Editor’s note: St. Paul author Roger Barr continues a 22-year Christmas story tradition with “Lemonade Christmas.” It’s a look at how COVID-19 has affected traditions associated with Barr’s annual holiday story about the fictional Bartholomew family and friends.
The series began with the now ironically titled “The Last Christmas,” which was published by the Villager newspaper in 1997, Barr says. With the exception of 1998, there has been a new Bartholomew story in the Villager every year since. This year, the Pioneer Press continues that tradition.
Since 2004, Barr has organized a public reading of his story to benefit local food shelves. This year, he Instead he has recorded a staged reading of the story, which will be available online starting Dec. 10 and will benefit the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center food shelf. (Information on how to access the reading and donate is at the end of this story.)
“A Lemonade Christmas”
By Roger Barr
It hardly feels like Christmastime, Matthew Bartholomew thinks as he wheels the cart containing a barrel of donated food toward the service door of Handyman’s double garage, home of the Open Cupboard Food Shelf. On the service door, a sign reads: NO MASK? NO SERVICE! NO FOOLING! Matt raises the yellow face mask with the emoji smile to cover his mouth and nose and opens the door. Inside, he is greeted with silence instead of the customary Christmas music that normally plays all through December.
The food shelf’s founder and manager, Darnell Jenson, known to all by his old street name “Handyman,” sits at his desk behind a plexiglass shield. He is wearing a headset and staring into his computer screen. A county social worker, he has worked remotely since the pandemic began last March. He nods at Matt, points at the computer screen and rolls his eyes.
Matt rubs his hands with sanitizer and begins to distribute the food from his barrel among the rows of half-empty shelves. “These shelves look pretty empty,” he mutters as he works. He is just finishing when Handyman removes the headset, snaps a mask that reads “Black Lives Matter” around his ears and adjusts the cloth over his mouth and nose. He throws Matt a salute in lieu of the customary handshake between old friends.
“No Christmas music today?” Matt enquires.
“Zoom meeting,” Handyman replies. “Truth is, I haven’t been playing much. I’m having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year. Normally, this is my favorite month of the year, but this year. …” He leans over to the old CD player and pushes a button. Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas” fills the garage’s cramped interior.
Someday at Christmas we’ll see a land
With no hungry children, no empty hand
“Every day seems harder than the last,” Handyman says. “Feels like Christmas is being canceled.”
“Christmas spirit is running low over on Pinehurst Avenue, too,” Matt says. “We have fewer creche visitors this year because I only displayed Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus and one angel — instead of all 50 figures. It didn’t seem right to go all out this year, the way things are. Visitors’ food donations are running below normal. This pandemic, I swear. Nothing feels normal. Everything’s off kilter. We just found out this morning that with work commitments and quarantine restrictions, Christopher had to cancel plans to fly home from San Francisco over Christmas. We already knew that Allison wasn’t coming from Washington, D.C. So neither of the kids will be home. It’ll be a Zoom Christmas at the Bartholomew house.”
“Denard’s not coming home either,” Handyman says. “I sent him a Christmas box. I hope he gets it.”
“I’ve got bad news,” Matt says. “Last night our church council decided holding services on Christmas Eve was still too risky, so they’ll be livestreamed. That means New Shepherd will be closed over Christmas. No community dinner in the Gathering Room on Christmas Day, like usual.”
“That is bad news,” Handyman says. “Between my day job and keeping this place open nights and weekends, I hadn’t even thought that far ahead. Lot of food shelf clients attend that dinner. One more thing to keep me awake nights. All this craziness is wearing me down. Day after day after day. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this place open, way things are going. Look at these half-empty shelves. What you just brought in won’t last any time at all.”
As if to prove his point, the service door opens and a woman heavily bundled against the cold steps in. Under her knit hat and face mask, only her eyes — intense behind thick glasses — are visible.
“Miss Jessie,” Handyman says, “is that you behind that protective mask? How you today, Sister? You know Matt, our volunteer. Don’t be shy. Grab a bag and help yourself.”
Miss Jessie takes a grocery bag from the box and disappears into a narrow aisle between the metal shelves.
