Ghosts of a Christmas Past

CLARKESVILLE, GA – We are on the way to somewhere larger when we reach the outskirts of this sleepy little southern town, my wife and I.  We are city folk with big plans tonight and a schedule to keep.

The December sun has set just half an hour ago, and already it is dark and cold.  Christmas lights occasionally dot the landscape, outlining a farmhouse, giving a twinkling whimsy to the front porch of a trailer, but they are the only signs of life of the 1200 residents who call this tiny county seat their home.  There is no other movement, no traffic, no sound.

We round a corner and suddenly everything changes.  Downtown Clarkesville appears out of the darkness, a glowing wonderland!  Like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, Christmas lights are everywhere: wrapped around every tree branch, outlining windows, climbing lamp posts.  And the people!  Families hold hands as they walk along the sidewalks.  A friendly police officer directs traffic, helping kids cross the street.  There’s music too; over the sound of the car’s heater, we hear in the distance brass notes of Christmas carols playing on the square.  “Oh come,” they beckon us.  “Come ye … oh co-me ye …”

Everything looks delightfully old-fashioned and inviting.  It is as if the entire town and its residents have been transported 60 years out of the past.  The sights evoke a sweetness, an innocence, a sense of community from a time long ago.  We cannot resit.  We find a place to leave the car, and we step out into the cold.

Holding hands, we walk towards the center of town.  The brass band’s carols echo around the square, rising above the laughter of children and the occasional scolding of parents.  A line stretches past the town’s War Memorial and makes its way to a gazebo.  Inside, talking with children, sits old Chris Kringle himself.   Outside, there is hot chocolate and a warm campfire waiting.

We are silent; we are in awe of what we see.  It is foreign to us, this place, these people, and yet it is so very strangely familiar.  We speak little, and we watch carefully.

A man carries his little girl on his back, a stick in hand.  He sets her down near the campfire, and produces a marshmallow out of his pocket.  He skewers it on the stick and kneels beside her, one knee raised for her to sit upon as he holds her.

“You want to toast the marshmallow,” he asks?

Of course she does.  Her pigtails and her polka-dot coat reek of cuteness.

The wind blows smoke into her face, and just like that, she is done.  “It’s smoky,” she declares as she hands him the stick.  The attention span of the four-year-old has reached its limit, but Dad continues.

“It’s not done yet,” he encourages her, but there is no arguing with a woman, certainly not with one who is four.  “Let’s finish toasting it.”  I recognize this conversation already and know how it will end.

“Uh uh.”  Her attention lost, she looks back towards Santa.

He continues half-heartedly to try to raise her interest, but he can’t win.  She tries to climb on his back for another ride.  In short order, he declares the marshmallow — still bright white — to be done.  He offers her some, and she takes the entire thing.  He raises her on his back and turns toward the crowd.

“Okay, let’s go find Mama,” he says.

I smile at the moment, filled with a strong sense I’d lived it all before.

We walk on.

As we walk and watch, the band’s carols seem to flow through me, and I begin to lightly sing along.  Silent night.

A mother bends over to look her boy in the eye.

“Yes, we are going to see Santa Claus,” she says sternly, a frustrated edge to her voice.  It is apparently not the first time she has answered the question tonight.  Without a touch of irony, she says “Billy, you have GOT to learn to be patient.”

This time it is my wife who smiles knowingly.

We walk on.  “Peace on earth, and mercy mi-ld,” I sing under my breath.  We keep to ourselves, watching the events around us.

Another little girl, this one cannot yet be three, is bundled up tightly in a puffy pink coat, wearing oversized gloves and a pastel stocking cap.  Standing behind her is her father, who is talking to someone else.  She steps forward, and instantly loses her balance.  Her father, vigilantly attentive, bends quickly and grabs her waist with one hand to stop her fall.  She teeters slightly and, top-heavy, continues to fall forward in slow motion.  Dad grabs her with his other hand, but not before her knees and her hands touch the pavement.

For her, it is a tragic injury.  She cries.

He scoops her up and cuddles her immediately, making a big show of taking off her glove and blowing on her hand.  There is no injury, not a scratch.  She is reassured, and ready for her next adventure.  The tears cease.

“Are you okay now,” he asks?

“Down,” she says!  “Downy down!”

The band plays Jingle Bells, and I whistle along.  I’m taken by the thought that we haven’t spoken with anyone, that we are almost in a dream world.  Or a memory.

“Mom, Johnny and I are gonna go find Wayne,” a boy shouts!

“Okay, but be back here in 10 minutes,” his mother calls after him.  “We have to eat dinner.”

“Okay,” he answers, his voice trailing off already as the boys run out of sight.

We come to the corner, and wait to cross the street.  For the first time, I interact with a local.

“You staying warm tonight” I ask the police officer directing traffic?

“Huh?”  It’s almost as if he did’t even see me at first.  “Yeah, I’m tryin’ to,” he says.  “Y’all havin’ a good time?”

“We are,” we smile.  Yes, we are.

“Do you have kids,” I ask him?

He leads us halfway across the road.  “Yeah, I do.  Three of ‘em.  But they’re older, they ain’t out here.”

“That’s too bad,” I remark, thinking how much I’d like to share this night with our own children.

“Yeah,” he says.  “They’d think it was lame.  They ain’t interested.”

I think about that for a while.

This town isn’t anything from the past at all.  Kids grow up.  Families change.  Teenagers become independent.  Young adults marry and have kids and raise families of their own.  That’s just the way it has always worked.

But me, I realize I’m from the future.  I see in these moments between parents and children the past, my past, and my wife with me, hers.  We are not seeing strangers; we are watching ourselves and our children and the way we were, a way we didn’t fully appreciate when we were in these same moments so many years ago.

What a terrible loss, to see these moments and know that they are gone.  What tremendous joy to be able to visit with them again, even for a little while!

I see what these people cannot now see, but will, sometime in their own futures.  I know how their lives will change, how these silly little moments will be treasured gold at some not-so-distant point ahead.  I know how they’ll long for a crying child to seek their comfort someday, how they’ll think back to a time that stresses played on their patience and how it affected their response, how they’ll recall with a tear in their eye a tender moment that has passed. I come from a future of pride in the accomplishments of these children, and a sense of loss in their growing up.

I want to reach out to them, to tell what they’re missing, to tell them to cherish every moment, before it’s too late.  Just now I see the pig-tailed polka-dot marshmallow toaster, and her daddy.  I want to tell them that they’ve made my day, just by watching them together, that they’ve brought back memories of a time long past for me, the man from their future, but I cannot.  Something catches her attention, and off she goes.  Her daddy quickly follows.  “Wait, come back!  Don’t run!”

It is time to go.  My wife and I walk to the car in silence.  We stop behind it, and embrace.  Without a word, we hold one another and sob, thankful for the memories and sad for the losses of time.

Saturday night in Clarkesville, we had a good Christmas, my wife and me, with our kids.