Mama’s come to jesus

I was waiting in line at Walmart. I had one tube of my favorite Garnier curl sculpting cream gel on sale for $2.00 off. Three families with full shopping carts were ahead of me. They must have been buying their entire Christmas: heaps of toys, clothes, electronics, kids running around, women digging in cavernous satchels for wallets and coupons, salesclerks bored and slow. I was getting increasingly irritated. Annoyed at my self for thinking this would be convenient; at the people in line for deciding on now to download their lists; and at the world for having this holiday where everyone goes crazy and spends too much money, especially when I just want to go home and wash my hair.

As the line thinned, I looked up from reading a Martha Stewart magazine and noticed that the little boy in front of me did not seem attached to any of the other shoppers. He was waiting quietly a few steps behind the mayhem, closer to me. He was about ten, dirty, dressed in pants that were a little too short and frayed at the hem. He was not wearing a hat, scarf or gloves. When the last shrill entourage wheeled away, the boy stepped up and placed his purchase on the counter. It was a pair of woman’s shoes, black velvet ballet slippers with embroidery and rhinestones on the toe. The boy counted out his money but did not have enough and said to the clerk:

Sir, I want to buy these shoes for my Mama, please
It’s Christmas Eve and these shoes are just her size
Could you hurry, sir, Daddy says there’s not much time
You see she’s been sick for quite a while
And I know these shoes would make her smile
And I want her to look beautiful if Mama meets Jesus tonight

So I ended up paying for the shoes and discovering the true meaning of Christmas.

Ok, I am lying.

I do occasionally stop at the Walmart near my house and then regret it. I am frequently jaded around the holidays. And I do read magazines when I wait in line. But the little boy part is actually the plot to a song that has become a modern classic among certain folksy folks, inspiring a made for TV movie and an industry of goodness. Christmas Shoes, written about ten years ago by a Christian group called NewSong, can be heard in full on this website:

Now is where I mock and jeer, right? I am a full-blooded blue American with sharp wit and a deep appreciation for pop culture irony. I should be able to generate hours of fun from the forced country drawl and infectious angel chorus alone. Heckling this type of nonsense is what we intellectual types play at recess.

But here is the rub. The song makes me cry. Seriously. Tears, snot, little hiccups. I become possessed, the voodoo victim of some schmaltz demon poking pins in my eyes and shoving lumps in my throat. The brain is mortified. The mucus is weak. My son thinks this is hilarious. He sneaks up behind me at odd moments and holds the tinny iPod speaker to my ear, not blaring, just audible enough to hear the little boy’s plea, the mother’s plight, the narrator’s change of heart. As if on cue, sniff. I am hopeless.

I am sharing this truly embarrassing phenomenon in an attempt to understand. I know I am being manipulated but what is the trigger? Is it because I feel guilty that the spirit of the season usually translates into the stress of the season? Is it because I am a commercialized, consumer worshipping retail priestess who loves to buy and sell gifts and a song about the perfect gift chokes me up? Is it because I am a mother who would like not to see Jesus anytime soon? Is it because it is natural to have compassion for a child in danger of being left alone and bereft in a cold world of disinterested salesclerks? Is it because I grew up in a family who got their Christmas music from an album the gas station gave out free with a fill up?

My son consoles me with Jungian philosophy. He assures me that sentimental stimulus taps into something deep in our collective psyche. “All of us are the poor kid,” he says, “and all of us are the guy in line.” He admits to getting a little misty at the eleven minute version of Rhiannon and Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie. “That song is epic,” he says, and plays Christmas Shoes again.

Barring tragedy or diamonds, I will probably cry in only one other situation this month. Every Christmas Eve my husband reads Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory aloud to our family and at the kite flying scene I always break down. This story cannot be more different than Christmas Shoes. It is a literary gem, vivid, evocative of time and place, the antithesis of trite. And my husband’s delivery, in a soft southern accent, is unaffected and simple. Yet, my reaction is the same. It seems my emotions do not discern between treacle and poetry as long as a lonely child is on the verge of losing love. Maybe at this point I am on autopilot. I cried the first time years ago and now subconsciously remember and repeat the behavior, the response reinforced, or perhaps given permission, by the context. A moment of sanctioned letting go, a romantic channeling of raw reaction when crying for the real reasons – a broken car, no money, mean people, bad hair – are not legitimate prompts for falling apart. Maybe my shabby little inner poor kid is just waiting for an excuse to sob.

