“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 that feeling of certainty—that I was making the right decision—came over me.
“Soon the train was outside the city and 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 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 the sense of getting closer to where I was going when the train picked up speed 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 the stories he would tell 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 this Christmas would be very different for me. Full of anxious anticipation, I looked forward to being with Tom, even if it meant with a bunch of people I didn’t know.
“Since then—and maybe it started with this 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 the crossroads for the east-west and north-southbound trains. 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 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 think of the things ahead in my life that I could never know would come to pass but that could be a blessing. It made me think of how the legend of a baby boy, born to follow the path meant for him, had changed billions of lives over a thousands 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 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 him 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 when 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, 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.”
At the stoplight, Tom turned to look at Cassidy. “But, there’s a part of it that’s about gifts, too.” He reached over and held 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?”
I was looking 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 mind. “Yes, sweetie… it went like this…”
This is the music video that prompted me to write this story: