The Biographies of Ordinary People is a Millennial-era Little Women that follows three sisters from 1989 to 2016. This chapter takes place in December 1989, when oldest sister Meredith Gruber is eight years old. It is also one of my very favorites, in the whole book.
If you aren’t familiar with the story: Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie are the three Gruber sisters. Alex (short for Alexandra) is Meredith’s best friend. The rest should make sense on its own.
The thing Meredith liked best about the Methodist church was that nobody asked her to consider her sins. In Portland they had gone to church with Grandma and Grandpa Gruber sometimes, and it was a big church with ceilings so high that Meredith couldn’t even read the words at the tops of the stained glass windows, and when you turned around to walk out of the sanctuary you had to face an enormous statue of Jesus nailed to the cross, with red painted blood dripping from the hole in His side. Meredith tried to look everywhere else but at that Jesus. She focused her eyes on Grandma Gruber’s purse instead.
But before that you had to kneel down and think about your sins, and Meredith felt like she was in the wrong place because she didn’t have any sins. She didn’t steal, she didn’t lie, she didn’t cheat, and she didn’t try to hurt people. What was she supposed to think about, in the silence? She thought about her parents and her grandparents, and she was pretty sure they didn’t have any sins either. Why were they all doing this?
The Methodist church never used the word “sin.” When they said the Lord’s Prayer, they used “trespasses,” which Meredith liked because you could hear the “s” sound come out of a hundred mouths at once, and there were plenty of “s” sounds in “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It was her favorite part of the prayer.
Meredith had asked Dad what “trespass” meant, because she knew about “No Trespassing” signs from books but thought they probably weren’t talking about that.
“It’s sort of the same thing,” Dad had told her. “Think about it like going into someone’s space when you aren’t supposed to. Like when you’re playing, and you want a Barbie that Natalie’s playing with, and you get her to give it to you even though you know she doesn’t want to.”
Meredith had definitely done that. She hadn’t even realized it was bad. So she also liked this church because it helped her become a better person.
Now she stood next to Natalie and Jackie and Alex, wearing red velvet to match her sisters and shaking hands with the grownups in front of them and behind them. Some of them said “Peace be with you!” and some of them said “Merry Christmas,” and one of them asked if they were excited for Santa, and Jackie said “Yes!” so loudly that everyone laughed, which Meredith thought was a little unfair. Jackie didn’t know yet about Santa, and it was mean of them to laugh at how excited she was.
Meredith had figured out Santa when she checked out Little Town on the Prairie from the library. She asked Alex if she knew, and Alex talked about footprints in the snow and half-eaten carrots next to the stockings, and Meredith said that at her house, Santa didn’t leave any footprints or carrots. They put it together like the Boxcar Children solving a mystery, and then Meredith decided not to tell Natalie or Jackie. Laura Ingalls hadn’t told Grace, after all.
After everyone shook hands and sat down, it was time for Special Music. Meredith and her sisters walked to the piano in their matching dresses, Natalie carrying the music book under her arm with a paper clip in the right spot. The two of them made sure the book wouldn’t tip forward, and then they carefully lined up their hands on either side of Middle C, while Jackie took her place next to Natalie and stood very still like Mom had taught her.
Meredith counted, trying to do it so no one else could hear. “One, two, three, four—”
“JOY to the WORLD, the Lord is come!” Jackie sang out as Natalie and Meredith shared the melody between their fingers. Meredith also had a few chords to play with her left hand, and she concentrated on what Mom had told her: be the accompaniment, not the solo. She kept her fingers curved and her wrists loose. It all made a difference, even though it was hard for Meredith to hear what the difference was.
After they finished, the congregation clapped, which embarrassed Meredith because she knew you weren’t supposed to clap at church. She didn’t know whether they should bow, but they hadn’t practiced bowing, so she didn’t. The three Gruber sisters stayed very still, like Mom had taught them, until the applause stopped.
Then Jackie and Natalie went back to their seats and Alex sat down on the bench next to Meredith. They moved the piano book pages forward to the next paper clip, and played “What Child Is This?” They had picked this Christmas carol because it sounded like castles and princesses. Dad had explained that it was also a folk song from England, and pulled out a record called “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” which Meredith wished he would play again, as soon as it was over. She wanted to write a story about a girl who listened to that record and closed her eyes, and when she opened them again she was in a magical forest. The instruments made sounds like trees and rain on leaves and waterfalls.
The other reason Meredith liked “What Child Is This” was because it was both happy and sad, so it really felt like Christmas. It was easy to think of all her trespasses tonight, and all of the ways she had been trespassed against. Even though she didn’t believe in Santa anymore, she still wanted to be good. She wanted to get everything right.
Then it was time for the candles. There had been candles in wicker baskets when they walked into church, and now everyone took their candles and one of the ushers turned off all the lights and the pastor lit her candle from the big Peace Candle in the center of the room. Then she walked to the first row, and the candlelight began spreading throughout the sanctuary.
Everyone sang “Silent Night” with no piano or organ, just voices. It was all voices and the steadily growing light, and Meredith half singing as they began a second verse and she realized she didn’t know any of the words. It felt like forgiveness, like it was okay that Meredith had read an extra chapter of her library book instead of cleaning up the playroom and Mom had come up the stairs and said “Meredith! What did I ask you to do?” or like it was okay that she had sat on Santa’s lap and pretended he was real. It was okay that they had called Grandma and Grandpa Gruber that afternoon, and Meredith had nothing to say except she was fine and school was fine, and she felt like she should have said more because it was a special day and she wanted them to know she loved them. It was okay that the congregation had clapped at their music, even though it had felt so embarrassing to sit quietly while it was going on.
Christ was born. Meredith looked at Alex in the candlelight, and Alex made a face, and Meredith tried not to laugh—and then she made a face back and Alex did laugh, but covered it up with her hand. Meredith looked the other way and saw Natalie leaning into Mom’s side, and Mom’s hand reached around to hug Natalie’s red velvet shoulder. Dad was helping Jackie hold her candle, as Jackie kept singing the one verse of “Silent Night” that she knew, over and over. When all the verses were finished, the ushers turned on the lights and the pastor called out “Merry Christmas!” and it was.