Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chapter Six

Christmas 1985

Remember what I said about the top ten list of Christmas events in St. Augustine involving my family? Well, although my parents’ wedding might have barely cracked the top ten, their divorce is easily in the top five. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret being too young to remember the night of the 1985 Christmas Pageant when my parents’ marriage came to an abrupt end in front of the entire First Baptist congregation..

In the three years since they said I do, my very young and naïve parents had learned a lot of valuable lessons. Those lessons included (in no particular order):

- Condoms do not always work

- Children sometimes come in pairs

- Football scholarships to do not feed five mouths

- Even the nicest landlords can only be so sympathetic

As a consequence of those lessons, both of my parents had to give up on their dreams. My dad put his football pursuits on hold to take a full-time job and squeeze in the occasional night class toward his accounting degree while my mother put her trophy wife aspirations on the shelf to feed, bathe, diaper, and dress three little babies.

Dad scraped together enough credits for his accounting degree in April of 1985. He did not get to attend his graduation ceremony, however, because he was too busy obeying the rules of his eviction notice by packing up his wife and kids to move back home.

Judge was kind enough to offer my parents the Hamilton family estate--a massive, old, colonial home on the bay in downtown St. Augustine, where generations of the Hamilton clan (my father included) had lived for nearly a century. But before you start tearing up over Judge’s incredible generosity, you should know that the house had been vacated two years earlier by the family’s patriarch and his bride upon discovering a particularly stubborn colony of termites in the home who bred almost as quickly as my parents.

So the house became just another source of animosity between the newlyweds who had clearly jumped into the deep end of the pool. As Christmas neared, the two were rarely on speaking terms with each other, which led each of them to form a lasting relationship with a local lawyer.

Of course, being such a small town, St. Augustine only had a handful of qualified lawyers and as it turned out, my parents chose the same one. Henry Cane was obligated by the lawyer-client privilege not to tell my mom or dad that he was representing both of them. And as I understand it, even if he had not been obligated to do so, he would have abstained from saying a word because he found the whole thing mildly amusing.

Henry employed one process server, his half-brother Harry. It was a pity job that Henry had given Harry to help his little brother pay off the debt he owed him for all the times he’d bailed his drunk ass out of jail. Harry thanked him by showing up sober a few days a week and occasionally finding a way to stumble into someone who needed to be served with papers from Henry’s office.

Two weeks before Christmas, Henry gave Harry the paperwork that was to be delivered to both of my parents with strict instructions that he wanted them to be served at the same time. Harry tucked the papers away and rushed off to the First Baptist church where he was fulfilling his court-ordered community service obligation to society as the director of the church’s annual Christmas pageant.

It wasn’t until a few days later that Harry matched the names on Henry’s papers to the parents of the twin babies who were sharing the duties of baby Jesus in the pageant. Relieved that he wouldn’t have to go out of his way to do his job, Harry waited for my parents to show up together at rehearsal.

Unfortunately, Harry didn’t think about the fact that people who were about to get divorced probably wouldn’t be around each other that much. Every rehearsal, it was always my mother or my father who showed up with Brandon and I to supervise our participation. As Christmas Eve drew near, Harry started to panic. But he figured if nothing else, the duo would have to come to the pageant and accompanying candlelight service together.

Sure enough, on the holiest of holy nights, my parents arrived at the church with my older sister in tow and slid into the front pew. Harry spotted them from backstage and formed his plan. He had to get my parents to confirm their identities before he could serve them, it was one of the only rules of process serving. But he thought he knew just how to get it done.

Harry took to the stage and read aloud his narrative part of the pageant while the church’s children acted out the pivotal parts in the man-made manger scene behind the altar. As the end of the program neared, Harry veered from the script and swooped in on the manger to scoop up the baby Jesus (we are not sure to this day if it was me or Brandon, both of us had equal tufts of our father’s dirty blond hair at that point and so to the crowd, it was impossible to know who was who).

“Who’s child is this?” Harry bellowed in his booming narrator’s voice. The audience murmured in confusion. After a few beats of silence, the Virgin Mary slowly raised her hand while Joseph scratched his head.

“Not you!” snapped Harry. “Who are the real parents of this child?” He turned his gaze on my parents, who were just as confused as the rest of the crowd.

“Um,” my dad finally spoke up, “I suppose we are?” He gestured to my mom seated next to him in the pew. Harry made his way down the steps off the stage, still holding me or Brandon out in front of him.

“You are Jack and Elizabeth Hamilton? Parents of this child?” He asked one last time. The two of them glanced at each other, then looked back at him and nodded. Harry excitedly thrust the baby Jesus into the arms of a nearby stranger and reached into his cloak to remove the two manila envelopes his brother had given him.

“Then these are for you,” said Harry. He handed the envelopes to my parents then leapt back up on the stage to close out the pageant.

But the antics weren’t over yet.

When my Nana Betsy, who was seated next to my mother, looked over at the envelope and realized what was inside, her eyes rolled back up in her head and her body went slack. It was bad enough that her daughter had gotten married and pregnant at eighteen and then again at twenty, but to be a single, divorced mother of three at twenty-one was more than Nana Betsy could handle.

As she slid out of the pew onto the floor of the church, the candle wrapped in a cardboard disk in her hand slid along with her. The tiny flame brushed against my nana’s sweater and quickly blossomed. Several bystanders rushed in to put the fire out, just as the smoke roused Nana Betsy back to life. Paramedics were called and the Christmas pageant came to an abrupt end.

Somewhere near the back of the chapel, Henry Cane snatched up his wife and children and made a swift exit into the cool night air. He made a mental note along the way to cut his half-brother loose after the holidays and hire someone with a little more tact and a lot more brains.

There was, however, a small silver lining to the whole event. After their public humiliation in front of the same people who’d witnessed their vows almost exactly three years before, my parents were humbled enough to sit down together at the kitchen table that night and come to an amicable divorce agreement without the help of Henry Cane or anyone else.

My mother moved out the next day.



torinem said...

Wow! It's awesome so far...I guess I will have to buy a copy now! I have to know how all this plays out! Great job, girl!