By Michael Lyle
The Carvers were a trial.
There was a Carver on the rescue squad, a Carver in the church choir and every Sunday school class in the church, a Carver in the high school band, a Carver in the middle school, a Carver in the elementary school, a Carver on the church softball and volleyball teams, a Carver on community t-ball and soccer teams, a Carver at every picnic, meeting, or prayer group, a Carver in every parade. Every manifestation of church or community included at least one Carver.
Hank Carver, sometimes-employed husband, father (five times over), and generally good fellow, attended worship regularly, worked faithfully with the rescue squad and Ruritan, and did whatever good he could whenever he could. His wife Amelia (who on the occasion of her fifth delivery insisted that the doctor remove all possibility of a sixth) taught Sunday School, sang in the church choir (along with her eldest, a son and exceptional soprano), attended every PTA meeting, volunteered every time the pastor asked for help, and did whatever good she could whenever she could.
The lesser Carvers (son Jamie, daughter Edith, daughter Grace, daughter Candy, and son Joey), were, quite literally, everywhere else. It was not unusual to find several Carvers at the same place, and/or at multiple and widely diverse places, at the same time. The Carvers, like Moby Dick, were believed by many to be ubiquitous.
The Carvers also possessed other universally attested traits in addition to their great, good hearts, outgoing personalities, and omnipresence. Their cars were frequently under repair, their bills were usually overdue, the children perennially lacked transportation, among other things, and they were often caught in the grips of some extenuating circumstance or other.
Hank was perpetually on the brink of a new job, or just one seventy-five dollar part away from getting his truck back on the road. Amelia’s worn-out sedan was frequently one tank of gas, or one inflated tire, short of a trip to the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, the school (to drop off or pick up one of the kids, or to meet with one of their teachers), the church, or the supermarket. The kids usually lacked the instrument necessary for them to play in the band, funds for a week at summer camp, the deposit for the school trip, breakfast, funds for the youth ski trip, new shoes, hats, coats, umbrellas, lunches, belts, matching socks, dinners, pairs of glasses, or prescriptions filled.
They lacked these things until someone in the community heard about it and came to the rescue. If it takes a village to raise a child, it took an entire town to keep the Carvers going.
The Carvers were at the heart of the community, and the community’s heart never had an opportunity to stray very far from the Carvers. It was a textbook symbiotic relationship, except the community sometimes felt inadequate and occasionally resentful of its role.
The Carver kids were legendary for emptying any and every candy dish a household had to offer in one quick pass. It was nothing to see them flying out the door, mouths and pockets at maximum capacity. If no treats were clearly visible, one of the little ones would usually ask about availability.
Certain families stopped answering the phone on the days Candy would likely need a ride to (and of course from) soccer practice. In those days, before the Internet and smartphones, many acquired caller ID primarily to identify the Carvers. Everyone knew that once they agreed to give Candy a ride to the soccer game, or pick Edith up from band practice, or get Joey from preschool, they could be saddled with the child for hours, and sometimes through at least one meal. And because folks were uncomfortable dropping a nine-year-old off at home when they knew no one else was there, everyone opened their minivan doors, their refrigerators, and their hearts over and again despite promises recently and vehemently made to themselves to the contrary.
Eventually, the Carvers found their way into the very language of the community. If one had provided money, transportation, clothes, food, or any other means of support, or, as happened on occasion, all of the above, they considered themselves “Carvered.” Giving a lot of money, keeping a child overnight, or paying a utility bill was considered to be a “Major Carvering.” Dropping a Carver child off at home, inviting one to a family meal, or swinging by the Carver home to take a late-sleeping Carver to school, was considered to be a “Minor Carvering.”
To the extent that pretty much everybody in the community had been “Carvered” at one time or another, it was doubly true of the church. Mom Amelia often latched on to one person or family in the church at a time. About every two months, I got a call from a different upset and confused parishioner with the familiar story. Amelia had “been sharing with them,” and they had “started helping out.” Then Amelia had started asking for additional help. Then Amelia had asked for increasingly larger forms of help. Then the person began feeling used and confused and decided to call the pastor. Those within the congregation who had been “Carvered” grew at an alarming rate.
The Carvers were a trial, and a peculiar kind of godsend. The Carvers generated more theological discussion and more visceral wrangling with Christian ethics than any sermon, class, lecture, presentation, or activity I’ve experienced. They provoked ongoing wrangling with servanthood, forgiveness, honesty, patience, love, stewardship, and the nature of Christian community.
