The Toothpick-Legged Sheep

When I was growing up, we, like many families, had a manger scene. It was set up in our dining room each December. My mom would pull out a few encyclopedias (remember those?) off the shelf in our den, stack them on the “little buffet” table to the side of our dining room table, and then gently unfold and spread out a piece of green velvet that was reserved for this one special role. Together they became a verdant, green hill. 

Then we would take the lid off the sturdy white J. M. Towne department store box and unwrap the cast of characters from their blankets of yellowing tissue paper. This tissue paper, probably from circa 1965, was invincible. It was used and reused and not going anywhere. It smelled of mustiness and evergreens, and still retained a bit of the cold from being stored up in our attic. 

There was Mary. Joseph. The manger and then a separate Baby Jesus you could take out (and hide in the top drawer until Christmas morning when he was officially “born”).  A shepherd. A herd of sheep. A donkey. Two cows. Three wise men. A camel. And an angel. 

The angel stood on top of the velvet hill, overlooking the mother and father with the manger positioned between them. And then the animals, shepherd, and wise men took their places. 

Because our manger scene was so prominently displayed on a low side table,  it was attractive to the little hands of my nieces and nephews. But it was never considered off-limits. So, the scene might be re-arranged, and suddenly the angel was accompanied by a camel and a wiseman, Joseph was manning the manger and Mary was out on the dining room table along with the sheep, who were now having a picnic with my mom’s collection of assorted pig figurines and miniature pretend foods. It was like a Catholic Calico Critters set. 

After years and years, the set got a little bit chipped—the patina of play. But of all the figures, the sheep really took the brunt of it. Their delicate carved legs were individually positioned perfectly by the good people at Fontanini so that the sheep could be balanced and stand on their own (today’s toy manufacturers should take note). Even though each sheep was designed to be slightly different from the others, with a neck turned slightly, or a foot lifted a bit as if mid-step, they could stand. That is, until, they couldn’t.

Where did those wayward legs go? No one knows, I guess. Because, if found, my Mom would have reused them using her trusty glue gun. But these were fairly down-and-dirty repairs. I bet I can guess the reason. My Mom had 6 children of her own, upwards of 15 grandchildren (at the time, #16 didn’t come until 2012), and she was the Keeper of all the Christmas Magic. It’s not like she had time to whittle new sheep appendages. 

The first sheep to lose an extremity was given a prosthetic. But not a discreet one; she just snapped off a piece of a toothpick, glued it on, and boom, that sheep was back in action on the velvet stage. It’s debatable whether the second sheep fared better. After an incident that involved the loss of two limbs, he just got the two remaining hooves (or whatever they are on sheep?) hot glued to a piece of brown cardboard for stability. Back to work, Muttonchop. 

Over the years, my mom accumulated several more Nativity Sets. By this time, I was an opinionated twenty-year old, and in my estimation, *this was too many nativity scenes.* Flash forward maybe a decade later, we were helping to move my parents out of their home. Our task involved trying to downsize their 40+ years of accumulated belongings by about 95%. It was a heart-wrenching process, but it was clear that almost everything had to go. 

Going through some boxes, I found the Nativity scene. I knew as soon as I came across it—this was not destined for the dumpster in the driveway. At this stage in our lives, my siblings already had accrued Nativity scenes of their own. But Rick and I had only been married for a few years, and we hadn’t. So there wasn’t any negotiation needed, the manger scene came to New Hampshire with us. 

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know who now has a minimum of three nativity sets displayed at this time of the year. Because that’s how life goes. The moment you open your big bratty trap is the exact moment that thing becomes sealed in your destiny. We moan and groan about our parents’ idiosyncrasies as we “grow up” and grow out into the wide, wide world, and then one day turn around and promptly do the same things

This tattered old set is now one of my most prized possessions. I don’t know exactly how to describe the way I feel about it except to say that it’s the polar opposite of buyer’s remorse. When it’s early in December (or the day after Thanksgiving, who are we kidding?) and I go to unpack my Christmas decorations, I think to myself, I am so glad I was able to keep this set.  

One look at it and I am transported back to my childhood. My house growing up. The smells of Christmas. The bitter cold wind stinging my face. Being together as a family, with all or almost all of my older siblings under one roof. My parents—the dynamic duo, with Dad working tirelessly to finance Christmas and Mom, making it happen.  An ever-expanding crew of in-laws and babies. A fancy dinner out followed by the sleepy silence of a Midnight Mass. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I fared well in the presents department, too. (Just ask any one of my siblings…) But my parents also gave me (and all 6 of us) the best gift—the gift of faith. They weren’t opposed to “the things” of Christmas, but it was always clear that this holiday centered on the celebration of Jesus’ birth. I mean, it was laid out before us right there in the dining room. 