“People ask me why there’s no this or no that,” Handyman says. “I tell them donations are down. People end up taking what they can find, rather’n what they want.”
Handyman pushes the stop button on the CD player. “Sorry, Stevie. I’m not in the mood.” He holds out a sheet of paper. “Would you take a look at this?”
“What is it?” Matt asks.
“A letter to prospective donors,” Handyman says. “I need to get their attention. Read it, will you?”
Matt reads the letter aloud: “‘You don’t need me to tell you times are tough. Anyone knows me knows my philosophy. If you don’t know me, here it is: Everyone has the right to have a full belly. Open Cupboard is here for anyone and everyone. No applications, no limits, no questions asked. Just take what you need and leave some for the next person. This approach has worked for 20 years.
“‘These days the demand for food at Open Cupboard is higher than what’s being donated and the pickings get slimmer every day. I can’t stand the idea of anyone going hungry. Can you?
“YOU need to step up to the plate and donate food or write as big a check as you can. No foolin! I’m not just asking, I’m begging! Please! Handyman.’”
“It’ll get their attention.” Matt hands the letter back.
“It’s not too direct?”
“For you, no.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“It was meant to be.”
Miss Jessie emerges from an aisle, her grocery bag half full. She glances around and hesitates as if waiting to ask a question.
“Miss Jessie, did you find everything you needed?” Handyman asks. “I’m sorry our selection’s so limited today.”
“Enough to get by.” Again, she hesitates.
“Is there something else?”
“I miss your Christmas tree.” She points at an empty space. “I can’t afford one at home this year.”
“I haven’t had the time or the inclination to go get one,” Handyman says. “Both are a casualty of the pandemic, I’m afraid.”
“Like everything else,” Miss Jessie sighs. “I don’t mean to complain. God bless you, Handyman. We couldn’t survive without you.”
“Thank you, Jessie. You made my day.”
The two men watch Miss Jessie adjust her hat, pull on her gloves and then step out into the cold, closing the door behind her.
“Jessie always comes to that Christmas dinner,” Handyman says.
“I know, but what can you do?”
“I’m working remotely today, so I better get back to it,” Handyman says. “If you’re done stocking the shelves, here’s Sister Connie’s list. Just put everything in a bag. Her neighbor LaKeisha Somebody — I didn’t catch the last name — is coming in sometime this afternoon to pick up her order. Usually her niece comes, but today she can’t.”
“I haven’t seen Sister Connie since back in the summer,” Matt says.
“She pretty much lives in isolation according to her niece,” Handyman says. “Never goes out. Us Black folks are so susceptible to this virus. Not that white folks are immune. I know your brother had it.”
“Both Tim and his wife, Linda,” Matt says. “They’re OK now. Speaking of COVID, have you heard from our friend Carter? I haven’t talked to him this week.”
“He’s coming in this afternoon. He was coming this morning, but I texted him you’d be volunteering this afternoon and he waited. He said this is one of his first days out of the house.”
“Great,” Matt says. “I haven’t seen him in person since the three of us stopped getting together for Tuesday breakfast back in March.”
“COVID just about did him in,” Handyman says. “Three weeks in the hospital, six weeks recovering at home. I’m sure Lucille had her hands full.”
“It’ll be good to see him,” Matt says. “And I miss seeing Sister Connie. Won’t seem like Christmas around here without a cup of her Christmas Cheer. Nobody makes better eggnog. It must be the spirits she adds.”
Handyman buries his face in his hands. “I hadn’t thought of that. One more thing we won’t have this year. Lord, nothing feels normal. All this chaos. People always say, if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had more’n my fill of lemons this year.”
“And we thought things were rough a year ago,” Matt says. “I’ve told you about my family’s Secret Santa tradition where we draw names among the four of us and for the person whose name you draw, you give a gift that costs no money. My Secret Santa gift to Deidre last year was to give her a note describing an act of human kindness every day for a year, starting last Christmas Eve. Too many days this year I’ve had to really look to see a kindness I could write about.”
“Well, be kind and put Connie’s order together.”
