A few of the reader comments about this story:
“Dennis, it doesn’t matter what you are writing about, your descriptions of the scene or the feelings inside of a character, the reader feels like they are there watching it all unfold before them. Everything is so vivid. Thank you for this sweet story.” -Janet Mix
“What a beautiful story and music to share with us. Great way to start the day with a smile.” -Kathy Rosson
“I enjoyed the story very much, have always loved the song. Great job.” -Karen Gross
“Made my day. Thank you. 💛” -Dawn Jackson
“Cute story. You do have a way with words. Merry Christmas!!” -Dave Hendrickson
“Most of all, I remember looking out the window as I shifted around on the seat clutching my purse and glancing up to make sure my bag was still on the rack above me. The station and buildings nearby were decorated and dressed in lights of silver, blue, gold, red and green. As the train pulled out, they reflected off and in the glass flickering past in a kaleidoscope of holiday colors. When I felt the wheels begin to turn, I took a couple of deep breaths. Then a feeling of certainty that I was making the right decision came over me.
“Soon the train was outside the city and had picked up speed. The view dimmed to gray with a lighter blur as we passed snow piled high in some places along the track. Occasionally, color flashed from trees with their brown limbs thick with green pine needles powdered and sprinkled white. I saw country houses, too, that sped by. My view of them grew slowly when the tracks curved toward them in the distance. As I got closer, they would suddenly fly past; a smear of more color on the frosty pane clouded by my breath on the cold glass. I liked it most when the train slowed at a crossing, and the flakes drifted—a slower dance—down and then that sensation of getting closer to where I was going when the train started going faster again.
“It was my first Christmas away from home, and I hadn’t traveled much. Actually, not at all until I surprised everyone by taking a job in the city. My parents never went anywhere, not even on vacations, and had never been big on celebrating the season, but Tom’s were. He and I had met the year before. Both of us had been stuck working through the holidays. I was young, new to the city and happened to take my lunch break the same time he did. Idle comments—nervous ones on my part—about the holidays led to conversations. I learned he was only a couple years older than me and could tell how much he missed being with his family by the wistfulness in how he spoke of them.
“As winter passed into spring, summer and then fall… we fell more in love. As the next holiday season approached, we decided I would meet him at his parent’s and spend the day before Christmas Eve through New Years with them.
“I had grown up shy but being with Tom made me discover a confidence I didn’t realize was there. Still, I wasn’t always comfortable around people I didn’t know, so that Christmas would be very different for me. Full of anxious anticipation, I looked forward to being with Tom even if it meant among a bunch of people I didn’t know.
“Since then—and maybe it started with that trip—I’ve learned how much you can change the way things are—the way things once were, into what they become—if you have a catalyst that triggers it. Even if it’s only a small something that makes you realize your happiness is determined by what’s in you and not from others. But back then, I was still learning about myself and life.
“I remember changing trains at Holy Oak. That small town’s station sat at a crossroads for the east-west and north-southbound railroads. I had come south and now would be headed west into the mountains on the 7:50 PM train. Two hours later, making better time than expected, I got off that westbound train in Tom’s hometown and stepped onto the open platform full of thoughts of him.
“I heard bells ringing, sharp and crisp in the cold night air. They were lovely, so pure and clear, not smothered by the sounds of a city that never slept. A girl of the suburbs and city life who had never known the quiet of small towns and the country, as the train I’d been on pulled away and its sound receded, I paused to listen to them in the stillness.
“Night had fallen, but there was enough light from the streetlight on the corner to see the flakes of snow, making their slow way to the ground adding to the drift in the lee of the concrete base of the bench I sat upon. The wind couldn’t catch it there and cast it away. The small pile was a landscape of its own; I saw a mountain slope topped with bare, gray, stone. Then a bed of white snowflake-crafted linen that flowed from shadow into the light with only a glint showing it was not fabric. It ended at the heels of my scuffed boots.