13 responses to “Mama’s come to jesus”

  1. lane says:

    skipping to the bottom to note, in the wake of LP recent questions, I CAN”T WAIT TO READ THIS!

    AND . . . I really just dont’ like “Diamond Dogs” & “Ziggy Stardust”, I love “Let’s Dance” (always have) “Heroes”is only half good, but just yesterday I snagged “Low” and “Lodger”.

    So for someone that has a SANE appreciation for . . . Aladdin SANE, the exploration continues.

    But still, Jesus is totally overrated . . . : )

  2. LP says:

    Pandora, I love that you’re so moved by this, and that you’re so tormented by the fact that you’re moved. I remember crying upon watching a McDonald’s commercial several years back, and fighting back feelings of disgust for doing so. But you never know what’s going to hit that soft spot.

  3. LP says:

    OMG. I just found it on youtube and it’s from 1988!

    And yes, I just cried again, watching it. Yowzers. Click here to see what a sentimental sucker I am.

  4. PB says:

    Totally got me as well – Thank you LP for sharing and for understanding.

  5. lane says:

    ok, sorry for the first non-sequiter comment, just excited to see PB is still posting.

    Ah yes, Sentimentality, it’s a great emotion. I love it. Lot’s of people love it. The Jesus story is built around it, and . . . Happy Holidays!

  6. lane says:

    and that is one sappy McDonald’s commercial! . . .

  7. swells says:

    Ah, neuroscience. Is that really all there is to us? As one of the characters in White Noise says, “Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana [ . . . ] He thinks he’s happy but it’s just a nerve cell in his brain that’s getting too much stimulation or too little stimulation.” Isolate those neurpoathways and we’ll REALLY be under the spell of the corporations. Or has McDonald’s already done that? Because I remember that commercial too, and for the exact same reasons as you all do.

  8. Dave says:

    As Dan Dennett likes to say, yes we have a soul; it’s just made of millions of tiny robots.

  9. LP says:

    Those little robots made me cry again this morning: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is history! Wahoooo!

  10. Tim says:

    PB, your response to this song strikes me as the flip side to your fascination with murder ballads. (BTW, your mix from a few years back is still in high rotation on my Walkman, er, iPod.) The murder ballad often expressing regret (sometimes for having been caught, rather than for the crime itself), but also frequently coldly tells of the necessity of the killing, for whatever reason, and may even celebrate it. It’s a coal-black genre with only the lonesome grave lying open before its protagonists. The mama’s-gone-to-heaven genre, on the other hand, expresses an undying hope and belief in the sweet hereafter, where we’ll all be reunited with our dearly departed. Why the one type of song puts you in a chipper mood and the other moves you to tears is perhaps a question for the next time you can’t sleep at 3:30 AM. But seriously, you’re *supposed* to cry at these songs. It’s not unusual that you do.

    This sort of song–the innocent child’s earnest description of the dearly-departed parent (or sometimes sibling) has a long history of its own. Just tonight I was listening to a Jean Ritchie album, and what did I hear but “The Orphan’s Lament.” There’s also Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl,” and if I started thinking and Googling I’d probably come up with a dozen more fairly quickly. Wordsworth’s short poem “We Are Seven” comes to mind, too. Ooh ooh! Maybe this could be your next song collecting project.

  11. Tim says:

    Whoops, that’s “We Are Seven” by Wordsworth. I conflated it with A. A. Milne’s “Now We Are Six,” a very different sort of poem.

  12. Tim says:

    Wait, I had it right after all. I must need to back away from the computer.

  13. J-Man says:

    De-Screen! De-Screen!