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Twenty-Five Days of December -- Day Eighteen


AC Benus

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The intrepid few of you brave enough to show you are follow these postings may not have encountered this story before. I humbly present it now as a worthy addition to any holiday reading list.

 

It was one of those laugh or cry situations. Here she was, trapped in a strange downtown on Christmas Eve, just letting the clock tick towards an unpleasant task on the twenty-sixth.

It seemed no comfort at all that Washington Avenue was so beautiful. Colorless lights were everywhere: draped in the leafless trees, framing fancy boutique windows, and zipping across the entire thoroughfare. This last feature was about three or four stories overhead, crossing from the top of lampposts, and creating a ceiling of light-points stretching a mile or more down the length of the wide boulevard.

Angela's head ached slightly and she thought this had turned out to be the wrong decade to quit smoking. However, she glanced to her side and saw her reason 'why' gliding along and drinking in the sights.

"Did you like the restaurant we ate at, honey?"

"Yes, Mommy."

The man at the desk of their Doubletree Mayfair Hotel recommended a kid-friendly place a few blocks west. They had had a pleasant dinner.

"Did you like the toasted ravioli?"

The girl shrugged. "The pizza was good!"

And it was. Angela had liked the food: breaded and pan-toasted ravioli served with marinara sauce and a generous grating of Pecorino Romano, plus paper-thin pizza with a light sauce and provolone and fontina cheese, which was cut into squares, not slices. The server had said both were Saint Louis originals.

Maybe it was a slight MSG headache she had now – having recently heard on the radio that your average Italian dinner has fives times more naturally occurring monosodium glutamate than a Chinese one – or maybe with her stomach upset and yet full she craved a cigarette to lull her nerves into some sense of normalcy.

Now they were walking around. It was still fairly early, just getting fully dark, and the December chill was more than bearable with their hats, coats and gloves. In the hotel room, there would be nothing to do. TV for the girl, a bit of work for mom on the laptop and maybe a phone call or two back home, so why not see what downtown had to offer.

On their left they passed a ladies' boutique. Rich and red inside, the display windows on either side of the glass door featured dress-form mannequins wearing shift dresses in silky fabrics. In her mind she could see a few happy women opening this store's boxes from under the tree, and a smiling and sly man getting kissed for his efforts. All that seemed an eon ago for Angela personally. It made her sad, and she doubted there would be any more happy Christmas memories along those lines in her future. Things had certainly changed.

They came to a section of block where restaurants were crowded and overflowing. Tables arranged on the sidewalk were peopled with couples eating by candle and holiday lights. They were quiet and intimate despite being in public. Angela touched her daughter's shoulders from behind and guided them single file past the tables on one side and folks lined up on the other waiting to get in.

"Stay close, Hanna. We don’t want to get in anyone's way."

Internally she sighed. 'In the way,' that's exactly how she felt.

They passed a particularly quiet couple on their right. Standing tall, the young man held his girlfriend to his chest, and both looked so content it almost made Angela stop in her tracks. She felt like crying. Bitter angry tears, they would be unstoppable, so she knew instantly they were forbidden. And yet, she too had once been young and in love. This girl's face resting so placidly on her young man's chest could have been hers less than a decade ago, and Daniel could have been the one she clung to for dear life.

Her mind drifted back to Christmas 1998.

 

"Dan, cut it out! Oh my God, you'll drive me insane, I swear."

The guy just smirked, folded his sweater-clad arms and leaned back on the restaurant chair. He had just told her how cute she looked, "For a change."

This was their third date, so they had moved on to the comfortable phase. But, in Angela's mind, she knew what 'third date' meant in most guys' dirty minds. So, she took a moment and examined Daniel's face right now. It was…it was…peaceful.

"I still can't believe," she sputtered, "I let my coworker set me up on a blind date."

"Says the girl who's been out with me twice after that."

"Yeah. I guess there's no accounting for taste."

"OUCH! Am I really such a troll doll?"

"Well, a run through with a comb—"

"Stop it, Angela." He chuckled. "I know I'm all that."

When she laughed – as tacit agreement – he leaned forward. Elbows spread on the wide tablecloth he eyed her with tenderness. "Well?"

