Pictures In The Sky

My earliest memory is of sunny summer day with Mom and me sitting in our shady backyard. I was four years old, and she was holding me in her lap. Casually, she pointed and said, “Jerry, look up in the sky. What do you see?”

I looked and said, “Umm, clouds.”

“Right, honey,” Mom said, “Now look very closely. Do any of them remind you of anything?”

I looked again, starting to get the feeling I was missing something and maybe letting her down a little. “Maybe, pillows?” I ventured.

Mom grinned and hugged me tight. “Oh, honey, I love you so much.” I remember that distinctly. She always had a way of making me feel good about myself, which was nice, because, believe me, I was never the sharpest pencil in the box.

She pointed in a different direction, “Look over there. I see something that looks like a horse? Do you see it?”

I looked. All I saw were cotton looking clouds. “I see cotton balls,” I said.

Mom smiled, having fun I could tell, playing the art teacher that she was at the local high school. “Let’s look again.” She directed my gaze and with her graceful finger outlined the horse she saw, “There’s the head, there’s the body, there’s the legs and there’s the tail.”

“I think I kind of see it,” I said, hesitantly, even though I really couldn’t.

“That’s okay if you don’t,” she smiled and hugged me again. Then she stood up, “Just a second, I’ll be right back.” She hurried into the house and returned with a sketch pad and a pencil. “Here’s what I see.” And she sketched out a simple drawing of a horse, showing me each part as she drew: head, body, legs and tail. When she was finished she said, “Now look in the sky again and this time use your imagination.”

Oh, my imagination, so that’s what it took. And that’s what I did. I let my mind go free and when I did I was able to see the horse. Finally. I nodded happily, “Yes, Mom, now I can see it,” I told her, getting enthusiastic. “Can I try and make my own drawing?”

“Absolutely.” She gave me my own pencil and paper, “Let’s look at more clouds and find something special for you. What do you see?”

Now that I knew how to look, I let my imagination take over. I looked for a few moments and then pointed, “There. I see a doggy,” I said, confidently.

“Can you draw it?”

“I’ll try.” And I did. I drew a doggy and that’s how it all started, Mom and me drawing pictures of clouds together.

We passed that summer and subsequent summers thereafter, as often as we could, sitting out doors looking at the sky and drawing pictures of what we saw. I’m glad we did, because over time her vision began to fail little by little until, when I was in my early twenties, blindness from macular degeneration robbed her completely of her eyesight. After that, we’d sit together in the sunshine and she’d ask if there were any pictures in the sky, and I’d tell her what I saw and then I’d sketch them. I think she enjoyed imagining them as much as I did drawing them.

But it was more than the drawing for us, much more. It was us being together. We’d talk, I’d tell her about my day, she’d tell me about hers. We shared our lives. She was able to instill in me a love of nature, and the sky and the sun and the passing of the seasons. And a love of clouds, of course. Always the clouds.

She was seventy-nine the last time we were together. We were sitting outside of her senior living complex on a warm summer afternoon. The sun was shining and the sky was clear and bright and blue. “Jerry,” she said, “How’s the sky looking today? Any good pictures up there?”

I took her hand, thinking back over all those years of us together drawing pictures of what we saw in the sky.”Yes, Mom, there are.”

“Can you draw me one?” she asked, just like when I was young.

Today’s sky was cloudless, but it didn’t matter. “Sure, Mom. I can do that.”

I used my imagination and drew a picture of a son and his mother, sitting outside on the patio on a warm sunny day. They were happy and smiling, as if life would go on forever, or at least their memories would, of soft summer days when the two of them spent time together, enjoying each other’s company and looking at the sky, imagining what pictures they saw there.

When I was finished I showed her what I’d drawn. She told me that she loved it.

Ice Skating On Christmas Eve

On Christmas Eve the two brothers got together to go ice skating. Once young and full of pep they were now old and just this side of decrepit, not to mention both being widowers and grey bearded for longer than either of them cared to remember. That was okay. Skating was something they’d enjoyed all their lives though this was the first Christmas Eve they’d thought to do it together. It was soon apparent it had been a good idea, for they reveled in the moment, enjoying the crisp winter air and the late afternoon sun casting long shadows on the frozen pond as they glided over its smooth surface.

After a while, Tim took a break and bent down close to the surface, “Hey, these bubbles in the ice are kind of cool. I’m going to take some pictures.”

“All right,” John called to him. “Go for it. I’ll just skate.”

“Don’t fall,” Tim cautioned.

John laughed as he skated past backward, showing off, “Don’t worry.” He turned and took about six glides before he stumbled and fell and landed hard on his butt. “Damn!”

Tim looked up, concerned, “You okay?”

John lay on his back looking into the clear blue sky. It felt good to be outdoors. It felt good to be skating with his younger brother, too, though he’d probably be stiff in the morning – the fall certainly wouldn’t help.”Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, struggling to his feet and brushing some snow off as he skated over to see what Tim was doing.

His brother was on knees, his camera inches away from a bubble in the ice shaped like a heart and framed by the blade marks of ice skates that had cut through a thin dusting of snow. “What do you think? Think this’ll make a nice picture?”

John had long ago given up trying to offer suggestions to his artistic brother. Tim had a unique gift, especially when it came to seeing the beauty found in nature. He used to be an accomplished landscape artist. Used to be, that was, until his eyesight began to fail him. Now he could barely see to drive, let alone paint. But he could see well enough to take pictures, like he was doing now.

“Looks good,” John said, meaning it. “It’s kind of surreal.”

“Yeah. I like it. I’m going to take some more.”

And he did, all the while John skated around the small pond located in a wooded park a hundred yards behind Tim’s small home. They were out on the ice for nearly an hour, until the sun dropped low behind the trees. Even though he fell a couple more times, John couldn’t remember when he’d had a better time skating.

Finally Tim said, “We should probably get back home.” He struggled to stand. He’d taken at least a hundred pictures. “It’s getting cold. Maybe I could make us some hot cocoa when we get back. Do you have time for that?”

John lived in an efficiency apartment in a small town twenty miles to the west. He had nowhere he had to be. “Sounds good,” he said, skating over and plopping down on the shore in the snow next to Tim to take off his skates.

Then they walked through the cold winter afternoon to Tim’s home. Later they’d have their cocoa, maybe build a fire, listen to Christmas music and enjoy the evening together. They might even reminisce, remembering Christmases long ago when they were young boys, and their family and grandparents and aunts and uncles had all gathered together around a festive tree decorated with colorful lights and handmade ornaments, sharing laughter and the goodwill that comes from being together this time of year.

Times long ago, but not like now. Jeff and Tim’s children and grandchildren were scattered across the country and preferred to stay put, while their young brother Will happily did the same in the warm sunshine of his home in Arizona. Now it was just the two of them, these two brothers, older, quieter, but not any less appreciative of the season and the chance to be together on this Christmas Eve.

As they walked the path leading to Tim’s home, John suddenly had an idea. “Hey, how about if we do this again next year? You know, go skating on Christmas Eve. It’s been fun.”

Tim smiled, patted his brother on the shoulder and said, “I was just thinking the same thing, and you know what? I’d love to.”

John thought for a moment. “You know, maybe we could invite Will next year. We could call him up and talk him into leaving sunny Arizona for a couple of days. If he could stand the Minnesota cold, that is.”

“We could buy him some long underwear to entice him,” Tim added

Both brothers laughed good-naturedly. Will had a thing about cold weather, and it wasn’t a good thing, either.

