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Saturday, 22 December 2012


Star of Bethlehem

Coming to you in almost every garden and park in Australia, the Star of Bethlehem has made the transition from its native South Africa to herald the Christmas season in Oz too. The fact that it is common should not detract from its glories – hardy, evergreen, spectacular large, long-lasting blooms in one of my favourite colours. Not to mention the joy of snails, dozens of which can be found on any one plant.

The original Star was not, of course, common but its heralding of the birth of Christ, the God-man, spread the news with the same joyous abandon as the agapanthus. That one-off event in human history has generated millions who now celebrate His arrival, God entering the arena of human affairs as one of us. That’s a mind-blowing thought, worthy of a second glance.

I have here a story of another arrival, a far lesser one but perhaps one which many of us can identify with – the beginning of a new phase of life.

The imposing arch of the massive front gate loomed over Marise. Here was a new world, a place to live and learn which was as different from the home she had known as anything perhaps could be.
Her boots scrunched on the gravel path leading to the double wooden front doors. Every sense was alert – the silence loud, the garden fragrance pungent, and the height of the red brick and sandstone building towering.
The left hand leaf of the front doors to the orphanage slid open, silent and seemingly aware of her approach. It was as if she were being drawn in without human knowledge or her own will, sucked into this entity which was foreign and yet would absorb her individuality and make her an indistinguishable part of the mass.
She shook her head slightly. Enough of these fancies! Her mama had been right – her imagination gave reality no chance.
She stepped up to the desk and asked for Sister Joseph. The nun's eyes narrowed as she tried to assess this new addition to the Orphanage family.  Apparently she passed the test. The nun smiled, and Marise breathed again. What might the alternative outcome have been? She crushed that thought mercilessly.
Marise had only a moment to look around the room before the presence of Sister Joseph pre-empted her actual entry to the waiting room.
"Welcome!" barked the nun and pointed the way Marise should walk. "I had forgotten that you would be arriving today, but all's well! We will have your place sorted out shortly! In the meantime, I will show you around, let you get your bearings before we launch you among the troops!" The nun hustled her through doorways, up and down stairs and along corridors that looked exactly like one another.
Get my bearings! thought Marise, pushing back the bite of bitter panic.
Sister Joseph beckoned for her to follow into a cavernous room filled with wooden tables and benches. At one end was the kitchen, with all the clatter of pots and pans signalling preparations for lunch already under way.
"This is where you will eat all your meals, although today you may eat in your room. They tell me that it's a bit overwhelming on the first day to confront all the new faces and the din of mealtimes in here. Though it will be just as cacophonous on your second day – it's up to you."  The nun gave Marise a look which seemed to say, "We'll see by your choice whether you've got the guts you'll need here." And Marise knew she had to find the courage somehow to eat her first lunch with the crowd.
She was grateful to leave the dining room for more of the endless corridors. After what seemed the circuit of the three-sided building, Marise found herself being shown a classroom.
"This is where you will begin your lessons each day. I'm sure one of the children will explain the system to you," Sister Joseph commented as she saw Marise's bewilderment at the many lists on the blackboard. That, it seemed, was as much prior instruction as Marise was going to get. Her mind reeled at the number and detail of the new things she would have to adjust to. It seemed that no amount of experience at other schools had prepared her enough for this one.
"I think you'll find the children at the Orphanage here, for the most part, very friendly and obedient. You need not worry, you will fit in in no time." Sister Joseph's attempt to erase the anxiety from Marise's face was met with a wan smile and an inward groan. Marise had not meant to show her feelings so obviously. She knew the value of a poker face, and she steeled herself to contain her desolate emotions.
"Ah, I think they have assigned you a bed now, so let's park those suitcases before I show you the library." Sister Joseph glanced at her watch and strode off with renewed energy, and a piece of luggage. Marise's shoulders ached with the weight of the other, and she wished for a moment that she had the nun's bulk which seemed to carry the case as if it were featherweight.
She peered into her assigned bedroom, and breathed a sigh of relief. She had not been sure how many others she would have to share a room with, but there was only one other bed. Only one person whose habits and foibles she would have to become familiar with, only one person who would know hers. She fervently hoped her roommate was a discreet person.
Sister Joseph looked again at her watch. It was large and masculine, much like her, though not unattractive. She sighed. "I'm sorry, I'm going to have to leave you to your own devices in the library. I have another newcomer to greet, but Sister Michael, our librarian, will be able to look after you better than I." Sister Joseph smilingly waved her to a door at the foot of a stairwell, and bustled off, Marise presumed, towards the reception.
Books. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, books in serried ranks met Marise's eyes and her heart swelled with joy. Here, at last, was a place where she could feel at home. Her suitcase forgotten, Marise began to read the spines. She worked out the shelving system, wandering through the canyons of book-crammed shelves, her eyes lighting up as she recognised favourite authors. Time disappeared. 
She felt jolted awake by the awareness of a small dimpled nun standing at the end of the row.
"Another booklover, I see!" Her eyes twinkled and Sister Michael moved forward with outstretched hands to introduce herself. Marise relaxed after her first shock of reawakening to the real world.  Perhaps the Orphanage would have its compensations, even joys, after all, she thought.  Shaking off the dark fears and forebodings she had felt ever since she had known she would be sent here, she put her hands hesitantly into the nun's.
Marise found her voice.
"Thank you, Sister Michael. With a library like this, I think I will actually enjoy teaching here at the Orphanage."
And the two women, nun and novice, made their way to the dining room.

May you find this Christmas season full of extraordinary and common joys.

Until next week…
Claire Belberg 

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