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Valuing Family on Christmas

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SHIPROCK—The holiday season brings memories of Christmases past and hopeful plans for the future. One particular Christmas I had serves as a reminder that this season is a time for families, giving back and thinking of others. For me, though, Christmas is especially wonderful because of the children.

One particular memory I recall happened exactly ten years ago. The lesson I learned that Christmas Eve showed me that it’s important to always value your family—and it was taught to me by a little six year-old Navajo boy named “Marvin.”

Hillary Tompkins, Solicitor General at Interior, Lawrence S. Roberts, Acting assistant secretary for BIA, Commissioner Raphael Lopez from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families; and Sam Hirsch, deputy assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice are seen at the opening session of the 34th annual National Indian Child Welfare Association.

Valarie Tom

The icy winds were blowing hard and snow was falling as my family and I drove from Albuquerque to Shiprock. We had just finished up our Christmas shopping and needed to get back to Christ the King Catholic Church by 5 p.m. for the Christmas Eve pageant organized by Sister Margaret and Sister Mary and a host of volunteers.

That Christmas of 2001, I helped teach catechism, was a full-time college student and was due to deliver my second son at any moment.

I was tired and after walking most of the day shopping, and then sitting in a car for hours over bumpy, icy roads and snow, I was ready for bed.

Yet, I had a Christmas program to help with and afterward; I had to make sure the youth got their cookies and punch at the end of the program.

As you may know, organizing children in preschool through high school for a program was not easy. Organized chaos is probably the best description.

Father John Paul Sauter and the two twin sisters who were nuns and a handful of parents worked for three hours to make sure our program was filled with spiritual teachings, singing and sharing a Christmas play.

In the mist of all the chaos, a small little boy, wearing worn jeans, torn socks with untied sneakers and a thin pullover was sitting on the front pew all by himself, quietly looking around.

He was slender and his hair was cut in the traditional ‘boarding-school’ buzz cut. I noticed him because while everyone else was busy, rushing to get ready for our program. This little boy was sitting there calmly observing it all.

Seeing him all alone, I asked him he wanted to join the group of elementary school aged children and sing during the program. He didn’t look me in the face, but he nodded "yes."

I asked him where is family was so we could tell them he was going to participate. He kept looking down and because of all the noise, I repeated, “Where is your family?”

He slowly looked up and stared at me for what seemed like several minutes, then with his small hand, he looked skyward and pointed toward the sky. His face was serious, yet sad.

Not quite sure I understood him, I asked him again where were his parents. He again pointed up towards the sky.

I was stunned and sad all at once and asked in a quiet voice as I kneeled—9-months pregnant mind you—by his side and ask: “Your mom and dad are in heaven?”

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He looked down at his lap and nodded.

Words fail a person at times like that, and as best as I could, I told him that his parents would be very proud of him for being in church and trying his best. I told him it was nice to see him sitting there quiet and behaving nicely. I told him his parents were blessed to have a terrific son like him.

He smiled and I walked him over to the group singers. Tears welled up and fell down my face as I went in search of Sister Margaret to ask about the little boy and what his story was.

For seeing his tattered outfit and thin jacket, I wondered if he was going to get presents and eat a good Christmas dinner. I also pondered on how could we assist him as the long days and months and years went by for this orphan?

I found Sister Margaret and since I totally forgot to ask him his name, together we went in search of him. As we approach the group of singers, an elderly Navajo grandmother was talking to him and he was telling her in Navajo that he was going to sing.

I pointed him out as I wiped away my tears as I told Sister Margaret that we had to make sure his Christmas was good. She saw the little boy I pointed to and in a voice only a nun could replicate, said: “Marvin! Please come over here right now, and bring your grandmother.”

He came over with his grandmother, and Sister Margaret said: “Why did you tell Mrs. Valarie your parents were in heaven?”

He just grinned.

Sister Margaret said: “Marvin, you know very well that both your parents are working in Denver and they are on their way home right now.”

Now, that made me start to cry again—this time with joy—because I was so thankful this precious little boy had parents, and come to find out through Sister Margaret who knew the family very well, that he had siblings, parents, dozens of aunts, uncles and grandparents throughout Dinetah (Navajoland).

His parents had to move to Denver because there were no jobs locally and all the children were being cared for by their aunt, uncle and grandmother. Marvin, is seems, was going to receive gifts, a good Christmas dinner, and was just a very mischievous little boy.

Sister Margaret said she placed him on the pew earlier because he was running around and told him to stay put. Amid the chaos she forgot about him and when she went to check on him, he was gone.

I still remember smiling through my tears at Marvin, knowing he was going to have family surround him and perhaps some presents to unwrap. He smiled at me finally and then went to rejoin the singing group.

As the evening went on, I’d see Marvin smiling and having fun. Despite my tired, aching body, I was serenely happy. I said a little prayer for all children and asked that they be taken care of always. I also said a prayer of thanksgiving for my family, my new baby boy I would welcome into this world, and for my relatives in Dinetah and down in the White Mountains.

That memory has helped me through heartache, disappointment, and challenges, for in the end, I am reminded to be thankful and recall the blessings of FAMILY.

I wish you all a very prosperous, happy holiday and a wonderful, healthy New Year!

Valarie Tom is a member of the White Mountain Apache tribe and resides in Phoenix, Arizona where she grew up. Tom is also an award-winning journalist who has worked in magazine, print and television.