There was no kidding around in his question. He wanted her to kiss him; it was crystal clear. Should she pretend he was overstepping; pretend she was clueless; pretend it was his job to kiss her…?

Her hand went out to his cheek, her legs lifted her from her seat slightly and their lips met. Zap! She felt it, a spark like none other.

Settling back again, a confirmation lived on his face as well. The handsome devil, six-foot-two, with a marine shave on his blond head, thought himself about the luckiest man in the world, if she read his expression right.

When their food arrived, Angela ate debating all the pros and cons of letting herself fall for him. He'd graduated high school in '95 – same as her – and then did a tour in the Marine Corps. He had some tales about being on-board ship in the Adriatic Sea while the Coalition Forces mopped up the Kosovo War.

Out of the Corps, he utilized the G.I. Bill to enter college here in Roanoke, Virginia, her hometown.

"You should meet my mom," Daniel suddenly said.

"I should?" Maybe she was reading too much into the statement.

"Yes. I think you two have a lot in common. I bet you'd wind up being best buds."

"And she lives in Saint Louis?"

"Yeah. Out in the suburbs. I can arrange a phone call, if you'd like."

"Woah-a, big fella! Don’t you think it's a little early?"

He glanced up from his twirling fork of pasta; his blue eyes sparkled at her. "Um, no. Not really." And then he smiled in a way to melt Angela's heart.

The blinking Christmas lights of the wreath on the wall behind him seemed to conspire with her feelings that Daniel was indeed 'the one.'

"We'll see," is all she said before returning to her stuffed manicotti.

 

Angela was tired of the insomnia. She'd had bad bouts of it for the week since it came – the announcement – followed by the phone call from Alice, Daniel's mom.

The cold bite of the air along Washington Avenue reasserted itself as Hanna and she continued to walk and window-shop. Last minute customers trundled packages in car trunks, while a few merry door chimes sounded as folks entered and left stores. Wishes for a 'Merry Christmas' seemed to trail them in their wake like steam leaking from a manhole cover.

"Mommy, you okay?"

Oh. Her daughter was distracted by Angela's distraction. "Yes, honey. I'm doing all right. How about you?"

"I'm sad, Mommy."

Yes, there was the directness of a six-year-old mind. It's unafraid to be joyful as well as morose; it all depends on what is truly being felt and experienced in real time. No sugarcoating, no denying, no brave-face for others. It is what it is.

"I know, sweetheart. Sometimes what we have to go through in life is unfair. I wish I could take your pain for you, but I can't."

"I know, Mommy."

Angela inhaled sharply. A rising glance showed her the lights strung across the street again, and it hurt. It all seemed like false gaiety to her. It perhaps all seemed truly pointless.

Cessation of motion drew her attention down. Hanna had pulled up in front of a bridal shop. In the large display window, a spotlight bathed a gorgeous gown. It was veiled in white, and in the traditional shape of a wedding dress, but the flared shirt was done entirely in red flowers: roses, carnations, Gerbera Daisies, ranunculus and marigold. A bouquet of compact and tiny poinsettia hovered at waist level via fishing lines from the ceiling. It was breathtaking, and made Angela think of her own 'special day.'

 

Alice squealed with delight. "Oh, my dear! That one is perfect; it's simply divine."

Angela wondered again how exactly her fiancé's mother wrangled this trip to the bridal salon in Roanoke. Perhaps she half-suspected a Virginia wedding was going to be mostly free of her future mother-in-law's involvement, but here Alice was.

"I do like it, Mrs. Sullivan." She gave a twisting curve to her body and glanced at the train in the three-sectioned mirror. "You don’t think it's too flashy?"

The older woman rose to her feet and came over. Her tone lowered. "No, Angela. You must have the dress you like the best. This is your special day, and Daniel will be wowed when you come down the aisle to marry him."

Angela thought she agreed. She also thought she should play it a bit cool. After all, she'd only met Alice last night, at a hotel dinner her fiancé had arranged. Angela knew well enough from her friends that a mother-in-law relationship could be heaven or hell; it all seemed to be a crapshoot. And she didn't want to place her bets prematurely.

