A Plumber's Feast

On Christmas Eve, right before the family’s grand feast, the pipes broke. It was unfortunate, really, the geyser rising then falling from under the commode. The youngest of the cousins found the expanding pool before the rest of us and squirted soap on the wet tile. It was her raucous singing of “Jesus’ love is a bubblin’ over” that led to the discovery of the problem and the eventual phone call to the plumber. “A Christmas Eve plumber’s rate,” Dad said, “is going to be painful.” He was prone to prophecy on liturgical holidays.

Anna was pulled from the rising tide of suds that were expanding like some nightmarish Mr. Bubble commercial. Adults rushed to contain the spill by a seawall of monogrammed towels and chamois from the back of uncle Ted’s BMW. The plumber arrived and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. He could work a Christmas miracle; we were sure of it.

Dad was a good man, really. Back in those days doctors carried pagers but he had turned his off for Christmas Eve dinner. We retired to the table to feast—turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, creamy green bean sludge with crispy fried onions, wine for the adults, and sparkling cider for the children. We prayed thankfully; ate fully. Dad read the manger story. Aunt Judy cried quietly, saddened that the God-baby was born to die.

After about an hour the plumber walked into the dining room, interrupting Aunt Judy’s snowballing lecture on justification. The Presbyterian in the family of Catholics, Aunt Judy was prone to theological ramblings on protestant holidays. “I capped the pipe,” he said, “but the fixin will have to wait until after the holidays.” Dad asked him to sit and eat but he declined. Mom gave him coconut pie on a paper plate and a Styrofoam cup of coffee.

As they walked to the door Dad offered a back-slapping “Merry Christmas, Joe.” Joe offered a slip of paper in return, an invoice of Christmas cheer. After unfolding it, the old man gasped and exclaimed “that’s more than I charge for two hours of surgery!” Joe turned to my father slowly, solemnly.

“Well doc, you had the same career opportunities I had,” he offered as if contemplating the priceless gifts of the magi.  “Merry Christmas, Doc.”

Within earshot, Uncle Ted recognized the fulfillment of prophecy and his booming laughter all but blew out the candles on the Advent wreath.