“It was a moment of self-reflection I’d never experienced. I felt it… the cold that came around edges of the framework of who I really was inside. Though 20 years old, I still felt a scared child’s fear of the unknown. I loved Tom but had never traveled so far alone and soon would be surrounded by people I had never met. I shivered as the wind picked up and wished I’d worn a scarf as the icy gust feathered my hair and peeked down the collar of my jacket. I tried to smooth my long hair as I rose to go inside to wait for Tom to pick me up. I checked my watch; he should be along shortly.
“Then the wind carried more than the sound of bells. Voices. I turned toward the singing and followed it around the corner of the station that faced a park and off to the right, the beginning of the town’s main street. As my train had pulled in, I hadn’t noticed the glow of the small group of people holding candles near what appeared to be caves that peppered the snow-covered hills surrounding this small town, and that hugged the station and park on two sides. The plumes of their breath accompanied each verse. The music touched me, pushing aside the coldness of the current of air that brought their music to me.
“I listened and felt warmed by their voices and the song’s message. It made me feel that the things ahead in my life—ones I could never know would come to pass—though maybe challenging, could become blessings. It made me think of how the story of a baby boy, born to follow the path meant for him, had changed billions of lives over two thousand years. I’d not been raised particularly religious, but in the words and beauty of the song, I found peace and hope for a purposeful life, too.
“I had bent to pick up my bag and turned to go inside, and there was Tom. A dusting of snowflakes sprinkled his dark, wavy hair and his smile caught the light from the Christmas-ribboned lamppost above us. He lifted me, twirled and gave me a quick kiss as he set me on my feet again–”
“I was stronger back then…” The man behind the steering wheel laughed.
I turned from facing the back seat to glance at Tom sitting next to me. Much stouter and gray-haired—just like me—the lights of cars passing in the opposite direction shining through the windshield showed the lines on his face. I smiled at him and then felt a touch on my shoulder. I looked back at Cassidy, my youngest granddaughter, who had leaned forward. Twelve years old and still full of questions, she had asked me to tell her about when her grandfather and I were young.
“I love how you tell stories, Grandma! So, that was your first Christmas with Grandpa?” She had just made her first trip to visit us in the country for Christmas since we had retired and looked so much like her mother, sitting next to her, had at her age.
“It was my second,” I brushed a wavy lock of dark hair from her face, “but the first real one. It was the one that taught me that the holidays mean so much more than big city decorations, parades, and shopping.” I reached for her hand. “And that we don’t always know how life will turn out, so it’s important to have faith and a purpose.” I squeezed it and let go so she could sit back.
At the stoplight, Tom turned to look at Cassidy. “But, there’s a part of it that’s about gifts, too.” He reached over, took my hand then brought it up to kiss and hold to his cheek. “Your grandmother’s the best Christmas present I ever got!”
“Do you remember that song, Grandma?” Cassidy asked as the light turned green and we began to move.
Only five miles to home. I looked at Tom and still saw the young man who had lifted and swung me on that train station platform decades ago. “What’s that, honey?” I shifted on the seat to face her.
“The song… the one the people holding the candles were singing. Do you remember it?”
My mind went back to that moment when my young girl’s mind was full of love, all awhirl about the future and how hearing that song settled my heart and soul. “Yes, sweetie… it went like this…”
Note from Dennis:
It was my daughter Cassidy who came to me one December weekend morning—I think with Alpha and Beta in tow—and asked, “Dad, have you heard this song?” I put down my writing pad and took her phone, turning it sideways to play the video. When the song video ended, I handed it back to her, “That’s beautiful!”
Now, my girl Cassidy has possibly the hugest, most loving, heart of anyone I know (which she gets from her mother). I think her greatest reward is when she does something for others that touches them—makes them smile, or happy—in some way. The song she had just introduced me to, did. I went to Amazon Music and bought it, adding it to our library. Then with the song playing softly on the little Jambox Bluetooth speaker beside me, I set aside what I had been working on and wrote the story you just read, for Cassidy… and you, too. Following is the music video ‘Mary, Did You Know?’ by Pentatonix—that prompted me to write it. If you’ve not heard it, you might like—or even love—it too.
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If you liked this story, check out WHITE BIRD another–much longer–holiday season story.