“All we can do is ask,” Tim said. “Let’s do it.”

“I’m all for it,” John said.

So they called Will that night and he immediately said yes, he’d be happy to join them. He’d be happy to accept their offer of long underwear, too.

Just like that, a new tradition was born, and in a season of traditions, a new one for these two old brothers was the best thing that could have happened. It gave them something to look forward to, something to count on, something hopeful to live another year for. It was all they could ever have hoped for.

“We’ll have to get him some skates,” Tim said, after they’d hung up. He was enjoying his hot cocoa, savoring every sip.

“Not a problem,” John said, moving closer to the fire crackling in the fireplace. He thought for a minute. “How about the day after tomorrow? After Christmas?”

“That’d be perfect, Tim said, rubbing his eyes. “Okay if you drive? You know these old eyes of mine aren’t getting any better.”

“Not a problem. Be happy to.”

So it had been a pretty good Christmas Eve, as far as the brothers were concerned. In fact, it was the best one each of them had had in a long, long time. The next one just might even be better.

Home Is Where The Heart Is – Part 4 of 4

Satisfied Little Lisa was sleeping comfortably, Megan put the book in the zip-lock and stored it back under the seat. Then she moved her hand around until she felt the envelope in another zip-lock that she kept hidden there. She thought of it as her ‘Special Envelope’ because it contained her savings. She got paid every two weeks, and she put ten dollars of each and every paycheck into the envelope and secured it in the zip-lock. Without fail. And she never touched it either, except for times like now when she permitted herself a moment to feel it’s contents and look toward the future. One day she would have enough saved up for their own apartment. It might take a while, but she was determined. She didn’t plan to spend the rest of her life living like they were. One day she and Little Lisa would have their own place to really call home. A place they could decorate anyway they wanted and it’d have a real bed for each of them and a real kitchen to cook in. And she was committed to making that dream come true, too, no matter how long it took. Until then, though, they would make the best of what they had. Even though every day was a challenge, they were doing the best they could. And she never, ever forgot that no matter how bad things were, they were never as bad as they’d been with Darren. That and the fact that Little Lisa and I are together, she thought. That was the main thing – the best thing.

Satisfied her savings were secure and safely hidden, Megan sat for a minute staring out the front window. Gusts of wind were blowing, keeping the windshield clear. The parking lot was empty except for two cars parked by the front entrance. It was the cleaning crew: Tim and Ramon, two twenties something guys who would spend the night getting the store ready for when it opened at six in the morning on today, already, Christmas Eve.

Then the snow started falling again, a sure sign it wouldn’t be getting too cold tonight, maybe ten degrees or so. She watched, mesmerized by the way the flakes drifted past the tall flood lights, sometimes swirling like tiny ballerinas dancing in the night. Soon she felt her eyes getting heavy so before she nodded off she roused herself. There was one more thing left to do.

She reached over the back seat for her shoulder bag and took out the twinkle lights, snow globe and doll. She ever so carefully took the lights out of their packaging and strung them around the inside of the car and turned them on. The snow globe she set on the dash. She was surprised to find that it was also a little music box. She tried it out for just a moment, not wanting to wake her daughter. The song was ‘Silent Night.’ Perfect. Finally, she took out the Rainbow Barbie and looked at it, grinning to herself and thinking, ‘How she comes up with these things, I’ll never know.’ Smiling now, in a good mood, she wrapped the doll inside the special stocking cap she had bought a few weeks earlier at the Dollar Store. It was an ‘Elsa’ hat and had long golden braids hanging from it just like the main character from the movie. She wrapped both items in a Target plastic bag as carefully and as quietly as she could, and set the package on the dash panel next to the snow globe. There, she thought to herself, all set.

Then she slipped off her boots, put on her own thick socks and pulled her feet up onto the seat and tucked them under her for warmth. She looked out over the parking lot. The snow falling was peaceful, nearly obscuring what little traffic there was a quarter mile away on the highway. The world was shutting down. Megan went through the list in her mind of what she would be doing tomorrow, Christmas Eve: she had to work from three in the afternoon until ten. Until then she and Little Lisa would go to a public library she knew would be open from ten in the morning until noon. It would be the highlight of their day. Little Lisa liked the children’s section and they could read books together until closing. Then, before going to work, they would go to a nearby big box store and wander around, staying warm and, hopefully, not drawing any attention to themselves. And, most importantly, she promised herself to resist any potential last minute holiday temptation and not take anything.

But there was one final thing to do on this late, wintery night. She leaned over and shook Little Lisa gently. “Hey there, sleepy head,” she said rubbing her hand over her daughter’s tiny shoulder, caressing her softly, “Look what happened while you were asleep.”

And while Little Lisa woke up, Megan looked around the car: the white lights were on, casting a magical glow inside, reflecting off the snow that was covering the windshield. Some of the snowflakes outside on the glass even twinkled, adding to the feeling of wonder in the car. Megan was inspired to star humming, “Silent Night,” just like the snow globe.

“Momma, look at this,” Little Lisa pointed when she had finally come awake. “Look at the pretty lights.” She excitedly pushed out of her blanket and sleeping bag and pulled off her mittens, scarf and stocking cap, and sat up in stunned silence, gazing around, her face lit by the magical lights as well as her happy smile.

After a few minutes Megan showed her the snow globe, smiling to herself that, in all her daughter’s excitement about the lights, she hadn’t even noticed it. “Look at this, Honey,” she said, pointing it out to her.

“Oh, how pretty,” Little Lisa exclaimed. She took it carefully off the dash and shook it, then held it gently in her hands, hypnotized by the snow scene inside.

“And look at this,” Megan said, showing her how to operate the key. And when Little Lisa turned it they both sat back in childlike awe as the sparkling snow fell and ‘Silent Night’ played, filling their old car with a joy and wonder only brought about by the magic of dreams coming true.

When the song was over Megan next showed Little Lisa the package on the dash; beaming to herself when her little girl opened it, took out the stocking hat and squealed in delight. “Look inside the hat”, Megan told her, and the squeals got ever louder as Little Lisa pulled out her new doll, holding it to her chest and smiling a wide happy smile.

“Momma, how did all of this happen?” she asked, looking around the car in awe, with its white, twinkling lights, snow globe, Christmas music and her new doll and hat; taking in the transformation like it was now a scene out of a fairytale – a wonderland – a place she’d only glimpsed before in her imagination. Except now it was for real.

“It just did, sweetheart,” Megan said, hugging her little girl tightly, “Sometimes you just have to believe that things will get better. And if you believe it hard enough, sometimes they do.” Then before Little Lisa thought about it too much and started asking too many questions, she changed the subject, “Do you like it, Sweetheart?”

“I do, Momma, I really do.”

And that was good enough for Megan.

They stayed awake for nearly half an hour, looking at the twinkling lights, playing with the snow globe and the rainbow Barbie, singing along with Silent Night and enjoying the peaceful snow coming down, both inside the snow globe for fun and outside the car for real. Megan even started the old Ford, turned the heater on and ran it for a few minutes to warm them up. A special gift for both of us, she thought to herself.

Finally, when Little Lisa started yawning, Megan turned the car off and bundled her up again, making sure she had her new doll and was wearing her new stocking hat, before finally getting her calmed down and ready to go back to sleep. When Little Lisa was cozy and snuggled into her sleeping bag and blanket, Megan put on her own stocking hat and mittens and took a hold of her own blanket and stretched out on the car seat, holding her daughter in front of her. She then pulled her blanket around her and wrapped her arms around her little girl. Their shared body heat would help keep them warm.