The Carvers gave liberally of what they had: love, honesty, strong bodies willing to work long and hard, musical talent, faith, and their unique selves. The Carvers loved and served well, and they were well-loved and served in return, as well as fed, transported, tolerated, subsidized, clothed, forgiven, gossiped about, complained about, embraced, prayed about, prayed over, prayed for, and avoided.
No one ever figured out what to do, what not to do, or when and how to do it, or not. Everyone occasionally wished the earth would open up and swallow the Carvers and their needs whole, and everyone simultaneously wondered how to love them better and how we would get by without them. The Carvers were a trial.
Every family and every person was ultimately left to make her or his own peace with the Carvers and how they should be handled. My moment came one Christmas Eve.
I grew up hearing about how Santa was always so worn out from his work on Christmas Eve that he slept for a week, carefully ministered to by Mrs. Claus and the tireless, subhuman elves. It didn’t take many Advents and Christmases as a minister for me to completely understand such fatigue.
I’ve done manual labor, worked in a department store during the holidays, and worked in other high-stress jobs, but the weariness I feel on Christmas Eve as the pastor of a local church surpasses anything the secular world has thrown at me. And it’s not the multiple services, the secular expectations, the inexhaustible details, the parties, receptions, celebrations, or engagement with rampant consumerism that does it. It’s the illusory holiness that can’t quite be grasped that really takes it out of me.
My family had given up on me years before. I had surrendered being “normal” during Advent and Christmas, and they had given up trying to interact normally with me. Everyone had learned to maintain a certain distance.
Sometimes I would catch them whispering about how I seemed to be doing when they thought I was out of earshot. They would give me looks of genuine compassion and periodically inquired as to how I was “making it,” or would simply place a loving hand on my shoulder. But by the time Christmas Eve arrived, the parsonage decorations were up, gifts wrapped, and my wonderful wife, daughters, and sons-in-law safely gathered in, I was pretty much beyond reach, and everybody knew it. They loved me anyway and waited patiently for my eventual, gradual return.
The Christmas of my “Carvering” was as idyllic as it could possibly be under the circumstances. Our lovely, historic town was decorated to a standard sufficient for any Christmas story set in any English village or Currier & Ives lithograph. The beautiful, old church was glorious in its Yuletide finery. It was appropriately cold, and flurries had swirled all afternoon.
The town always celebrated a 7:30 P.M. ecumenical service at which one of the town clergy preached and all the others participated in the service. These community services were much anticipated, and the preacher usually started on her or his sermon in October. (I still recall the sermons I preached on those occasions as well as the ones I heard. If we all had put that kind of time and energy into our weekly efforts, there wouldn’t have been an empty pew for miles.)
These were occasions at which the host church, host pastor, guest preacher, and everyone present displayed their very best. Grown children of local families knew that if they were coming home for Christmas at all, they’d better have themselves present and presentable by 7:30 P.M. Christmas Eve. College students home for the holidays sat with their families and acted like their faith was more important to them than ever. These were much-anticipated, special gatherings of a close-knit community in which all cared about the others and knew more about one another than was healthy or necessary.
By 10:00 P.M., however, everyone had resorted to home and hearth. A few still visited from house to house, delivering home-baked goodies and spreading Christmas cheer, but most were done and gathered in. The town lay quiet, as only we Methodists ventured back out for 11:00 communion. So picturesque was this particular Christmas Eve in the Blue Ridge Mountains that I had begun to believe this might just be the year that I arrived home from the 11:00 P.M. candlelight service ready to relax and celebrate.
In spite of myself and the vagaries of the season, I mostly looked forward to those late services on Christmas Eve. They had become the essence of Christmas for me and for a goodly number of others, and they attracted a diverse crowd. People who didn’t even attend worship on Easter ventured out in the late-December cold each Christmas Eve to hear the story again, sing the familiar carols, and light their little candles. Those services, of the many in my life, remain the most beautiful and peaceful of my experience.
