan. (She’d called me on her cell phone last night—she was on her way to the provincial house for Mass, and I was finishing up work, and I couldn’t really hear her. I was worried I’d miss wishing her a Merry Christmas.)

The nuns have a voice-mail system: Press 1 to talk an available sister. Press 2 to talk to Sister Lucille. Press 3 to talk to Sister Joann … so I press 3. Mom answers the phone and I’m once again reminded how happy her life makes her now. Her Christmas is no longer freighted with the kind of anxiety, worry, and chaos I remember as a kid. She used to put everything off until Dec. 22 or 23 and then run around trying to finish it all and make Christmas perfect. That’s all behind her. She and Sister Lucille and the other three women who live in the St. Joseph’s convent are making a Christmas lunch of pot roast, homemade bread, etc.

I know it’s confusing—”my mother is a nun”—so I’ll tell the short version: My parents, who were high school and college sweethearts, were married in 1954 and had four children. I’m the youngest. My parents divorced, after 29 years of marriage, when I was a freshman in high school. From there, each person in my family has had full permission to go his or her own way—my mom’s way perhaps being most radical. When I would come home from college, there was more and more talk of nuns and hanging out with nuns. My mother, then in her late 50s, decided she had a vocation. Her nest had emptied and she saw a boring retirement in front of her, and so, hearing God’s voice, she sold her house and all her belongings in 1991 and started an almost 10-year journey to become a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ order.

These are hip nuns, each of whom is deeply involved in a chosen field of work. The post-Vatican II majority of them don’t wear habits anymore (but I’ve admired the ones they wore in the first half of the 20th century; wimples like giant coffee filters framing their faces). They are an aging community. The average Adorer is older than 65, and many of them live at the mother house in some form of assisted care.

My mother will be 70 in March and is quite active. She has spent the last decade working with people living with HIV and AIDS. The help center where she works full time, ConnectCare, has been teetering on bankruptcy. They have 300 clients, six of whom lived in a residence that my mother helped run. Donations for HIV causes have dried up so much that ConnectCare had to close the residence last week and find new homes for the men who were living there. Mom is worried the main office will close next unless some emergency funds come through. If so, the HIV hotline, volunteer programs, and support groups will all be farmed out to other agencies, the health department, etc. Her thoughts are preoccupied these days with the failure of the center, so it’s a little hard for me to segue into the trials and tribulations of the “In/Out” list for the “Style” section. (I can safely say that my mother is not fixated on the romance of Ben and J. Lo.)

We’re an amicably fractured family. I no longer keep in touch with my father, though I did see him at my nephew’s wedding last summer. My oldest sister left me a voice mail from an airport; she and her husband were en route on Christmas Day from Albuquerque, N.M., to Rochester, N.Y., to visit his family. I have another sister in New Jersey who does Christmas her own way, with her husband. My sister Mary left a voice mail from her house in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in Placitas, N.M. Her ex-husband has the twins for a post-holiday river trip in Big Bend National Park. My other nephews are with their wives’ families; the remaining nephew, Matt, 22, is out there somewhere today; I have no clue where.

We haven’t spent a Christmas together—all of us—for more than 20 years. I do have a template of memories, of huge Christmases filled with laughter and my sisters’ great record albums, dancing around, sleeping in front of the tree, brushing their long, long hair while we watched television. I was always so happy at Christmas because my sisters would come home. By the time I was about 7 or 8, they were coming home with husbands and a year or two later, new babies.

The silence of my Christmases now sometimes saddens me. Sometimes it’s fine. Some years I go to movies all day. (It’s the Jewish grandmas and me at the Mazza Gallerie AMC 8.) Tonight I’m going over to my friend David’s house. His boyfriend, Peter, went home to Connecticut for a few days. David’s making a fennel soup, some scallops, and a flank steak over roasted root vegetables. I’m once again saved. We’ll listen to some great CDs (we’re both indie rock nuts). I brought him the new Jenny Toomey record, Tempting: the Songs of Franklin Bruno, which I’ve been loving for two months now. He gave me the Belle and Sebastian soundtrack to Storytelling. On vinyl, no less.

For those first Christmases after mom moved into the convent, there was no more house to return home to, so I would work the Dec. 25 shift. Ten years ago I pulled a 17-hour shift on the metro desk at the Albuquerque Tribune. My first story that day was to ride along with a cop on the Christmas-Day beat and write a slice-of-life piece. But also there had been another story to write that morning, involving another officer who shot and killed a man waving a knife.

A third story beckoned as well: A head-on collision on Interstate 40 on Christmas Eve had wiped out a mother, her three daughters, and left the husband and father barely alive. The driver of the other car was a Navajo man who had driven for miles on the wrong side of the freeway. The state police said alcohol was almost certainly involved, and the man was arrested. I dealt with it city-desk style, as yet another messy byproduct of a state with a serious drunken-driving problem: Who, what, where, when, some early details about the tragic dead. (“How” and “why” almost never come into play on the first-day news story of these things.) That particular case, over the next several years, would become a national how-and-why story, illustrating some of the unsolved biggies of life in the West: race, religion, drunks, remorse, revenge, and perhaps forgiveness.

All I remember from that Christmas is the worry that I would misreport the ages and names of my various day’s dead, in three separate stories. Those little girls had names like Kandyce and Kaycee. Easy to misspell.