Just before Little Lisa fell asleep she turned and said to her mom, “I love the lights, and everything, Momma, it’s almost like we have a brand new home.”

“Hush, sweetheart, you go to sleep now, Ok? I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Will our new home still be here,” Little Lisa asked, starting to nod off.

“Yes, it will sweetheart.”

“And you’ll still be here?”

“Always, Little Lisa. Always.”

Then Megan wrapped her arms just a little tighter and listened to her daughter’s breathing as it slowed, becoming deeper and deeper until she finally fell asleep, safe and secure in her mother’s embrace. Then Megan, too, began nodding off, her mind relaxing now for just a few hours; a brief respite before the process of making it through another day started all over again. She took a deep breath and softly let it out, remembering Little Lisa’s joy and happiness at the little bit of wonder she’d experienced. Things could be a lot worse, was Megan’s last thought before she finally fell into her own deep sleep.

The lights would be the first thing they’d see when they awoke in the morning. And the snow globe with it’s pretty song would be there, too. And her daughter would have a new doll, something that would make her happy. Like Little Lisa had said, ‘It’s like it was a brand new home.’ Megan had to agree. It wasn’t much but at least it was theirs. Outside the snow continued to fall, and the temperature dropped. The wind buffeted the car and it was getting colder, but inside mother and daughter slept peacefully and held each other tightly – they were as warm as they could be. And, for tonight, that was warm enough.

Silent Night

Ralph Kaczynski had been a salvation army bell ringer for seventeen years and was by far and away the coldest and the snowiest winter he could ever recall. In spite of wearing long underwear, jeans, two sweaters, three pair of socks, heavy boots and a thick, insulated snowmobile suit, he was still cold. It didn’t help that standing outside the huge big box store was a lesson in the both the good and the bad in humanity. Mostly the bad. People hurrying and yelling at each other, shoving and pushing…Man, talk about lack of good will toward mankind. He stole a quick glance at his wristwatch. Nine forty-five. Only fifteen minutes to go until the store closed. Then Christmas Eve tomorrow, and then he was done until next year. Thank god. It’d take him until July to thaw out.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a commotion near the exit. A young woman was arguing with one of the security guards. He recognized her. She and her daughter had been frequent visitors since Thanksgiving, and he’d occasionally wondered what they’d been doing, so much time in the store like the did. They rarely left with any packages, anything he could see anyway. Hmm. Shop lifters, maybe? There’d been a rash of them this season.

Suddenly the little girl, she must have been six years old or so, stepped away from her mother. She looked Ralph right in the eye, smiled a friendly smile and skipped across the slushy sidewalk toward him, going too fast in his estimation. “Watch out,” he called out  above the noisy throng of shoppers. “It’s slippery.”

She tried to slow down, but slipped and fell down hard anyway. “Oww,” She said quietly as she slid along the sidewalk right up next to him.

Ralph’s heart immediately went out to the little girl. With her pink stocking cap and unicorn themed snow jacket, she reminded him of his daughter when she was that age. He bent down, “Here, honey, let me help you.” Her mother was still preoccupied with the security guard. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, mister,” she said, wiping the slush off her tights. “It doesn’t hurt too bad.”

He lifted the little girl to her feet and made sure was uninjured. He glanced back just as the security guard waved the mother away. She hurried over, saying to Ralph, “Thank you so much, sir.” Then she knelt down next to her daughter, “Are you okay, Lisa? I told you to be more careful.”

The little girl’s tights were torn at the knee, but she only had a small scrap, a tiny amount of blood. “I’m okay, mommy, really. This nice man helped me.”

Ralph was suddenly embarrassed. “It was nothing. She’s a tough little girl.”

What was he talking about. He didn’t know anything about her, but the little girl, this Lisa, had a way about her, a presence almost. He had to ask, just to be polite, because, after all, it was the holiday season, “Do you want anything special for Christmas, honey? A doll or something?”

The little girl shocked him. “No. Not really.”

“Are you sure? Nothing at all?”

The little girl thought hard for a moment and then said, “Well, what I’d really like is to sing a Christmas carol.”

“A Christmas carol?”

“Yes, please. Right here.” Ralph couldn’t believe how polite the little girl was.

“She didn’t get to sing in the school concert this year,” her mother added. “I had to work so I kept her with me.”

There was something about the two of them that Ralph found endearing.

He put his bell aside and said, “You know. I’m not sure if it’s against regulations or not, but to heck with it. You go right ahead, young lady. Sing any song you want.”

Lisa beamed a bright smile and took a moment to compose herself. Then she stood up straight and tall and starting singing “Silent Night”. Her voice was quiet at first and the song hardly recognizable, but by the time she gotten to “Sleep in heavenly peace,” she had found her confidence and passion, and her voice rang out loud and clear into the cold night air. Soon, a small crowd formed around the little singer, some even humming or singing along themselves. Ralph stood off to the side with Lisa’s mother, watching, enjoying a bit of Christmas magic right there on the sidewalk of a big box store.

When she was done with her song, the crowd applauded and asked for more. With a nod from Ralph she sang, “Joy To The World,” and even the bell ringer, old curmudgeon that he was, felt a tear form in his eye.

While her daughter sang, Meg, went through her mental checklist. Get Lisa into bed, snug and secure. Make sure the doors were locked. Make sure their extra blankets were handy because it was going to be cold tonight. Get to work tomorrow by nine in the morning for a full six hour day. Then back to the parking lot for the night, Christmas Eve.

Meg considered herself lucky because she had a car to call home and a place for her and Lisa to sleep. Others weren’t so fortunate. But it almost had all gone down the drain when that security guard had gotten in her face, telling her she had to move on and couldn’t park there overnight. She had to remind him that she could, that the owners of the store had agreed to let ten cars park there for the winter and she was one of them, one of the homeless finding a place to live in the big box store parking lot.

Finally he’d agreed, saying, threatening, “Well, you better watch yourself. No drugs or alcohol or anything like that.”

No problem. Meg told him, “Look, it’s just me and my daughter. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

He didn’t either. Lance, her former boyfriend and Lisa’s father, had no idea where they were and that was the way she wanted it. He was a drunk and was physically abusive to her, and she needed to stay away from him for the sake of herself and Lisa.

When Lisa was done singing she ran over, “Mommy, Mommy, did you like them? Did you like my songs?”

Meg smiled, “I did very much, sweetheart. You did really good.” She turned to Ralph, “Thank you so much.

He suddenly had a thought, “You know, tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. I’ll be here from four until six, closing. Maybe Lisa would like to come and sing. I’d like it and I think the crowds would, too.”

Meg thought for a moment. Why not? “What do you think, Lisa? Would you like to sing some more tomorrow?”

“I would, Mommy, I really would.”

“Well, you heard her. I guess we’ll be back.”

Ralph smiled, “Good. Great. See you then.”

“Okay. Right. See you tomorrow.” The three of them all waved good-bye.

The snow was starting to fall as Meg and Lisa made their way to the far corner of the parking lot to their car. They got in the backseat and spent a few minutes wrapping themselves in blankets for the night, then curled up together for warmth.

Just before she fell asleep, Lisa spoke, “Mommy?”

“What sweetheart?”

“Am I really going to be able to sing tomorrow?”

“Yes, you can. If you want to.”

“Oh, I do. I do.”

“Well, then you can.”

“Thank you Mommy.”

“Don’t thank me, thank the nice man. Ralph.”

“I will tomorrow. Okay?”

