Most of my childhood is buried in a landfill near Houston. This is not a metaphor, but the terrible outcome of foreclosure proceedings on my family’s home when I was 12. When we left the white brick house, we moved into a rickety green wooden rental across town that slashed our living space in half. We took what we could carry during a few trips in our vehicle—mostly the necessities—and left the rest behind.
Over the next few months, we made trips to pick up more, until the day we found the rooms completely emptied. The house, and therefore everything in it, technically belonged to the bank; they had quietly and efficiently hauled our belongings to a local landfill. Family photos, numerous toys, my and my brother’s bronzed baby shoes that hung on the wall, the majority of our family mementos and brick-a-brac. The junk that makes a house a home, gone.
I’m telling you this because of an angel named Gloria, who was part of a nativity set my mom put out each Christmas. It was from the Sears Trim Shop and included 15 ceramic figurines huddled together under a wooden manger that looked about as sturdy as our new rental. Every year, I played with it for hours.
By far, my favorite figurine was the angel.
She was beautiful. Three or four inches tall, with copper-blonde hair and shimmering gold wings. I knew her name was Gloria, because it was written on the banner draped gently between her outstretched hands. My mom unbent an ornament hook and hung Gloria from the peaked roof of the manger, where she looked over the Baby Jesus when I wasn’t playing with her. Perched there, she seemed safe and happy and secure. Nobody was going to evict her . . . at least not until Epiphany when my mom repacked everything until next Christmas.
I have no idea whether that nativity made it to our rental house (or any of the other houses that would come in quick succession after that), or if it lies entombed next to a half-rotten banana peel 1,200 miles from where I live now. I’d like to think I remember it being brought out during those chilly winters in the house that didn’t have central heat, where we got dressed in front of the open gas oven as our main source of warmth. I’d like to think I remember that as clearly as Gloria’s gold wings and blue dress, as clearly as I remember the nights I wondered whether the electricity would still be on when I got home from school the next day.
In 2007, the first Christmas after my mom died (and the Christmas after I got married), I stumbled upon an identical Sears nativity on eBay. It turns out there were people looking to rid themselves of the very things I longed for. In a fit of grief-stricken midnight web surfing, I purchased it and eagerly awaited its arrival.
But when I opened the box, I found only 11 figurines—and no Gloria.
After scouring other posts for similar sets, I realized that beautiful, angelic Gloria must not have been original to our nativity. I didn’t know where she came from or why, but her absence left both a figurative and literal hole in my holiday. It came to symbolize the many things I’d lost, like my childhood and my mother.
Years passed, as years do. I left one job and started another, I struggled through infertility and eventually gave birth to a son. It was seven years before I searched again for Gloria. After combing through many vintage nativity sets, I came across a set of figurines that was an add-on to the original 1971 Sears nativity my mother owned. (If the year is correct, she would have purchased it the first Christmas after she got married, a coincidence that felt both bitter and sweet.) The picture on the box showed a boy playing a guitar, a bearded man carrying a basket of bread, an angry camel, and one strawberry blonde angel with gold wings and a sash bearing the name Gloria.
With the hopes of pulling one small sliver of my childhood from the trash, I emailed the seller to ask if all of the figurines were present. Unfortunately, they were not—he or she had substituted an extra donkey and a sheep for the missing dromedary and my beloved Gloria.
I let the mismatched foursome go, and kept searching for things that just barely slip out of my grasp.
I don’t think everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe events take place when the time is right. I don’t see—or look for—signs from God, or the universe, or a higher power.
Which is what made finally finding her all the more special.
On a random Wednesday in October 2015, at almost 8 1/2 months pregnant with a daughter, I awoke with one thought filling my mind: I had to look for Gloria again. By then her wings were burdened with the weight of multiple metaphors—she symbolized a dwindling connection to my late mother and my ongoing efforts to assemble a functional adult from a fractured childhood. I needed her to complete the manger scene I grew up with. But more importantly, I needed her help to replace my saddest childhood memories with positive ones of my own creation.
I typed “vintage Sears nativity angel” into the empty maw of eBay’s search bar. Among a sea of hand-carved and die-cast figurines, my eyes fell upon one special listing. The seller confirmed that all four figurines—the guitar player, a man carrying bread, a camel, and a ginger-haired angel in a blue dress—were present and accounted for, and available for the taking.
More than 30 years and less than a week later, Gloria came to me.
In the time between her creation and the multiple homes she probably passed through, she had been broken; a thin but visible seam passes down each shoulder and connects across her chest. She’s been put back together fairly well, but there are white scars of chipped paint in her otherwise beautiful robes. She’s not perfect. But that’s OK because I was broken in the intervening years as well. Our scars are proof that we survived.
Now we’re home.