Now displayed in MY dining room (sans encyclopedias, green velvet, or three wisemen and camel which got lost in the shuffle somehow), the manger scene now hopefully provides the same kind of subtle lesson for Ryan. Together, he and I unwrap the pieces, and I lay eyes on the familiar faces of old friends: Mary, Joseph, the sweet little Baby Jesus, the angel, the shepherd, the cows, the donkey, and the ovine crew—of course, including the cardboard-mounted ewe and the toothpick-legged sheep. 

Lesson learned!


We all learned a lot today during the Wax Museum held by the second graders at our town elementary school. Of course, the intention was for the students to do the learning – researching a person who has “changed the world.” As a Mom, I learned something today too, although the lesson was not exactly what I was expecting to take away from the day…

So, at this Wax Museum, you press a pretend button and watch the wax figure come to life [Hall of Presidents style (#boringDisney whatwhat?)] and listen to each child recite a few lines about his or her chosen individual. Neil Armstrong, Flo Jo, Jane Goodall, Wayne Gretzky, Larry Bird, Amelia Earhart—to name just a few. My personal favorite, but I am biased, was a freckle-faced Thomas Alva Edison. New Jersey in ‘da houz!!!!!

Today I really walked away with another lesson in motherhood. And how NOT to Mom. Or, to “reframe this narrative” (thank you, Forever 35 podcast) a little more positively– how to better use my energy as a mom.

In preparation for this project, I fell victim to the faulty belief that more is more. As Ryan and I were putting together his costume for Thomas Alva Edison (by the way, T.A.E. is a terrible choice for this assignment based on the “interesting costume” factor) I felt like Ryan’s needed a little something more for oomph besides the black bowtie. Well, in my literal-as-the-day-is-long mind, I really felt like the pièce de résistance would be a bald cap with white hair around the sides. Because that’s the hair that Thomas Edison has in this picture:

Scan 1 2

Williams, Brian. (2001) Thomas Alva Edison. Chicago:  Reed Educational & Professional Publishing. You bet I cited it, biatch! English major 4 LYFE!


(Can we sidebar for a second here and talk about that very Helena Bonham Carter black rose-y lapel flower, though? Why didn’t I gravitate toward that?)

In true Procrasti-Katie form, I did not giving myself much time. (And notice I say giving MYSELF much time, because this was MY second grade project, right?) Amazon Prime could not help me locate a “balding cap with white hair” that could arrive on time, but a broader Google search did yield a match. Party City for the win! However, it was not available to be shipped, so instead I selected “In-volved Parent.”… I mean, “In-store pick-up.”

And, naturally, it was not in stock at any of the local Party City stores around me. SO THOMAS EDISON’S MOM DROVE LIKE A SHMUCKITY SHMUCK 30 MINUTES EACH WAY TO GET THE WHITE-HAIRED BALD CAP from Plaistow, New Hampshire!!!!

Mission accomplished. Feeling like an A+ Mom (…and, let’s face it, student) I returned home and proudly produced my wares after Ryan got home from school. When I say he was unphased, I mean, he was un. phased.

C’mon. Is this the best, or what?


This morning, as I walked into the classroom, who greeted me? My very lovable, front-tooth-missing, Thomas Alva Edison – and I’m sure you know where this is headed – he was NOT wearing the Plaistow-procured bald cap with white hair on the sides.

And you know what? He looked fine. Better than fine, he looked great! And he totally nailed it as Thomas Edison, without the stupid wig.

There was my lightbulb moment, friends. (See what I did there? Edison…improving the lightbulb….Anyone? Bueller?)

Back to the lessons: More isn’t always more. And my ideas aren’t always better.

From now on, I’ll put my energy to better use and try to strike a better balance between being involved but not too-too involved.



I kid you not, it had not even been one hour after I wrote the first draft of this that Ryan came home with news from school that Read Across America Week was coming up. Each of the themed days (crazy socks, dress as what you want to be when you grow up, wacky Wednesday, favorite book character day) and I broke into a cold sweat. CRAZY Socks?!?!?! We don’t have crazy socks. Where can I buy crazy socks? Why didn’t I buy that ridiculous taco hat I saw at Party City!?! What book character is he going to go for…is he having more of a Hardy Boys Moment or will he go the Dog Man route, or…. wait..a..minute. This is it. Me. Doing it again.

Old dog. New tricks.