“Okay. Now, good night.”

“Good night. And Mommy?”

“What, sweetie?”

“If I can sing tomorrow, it’s going to make it my best Christmas ever.”

Meg snuggled in close to her daughter. It was so peaceful and quiet she could hear the snowflakes settling on the roof of the car. A silent night. They were safe from Lance. They had a roof over their heads and she had a job. Most importantly, she and Lisa were together. Things could be a lot worse. “Mine, too,” she said, hugging her little girl tight, “My best Christmas ever.”

 

Twas The Night Before Christmas

With five year old Stacy and three year old Dale nestled snug under the covers beside him, Peter was the happiest he’d been in months. He opened his treasured book, one passed down from his grandmother to his mom and then to him, and began to read, his voice quiet as a whisper, drawing his young ones in, “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…”

By the time he’d finished, both children were asleep, breathing restfully, visions, Peter hoped, of sugar plums dancing in their heads. He smiled to himself. Why not? It was Christmas Eve, as good a time for magical thoughts as any. He tucked them in under their warm covers and, before turning out the light, paused at the doorway, taking a long moment watching his two little sleepy heads. Worn out from seeing Dad, he joked to himself, hoping it was true. It was. Just ask Lyn, his wife. She’d say that their children adored their father and missed him terribly while he was away getting his treatments. Then she’d get a little teary eyed, her strength wavering ever so slightly before returning, knowing there were still more long days to come.

After turning out the bedroom light, Peter made his way to the stairway and began to descend, step by cautious step, holding onto the handrail with what little strength he had. From the living room, Lyn saw him and hurried to help. “Here, Sweetheart, lean on me. We’ll go slow. We can rest together on the couch.”

He smiled, grateful for everything about her, “That’d be perfect.”

It took a few minutes before they were finally curled up together under the wool afghan Lyn had knit when they were first married, seven years earlier. The room was a peaceful sanctuary, with Christmas music playing so quietly in the background one had to strain to hear a choir singing ”Silent Night”. Lyn had turned off all the lights except for the warm glow from the Christmas tree. It was lit with white twinkling lights, and decorated with a myriad of colored glass ornaments and handmade decorations, accented with at least five strands of popcorn and cranberries. The family had decorated it that afternoon when Peter had come home from the hospital on a twenty-four hour pass.

Lyn put her head on his shoulder. “Isn’t the tree beautiful?”

“It’s our best tree ever,” he smiled, putting a thin arm around her and holding her tight.

He liked that Lyn was willing to put aside what was really happening with his disease, at least for tonight. Tonight he had a break from his treatments. Tonight he could be home with his family and enjoy a moment of comfort and repose before leaving tomorrow to go back to the hospital to continue his battle. There was so much he wanted to tell her, but he was getting tired so he said only what he needed to say, “Lyn, I love you so much. You mean the world to me.”

It was all Lyn needed to hear. She kissed him gently. “I love you, too, Peter. Forever and always.”

He kissed her in return. Their undying affection for each other carrying them through these most challenging of times.

They must have fallen asleep. A rustle on the stairway caused Peter to awaken. He turned to see his children, standing patiently, so young and so innocent, dressed in their red flannel pajamas. Stacy was holding a book, and Peter could see it was the one he’d read to them earlier.

“Daddy, could you read to us again?” She asked, her tiny voice music to his ears.

“Please, Daddy, please,” Dale chimed in.

Their voices woke Lyn. “The kids want me to read again,” Peter said to her, sitting up and stretching. “I know it’s late, but is it all right with you?”

Lyn didn’t have to think. “Absolutely. But first, “she said,  getting to her feet, “How about if I fix us a plate of ginger cookies and some milk for a little treat. How would everyone like that?

Three heads nodded enthusiastically, and all was well for them on this Christmas Eve, the world held at bay for a little while longer.

Later, the family snuggled together on the couch under the warm afghan, leftover cookies within easy reach. Peter began the story, wondering as he read if this would be the last time he’d be able to do this, read to his family like he was. Then he put the thought out of his mind. Quit thinking like that, he admonished himself. He had to stay positive. He had to believe that he’d be with his wife and children next year. After all, who else could read Twas the Night Before Christmas to his children like he could? No one.

“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night,” he said, when he reached the end of the story, but not before adlibbing a hearty, “Ho, ho, ho,” making the kids giggle and Lyn smile.

Then he closed the book and wrapped his arms around his wife and children and hugged his family all together as tightly as he could. Until next year, he whispered to himself. Until next year.

Home Is Where The Heart Is – Part III

Megan’s shift at MacDonald’s ended at eleven. The night manager, Kevin, a skinny white guy around thirty with a bad complexion and a pleasant disposition had a philosophy that Megan liked: he didn’t mind if Little Lisa stayed while she worked. ‘I don’t mind at all,’ he told Megan four months earlier when she’d been hired, ‘Just don’t let her bother the customers.’ And Little Lisa never did. In fact, she kind of grew on all the employees, especially Kevin.

One thing the little girl was good at, and that was entertaining herself. Tonight she colored an old ‘My Little Pony’ coloring book someone had left next to the trash bin using some crayons Kevin had bought and kept for her back in his office. When Megan found the book and brought it to Little Lisa (along with Kevin’s crayons) it was like someone had given both of them a fancy present, reminding Megan for the millionth time that when you didn’t have much, every little thing was important, seen almost as a gift, and nothing, not even someone else’s trash, was ever taken for granted.

When her shift was over, Megan and Little Lisa were bundling up, getting ready to head outside when Kevin ran up and stopped them. “Hey you two, don’t forget your dinner.” He handed a sack to Megan. After every shift Kevin gave them each a free Full Meal Deal. He knelt down so he was eye level with Little Lisa, “And I’ve got yours all special for you, just the way you like it: six chicken nuggets with no sauce, small fries, apple slices and chocolate milk.”

He really was a nice guy.

“Thank you, Kevin,” Little Lisa said politely, holding her meal tightly to her chest.

“See you tomorrow,” Kev, Megan said.

“Yep,” he mock saluted, “Until then…stay warm and don’t take any wooden nickels.” Megan rolled her eyes at him, appreciating his attempt at humor. Then he turned and went back behind the counter to check on the remaining two helpers. They stayed open until 2am and he had a long three hours ahead of him.

“What did he mean by that, Mommy?” Little Lisa asked as they made their way to their car. The snow had quit falling, but there was maybe three inches on the ground and on her car.

“He was just kidding, Sweetie,” she said, getting the little girl settled in her car seat before setting to work sweeping off her car. It took her about five minutes. She was diligent and careful to get it all removed so she could see clearly. When she was finished she got in, buckled up and started the car. They chatted together for a few minutes, eating their dinners while the car warmed up. When they were finished they dumped their leftover paper and wrappers in a trash can and then pulled out of the parking lot, sliding a little where the snow had compacted. At times like these Megan was conscious of every move she made – from making sure not to fall down and injure herself when walking on icy snow, to being watchful and careful with her driving – everything she could to be conscientious and safe and not do anything that might jeopardize the tenuous hold she had on her life with her daughter. A stay in the hospital or medical bills was something they could ill afford.

The drive from Minneapolis out Highway Seven west to Minnetonka took forty-five minutes; nearly twice as long as normal due to the snow clogging up the roads, slowing the late night traffic to a crawl. The big box store they were heading for closed at midnight and they barely made it in time to rush inside and make their way quickly to the women’s room where they washed up and brushed their teeth. Then they bundled up and headed back outside. The temperature was dropping and the cold was settling in. It might even dip into the single digits overnight. Megan shivered and held Little Lisa’s mittened hand tightly.