Matt takes the list, grabs a bag and steps into the canned goods aisle. He is just finishing the chore when the service door opens and Carter steps inside, wearing a black stocking cap and a mask covering the lower half of his face.
“Well, look who’s here!” Matt says. “I’d shake hands, but we’re not supposed to.”
“How you feelin’, Brother?” Handyman asks.
“Glad to be alive.”
“You look good.”
“It’s a disguise,” Carter says. “The doctors say I’m cured. I still feel like I was drug through a keyhole, with the key left in it, but I can’t stand being cooped up at home anymore. I love your sign on the door.”
“You got to be blunt with some folks,” Handyman says.
“Hey,” Carter says, “No Christmas tree! I was looking forward to helping myself to one of those candy canes you always hang. That, and having a cup of Connie’s Christmas Cheer.”
“We were just talking about Connie,” Handyman says. “She hasn’t been coming in. No Christmas Cheer this year.”
“Is she sick or just being careful?”
“The latter. Her niece usually comes for her.”
“She’s smart,” Carter says. “COVID is wicked stuff. Take it from one who knows.” He holds up a newspaper. “Like the Wise Men, I come bearing gifts. Your creche made today’s paper, Matt.” He points to a half-page color photograph of Mary sitting by the manger with Joseph standing beside her. Both are wearing COVID masks.
“Listen to this,” Carter says. He clears his throat roughly. “For the past 60 years, a beloved nativity scene composed of 50 life-sized, lifelike figures has graced the front yard of the Bartholomew home on Pinehurst Avenue. This year, the usually elaborate display has been reduced to the stable sheltering Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus, with one angel hovering above the stable roof. Each figure is wearing a COVID mask. The display’s second-generation keeper, Matthew Bartholomew, said putting up the full display somehow felt wrong. ‘This is a compromise,’ he said, ‘that honors our 60-year tradition and acknowledges the times. We encourage visitors to drop off food donations in our barrel. We’re collecting for the Open Cupboard food shelf. There …’ ”
“You got in a plug for the food shelf?” Handyman interrupts. “Thanks, man.”
“They interviewed me a few days ago,” Matt says. “Maybe the article will generate some donations.”
“Let’s hope so,” Handyman says.
“Anyway, it goes on from there,” Carter finishes. He folds the newspaper and lays it on the desk for Matt to take home. “That picture just about broke my heart. Before I retired from the police force, many a night when I had a rough shift, I’d drive by your front yard on the way home just to see something beautiful. I’m so used to seeing those stable animals, all the angels, the Wise Men and their camels, the shepherds and all those sheep. That picture —” Carter points at Mary and Joseph, “— masks and all, says everything there is to say about Christmas this year. Lucille and I had planned to drive to Chicago to spend Christmas with Kayla, Isaiah and our grandchildren. But with quarantines and social distancing, we’re wondering if it’s worth it. We’d have to rent an Airbnb or a hotel. Nothing seems normal.”
“We were just talking about that,” Matt says. “New Shepherd Church is still closed, so no community dinner this year.”
“I wondered about that,” Carter says. “Too bad. I said to Lucile this morning —”
The service door opens and a Black woman wearing a burgundy wool coat and matching beanie and face mask steps inside, a canvas tote bag on her shoulder.
“I’m LaKeisha Edwards, Connie Washington’s neighbor. I’m here to pick up her grocery order.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Handyman. This is Matt, and this is Sgt. Carter, retired.”
“Gentlemen,” LaKeisha says.
“And how’s your neighbor today?” Handyman asks.
“She’s fine, from what I can see. A little stir crazy, maybe. She said to say ‘hi.’ ”
“You tell her ‘Merry Christmas’ from all of us.”
“She asked me — no directed me — to give you this.” From her bag, LaKeisha withdraws a white plastic gallon milk jug and sets it on the corner of the desk. “She said to tell you she’s sorry she can’t deliver it in person, like usual.”
“Is that what I think it is?” Carter says.
“Looks like it,” Handyman says.
“Finally,” Carter says, “Something normal.”
LaKeisha digs into her tote bag again and produces a square white envelope. “She also sent this.”