Two hours later, the frilly dress placed on the 'SOLD' rack to await alteration, Angela and Alice sat down to coffee. The shop was a busy one downtown, and the future daughter-in-law to be thought the light buzz of activity might help them get to know one another with lessened pressure.

"So, my dear…." Alice clinked her demitasse spoon as it swirled in a tornado of melting sugar. "Daniel tells me you work at one of the big banks."

"Yes. Yes, I do."

"Lots of major banks headquartered in Saint Louis, you know."

Yeah. Angela was not falling for that one. "You don't say."

"Oh, yes. Brokerage houses too, like A.G. Edwards and Edward D. Jones – and Walker Securities."

"An impressive list, Mrs. Sullivan."

"Oh, please! You must call me Alice."

"All right, Alice. And hey, thank you for coming dress shopping with me today."

"Well, when I heard that your mother…."

"It's all right, Alice. My mom died when I was seven, so I don’t really have a strong memory of her."

That seemed to upset the Midwestern matron, as the woman picked up cup and saucer, sipped and looked around the establishment.

"Alice?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"I love your son. You did a fantastic job in raising a caring and considerate man. I thought someone should acknowledge and thank you for that."

A tear appeared. "And I believe he's getting a wonderful young woman in you, Angela. A wonderful, compassionate and giving young lady."

                  

As she reached down and took Hanna's hand to keep them moving, Angela wondered if she had been compassionate enough with Daniel. There was a tremendous hurdle of guilt to surmount as far as that was concerned, and right now, she did not have an answer.

They strolled on, but when they got to the intersection of Washington and Seventh, noise and lights made them turn and head south.

About two blocks down, a small crowd with some children was gathered before more brightly lit show windows. The building was a huge white tower, and it looked like it covered the entire city block.

When they crossed the street, Angela saw the place was an elegant department store she'd never heard of – Famous-Barr. There were bronze signs attached to the piers at the corner, and acres of glass opened to both sides of the walkway; it was a classic corner window.

Hanna immediately went up and placed mittened hands on the glass. Inside, large-scale toy trains rumbled through snowy mountains and villages. There must have been five or six levels, with each snaking route taking passenger trains, freight loads, and even streetcars along different paths. [1]

It was charming, and Hanna was mesmerized. Angela could tell Christmas memories were being generated in Hanna's six-year old head, but it gutted Angela to know this was not a happy trip. The mother knew the girl would always remember this with mixed emotions.

Perhaps if Angela had known back in 1998 what would happen, perhaps…she would not have done 'it' – perhaps if they had never been married….

 

"See, Hanna? See what your nana sent you?"

Angela watched her husband hunch his shoulders and cradle their seven-month-old in his protective arms. He held the baby up to their lit Christmas tree, close to a Hallmark Keepsake ornament.

"You see the storkie, Hanna? And look! Who's that girl in the picture…? Why, it's you. It's my own precious little daughter."

His lips bent down and kissed the stocking cap-protected little forehead.

The plastic bauble did not really suit her theme for Christmas this year, which was based on raffia and dried things like lemon slices and bundles of cinnamon sticks, but mother-in-laws, what ya gonna do?

The stork in question stood on one leg and held a baby-blue bundle in its beak. Most of it was carved away and fitted with a clear plastic cover. Alice had inserted one of the early pictures of Hanna that Angela had emailed her, and the text around the baby's nappytime face said: "Christmas 2000 – Hanna's First"

He came over, smiling, to sit on the sofa next to Angela. "And, Mama, what do you think of Nana's ornament?"

Angela grinned. "I think Hanna's my precious Millennial baby, and any old factory made 'keepsake' can become special if it's given by one who is special too."

"Ohh! Mommy needs more happy juice. Quick, Hanna! Let's go crack open some pinot grigio for your grumpy-puss Ma-ma."

He laughed, and so did Angela. The three of them then slumped down on the sofa cushions to admire their tree.

Hanna's first Christmas was one filled with love and peace. In her heart, the girl's mother wished such stable and prosperous times would last forever.

 

They continued to walk along the show windows. It was completely dark now, and the contents behind glass sparkled. Up ahead was a lit marquee in the center of the block with the store's name on it. It extended over the entire depth of the sidewalk and bathed the public way in warm light.