She had parked the car way off to the side, half way from the store out to the service road that ran along the far end of the parking lot. She was able to spend the night because the store had instituted a policy a few years ago of letting people similar to her situation park their cars overnight as long as they were gone by six in the morning . And also, most importantly, as long as no one caused any trouble they were welcome to come back. For Megan, it was exactly what she needed. In the five months she’d been staying at the lot no one had ever caused her or anybody else any trouble. In fact, it was just the opposite. More than anything, she was finding that homeless people like her mostly just wanted to be left alone. During warm weather there might be up to fifteen cars scattered around, each leaving as much space as possible between themselves and the nearest vehicle. However, with the onset of winter and freezing temperatures, the number of vehicles had dwindled to maybe three a night at the most. Tonight, it looked like Megan’s old Ford would be the only vehicle there.

“Come on, honey,” Megan said, reaching the car and opening the front door, “Let’s get you settled.”

Little Lisa knew the routine well: she climbed into the passenger side while her mom went around and opened the back hatch where the few belongings they owned were stored (mostly clothes stowed in a single Tupperware container). She grabbed their blankets for the night and then went around to the front driver’s side where she climbed in, securing and locking their doors. Then she pulled up the latch that let the seat slide back as far as possible. She had learned through trial and error that sleeping in the front seat was roomier and easier on both of them, especially in the winter, where they could take advantage of the car’s heater if they ever needed to. But running the Ford at night cost money, so they rarely did.

Megan helped Little Lisa get settled in. She took off her snow boots and set them on the floor in the back. Then she pulled an extra thick pair of wool socks over her feet, rubbing her toes and joking with the little girl, making her laugh. Megan always felt it was a good way to go to sleep – with the sound of her daughter’s laugher in the car, drowning out any depressed feelings they might have about their living situation. Then she put her in a snowsuit and a kid’s sized sleeping bag  before finally putting ‘Lambie’ her favorite stocking hat on her head and wrapped a scarf around her neck and face. Then she covered her up with a thick quilt she had bought at a Dollar Store just after Thanksgiving. By morning the temperature in the car would be the same as outside, and although it would be cold, at least wrapped up like she was, Little Lisa would be warm.

When Megan was satisfied her daughter was all set, they did their final bedtime ritual. “Do you want me to read you a story?”

“Yes, Mommy, yes,” Little Lisa exclaimed, her breath showing as she spoke. It was already getting cold in the car. “Can you read me about Elsa and Anna?” Little Lisa was hooked on ‘Frozen’ and anything having to do with their characters would be sure to bring her joy. This book was a favorite.

“Yes I can, Sweetheart,” her mother said, reaching under the seat for the book and taking it out of the large zip-loc she kept it in for protection. The lighting from the parking lot flood lights gave her enough light to read by. She began the story, watching her daughter’s eyes go from excited to heavy almost immediately. It had been a long day. After a few minutes her face relaxed, her breathing deepened and she soon fell into a peaceful sleep, transported by the story to a world of fantasy far away from the one in which she was living.

Nacho Cheese Doritos

A little bit of heaven right here on earth, that’s what it was, my love for Doritos, specifically Nacho Cheese. But that little bit of heaven came crashing down hard the day doctor Anderson gave me the test results.

“Sorry, Jay, it’s bad news. You’ve got celiac sprue, a gluten intolerance. You can’t have any of that stuff you like to eat, especially Doritos. You’ve got to quit right now or they could kill you.” He shook his head, commiserating with me. “Maybe try, I don’t know, raisins?”

Well, shit. From heaven to hell in the blink of an eye. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, however I had no desire to die, so I did as he asked. I even tried the raisins, but they didn’t hold a candle to my treasured Doritos. In short, I did my best.

Until recently.

I’d been Dorito free for nearly five years, doing a good job keeping my craving at bay. Had I been tempted at times? Sure, lots. But I’d stayed the course, diligently following my doctor’s orders, being a good boy. Or did, that was, until I unfortunately came across a stray bag in the back of an old stash cupboard in the garage. Bam! An explosion of overwhelming desire for those chips returned with such unexpected force, it almost brought me to my knees. The effect was immediate. I tried to turn away but couldn’t, drawn as I was to that red bag of crunchy goodness and cheesy delight. Oh, no, I silently screamed, don’t give in. I tried to hold fast, but couldn’t help myself. With trembling hands I reached for the bag, held it to my breast and caressed it, all the time thinking, just one won’t hurt, will it? Couldn’t I have just one little Nacho Cheese Dorito?

Who was I kidding? The battle was short, and war was lost before it even began. I couldn’t help myself. Already salivating, I ripped the bag open, dug in and munched away to my heart’s content. I ended up eating them all, and you know what? They tasted even better than I had remembered. In fact, I’m heading for the store tomorrow to buy another bag, maybe two. I don’t care if they aren’t good for me, because there’s one thing I know for certain- I can quit anytime I want to. In the blink of an eye. Just like before. Probably.

 

Footprints In The Snow

Out for a winter’s walk I came upon some footprints in the snow. Whose were they? I wondered, and paused for a moment, thinking…Coming up with no answer, I impulsively decided to follow them. As I walked, I began remembering how much I enjoyed this, walking outside like I was, not up and down those long hallways in the mall like I’ve been doing lately. You see, I’ve been having a little trouble remembering where I am over the past year, so my wife has taken to driving me to Ridgedale where she and I walk with an oldsters group. It’s been okay, and I liked walking with Kath, but it’s nothing to write home about. However, let me tell you, back in the day, back when my memory was clear, I used to do it a lot, this walking outside. I liked it then and I was liking it now, even though I didn’t know where I was.

Having the fresh invigorating air with the cold bite of winter on my cheeks not only felt wonderful, it made me feel young again. Out of the blue old time memories came flooding back: My younger brother Tim and I in our youth, walking in the winter woods outside of town with our field guides in out backpacks, teaching ourselves how to identify birds; Young Kath and I before we were married, shuffling along a snowy, moonlit trail in a wooded park in January, talking quietly, planning our future and stealing warm kisses behind a convenient oak tree; My daughter Janet and I strolling along a snowy river path near the college she attended as she told me of her dreams for her future; My grandson…

Suddenly I heard Zak’s voice calling, shaking me out of my reverie, “Grandpa, Grandpa, you need to come inside. Grandma Kath says it’s time for dinner and great uncle Tim’s starving.” I looked over and saw him grinning. We all knew how much my brother liked to eat.

“I’m coming,” I said, pulling my mind back to the present and making my way through the snow to the back door of the home Kath and I have lived in for over fifty years. So that’s where I was. Our backyard was a tiny open area, and the edges of the property were thick with evergreen trees; in a way it was kind of like being in a wooded clearing in northern Minnesota. I’d have to try to remember that.

“What were you doing out there, Grandpa?” Zak asked as I came up to him, stomping snow from my boots. He was eleven and in middle school, and this winter he was busy with hockey, his friends and class work, in that order. I didn’t see him as much as I used to, or liked to, for that matter.

“Reminiscing,” I told him. He didn’t need to know I’d had absolutely no idea where I’d just been except lost in fond memories, reliving the past. I recovered valiantly and said, “Thinking about walks we used to take.”

“Like when you took me out that one winter night and showed me the constellations? I remember we saw Cassiopeia and Orion.”

