Hand Painted Nativity Set By The GYPSY



December of 1983; the year was drawing to a close. For me, 1983 had been a year of massive change full of challenges, triumphs, and sorrow. Now as the holiday season approached I would be faced with a situation I had never experienced before; loneliness.

I had applied for and been hired as a Lead Keeper at El Paso Zoological Park in El Paso, Texas. This was a large step up from my current position as an Apprentice Keeper at Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene, Texas.

I was excited about this change and what it meant for my family both financially and emotionally. We had struggled for years just to keep our heads above water. My wife Ronda had to work as an Exotic Dancer to supplement my meager income and we lived by meager means. I looked forward to not having to worry about taking care of my daughter Dawn Renee’s needs any longer. Days of financial worry would soon be behind us.

Ronda and Dawn Renee went to Saint Joseph, Missouri to live with Ronda’s mother while I set up housekeeping in El Paso. During my first two weeks on the job, I lived out of the back of my car with my Great Dane/Husky mix dog, Harley D. Sportster. I had made friends with Don, the owner of the service station where I got gas for my car, and he let me park behind his station to sleep in the backseat of my car.

Don and his daughter Eileen were very nice and said they would keep their ears open for an inexpensive house for rent in the area. The “area” was Anthony, Texas 30 miles west of El Paso and I had figured that rent would be cheaper outside of the city.

On the day that I received my first paycheck from the City of El Paso Don had good news for me; there was a mobile home for rent in the same mobile home park where he, his daughter, and his wife lived. It was owned by his landlady Zora, and she said I could have it for no deposit if I would mow the grass on the lot when it needed it so that she did not have to do it. I agreed and moved into a very nice two-bedroom mobile home in Canutillo, Texas, ten miles closer to El Paso.

Zora owned two large lots in the mobile home park. Each lot had 3 mobile homes each in a U-Shape configuration. Don and his family lived in her north lot, and he mowed the grass there. I lived in the south lot at the back. Zora’s daughter Sherry lived in the mobile home to the left of mine, and she told me how happy she was that she no longer had to mow the grass.

Harley loved the large fenced-in lot where he could run and have fun barking at any unleashed human that walked by. I loved the solitude and country atmosphere of the lot. I settled in and sent for my wife and daughter.

At first, Ronda seemed to like our new home but soon it became apparent she was restless. She said she was bored living so far out in the country. She suggested that it might be a good idea if she got a job dancing again in an El Paso club. She said, “We could put back some extra money and find a nice place in El Paso.” I agreed and she went to work at a gentlemen’s club on Hondo Pass Road in El Paso.

Ronda complained almost daily about the club which was owned by a Korean lady who favored her Korean dancers over her non-Korean dancers. I told Ronda she should quit, and she said that it would be too difficult to go to another club.

One day, when I arrived home from work, I discovered that Ronda had packed her and Dawn Renee’s bags. She told me that she had decided to move back to Abilene for the 1983/1984 school year. She said, “It will give you time to find a place in El Paso. Dawn Renee can attend school in Abilene since all her school records are there. We can get her school records transferred next year and she can start school in El Paso in the 1984/1985 school year.”

I did not like this plan, but Ronda had already gotten her and Dawn Renee’s bus tickets. I took them both to the Greyhound Bus Station in El Paso, put them on the bus, and waved goodbye. That was in August of 1983 and by October 1983 another major change came into my life.

It was October 25th, my birthday, and I had looked in the mailbox every day for a birthday card from my wife and daughter and none had arrived. As I investigated the mailbox on this day, I discovered a letter from Ronda. I opened it up and read;

“Dear Jim, I know this will be hard on you but Dawn and I will not be returning to El Paso. I have decided to stay in Abilene. Dawn will always be your daughter and I know you will keep in touch with her and of course, you can see her whenever you want. But I am going on with my life without you. You have done nothing wrong I just don’t feel like I want to be married any longer. I hope you will understand and go on and have a happy life. -Ronda-“

Needless to say, this was not my best birthday ever and that night, with the help of my friend Scott who lived next door I got roaring drunk. But a momentary numbing of the pain did not erase the pain that had ripped the heart out of my chest with the reading of a “Dear Jim” letter I got on my birthday from the woman I loved.

Life went on and I poured myself into my work at the zoo. Then on October 31st, due to a faulty gate latch, I got trapped inside the Ostrich exhibit and was attacked by the male Ostrich. When it was all said and done, I was bruised over 75% of my body and I had an umbilical hernia. Gay Dove, the head of the docent program at the zoo took me into her home and she and her husband Joe and daughter Debbie tended after me as I recovered from surgery.

When I returned to my home in Canutillo on November 10th, I went through the mail that had accumulated in my absence. In the stack of mail was a letter from the City of El Paso Human Resources Department. It has been my experience through the years that when you get a letter from human Resources 9 out of 10 times it is bad news; this letter was no exception to that rule.