That particular evening, a mystical holiness hung palpably in the air. The service flowed seamlessly, the worshipers departed in joy tinged with awe, and scattered snowflakes fell as I wished the departing congregation “Merry Christmas” on the church steps. My family waited patiently with me as I made sure all the candles were well out and began switching off lights. Finally, I told them to go along home, that I would be there in a few minutes. The parsonage was a short walk up the street, just on the edge of the town. I simply wanted to spend a few minutes alone in the quiet sanctuary.
Tears filled my eyes as I knelt at the communion rail in the stillness of the darkened church. Like a shipwreck survivor fresh from a perilous, crowded raft, safely ashore at last, wrapped in a blanket and cupping a mug of soup, I blubbered heartfelt thanks for deliverance and my life’s innumerable blessings. Spent and calm at last, as I rose to gather my things and enter ever more fully into the childlike joy of Christmas, I was startled by Candy Carver’s silhouette, illuminated by the light coming through the doorway leading to the rooms behind the sanctuary. “I need a ride home,” she said.
How long had she been standing there? Had she watched me kneel and cry like a sentimental child? Where had she been as everyone else was departing? How had she gotten there? Where was her family, and on Christmas Eve for God’s sake?
My cozy Christmas Eve was suddenly adrift in a fog of resentment, covering me like a pall of lead. Here I was again on Christmas Eve, spent yet again, my expressions of relief and release answered by a punch in the gut.
“Where’s your family?” I asked. “Isn’t someone coming for you?”
I thought of my family waiting for me up the street, anxious to open our one Christmas Eve gift each before turning in, and ready to finally get “Christmas” underway. I thought of how they were probably expecting more of me than usual because of the good place in which they had left me just moments before.
“Mom said I should get a ride with somebody.”
Except we were all out of somebodies. At that moment it felt as if every other somebody in the world was sitting around the tree with their family sipping eggnog while I stood there wishing all the Carvers lived on Mars. Of all the somebodies in the whole world, I was the one being “Carvered” on Christmas Eve.
“Can’t we call your house and have somebody come pick you up?”
“Our phone’s not working right now.”
“Get your coat. Let’s go.”
I fumed all the way to the car, all the way through town, and halfway out to the Carvers. Finally, I came out of myself and looked over at Candy. There, all in a heap, bundled up in a worn-out coat two sizes too big, sat the entire Carver story embodied in that one child: all the embarrassing situations, the awkward requests for assistance, the hand-me-down clothes, unpaid bills, unappreciated duties grudgingly performed by over-used friends, neighbors, and church people. It all draped from that child like the acolyte’s robe she had but recently hung in the sacristy. Only this time it was her pastor whose irritation shone through.
“What do you want for Christmas, Candy?” I heard a kindness in my voice that hadn’t been there since I’d bidden my family to go ahead home.
After a silence, Candy named a couple of things popular with her age group that year. Both were expensive, and I knew she wouldn’t be getting either.
“Anything else?” She named a couple more little things, and then we were at her house.
“Thank you for bringing me home,” she said.
“You’re welcome, Candy. Merry Christmas! I hope Santa is good to you. You deserve it. And thank you for being our acolyte tonight.”
She smiled and closed the door. She let herself in the house. The light was on, but nobody greeted her except the two scroungy dogs that lived under the house and had come barking and snapping at my tires as we pulled up.
Candy alone, of all her family, had come to the late service that night to acolyte for me, for all of us, and I was so caught up in myself that I hadn’t even noticed. Too embarrassed to impose on anybody else, she had waited around to ask her pastor for a ride home. She had waited for the safest person to impose upon, and yet had experienced the same old resentment yet again.
Had I undone everything the service might have offered Candy? Had we really offered her much of anything in the first place? The wonderful feelings of my personal Christmas experience certainly weren’t hers. She was a Carver. Carvers were a trial.
It was deathly quiet as I drove through town, passing the churches, houses, and small businesses of people I knew. As I passed my own now-dark church and headed up the street to the parsonage, I knew Candy would forgive me, probably already had if she was thinking of me at all, and that the seasonal, popular Christmas spirit had been replaced by something altogether more profound.
Michael Lyle is the author of the poetry chapbook The Everywhere of Light (Plan B Press), and his poems have appeared widely, including Atlanta Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crannóg, The Hollins Critic, Mudfish and Poetry East. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Michael's other work on Foreshadow:
Wick of the Soul (Poetry, October 2022)
Tennis Players (Poetry, October 2022)
Yahweh (Poetry, October 2022)
Family of God (Poetry, October 2022)