“Yeah, exactly,” I said, mentally shifting gears back to the present (rather smoothly, I thought.) “Back when you were young and just a kid, like four or five.” I reached out to jokingly muss up his hair as he ducked away, laughing.

I stepped into the back entryway, closed the door against the cold and began taking off my winter jacket, scarf, boots and hat. I used to babysit him one day a week before he started grade school. Those were good times back then, special times, especially now that he was getting older and busy with other activities. I glanced up and saw Zak looking past me to the backyard, quietly thinking. The house was filled with the aromatic scent of cinnamon, baked sweet potatoes and fresh apple pie. My mouth involuntarily started watering. I smiled to myself, thinking of my brother. No wonder he was starving.

Zak interrupted my thoughts, “Hey, Grandpa, how about after we eat, you and I go outside and go for a walk? It’s been a while.”

I was shocked almost to the point of speechlessness. It was the last thing I expected to hear from my busy grandson. I almost put on my jacket right then and there, grabbed him by the arm and went back outside. Instead, I reached for him and enveloped him in a big bear hug as he good-naturedly squirmed to get away. “That’d be wonderful, Zak, just perfect.” Our meal couldn’t be over soon enough, as far as I was concerned.

Afterwards, as Zak and I got ready to go outside, snow flurries started falling ever so lightly. The sun was setting, painting the western horizon dusty mauve, and the soft glow of street lamps were illuminating the drifting snowflakes like floating specs of glitter. It was so pretty that we were spontaneously joined by my daughter Janet (Zak’s mom) along with Kath. Even my brother Tim dragged himself out of his easy chair and made it outside. I couldn’t recall the last time all of us had gone for a nice family stroll together along a snow covered street. It was way better than being at the mall. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if we made a habit of it, all of us making time to get together and go walking. Winter, summer, spring or fall, it wouldn’t matter. I’d like that a lot.

But today was special, having us all together. And you know what? The whole time we were walking, I remembered where we were from beginning to end. In fact, I still do. It was unforgettable.

 

Home Is Where The Heart Is – Part II

Donny Eisenberg was with security and had been watching the young woman and her little girl ever since they’d entered the store. He’d seen her slip the doll into her purse and almost grabbed her then, but held back. He’d been a Floor Walker for eight years now, ever since he’d retired as a bus driver for Metro Transit, and after all these years he could just tell.

Like he recently told Helen, his wife of fifty one years, “They just have a look about them. You know. Trouble.”

To which Helen slapped down her newspaper and stared at him , “All of them Donny? Every single one of them?” She glared at him, frowning.”You know they’re people, don’t you, not things? Each one is a person. A living breathing human being who just might be down on their luck. Can’t you sometimes give them the benefit of the doubt? Cut them a little slack?”

Donny knew she was getting angry but he snorted his answer anyway, “Never.” It seemed they were having this argument more and more often these days and he didn’t know why. “That’s not what they pay me for. The company makes the rules, I enforce them. I’m supposed to stop them if they shop lift, call the head of security and turn them over. That’s my job.”

“So you’re paid not to think, huh?  Is that it? Have no feelings? Well, it sounded like a stupid policy to me when you were hired and it still sounds stupid,” Ellen spat out her words, making her point perfectly clear. Then she stared at him long and hard, waiting for Donny to say something. Anything. Donny stared back at her, his mind suddenly blank.

Finally shook her head in disappointment and stood up, taking her newspaper into another room. Donny watched her walk away, all his arguments suddenly coming back to him. But they were unsatisfying and did nothing to alleviate the fact that he was left with contemplating for what seemed the millionth time in their long marriage, why his wife was always so mad at him. He turned and looked out the window, seeing nothing but Helen’s disappointed frown, and wondered if maybe, in the long run, she really might be right.

Now, as he followed the young woman and little girl through the crowded store, he pictured Helen admonishing him with a flinty gaze and steely eyes boring into him like two overheated drill bits. He knew she’d be disappointed in him (again) but he shrugged it off. To hell with her, he thought. He had a job to do.

It was the day before Christmas Eve and the place was packed, especially today, a Saturday: parents pushing carts full of toys, most of it crap that kids would open and lose interest in before the new year began if not sooner. Harried adults, wound up children, everyone talking twice as loud as normal just to be heard over the incessant Christmas music pouring through the sound system. Most people would be driven nuts, but Donny had learned to tune it all out just to keep his sanity; but he swore if he heard ‘Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells’ one more time he’d…Well, he didn’t know what he’d do, but he was sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Up ahead the young woman (he guessed she wasn’t more than twenty one or twenty two) turned into the first of what was probably ten aisles loaded to over flowing with displays of Christmas lights of every type and style and decorations of every shape, size and color. Donny slowed and walked past her to a look at a row of indoor Christmas tree ornaments, keeping a surreptitious eye on the two of them. She had unbuttoned her ragged coat and even though she had on at least one sweater and a turtle neck, he could tell she was thin. Her skin was pale and her non-descript brown hair was cut short and he noticed that in spite of her street worn appearance, she looked clean. What struck him, though, were her eyes. Even from where he stood and even though she wore glasses, he could see they were bright and blue. Attractive, almost.

Definitely not a drug user, he thought to himself, assessing the situation. He knew that for a fact. He’d seen enough of them in the store to know – wild eyed and manic. Not this one, though. She was calm and under control. And pretty good with her little girl, too, he thought, now that he had watched her for what, he glanced at his watch, fifteen minutes or so. Lots better than a good majority of the other shoppers milling around him, some of whom even bumping into him without so much as even a ‘pardon me.’ Rude people.

He kept a casual but watchful eye on the two of them. Were they a mother and daughter? If so, the young woman seemed…what? Conscientious, maybe? Or thoughtful? Something like that. Not rude, anyway, that was for sure, and that might count for something, even though she was a thief. He found himself hoping she wouldn’t take anything more.

Megan visually scanned through what seemed like a hundred different styles of Christmas lights before she found what she’d been looking for. She’d seen them in a catalog once someone left behind at work – battery operated white, twinkle lights. They’d be perfect for what she had in mind. She calmly glanced around and, seeing no one but an old man looking at ornaments, she quickly slipped the small package into her shoulder bag – the bag she had lined with tin foil to get past the electronic security at the exit doors. It was a trick she’d learned from her friend, Alyssa, at work. ‘Yeah, you do that, girlfriend, you’ll be golden.’ And it did work. Megan always felt the slightest twinge of guilt whenever she shoplifted, but managed to push the feeling back down by saying that she’d eventually pay the store back. And she meant it, too. It just wouldn’t be today.

Donny went back to his pretend browsing, glancing over every now and then before moving a few steps. He was disappointed to see her slip a small strand of some kind of lights into her purse. Too bad. Now she’d have to suffer the consequences. He made a mental note: she’s got the doll and the lights. He started to get himself ready. One more item and he’ll blow the whistle on her. Just one more.

“Mommy, can we get this, please?” Little Lisa asked, interrupting Megan’s thoughts and tugging excitedly on her sleeve.

She looked at the object that held her daughter’s interest and tried to hide her grin. “Not right now, Sweetheart, but maybe some other time.”

“Please, please, please.” It was unlike her to beg like she was doing.

Little Lisa had selected a baseball sized snow globe with a picturesque scene of a quaint cottage and a decorated pine tree next to it. A little red bird (a cardinal? she thought) sat on a branch. You shook it up and the snow exploded inside, hanging suspended momentarily before drifting to the ground, covering the objects in sparkling white. Megan had always wanted one when she was growing up, but times were tough in her family with just her mother and Megan’s little sister and brother – no father and not much money (and, of course, no snow globe), the story of her life. Now her daughter wanted one, just like she had. Funny how things like that worked out.

