“Keep,” said Pema. I closed the book and looked up at her. The room was dark, save for the soft yellow glow above our heads. Pema was knitting with Silke on the couch. Shady, the dog, lay quietly below. To my right was the Christmas tree, my Christmas tree, whose lights added a few shades of downy white to the color temperature in the room. Behind me, the fire glowed softly. Everything else, the dark edges of the room and beyond, receded into the distance.
“Daddy, keep,” Pema said again. She had her eyes buried in her handwork. I smiled, laughing inwardly at her expression. Keep reading is what she meant, but her shorthand was hard to resist, like the expression of a newborn chick. Keep. I glanced at the straw ornaments on the tree, shimmering gold.
“Maybe your daddy needs a rest,” Silke offered, pausing for a second with her knitting needles.
“Oh, I’m good,” I answered, “I just want to sit for a second. I’ll read another chapter soon.” I looked down at the book, Mary’s Little Donkey. On the cover was a little gray donkey with a distinctly mischievous face. Several lambs frolicked in the foreground, and behind them was a tree filled with birds.
The story, told through the eyes of a stubborn, but proud donkey, is a tender account of Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. Along the way, Joseph (that’s me) is a doting, if sometimes orthodox husband. Capable and proficient, he leads the three of them, donkey, wife and man, away from Nazareth for the census in Bethlehem. Mary, sweet and innocent as honeyed butter, is the picture of devotion, whose embrace converts even the most loathsome thieves. The donkey, of course, is a donkey, stubborn as a mule. That is, a donkey. Sturdy and proud, occasionally guided by an angel, it is the donkey, against all common sense (ahem, Joseph), who leads them to shelter, gets them across rushing rivers, and… Matzi, Silke’s cat, hopped onto my leg.
“Does anyone need anything? Water? Tea…?” I asked, “…before I begin?”
“No,” Pema answered, her hands threading a string of colorful yarn.
“No, thank you,” Silke said, looking at me with rosy cheeks and a barely-suppressed smile. I smiled back. This is heavenly, isn’t it?
“Okay,” I said, brushing Matzi aside and picking up the small book. I glanced at the tidy pile of Christmas gifts Pema had left under the tree. A galvanized bucket, a small broom, a felt gnome, an intricately stained carving knife. Inside the bucket was a tiny red hat and sweater, knit by Silke for Pema’s doll, a small bag of dried fruit and two mint-chocolates. “Daddy, look how much presents I got!” she had said earlier that day, fists shaking with excitement. I nearly keeled over with the most sorrowful joy. That a child, my child, could be so content with so little. At her age, I would have stared at disbelief at such a dismal haul. Of course, there were other presents. Some back home with Mama. Grandma and Grandpa’s package hadn’t yet arrived.
“Keep,” said Pema.
I looked one last time at the darkness outside the window, grateful we had declined an invitation to a friend’s Christmas party, and thumbed open the book. Keep? My goodness, Pemalina, I won’t ever stop.