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When the Van Died: The Homeschooling Spirit of Christmas - by Mary Donellen

When the Van Died: The Homeschooling Spirit of Christmas

The van wouldn’t start.

Harbingers of doom had peppered the past week or so, it must be admitted. Our homeschooling family (I wonder, do these things happen more frequently to homeschoolers as a general rule?) would climb into our van, turn the key in the ignition, and hear a high-pitched whirring.

Dad would hop out, jiggle the fuse box around, and with the next attempt, the van would crank to life again. The remainder of us would share mutual grins, un-cross our fingers and exhale our breaths, and blithely proceed to wherever we happened to be going that day.

We knew it would happen sooner or later, though: the great kaput. Mom anticipated it on every errand; I, the only licensed driver aside from my parents, anticipated it as well. However, what I didn’t anticipate was our capricious van serving as a vehicle for the embodiment of the homeschooling spirit of Christmas (no pun intended—well . . . okay, it was).

The Great Kaput

It was a serene Monday morning; the sky was clear, the wind was cool. Picturesque, and the perfect day for the van to keep on keeping on. Right.

In lieu of a regularly scheduled day of studies, my mother, siblings and I had spent several hours volunteering as envelope stuffers, sealers, label-stickers, and—most vitally—chatterers for a Christmas newsletter mailing at the retreat house of a group of local religious sisters.

We had been cheerily surrounded by homeschooling friends and elderly volunteers, and all of us had been overseen by indefatigable Catholic Christmas elves disguised in habits, veils and sunshiny smiles; but at last, everything was completed, the supplies bundled up and put away, and the five members of my family who were present prepared to leave.

Our doomed vehicle was parked in a patch of gravel outside the retreat house. It innocently waited for our approach.

Mom seated herself in the driver’s seat. I buckled in beside her. A plate of homemade Christmas cookies, baked and prettily bundled in red cellophane and green and white ribbon by the sisters, was nestled in my lap. They were a little melted from two hours of direct sun exposure (we all know what it’s like to have a younger sibling run food to the car and plunk it in the front seat . . .), but still pretty.

The keys went in; crank. The engine churned. It sputtered and coughed like an asthmatic dinosaur and . . . died.

A Parking Lot Christmas Party

This disheartening process was repeated approximately five times before Mom reluctantly pulled out her cell phone to call Dad, who was at work.

Meanwhile, my twelve-year-old brother knitted his brow, popped open the hood and leaned over the fuse box, wiggling it with great expertise but with not-so-great luck.

Taking advantage of the moment, my youngest sister stuck her head through the open window and asked if she could have a Christmas cookie, although we hadn’t had lunch yet. The van continued to cough. Yes, I’m thinking. These things always happen to homeschoolers.

Meanwhile, an elderly gentleman who had been volunteering at the mailing strode over to our little disaster area. Rubbing at his jaw, he asked about the problem. Mom described the situation, and he politely asked for our owner’s manual. Upon receiving it, he pored over it for several minutes, conferencing with a few of his friends.

Several other volunteers and homeschooling friends kindly congregated around us in the meantime (a few kids engaging in lightsaber duels), offered moral support, and exchanged small talk while we continued to try and crank the van, which only resulted in more dinosaur-esque coughing.

My stomach growled. It was past lunchtime. After a moment, my younger sister said with a shrug, “Want a Christmas cookie?” So I plucked at the ribbons but eventually had to request my brother’s pocketknife to open the admirably sealed package.

Finally having opened the recalcitrant wrappings, we each ate a few. My hands quickly grew covered with melted chocolate, but I licked my fingers cheerily. This was almost like an impromptu Christmas party.

My youngest sister, having departed a few minutes ago, arrived back at our van, out of breath. “I was talking with Sr. M.M.,” she gasped, before eagerly helping herself to a Christmas cookie, “and she told me Sr. M.F. is a mechanic!”

So we invited Sr. M.F. to our unplanned, homeschool-style Christmas festivities. I politely discontinued licking my fingers and stepped out of the car.

The sweet-spirited nun, daughter of a mechanic, arrived with a denim apron over her habit and a ready smile. She and the elderly gentleman holding our owner’s manual consulted for a while over the possible explanations and eventually hypothesized a blown fuse. Sr. M.F. accordingly fetched a pair of pliers.

The Homeschooling Spirit of Christmas

I was busy talking with a homeschooling mother and commenting how dull life would be without such occurrences, when the elderly gentleman resurfaced from under our hood, displaying a blown-out fuse for all to see.

He passed it to my mother, then said, “I’m going to use the one from your left headlight, if that’s okay? You’ll need to replace it when you get home.” And within a minute or two, under his ministrations, our van started again with a contented purr.

Delightedly, we applauded this gentleman we’d never met, who had solved our problem entirely unasked and enabled us to go home.

The homeschooling friends who had remained to keep us company loaded up their children—and lightsabers—into their own van; the elderly gentleman, meanwhile, humbly accepted our thanks and left, almost before we’d noticed. My brother insisted he was an angel; I don’t think he’s too terribly off the mark.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I coined this entire incident as the homeschooling spirit of Christmas: a broken-down van; a lunch comprised of slightly melted Christmas cookies; my little brother trying to examine the fuse box like Dad would; a religious sister and stranger volunteer who generously provided us mechanical assistance with laughs and smiles; a group of friends who kept us company out in the parking lot at lunchtime when they were no doubt hungry themselves.

The homeschooling spirit of Christmas was right in that moment, friends. A spirit of time given for others; a spirit of cheerfulness and charity descending onto a gravel parking lot, with a plate of homemade cookies for lunch and little kids playing lightsabers in the background—just the right amount of uniqueness, of unplanned occurrences where families support one another, to make this little tale something homeschoolers everywhere recognize as authentic.

If my siblings and I had been sequestered in a classroom that Monday morning without the opportunity to volunteer with the sisters, none of us would have been present in that moment: the parking lot would have been devoid of our broken-down vehicle altogether.

We wouldn’t have had the privilege of witnessing this unique example of the Christmas spirit: the generosity of both friends and strangers, and a pervading sense of family. In the end, my family and I owed this little experience of grace to God’s unerring timing and His sense of humor, and to the homeschooling that facilitated the moment to begin with.

This Advent and Christmas, let’s celebrate the unique blessings that God’s gift of home education provides our families—the blessings both obvious and disguised, the blessings that are instantly welcomed and blessings that initially appear to be misfortune. They are all opportunities for joy and little revelations of God’s love.

Half-melted Christmas cookies, anyone?

What’s an experience of yours that seemed terrible at the time, but now is something you laugh at?

About Mary Donellan

Mary Donellan

Mary Donellan grew up immersed in the colorful, compelling and inspiring world of authentic Catholic homeschooling, surrounded by the adorable little kids both in her own family and in her friends’ families and praying more than one noisy Rosary in the process! She is blessed to have the example of her parents and other beautiful families to guide and encourage her as she prepares to embark on the vocation of marriage and motherhood with her Knight in shining armor!

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