Handyman takes the envelope, opens it and pulls out a card with a Christmas tree decorated with candy canes on its front. He opens the card, reads the inside and then looks up. “Listen to this: ‘Dear, Handy. I can’t give you this Christmas Cheer myself. I stay home count of the virus, but damned if I’ll let it stop me from celebrating my Savior’s birth. I am working around this virus to do what is important. This will taste just as good and have just as much love mixed in it as if I gave it to you myself. Merry Christmas and thank the Lord for Open Cupboard. Connie. P.S. Please add a dozen eggs to my bag. I used mine up.’ ”
“I could go for a cup of that right now,” Carter says.
“Me, too,” Matt adds.
“Then break out some cups,” Handyman says. “LaKeisha, would you like to join us? It’s eggnog.”
“I’d love to, but I’m on the run. I’m getting ready for court tomorrow. I’m defending a family facing eviction — my new specialty, unfortunately.”
“You tell Connie that she made three old men very happy today.”
“I’ve got her order ready,” Matt says. “Except for the eggs. I’ll get them.”
He steps over to the cooler, slides open the glass door and selects a carton of eggs. LaKeisha adds the eggs to the grocery bag and slips the bag into her canvas tote.
“Gentlemen.” They watch her leave.
Matt sets out three paper cups on the desk. Handyman cracks the green cap on the gallon jug and pours golden liquid into each cup. Instead of clinking their cups, the three men stand 6 feet apart and remove their protective masks. The men raise their cups in a gesture of a toast.
“To better times,” Carter says. They take a sip, savoring both the flavor of the golden liquid and the goldenness of the moment.
“Tasty,” Matt says. “As always.”
“She put in plenty of ‘cheer’ this year.” Carter says.
“That’s not the spirits,” Handyman says. “That’s the love you’re tasting. This is the first time I’ve felt ‘normal’ all day. It’s amazing how some little thing like this can pick up your spirits. Restore your faith.”
“Indeed,” Matt says, “And now I have an act of kindness to write up today for Deidre.”
“Yes sir!” Handyman agrees. “Connie’s Christmas Cheer sent by messenger.”
“I was thinking of her neighbor making time in her schedule to pick up her order,” Matt says, “so make that two acts of kindness to write up.”
“You know,” Handyman says, “Maybe we’re looking at Christmas through the wrong end of the telescope. We keep talking about what we can’t do to celebrate. What is it Connie said?” He glances at her card. “ ‘I’m working around this virus to do what is important.’ Maybe we need to follow Connie’s example and focus on putting the love into the holiday within the limitations we have. Make lemonade out of our lemons.”
“Uh oh,” Carter says. “You’ve got that look on your face. I know that look. What are you thinking?”
“Christmas dinner,” Handyman says. “How many people usually come?”
“About a hundred,” Matt says. “Half are church members, so say 50 originating from here.”
“So any ideas how we’re going to create Christmas dinner for 50 and still follow the COVID guidelines?” Handyman asks. “What lemons are we squeezing besides no venue?”
“It can’t be potluck,” Matt says. “We’d have to have a set menu, prepared in one place by one group of people.”
“I know a couple of chefs who’re out of work,” Handyman says. “One of ’em will surely volunteer.”
“There’s the weather,” Carter says.
“How about if we make it takeout,” Handyman suggests, “like the restaurants? We prepare 50 dinner bags with everything — food, utensils, napkins. And plenty of love. Our guests can take a bag and go.”
“Who pays for the food?” Matt asks.
“I’ll figure something out,” Handyman says. “I always do.”
“If you want,” Matt says, “I’ll give you our Christmas card list and you can send your letter to them.”
“Maybe you could add a post script.”
“So, there will be a community Christmas dinner,” Handyman says. “Takeout that our guests pick up and eat somewhere else, maybe alone.”
“Given our lemons,” Matt says, “I think that’s about the best lemonade we can make this Christmas.”
“How about another shot of Christmas Cheer to celebrate?” Carter asks.
“Let’s wait,” Handyman says. “I’ll put the jug away. Both of you come back a week from today and we’ll pour another cup and toast ourselves and the holiday.”