The city council of the City of El Paso, in their infinite wisdom, had decided that as of January 1, 1984, all city employees must live within the city limits of El Paso. Failure to show residency by that time would result in termination of employment. As if I needed one more piece of stress now, I had this.

Without boring you with the details by December 1, 1983, I had acquired a reasonably priced apartment at 1700 Hawthorne across from the University of Texas at El Paso. Zora had taken Harley and had traded him to a kennel. She had needed a guard dog for her lawn ornament business and Harley was just too good-natured to be a threat to anyone. Zora got her guard dog and Harley eventually became the companion of an old farmer who had recently lost his wife.

As I busied myself organizing my new apartment it suddenly occurred to me that for the first time in seven years, I would be by myself during the holiday season. I will not be celebrating my daughter’s birthday on December 24th with her. I would not get to see the happy faces of my wife and daughter as they opened their Christmas presents. There would be no gathering at my wife’s sisters or mother’s home for Christmas dinner. My wife and I would not be bringing in the New Year together. I would be alone!

The next day, at work, I had to go to the hardware store to get some items for one of my exhibits. At the checkout was a display of white light-up ceramic Christmas Trees. I purchased one and headed back to work. I figured that I could at least have something on the shelf to try and take the edge of all I had lost.

When I returned to the zoo with the work truck, I took my purchase and headed to my car in the employee parking to drop it off. On my way to the car, I was approached by Gay Dove who asked me what was in the bag. I showed her the 10” ceramic tree and she said, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” She went to her car and took out a cardboard box. Handing to me she said, “Open it carefully.”

Inside the box were several objects carefully wrapped in newspaper. I took the box into my office and Gay watched as I carefully unwrapped the objects. There was a green ceramic Christmas tree with frosted snow on the branches and tiny jewel inserts that lit up from the small bulb inside when plugged in. Now I understood why she had said “I wish you hadn’t done that.”

As I continued to unwrap, I soon uncovered a completely unpainted plaster nativity set complete with Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, A Sheperd Boy with Sheep, An Ox, A Donkey, 3 Camels, 3 Wisemen, and a Stable. Gay had plaster cast the set for me and had made the small Christmas tree. I teared up and hugged her, I thanked her for the generous and thoughtful gift,

She grinned a big grin and said, “I figured, since you’re an artist, that you could paint the nativity set any way you want it.”

I examined the stable and said, “That’s nice that they left a place for a bulb at the back to light it up.”

“Oh my, I almost forgot”, she said running out the door. A minute later she returned with an electric cord in her hand. At one end of the white cord was the plug and at the other end was a clip and socket. In the socket was a pink night light bulb. “Here you go Fluffy”, Gay said as she handed it to me (Gay always called me Fluffy). “I figured a Pink Bulb would give the inside of the stable a more natural glow than a white bulb would.”

That was 40 years ago this Christmas. I eventually got my wife and daughter back for a short time. Ronda gave birth to my son Christopher in 1985 and we divorced in 1987.

Dawn Renee grew up, got married, and just recently celebrated her 34th wedding anniversary. She gave me two beautiful granddaughters, Andrea and Sarah. Sarah got married and has given me two handsome great-grandsons. All live in Abilene, Texas.

Christopher became a first responder Dispatcher in the Dallas Metroplex. I have another son, Michael Lee who is a bomb defusser and lives with his wife and my two grandsons Mike Jr. and Nikolas in DeKalb, Texas.

Another son Micheal Steven is a First Sargent in the Army and lives with his wife and my grandsons Tristan and Ezran in North Carolina. My theatrical genius son Ricky lives with his wife in South Carolina.

I left the zoo world behind in 1986 and I now live back in the city of my birth, Topeka, Kansas where I run my art studio along with my wife Raychel.

It is easy to see that a lot has happened in 40 years and a lot of changes have occurred in my life but one thing that never changed; every Christmas the little green tree and Nativity set go out on display alongside the white ceramic tree. I eventually painted the nativity set making it all look as realistic as 3-inch figurines can look.

For 39 years after setting up the trees and nativity set, I plugged in the cord that would light the trees and nativity, and for 39 years the Pink Bulb that Gay Dove had given me lit up the inside of the stable, until this year. As I plugged in the set the Pink Bulb did not light. I checked the socket to make sure the bulb was tight; it was.

For 39 Christmas’, year after year, through life’s up and down’s the little Pink Bulb had been a faithful servant lighting the interior of the stable wherein the baby Jesus lay in a manger. I sadly replaced the Pink Bulb with a white bulb (all I had on hand) and turned on the switch. The ceramic trees lit and for the first time in 40 years, the interior of the stable was bathed in white light.

I looked down at the little Pink Bulb resting in my hand. Holding it up I looked at its still glossy surface marred by scratches. Each scratch had its own story to tell which the little Pink Bulb kept a secret unto itself. I turned and looked at the nativity set resting upon the fireplace mantle, and I set the now dark Pink Bulb inside the stable between the Ox and the Virgin Mary. Some traditions you just do not throw away, especially those that represent memories of love.