The window they were passing showed a model kitchen. Sleek, white and spotless, an animated family prepped a holiday meal. Hanna looked in on the scene with rapt interest. The family dog swept the corner with his fluffy tail.

Watching the girl, it was clear to Angela she could never have deprived Dan of the joy of his daughter, despite how it all came out, and she would not trade Hanna for all the peace of mind in the universe.

In a few more minutes they were passing under the glow of the marquee and peering into the center of the department store. A red sign on the sidewalk read: "Famous will be Open until 8pm on Christmas Eve!"

Angela stopped. Why not? "Let’s go in."

A few people exited, and then the mother held the glass door open for her child.

Inside, the first impression was one of volume. The ceiling was high and pristine. Only the glowing circles of downlights interrupted its flawless plane a story and a half above their heads.

The main aisles were paved in pink marble, and fashion counters offered everything from antique jewelry to suede gloves. Perfume was in the air, and twinkling white wreaths hung near the top of every mirrored column.

There were a few people, all happily trudging large white shopping bags, emblazoned with a dark red ribbon and the Famous-Barr logo on them.

The fashionable sales clerks seemed to be mostly busy with reckoning the day's receipts; they were approaching closing time after all.

The pair of visitors passed a round table piled high with tins and boxes of treats: store-made brandy snaps, chocolate-dipped glazed apricots, and Bourbon-Cherry Fruitcake in bright cellophane wrappings.

Angela had not had fruitcake in years. A thought passed through her head questioning if there really ever was a reason to stop celebrating the season. The notion made her feel guilty.

As they neared the center of the vast department store's First Floor, they came to a sign. "Santaland 9th Floor – Come See for Yourself!"

The girl looked expectant. Mom took her hand and they followed the arrow to the elevators.

The nearly overwhelming desire to cry came to Angela again. She truly tried, tried not to think about it, but the promise of Christmas 2000 had been robbed from them in less than twelve months. Bile almost rose in her throat to consider just how much damage had been done on that day in September.

 

The television had been on since it happened in the morning; no one knew where the president was or what was going on.

A hunker-down mentality gripped the country, and Dan should be home from work any minute.

Dinner was about the last thing on Angela's mind, but she knew she had to have something for her husband, and of course, there was one-year-old Hanna to think about.

Every time she closed her eyes, the images were there: the airliner accelerating and dipping one wing down as it sliced through the skin of the World Trade Center; the smoldering trench where the plane crashed into the wall of the Pentagon; the third plane dipping and slamming into the second tower. It was as if none of it could have possibly happened, and yet opening the eyes only confirmed the worst.

The garage door sounded.

She rushed out just as Daniel parked and opened his car door.

They hugged, and he said softly: "We have to talk."

After dinner, with Hanna cradled asleep in her arms, he had said it.

"I have to go back in, Angela. Our country needs me."

"Dan, please sleep on it."

"Too late."

"Daniel…." Her voice quaked with fear.

"I stopped by the recruitment office this afternoon. I'll be called up in about a week."

Angela cried, and she could not stop.

Daniel had to take the baby, as her mother's distress woke her to her own tears.

As he stood and cooed her, Angela rose from the couch angry. "You could not wait? You could not think of me and Hanna before you decide to do something like this!?"

"I know you're upset, but look at the pictures, Angela. The world is not the same. I doubt it will ever be back to 'normal.' I can't sit by and let it all happen."

"Just…just tell me one thing."

"What?"

"Just tell your daughter and me you'll be all right."

He rocked Hanna and trained his glance on his wife. He said nothing.

Angela fled to their room, locked the door and flopped on the bed.

Her sobs were inconsolable. She had a feeling Daniel would never be the same again either.

 

They were in the elevator as it smoothly lifted them to the Ninth Floor. Angela glanced at her watch. It seemed time was the slowest thing in the universe right now; how much longer until the purpose of their trip to Saint Louis would be over and she could think about something other than her misery?

As for now, it was about twenty minutes before the store closed. Closed on a quiet Christmas Eve. It seemed there should have been more people out and about, but perhaps around here folks wanted to be home, nestled with love-ones as soon as possible on this special night.

