Lighting of the Figures by Emily Urness

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white christmas lights on a barn


She flings open my bedroom door with so much gusto it rattles the hinges. This is the first time since I’ve moved back here that she hasn’t knocked. Apparently, it only takes a month to regress from a 28-year-old to an 8-year-old in this house.

“Put your shoes on and come see the lights!” Mom commands. “Let’s go.”

It’s six days after Christmas and Mom wants to go see Christmas lights. She brought it up hours ago. I was hoping she’d get sucked into prime-time, but it must be rerun season. I have jobs to search for so I can leave this place. I don’t want to be the child that is forced to tag along anymore.

Twenty minutes later, we are all getting into the car and it’s raining. I watch Dad attempt to rearrange his multiple sclerosis-stricken limbs. This involves slow movement, stops, starts, pulling helplessly at the cuffs of his jeans, and sighs. One of his knees doesn’t bend anymore. His arms that once lifted truck tires can’t pick up the weight of his own leg. The car door is open, which leaves the overhead light on as a spotlight to his struggle. When he finally gets his body situated, he meticulously readjusts, moving the mirrors, his jacket and the steering wheel each multiple times, until everything is arranged as perfectly as he places the newspapers in the recycling bin.

“Who the hell…” he mumbles, cocking the rearview back into position.

“Dad, it’ll be next Christmas by the time we get to the lights,” I whine. As soon as the words fly out, I regret them. Mom looks at me in the backseat and silently mouths, “I know.”

We drive through town at 15 miles per hour. This is my father’s top town speed. He used to drive faster, but as his body slows down so does his driving. One day soon he won’t be driving at all, but no one ever talks about that.

There are still some houses strung with lights along Main Street—a few folks hanging onto Christmas, or maybe they’re figuring it took too much effort to put up the lights to not enjoy them through August. Dad recites—word for word—the exact same comments he has been making for over two weeks.

“Look at there, the old Anderson place is all lit up. How about that?”

“Look at there, they got the blue lights up again this year. It’s for the troops, dontcha know.”

We finally hit the old, potholed two-lane highway that takes us out of town. Raindrops smack the windshield more fiercely now. The temperature isn’t quite freezing, yet. It didn’t used to rain in December. It appears winter, too, is slower these days.

“At least you don’t have to shovel rain!” Dad announces at the wheel. He swerves over the centerline for the eighth time. The headlamps of oncoming traffic shine through the darkness. We all suddenly appear in the light and disappear again when the car passes.

“Dad, stay on your side!”

“Don’t tell me how to drive,” Dad says, using his stern voice. “Tell her to lay off,” he tells to Mom.

“Well, you were all over the road,” she says, softly. Dad makes a show of sighing, a show that’s been in reruns for 15 years.

He drives down the highway like I did in high school after smoking pot— dangerously slow and easily distracted. Every so often he looks to the side and the car follows his gaze, then he jerks it back into the lane. I notice bright headlights approaching us, again. I hold my breath and shut my eyes. The ditches along this road already hold handmade crosses that mark the spots where three of my high school classmates lost their lives in car wrecks. The crosses glow in the passing headlights like road signs that predict our deaths.

We turn off onto a rough country road. Farm equipment reflectors gleam red as we drive by—everything else is darkness. Just over the crest of a tiny hill, a Midwest Oz appears. Bright colors sing out from a mile away. A carnival look-alike has popped up in the dark, but not just any carnival. It looks like the first time you ever saw a carnival as a child, when that pang of wonderment hits your young eyes and for a second you don’t know if it’s real. This look-alike country carnival even has what appears to be a lit-up Ferris wheel. It’s hard to tell from here that it’s just the edge of a barn strung up in Christmas lights.

Dad drives straight past the Christmas farm, despite its two driveways boasting illuminated, hand-painted “Welcome” signs in English, German and Norwegian. From the road we can see bright, string lights adorning everything from rooftops to farm machinery. They run up and down the enormous columned farmhouse and drip brightly off the trees. I watch as the carnival of lights gives way to the darkness ahead. It’s not really a shock to me that he didn’t turn in. Dad isn’t quite alert anymore and yet he isn’t quite senile; it’s like he’s in the infancy stage of madness.

“Where are you going?” Mom asks.

“I have to turn around,” he says, then punctuates his sentence with a sigh.

Dad’s come here to see the lights before. I know he didn’t miss the turnoff back then. When I was a kid, he drove the family on all of our tri-state area vacations. Some of those drives included blinding snowstorms, but he never once missed the hotel or put us in a ditch.

“Dad, why don’t you just find a field driveway to turn around in?” Field driveways are gravel built-up entrances into fields used by tractors and by my high school boyfriend and I when we used to make out in his pickup truck.

Dad sighs. His sighing began around the same time the MS kicked in. Both his MS and the sighing have increased at a more rapid pace lately. MS is the only fast- moving thing around these parts anymore.

“I’m sorry, I should’ve had you turn earlier,” Mom mumbles, taking the blame. This too is something that started when Dad got MS. She is forever huffing around when she has to pick up his dishes, wait for him to get out of the shower or listen to his groans and strains when he gets the milk out of the fridge. She says, “It’s my fault—everything’s my fault” like it’s her catchphrase.

