It was Christmas Eve, 1972, and a light dust was beating against the train window, whipped up from the alien, treeless space of New Mexico.
I was 2,000 miles from home and anxious. Instead of Christmas carols, the ancient plea of an Advent hymn haunted me: "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel ... "
Well, after all, it still was Advent. Save the miracles for Christmas.
I was asking for a lot of miracles: that my flower-child daughter had the letter telling her when I would arrive and where to meet; that presents for my 2-year-old grandson, the tree stand and decorations had arrived, and that the hotel had bought the tree I ordered.
Two weeks earlier she had called: "Can you come out here?" There was no other answer but yes.
I got on a train arriving in Albuquerque on Christmas Eve.
There was no room in the adobe hut where they lived, so we were to spend Christmas in a downtown hotel that I chose by phone. "Could you also buy me a tree?" I asked the clerk. "A small one with thick branches. Put it on my bill."
"Hawkay," he answered.
As the train pulled into Albuquerque, families surged forth to greet arriving grandparents. My hopes rose. Long after the station had cleared, I took a cab to the hotel. The dark lobby was empty except for well-worn mission furniture and a Christmas tree. I tapped the desk bell until a figure emerged, unsteady and dwarfed by a sombrero tipped down to his mustache.
"I have a reservation," I said.
As I signed the register, I asked that the mailed boxes be brought to my room. "And did you get the tree?" The sombrero swayed.
"Don't worry. Plenty of time." The mustache twitched. "No boxes came." For the moment, there was nothing to do but grab the key and go to my room.
Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel ... and Jennie and Josh and the tree and boxes and all the other miracles that seemed unlikely to happen.
If only I could call Jennie, but she had no phone, and a vague address -- "behind a big house about a mile west of town." I could reach her only at the day-care center where she worked, now closed for the holidays.
A rap on the door interrupted my despair. At first I saw only the maroon velveteen blouse bedecked with a large squash-blossom necklace, its silver and turquoise gleaming in the reflected light.
"Merry Christmas," she said softly.
"Sophie!" Disregarding the usual Navajo reserve, I hugged her with a desperate joy.
I had written in the Christmas card I sent her that I was coming here to be with Jennie and Josh, and added, "Wish you could join us." And she drove more than 200 miles from Window Rock, Ariz., to do just that.
It had been five years since I had seen this cherished friend. We met in Washington and developed a deep bond -- deeper, even, that I had realized, until now.
She listened to my problems in silence, then said, "I'll be back." A few minutes later she returned, followed by my boxes on a dolly being pushed by the Sombrero Kid. "I made him give me the keys to the storage room," Sophie said, grinning. "Now he's going to get the tree." She spoke to him in Spanish with quiet authority. The sombrero nodded.
Within the hour he dragged in the Christmas tree, its sparse needles carpeting the hall. Fully eight feet tall and emaciated, its skinny trunk took a sharp turn toward Canada at about the 5-foot mark.
"Beautiful. Beautiful!" he exclaimed, crossing his hands reverently over his chest, before he held one out for a tip.
With Sophie there I could laugh at the tree, and we did until tears came. We trimmed it as if there would be a child to see it.
Just before midnight, I slipped the minuscule plastic creche beneath the branches and went to bed.
Happily, there was a hotel coffee shop, and Sophie and I had breakfast and were back in the room by 7:30. To wait and pray. Oh come, oh come ...
It wasn't long before a child's voice echoed up the hall. "Gramma live here?"
"Told you," said Sophie, with a wide, relieved grin.
As I flung open the door, Josh announced immediately, "Came in alligator. But didn't bite."
"When I told him we were in an elevator," said Jennie, "he thought it was an alligator." After a warm reunion and introduction to Sophie, Jennie apologized for not meeting the train. "I lost your letter, and it turned up just this morning. Gee, it was like a miracle. I was afraid we couldn't find you at all."
Josh was tearing open his presents when the whine of a vacuum cleaner sounded in the corridor. "Alligator," he cried and rushed to his mother.
She carried him to the door to show him what it was. The sound stopped immediately, and a surprised cry of "Ninåo" rang up the hall, followed by delighted laughter and repeated calls of "Merry Christmas."
"Come join us," said Jennie. She came back into the room with two young Hispanic maids, Isabel and Maria. "You bring Christmas to hotel," said Maria. Isabel reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a small, wrapped bar of hotel soap. "It's very little, but it's for you," she said as she handed it to Josh, who loved it.
A voice from the open door said, "We don't want to stop your celebration, but we'd like to say Merry Christmas." Two retired school teachers from Washington, Helen and Martha had been on the train with me, and were taking a bus that afternoon to El Paso.
"We thought we would miss Christmas," Helen sighed, "but here it is -- and with a baby." Martha slipped out and came back with a flat package in Christmas wrappings. "This was for my great-niece in El Paso," she explained, "but I have other gifts for her. I want Josh to have this."
It was a lovely Nativity book. He got up on her lap and ordered, "Read." The Magi fascinated him. He stared at the illustration, then at Martha's face. "Bless your little heart." She hugged him.
Our laughs were interrupted by a loud wail from the doorway. "Bambino!" sobbed a large man with fleshy face and flowing white hair.
One of the maids whispered, "Mr. Alfredo. He lives here. Is little loco."
He was in before we asked, showering Josh with change from his pockets, and weeping. "Tears of joy," he explained dramatically. "I was all alone. At Christmas. And now ... " A sob wracked his large frame.
"We understand." Martha stroked Josh's head. "Thank you, baby. You've given us our Christmas."
Jennie brought out her guitar. We started singing Christmas carols, timidly at first, then Mr. Alfredo's rich, Italian baritone led us into full-throated song.
"Joy to the world! The Lord is come ... "