“All right,” Carter agrees. “It’ll be something to look forward to. I’m out of here. I think I’ll go home and tell Lucille to start planning for Chicago.”
After Carter leaves, Handyman sits down at his desk and puts on his headphones. He looks over to an empty space at the end of one of the aisles.
“Matt,” he says, “Could you stay a little late tonight so I can run an errand?”
“After work, I wanna run over to the Christmas tree lot and buy a tree.” He reaches over to the CD player and pushes a button. Stevie Wonder’s angelic voice rings out, as if he had been holding his breath all afternoon, waiting to deliver the promising news.
Someday at Christmas there’ll be no tears
When all men are equal and no man has fears
One shining moment one prayer away
From our world today.
“Next year, Stevie,” Handyman says. “Next year.”
“Amen to that,” Matt agrees.
See a staged reading, donate to the food shelf
“All of us are wondering how we’re going to honor our Christmas traditions,” said St. Paul author Roger Barr. “That was the point where I started and the story unfolded from there.”
A staged reading of his story “Lemonade Christmas” was recorded in one take, Barr says. Joining him on screen are actor/director Brian P. Joyce, actress Charla Marie Bailey, writer-playwright Terrence C. Newby and Melvin Carter Jr., father of St. Paul’s mayor and the inspiration for the “Officer Carter” character he read. The video was recorded and produced by videographer Jeff Achen.
“The original story was written to be read aloud,” Barr said, “so it was easy to adapt it to a script.”
For the sixth consecutive year, Barr is supporting the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center food shelf. The staged reading of “Lemonade Christmas” will be available for viewing on Hallie Q. Brown’s YouTube channel starting Dec. 10 and continuing through Jan. 31. There’s info on how to donate in the video or donations can be made directly at hallieqbrown.charityproud.org.
About the Bartholomew Christmas stories
“Lemonade Christmas” is the 23rd Bartholomew Christmas story from author Roger Barr. The stories have examined the meaning of Christmas and how we celebrate it, he says. They have also explored faith, family relationships, death and social issues including racism, poverty, politics, and addiction and recovery. Stories 1-13 were collected in “Getting Ready for Christmas & Other Stories,” which was released in 2011 and has sold out its press run. Stories 11-19 are collected in “The Christmas Promise,” released in 2019.
“The Christmas Promise” is available for purchase at gettingreadyforchristmas.org. The $25 purchase price is donated to the Hallie Q. Brown food shelf.
Book sales and reading events have raised more than $60,000 for area food shelves.
About the author
Roger Barr is the author of 10 published books, more than 30 published short stories, newspaper and magazine articles and an award-winning play. He is the 2013 winner of The Loft’s Spring Writing Contest, and received third place in the nationally advertised Hal Prize short story competition for “Lost and Found” in 2017 and again in 2018 for “Hail Mary.” His short story “Forgiveness” was a finalist in Narrative’s 2020 Winter Short Story Contest.
About the illustrator
Juan T. Parker works in pen and ink, acrylic and photography. He says his interest in art came at the age of about 5 “when I began to use color crayons, pencils and finger paints. As I got older, I began to draw with pen and ink, oil pastels, colored pencils, pastel chalk and paint with acrylic paints.”
Parker attended Hennepin Junior College and transferred to Hennepin Technical School, earning an associate degree in commercial art and media production.
He’s been commissioned to do several murals and art pieces, participated in art shows and illustrated several children’s books. He donated his work with this story.
He says: “Art has gotten me through being bullied as a child, the difficult teenage years and having congestive heart failure and cancer as an adult. I have had numerous hospital stays and was put on a heart transolant list in early 2015. On Christmas Day 2015, I received the greatest gift of all — a heart transplant. Some days are better than others, but with this second chance I want my art to inspire and make a difference in the world.”
Parker’s art studio is located at 967 E. Payne Ave., St. Paul in the [email protected] building. His work is on Instagram juantparker,
Juan T. [email protected] Hive.blog. He can be reached at [email protected] or 651-233-7233.
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