Dad angles the car into a twenty-point turnaround that miraculously escapes two deep, dark ditches. As we pull into the driveway the lights reflect off the hood and light up my parents’ faces.They no longer look youthful.. Their features are slowly being consumed with a graying skin tone. The facial angles are softer and the skin is more transparent.The faster they fade, the more I realize that one day they’ll be gone.

Three-foot artificial candlesticks, hand-built from scrap wood and painted to look like ribboned candles with orange flames, guide the car into the driveway. Up close you can you tell their age by the cracks in the paint. Loud Christmas music plays with slightly tinny sounds and a jittery modern projection display lights up the side of the house. The images cycle from generic cartoon characters to holiday wreaths and back again. As we drive along, I begin to notice the figures.

The figures are lit up as though they’re being displayed at The Whitney—that is if art at The Whitney were lit with shop lamps. If they weren’t lit up they’d go unseen in the night. The figures have vaguely human shapes of varying sizes. They are all made from trees that were cut down decades before I was born. Some figures are in groups like families and others stand alone glowing in the light. The figures’ painted faces are cracked and peeling. They have only a few shards of color, remainders of hand-painted expressions that haven’t completely faded to their dull, white base coats. They are ghostly, but more than that, they are still. After I notice the first figure, I start to see them all over between the cheery multi-colored light strings and fancy newer displays like the one that reads “Oh Holy Night.”

“Dad, is that a donation box? We should donate,” I say, staring at what looks like an outhouse with an open door.

“I’m not giving them anything,” he says. “I gave them all your Uncle Gary’s twinkle lights when he died—that’s donation enough.”

“But they need to help to pay for the electric bills,” I plead. He sighs and tosses the gearshift into park. He makes a show of pulling out his wallet. He plucks three bills, one at a time, with a dramatic finger lick between each pluck. Mom gets out into the rain to put the three dollars into the donation bucket. Her body is lit up with the light and she gets back in the car. She sighs, even though she volunteered. Her martyr sighs sound similar to Dad’s MS sighs. I stare at the muddy ground that reflects bits of blurred colorful light.

We make our way to the final leg of the exit driveway. On the way out, a hazy yellow hue emits from an old Santa figure glowing in the glass-covered cab of a tractor. The tractor is wrapped in lights, even the wheels are covered with colorful spokes.

“That’s neat,” Dad says, stopping a bit too long. Dad has always been into anything with wheels. Even the walker he now uses is a fascination. The tractor lights reflect off Dad’s face, but I can’t see his exact expression in the glass of the driver’s window. What I see is his face, but faded. I think he’s smiling, but it could be a grimace. Sometimes his pain looks strangely like happiness.

“Anybody want to drive through again?”
Mom and I decline. Dad goes even slower as he turns out of the driveway, it’s like he’s trying to soak up enough light to get him through until next year. And I feel bad for turning him down.

On the road, I look back until the lights disappear. We are swallowed by darkness. The reflectors we’d seen on the way over are on the other side now, dark to us.

“Whose house was that?” I ask. “Who puts up the lights?” “His name is Craig,” Dad says.

“What does he do?”

“Well, he does lots of things. He sells insurance and farms and he plays the piano at funerals.”

I watch the dark countryside pass. In a few days the magical Christmas carnival will be gone and there will only be blackness and one-sided reflectors along the country road. The farm machinery will look like farm machinery, the mud will look like mud, and Santa Claus in the tractor cab will be replaced by a real person who plays The Old Rugged Cross for the grieving. The wooden figures will be piled in the back of an unlit outbuilding. Maybe the figures will get tossed out by next year, and maybe Dad’s legs will not allow him to drive anymore by then. It’s hard to say but at least for now, I know there is still a little twinkling in the darkness.


Emily UrnessEmily Urness has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Red Bird Chapbooks published a collection of her humor writing titled Self Help Attempts. She was awarded a McKnight Established Artist grant to work on her first full-length memoir collection; “Lighting of the Figures” is an excerpt from this collection.

Emily was a recent finalist for the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series. She has worked as a writer/editor for newspapers and magazines. Currently, she is freelancing and writing about her experience in the cult of Weightwatchers. Find out more about her at and @emilyurness.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Aaron Gilson

  3 comments for “Lighting of the Figures by Emily Urness

  1. What a wonderful story! I felt like I was in the back seat with you, Emily. I look forward to reading more of your work and experiencing more of your journeys

  2. I recall visiting a Christmas farm like this near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Emily’s multi-layered story adds depth, humor and pathos to my memories of that farm, whose thousands of lights lit up the cloudy sky overhead like a small city. Thanks for the great story!

  3. This story rings sadly true. Time and weather become a metaphor reflecting and supporting an aging family suffering from the vicissitudes of life and a loss of verbal intimacy. We slide by, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, and hold on to small details seen through rain covered windows in the dark countryside. In therapeutic settings, we find that open and honest communication can be transformational. But, that seems a part of dream life that for fear of taking the risk, doesn’t quite make it into our wakeful state, and conclude that life is better remembered than experienced.

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