Constable: Nativity scene rekindles Christmas memories
Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men and even the young shepherd carrying the lamb over his shoulders look as perfect as they did the first time Grace Rehner included them in her Christmas decorations.
"My husband got that Nativity scene when we first got married," Rehner remembers. She doesn't know where Frank Rehner bought it during that winter of 1949, but the Nativity scene was a special part of their first Christmas as newlyweds. Now it adds the Christmas spirit to her second-floor Rolling Meadows condo.
The fragile characters have survived her moves from Chicago to Lombard to Rolling Meadows to Hoffman Estates and back to Rolling Meadows. The Nativity scene also survived the couple's five children -- Donna, Rich, Dane, Dawn and David.
"The kids weren't let near it," says the 86-year-old who has been widowed since 1987. She laughs at the memories of how she'd catch a kid hoping to rustle one of the manger animals to use with their other toys. There's not even a chip off the donkey's ear.
This year, Rehner needed a little help setting up the elaborate display.
"This is what Grace and I did together. I unpacked it and she assembled the crèche and Nativity scene," says caregiver Nancy Panganiban, a semiretired registered nurse from Palatine who visits Rehner twice a week through her job with Synergy HomeCare, a national service that provides in-home care for seniors. "Oh, and there's a few angels around, too."
Rehner's son Rich, a retired firefighter and paramedic who spent part of his career in Elk Grove Village and now lives with his mom, put up the Christmas tree and installed solar-powered lights on the outside balcony. But he says Panganiban's help with the delicate Nativity scene is just one of the many benefits that come from the relationship between Panganiban and his mother.
"It's been a godsend," Rich Rehner says.
"We put a little fun into the holidays," says Paul Fisher, owner of the Synergy HomeCare office in Schaumburg. In addition to the usual year-round help provided by employees, the business offers "Elder Elves" during the holidays to take on everything from hanging mistletoe, shopping for gifts, wrapping presents, baking cookies or sending out holiday cards and online messages.
Putting up the Nativity scene leads to unwrapping memories for Rehner and Panganiban.
"She keeps me company," Grace Rehner says of Panganiban.
"We talk about our children and grandchildren and Christmases long ago," Panganiban says.
"Everybody would come to see our house. We decorated everything," Grace Rehner says of the Hoffman Estates home where the family moved after their old home became too small for five kids. "We had a big, big tree then. We always had lots of kids around because everybody brought over their friends. So many kids to hang ornaments."
She remembers her husband and son Rich clambering onto the roof and climbing their citizen's band radio antenna to hang a star that could be seen all over the neighborhood.
"Is it straight?" her husband would yell.
"And I'd say, 'Get down off that roof,'" Grace Rehner says.
Coming from strong German stock, Rehner grew up as the youngest of three children born to Edward and Alice Grosklaus on Chicago's Northwest Side.
"I lived in a beautiful house," she says, adding that she had a wonderful playhouse made from an old milk-delivery wagon. Her father inspected the machinery used by breweries.
"That's where I got my love of beer," says Rehner, explaining how her dad would pour beer into her tiny German stein when she was a kid. Her grandpa, who spoke only German, was known as Grumpy because he always seemed to be yelling at her.
Her life changed the day her dad got his left arm caught in the machinery and had to have it amputated. Three years later, her mother died at age 47 and Rehner was sent to live with her older sister and her family.
"The room I had was a storage closet," she says, adding that her bed filled almost the entire room.
A graduate of Lakeview High School's class of 1947, Rehner met her husband in an unusual way.
"It's a long story because he moved in with the guy I was engaged to," she says, adding that everything turned out swell. Her husband repaired TV sets. She worked for Unocal Corp., the petroleum company that once dominated the landscape now covered by Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.
While waiting for their first suburban home to be built in Lombard, they lived in the garage for a couple of months.
These memories come so easy for Rehner, who admits to not being able to remember more recent events, such as the deaths of her older siblings. Panganiban brings her pastries from a bakery in Arlington Heights, takes her out for lunch or shopping, and sometimes helps her take a bath. But their conversations might be the most important service Panganiban provides.
Unwrapping and setting up the Nativity scene wasn't just about getting ready for this Christmas.
"I just like it," Rehner says. "There are so many memories with that Nativity."