I don’t remember much about Christmas 1973 except that it was the year my mother died and I got my monkey.
This wasn’t just any monkey. It was the old, stuffed kind with a plastic face, feet and hands, one of which clenched a plastic banana. It was a gift that came at a time when I badly needed it.
I was 16, and can’t remember ever receiving — with the exception of my daughters and the Samoyed puppy my husband gave me on our wedding day — a more perfect or special gift.
My sister Dianne, just 6 years older than I, had redeemed it with those yellow Top Value stamps a sack of groceries from Winn-Dixie could get you. I never gave it a name. It was always simply my monkey. When I went off to college, I took my monkey. When I left home at age 23 for the first time, chasing hope in the Mississippi Delta and then North Carolina and California, my monkey came with me.
Today, more than 40 years later, it rests on the top shelf of my closet, much more than the Christmas gift I didn’t expect. It is a constant reminder that God will provide — not just at Christmas but every day in whatever way I need him.
As my relationship with him has deepened, I’ve been reminded of this a lot over my life — enough to fill an entire book, beginning with the loss of my mother that horrible winter morning when she succumbed to a massive heart attack. She was 43. I was 15, one of 10 children she’d given to my father.
I’d already lost two brothers by then, one who died of whooping cough and another who drowned trying to save our cousin. Death was nothing new to me. To this day, I’m haunted by it, my mother’s wails at news her eldest son was dead, the sight of his dog, Tippie, whimpering at his casket, and my grandmother’s hard decision to put the German shepherd down because he missed my brother so.
I’d get used to death because, truth is, I had no other choice. Looking back, I think it was the deep sadness that comes with that sort of loss that forced me to ask the difficult questions about life and faith and to finally see Christmas as God intended — the fulfillment of a promise made in Isaiah 7:14 — “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
Immanuel, meaning God with us.
As a little black girl coming of age in 1960s Mississippi, I needed that, needed to know that he was indeed the promise keeper I sought that revival night in 1968, when I accepted him as Lord of my life.
And while there have been many moments when I’ve been disappointed, when I felt he’d left me even though he said he’d never forsake me, I’m certain now that I’ve never been alone since that night.
Did I know that on Christmas morning in 1973 that he’d provide for me and my four younger siblings? I’m not sure but it wouldn’t be long before I learned to look for God in every circumstance of my life, to believe as the Apostle Paul declared in Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
That is to say whatever occurs in the course of my insignificant life — my own missteps and sin, in sickness or health, losses or gains, poverty or riches, reproach or commendation — God will cause it to work together in a variety of surprising and startling ways for my good.
Would I have learned to trust him had my mom gone on living? Maybe. Maybe not, but most of the time when I think of her untimely death, I remember another passage in Isaiah in which the prophet declares, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” Often it is in losing something dear to us that we are able to see the only one who will never leave or forsake just as he promised.
Maybe I would’ve gotten my monkey anyway. Maybe not. I know that there are people reading this who will just see my 21-year-old sister with her Top Value stamps because it’s easier and more logical, but I saw God providing for us, taking nothing and turning it into something special, something needed.
He’d provided for us before that Christmas Day and he would long after in sometimes mundane and outlandish ways, including a stuffed monkey.
His presence explained how my sister Nancy could be voted best dressed in high school because he provided the housekeeping job to Grandma Ruby at the home of one of the most prominent white families in McComb, where I grew up. Not just any white family but one with two daughters the exact size as three of us sisters.
To this day, we laugh wondering what they’d have done had they known the maid brought their clothes home for us to wear to school, then took them back. That stopped, of course, the year we integrated but even then God provided. We inherited their hand-me-downs.
It’s been a long time since I wore anyone’s hand-me-downs, or since I’ve had to worry if there’d be a Christmas gift under the tree for me. God has given me more than enough. And even now, all I have to do is ask.
I prayed for a daughter and he gave me two. I prayed for a home and when others told me and my husband we wouldn’t qualify for a loan, he guided me to this passage in I Corinthians so that my “faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” Since then, my husband and I have owned three homes, each with two and a half baths. (If your bathroom was ever an outhouse as mine was growing up, trust me, that’s a BIG deal.)
When my father and grandmother died, he was there. When I lost two sisters, including the youngest who was murdered by her husband soon after our move here, he gave me the strength to carry on.
For every step I’ve taken with him, beginning with Christmas morning more than 40 years ago, my faith in him has increased and my relationship has far less to do with what he’s able to do but the eternal hope he has given me through Christ.
Long after Isaiah’s prophecy, Luke declared that “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
At 57, that’s exactly how I see him.
Still on this Christmas morning, I know there must be children across this state and nation looking for Santa the way I was more than 40 years ago.
And so all these Christmases later, I can’t help but think about those among them who don’t have a big sister with Top Value stamps, and about the huge number of mothers and fathers who’ve lost their jobs, their homes or their good health.
It’s enough to make you lose hope, but that is what I love so much about this season, its stirring music and magnificent images of happiness and promise of comfort and joy. It is a reminder that God will provide, that his promises are true.
I’m no Bible scholar but from what I can tell, more than 400 years would pass between Isaiah’s prophecy and the birth of Jesus in the book of Matthew.
Four hundred years.
A promise kept. And, for me, the reassurance that God will do just what he said.
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