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Odds & Ends Around the Valley

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Come Back, Mary

Every holiday season for the past six years, Sheryl Mertes, a secretary at Rocketdyne, has turned into a director-producer.

This year is no different.

The annual children’s Christmas program is one of her chores as director of the Sunday school at Our Savior’s First Lutheran Church in Granada Hills. She finds the material, enlists a musical director, gets the costumes together, casts the 40 or so parts, then turns into a nervous wreck.

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Every year, she said, there is at least one day when she asks herself how she could have gotten into this. That time is the Saturday before the Sunday performance when the sanctuary, where the youngsters will perform, is the scene of some confusion as the four-hour dress rehearsal proceeds.

Joseph is complaining that Mary is always walking away from the altar and leaving him up there by himself. One of the narrators beheads some of the poinsettias in an attempt to get the microphone cord to follow her down the altar steps. Someone’s little brother falls down and bashes his head. Several angels have taken off their halos and are chewing on them. And there is a rising sound of unrest from the wise men, shepherds, singers, narrators and others in the cast of “The Story of Giving” that is not unlike the sound of feeding time in the zoo.

Mertes decides that this is a good time to take the youngsters to the recreation hall for some popcorn and punch.

With the help of assorted Sunday school-teaching parents, she has the cast march single file to get their goodies. It is a wondrous sight as the 40 youngsters, ages 3 to 13, politely and quietly head on out in their First Christmas finery.

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Once the goodies are given out, Mertes has a moment to catch her breath.

She has been a member of the church for 35 years, since her parents brought her to the San Fernando Valley from Wisconsin as a little girl. Back then, she said, the church was just a small wooden building and there were only about 30 members. Now the church is a series of impressive buildings, including a weekday school, and has a membership of 600, including her husband, John, a Catholic convert, who is going to play the Voice of God in the children’s program, and her son, John Sturgis, 17, whom she has enlisted as an all-round trouble-shooter.

Mertes was confirmed at this church, and her son was baptized and confirmed there. He also did time, he said later, as a shepherd for many years.

Son John said he doesn’t mind the Christmas program craziness at his home but that his mother gets a bit stressed. “She gets tense, real preoccupied,” he said, “because the program is a big responsibility.”

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“I start every year in the spring getting the material and costumes so that by the fall, we are ready to go into rehearsals,” Mertes said.

She doesn’t discuss the problems of casting the program every year, but trying to match the expectations of the 80 or so parents and the performance abilities of the 40 or 45 children is probably a delicate exercise.

Erin Carey, 6, does not have a speaking part, but she is the Virgin Mary.

When asked if she auditioned for the role, she looked at her inquirer and said pertly: “No, I did not.”

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When asked why she is always walking off and leaving Joseph on the stage by himself, she said: “I do not.”

When asked where she goes to school, she said, “I do not remember right now,” in a tone that clearly indicates that she wishes to be through with this tedious star interrogation so she can get to her popcorn and punch.

Lance Brown, 8, one of the narrators of the Christmas program, is more willing to accommodate an interview request.

Incredibly handsome in a dark suit and tie, he said that he attends Our Savior’s school during the week and that he would like to be an elevator repairman, like his dad.

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He has a lot of lines in the performance because, he says, he is the one who tells the story as the performance goes along. “Last year, I got to be a shepherd and said something with the rest of the shepherds, but this is the first time I get to talk alone.”

Will he be nervous, standing at the pulpit in front of the whole congregation, having all those words to say?

Lance considered the question for a moment and then said, “I don’t think I will. I get to tell people that God is good and that His gift of love is the most important one. Besides, I can read it. I can have the words in front of me so I won’t make a mistake.”

Mistakes, however, will be made, according to Mertes. Youngsters won’t show up because they are sick or whatever. Some will trip over their lines or their feet. But in the end, said Mertes, it will be OK.

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“It doesn’t really matter what the kids do,” she said. “The parents will love it.”

Buying Green

There’s a shop in Valley malls where you can buy gifts and save the planet at the same time.

Natural Wonders--with stores in Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park, Glendale Galleria and Northridge Fashion Center--is full of books, toys, mobiles, puzzles, tapes and equipment such as binoculars and telescopes that allow you to explore the universe. And some of the items--like the Greenpeace calendar with a winsome otter on the cover that sells for $8.95--benefit their producers, who are dedicated to protecting and preserving the ecosystem.

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“People seem really glad to find a place where they can buy enjoyable gifts in a wide price range that monetarily contribute to organizations they support,” Sherman Oaks store manager Pat Dodd said.

The Santa Myth

Not everyone loves Christmas.

Many of us, says Dr. Michael Gross, medical director of Pine Grove Hospital in Canoga Park, still carry an unconscious fantasy known as the Santa Myth that makes us expect that Christmas will be perfect for us.

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It almost never is, he said, and some of us really get down about it.

Gross said there are a number of things people can do to take the pressure off.

* If you are lonely, sad and depressed, acknowledge it to yourself. Don’t smother the pain with alcohol, pills or pretense.

* If you are dreading the loneliness of being away from family and friends, don’t be alone. Invite someone else to join you, as you might wish someone to do for you.

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* If you are on a tight budget, be honest with yourself and loved ones. There is no shame in doing only what you can afford.

* If you feel tense whenever you think of everything you have to do, sit down and think through your priorities. Organize, plan ahead and do only what you can.

Gross said we would all be better off if we took better care of ourselves. He suggested that during the holidays it is important to get enough sleep, eat well and slowly, exercise, take vitamins, avoid excessive amounts of coffee and tea, and remember that cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs actually increase stress.

Overheard

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“I wish it were Christmas every day of the year. That way I would never get the bills.”

--Two women talking in North Hollywood


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