“I’m sorry, Honey, but we can’t afford it, now,” Megan told her firmly, “We’ll have to wait.”

“Aw,” Little Lisa said, frowning. Then an idea clicked inside her and, not wanting to give up just yet, she smiled coyly at her mom and asked, “How about…maybe…tomorrow?”

Megan couldn’t help but let her heart go out to her daughter. Pretending to give the matter some hard thought she finally said, “Well…maybe, Honey. Maybe,” she said, smiling at her daughter’s persistence, thinking to herself, what does it hurt to have something for a little girl to look forward to? Then she said, “Now, give me the globe please.”

Happy that at least her mother didn’t say ‘No,’ Little Lisa lovingly handed it to her and then turned away to gaze wishfully at a display of candy canes. Megan took the globe from her, but instead of setting it on the shelf, she slipped it into her bag while Little Lisa’s eyes were averted and then said, “Come on, kiddo, we need to get going. Mommy’s got to get to work pretty soon.”

Little Lisa sighed, “Ok, Mommy,” she said, and took a last long look at the display of pretty snow globes (now, minus one) before she turned away, taking her mother’s hand uncomplainingly and, for at least the tenth time that day, left Megan to wonder what she had done to deserve such a sweet natured, agreeable child.

Donny watched as they made their way through the frantic crowds jamming the aisles, the little girl holding her mother’s hand tightly. He was the tiniest bit heavyhearted she’d taken the snow globe and that he’d have to bust them, but there you were. It was his job and he was good at his job. He decided to wait until they left the store to make his move. Maybe other shoppers would see him nab them and it would set an example not to mess around shoplifting in this store. At least not while Donny Eisenberg was on duty anyway.

He followed discretely fifteen feet behind, eyes roving side to side watching what seemed like hundreds of people at a time, all the while zeroed in on the young mother and her little girl. They were making their way past the long checkout lines (without paying, of course) and heading for the exit. Once they went through the doors and were outside, he’d grab them. He’d get them for the doll, the lights, and now the snow globe. Steal on my watch, Donny thought, not a chance.

He was watching carefully, moving step by step toward them when, just a few feet before the exit doors, the little girl stumbled on one of the big thick floor mats meant to soak up water and slush from outside. Donny made a quick mental note to get on the damn maintenance crew. They should be cleaning and changing those mats out every half hour. Then he re-focused on woman. The young mother was only a few feet from the doors. He started to move toward them.

“Mommy, I’m so sorry,” Little Lisa said, tears welling up. Megan had grabbed her to keep her from falling and getting wet, and fought to hold her up by the hand, trying to keep her off the soaking, soggy mat. “I tripped.”

Megan struggled for a moment before finally getting the little girl straightened out and her feet firmly planted on the floor, “That’s alright kiddo. I’ve got you, but just try to be more careful next time.”

Little Lisa snuffled, “I’ll try Mommy. I’m sorry.”

Megan moved them over by the wall, off to the side of the flow of the crowd now surging to leave the store, pushing overloaded carts, clutching packages and bags and struggling to get into their coats and jackets. She dabbed the tears from Little Lisa’s eyes talking quietly to her to help get her calmed down. Then she glanced outside and her spirits sank. Flurries were coming down and she could see them already blanketing the ground. The problem was that the snow would make the drive to work slow and she couldn’t afford to be late. It would also make it treacherous. The treads on her tires weren’t the best and she’d have to be extra cautious to stay in her lane and not slip into another vehicle. Megan shook her head – it seemed like there was always something to contend with.

She knelt on a dry spot to the left of the exit, zipped up her daughter’s coat, tightened her scarf and put on her knit stocking hat and mittens. Then, in one quick movement, she folded a strip of foil over the top of the inside of her bag, the final step in making sure she didn’t set off the security alarm. Now she was all set.

She was just standing up, buttoning up her own coat when, through the maze of people she heard, then saw, a Salvation Army bell ringer. He was on the sidewalk outside the door; a stocky black man dressed in heavy boots, an insulated jacket, tan Carhart overalls and a purple Minnesota Vikings stocking hat. He was also wearing a cheerful smile in spite of the cold and snow.

Little Lisa had finally calmed down and was back to being in a good mood.  She saw him too. “Mommy, can we give him some money? Please? Please? Please?”

Megan didn’t have to think twice. She knew there were people out there in much worse shape that she and her daughter. After all, the two of them at least had a car to live in. “Sure Sweetie,” she said, reaching into her shoulder bag for her pocketbook and taking out a wrinkled dollar bill. “Here, give this to the nice man.”

“Goody, goody.” Little Lisa took the dollar bill, held it tightly between her mittened hands and ran through the door right up to the guy. “Here, mister,” she said, giving the money to the man who helped her put the dollar in the bucket.

“Why, thank you very much, and happy holidays to you, young lady,” he said kindly, giving her a big grin and pretending to tip his hat but never once stopping the rhythmic ringing of his bell.

Megan took a quick look around, noticing only the relentless crush of the crowd and, for some reason, that old guy who looked like the old guy she’d seen earlier. But her attention was drawn back through the doors outside to Little Lisa, who was now happily standing next to the bell ringer, chatting away like they were old friends. Megan wrapped her scarf tightly around her neck, put on her own stocking cap and mittens, and walked through the doors, momentarily holding her breath, waiting for the alarm to go off. But it didn’t and she sighed with relief.

She walked over to her daughter, took her by the hand and smiled a polite smile to the volunteer, wishing him a happy holiday. She had bought clothes from Salvation Army before and she was happy to give something back, even though it was only a dollar. Then they made their way through the slippery, slushy snow to her car. Little Lisa got into her car seat in the back and buckled herself in while Megan used a brush to clear the snow off. Then she got inside and started the old Ford. She let it warm up a few minutes before putting it in drive and slowly making her way through the snowy parking lot out to the street and then to the highway where she settled into the long drive to work, the snow falling ever faster.

Back in the store Donny had been waiting, watching their every move and he’d seen the young mother give her little girl the dollar for the donation. It made him hesitate. It was a gesture from her he hadn’t expected and it touched him in a way he wasn’t prepared for. He stood in place, oblivious to the crowd pushing past him and the dirty looks some people were giving him. He was thinking about the young mother and her little girl, seeing Helen’s face in his mind watching him, almost willing him to think for himself for a change. He weighed the pros and cons for a few moments and surprised himself by coming to his decision rather quickly. What the hell? Maybe it was his good deed for the season. Maybe it was the disarming vision of Helen in his brain. Whatever…sure he was breaking the rules but big deal. There was something about the young mother and her daughter. They seemed alright to him- not career criminals, that was for sure. Maybe they were just down on their luck. Maybe it was the little girl. She seemed so well behaved and the way she was with the Salvation Army guy was…well, kind of cute. Whatever the case, he decided to let them go and, he had to admit, immediately felt pretty good about his decision. He wondered if he should bother to tell Helen about what he’d done when he got home. He thought about it as he watched the mother and daughter trudge through the snowy parking lot out to their car, surprised to find he was holding his breath until they made it safely. Then he turned back to the store, thinking that maybe he would tell her. And, if he did, and she took the time to listen to him, maybe, for once, she wouldn’t be so damn mad at him. It was worth a try. Stranger things could happen.

He started to walk back into the store, taking out his two-way radio and making the call to maintenance about changing out the entry mats. Then he saw another person he might have to keep an eye on. A black woman and a bunch of kids all under the age of ten. Suddenly, though, the thought of trailing them through the store seemed pointless. Sure, if they didn’t have money and couldn’t pay for their stupid toys and crap, they shouldn’t be in the store in the first place. But, what the hell, maybe Helen had been right – who was he to be playing god? All of a sudden it just didn’t seem that important anymore. Maybe it was that young mother and her daughter. Maybe it was the image in his mind of Helen’s ongoing disappointment in him. Who knew? But he decided to let the black woman her kid go past him without bothering to follow. Instead, he took out his two-way again and made a call, “I’m going on break.” He walked to the back of the store and through a door that said, ‘Employees Only.’ He sat down and stared into space, suddenly very tired. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve and then it’s over, Donny thought. Thank god.

Old Man Jasperson

Ambrose Jasperson looked at himself in the mirror, fluffed out his full beard and pronounced to his wife, Emma, “Alrighty, then. Looks like Santa Claus is all set.”

He smiled at his reflection. From his natural beard, curly and white, to his cheeks rosy from a lifetime of dairy farming, to his belly jolly from a lifetime love of anything sweet ( cookies in particular), he really did look like Santa Claus. The Santa suit provided by the senior living facility helped, too.

A knock at the door. “Mr. Jasperson. Mr. Jasperson, are you ready? We’re waiting for you.”

He adjusted the red blanket over his legs, rolled his wheel chair to the door and opened it, doffing is red Santa cap, “Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas,” he greeted Maggie, one of Riverview’s care providers.

Maggie smiled, thinking that it was nice Old Man Jasperson, as he was referred to by the staff, was in a festive mood. She’d only worked at Riverview Senior Living for a few months and didn’t know him very well, only that he was quiet and kept to himself in his room at the far end of the hall. She’d also heard that he’d lived there for three years, that he’d had a tragic life, losing his four children over the years to a variety of accidents and misfortunes, and that he’d lost his wife, Emma, to cancer five years ago.

She’d also had been told that every year for the past three years he’d volunteered to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, and that said a lot, as far as Maggie was concerned. In her mind, Old man Jasperson must have something special going for him.

She smiled, “Ready to go? They’ve just finished singing Christmas carols.”

As attendants went, Ambrose thought Maggie was fine. Nice. She left him pretty much to himself and that was a good thing. He knew most everyone at Riverview thought he was a bit odd and that was all right with him. If spending time by yourself working on a project and talking to your long departed wife was consider odd, well then so be it. They could get back to him when they were eighty-eight like him, and trying to live out the end of their life in a meaningful way like he was trying to do. Then maybe they’d have something to talk about.

“I’m all set. Let the festivities begin,” he said cheerfully. “Ho, ho, ho…” And he rolled out into the hallway but not before waving a cheery good-bye to Emma.

A few hours later, back in his room, Ambrose had changed out of his Santa suit, wheeled his chair to his one window and was looking outside. He lived on the first floor and had an unobstructed view of the parking lot. A few days earlier, a snowstorm had blanketed the world in white and Riverview’s maintenance staff had decorated the front of the building with evergreen garlands and wrapped strings of colored lights around all four of the tiny evergreen trees near the entrance. It wasn’t much, but he liked how they looked, festive and cheerful. He’d always enjoyed Christmas time, no matter how challenging his and Emma’s life had been. He still did. There was a warm and snug feeling associated with this time of year that he loved.

After they became too old to farm, Ambrose and Emma sold their land and dairy herd and moved into a small bungalow in nearby Redwood Falls. There they lived happily for nearly ten years until poor Emma died after a valiant year long struggle with cancer. Soon after, Ambrose’s diabetes got the better of him, confining him to a wheelchair, and he moved into Riverview. That had been three years ago.

Now it was just him. Well, he and Emma. Ambrose had to admit, it was nice to have her with him. It made his days less lonely.

A knock on the door. Ambrose glanced at the clock. Eight-thirty. This was unexpected. He turned in his chair and asked, “Who is it?”

“It’s me, Mr. Jasperson. Maggie.”

“Maggie. Hi. What can I do for you?” He was still in a good mood from playing Santa. Plus, Emma was with him, sort of like Mrs. Claus. That helped.

“I wanted to thank you for playing Santa tonight,” Maggie said through the door.”You did a great job. I was wondering…We have some leftover Christmas cookies from earlier. Would you like some?”

Cookies? Absolutely. “That’d be wonderful, Maggie. Thank you. Just a second, I’ll get the door.” He turned to Emma and whispered, beaming, “Christmas cookies!” And watched as she smiled back at him, knowing how much he loved his sweets.

Ambrose wheeled to the door and opened it. As Maggie came in and set the plate of cookies down, she noticed something on the little bedside nightstand. Curious, she pointed, “What have you got there?”

“Oh, that,” Ambrose said, suddenly embarrassed and turning red, “It’s nothing.”

Maggie peered closely. It was a photo album, and it looked like it was stuffed full of old family photographs. “I don’t want to pry, but they look interesting.”

“You can look at them if you want. Really, though, they’re just old pictures.” He paused for a moment, fighting off a sudden, encroaching melancholy. After a moment he said, his voice almost a whisper, “My…My wife took them. Emma.”

“Oh, my. I love looking at old photographs,” Maggie said, enthusiastically, meaning it. It was one of the reasons she liked working at Riverview. She enjoyed being around old folks and hearing the stories they had to tell.

Maggie’s enthusiasm perked up Ambrose’s’ mood considerably. “Well, if that’s the case you might like these.” He grinned an impish grin, and wheeled next to his bed where he reached under and pulled out not one, or two, but three flat storage containers. “I’ve got photographs in all of them.” He watched Maggie’s eyes go wide. “Emma took pictures our whole married life. Do you want to have a look? I’m putting them in order in albums, sort of our family history.”

So that’s what he’s doing in here, Maggie thought to herself. He’s organizing his life through old photographs. That’s amazing. “If you don’t mind, Mr. Jasperson, I’d love to see them.”

Ambrose smiled and pointed, “Pull up a chair, then. And, please, call me Ambrose.”

Maggie smiled, happy to finally be the first staff person in Riverview Senior Living to start to get to know ‘Old Man Jasperson’ better.”Okay, then. Ambrose it is.”

“Great. But first, you might want to go get another plate of cookies. I’ve got a lot of pictures here.”

Maggie, grinned, thinking that she couldn’t think of a better way to spend Christmas Eve. “Good idea,” she said, “I’ll be right back.”

After Maggie left, Ambrose selected a cookie off the plate and munched on it as he set about spreading out some of the photographs. He turned to Emma and said, “You don’t mind sharing our photos, do you Em?” He pointed toward the door, “She seems nice.” He listened for a moment in the silence of the room and then smiled, “So you don’t mind? Good. I didn’t think so.”

He then happened to glance out the window and saw that snow was beginning to fall. He was quiet for a moment watching the flakes drift past the floodlights outside, carrying with them for him a lifetime of memories of past Christmases, memories that made him feel warm inside.

He turned his head as if listening and said, “What’s that? Why, yes it is Em. It really is a pretty scene out there. Like being back on the farm.” The room was quiet while he listened some more. Finally he spoke, “I agree. Merry Christmas to you, too, Sweetheart. It’s been one of our best Christmases ever.” He paused once more, nodding his head along with what his wife was saying. “That’s right, Em, I agree. Every Christmas is special, just as long as we’re together.”