She found her mind wandering, feeling so uneasy and sad, not sure she'd be able to keep it together for Hanna on the twenty-sixth.

Angela also found herself chuckling, wishing the girl's grandmother was with them now. It struck her as an ironic thought, based on the preconceived notion of what 'mother-in-laws' are supposed to be like, but Alice was a decent person, and perhaps the one and only other woman who could know what Angela has been through, and how she felt now.

She relied on her in June 2003, and that had been about the worst.

 

After the sixth ring, Alice picked up. "Hello?"

"It's me."

There was a beat of silence.

"Me, Angela."

"Oh, dear. Sweetheart, have you been crying?"

"Yes. It seems all I do nowadays."

"I'm sorry, dear. Um…."

"Alice, I feel you're the only one I can talk to."

"Of course you can talk to me, dear."

"It's Daniel. He's changed."

"Oh."

"He's been changed – let me put it that way."

"War will do that. My own father went to Korea and he…and he came back different, more quiet and not wanting to talk about what he'd seen or done."

"Oh, Alice. Truth is, I'm at the end of my rope. We bicker all the time. He's packing now and getting ready for his second deployment to forward operations."

"Are you scared, dear?"

"Oh, Alice. I'm so scared me and Hanna don’t know him anymore. He's so withdrawn, so frightening sometimes. Hanna's going to be four soon, and starting preschool…I"

"Do you feel safe around him, Angela?"

"I don't think he'd hurt us, at least not intentionally, but – I don't know. We're supposed to be strong, we're supposed to remember he's making the sacrifice, but so are we. Hanna and me, me and you, we are sacrificing our husbands and sons, our loved ones who are supposed to go – once – get their tour over and done with. But now, they've – we've – been cheated. The Bushies and the other Neo-Cons have changed the rules and keep sending the same service men and women into harm's way, and even if they don’t die or get injured, they are hurt by the betrayal of a promise. The do 'your duty' and we will take care of you promise. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, Angela. They are being used, crumpled up, thrown away."

"What makes it unbearable is I heard not a single member of Congress, over five hundred of them, have a son or daughter serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. You tell me how they are supposed to be the ones who decide who lives or dies? I don’t know what's happened, Alice. I don’t recognize our country anymore."

"I know, dear. A lot of us don’t know what's happened either. It's like that story of the frog boiled in cold water: he's placed in a pot, and is comfortable, and then, the pot is put over a slow heat. Degree by degree, the temperature rises, but he holds out, barely feeling the change, until it's too late to jump out, and he's boiled alive. The system is like that now, and it's greased by fear. The Terror Warning System zooms to red-alert whenever the President needs funding for the wars, or when he's out on the campaign trail."

"Alice…." Angela heard the fear in her own voice. "I can't go on with Daniel. He's the victim, I know, and I love him still – you have to believe me – but, but he and I, we can't be man and wife anymore. Our arguing all the time is not what's best for Hanna."

There was silence again.

"Alice?"

"I heard you, sweetheart. It sounds like that was not a question to me; not an 'I'm thinking about separating,' or an 'I'm thinking about divorce.' You've decided."

"Yes. It will hard on Daniel, I know, but all of this has been very hard on his daughter too."

"I don’t know what to say."

There it was. Disappointment in Alice's voice.

"You don't have to say anything. I just wanted to explain to you as best I could. But yes, you are right. I've decided."

"I see, dear. Does he know?"

"Yes."

"All right. Angela, I'm here for you. But now, if you'll excuse me, I think I should hang up and call my son. We'll talk in a few days."

"All right. Sorry, Alice."

"Goodbye."

"Bye."

 

The elevator doors opened. She took Hanna's hand and together they walked into a magical holiday kingdom.

Angela was expecting nothing like this.

They were guided to the left and followed the sign saying: "To Kris Kringle's Abode."

A wide corridor was tented with birch branches and white twinkle lights. Up ahead, about thirty or forty feet, the exterior windows of the building could be seen. Piped-in forest sounds – birds chirping, chipmunks chattering, insects singing – provided the undertone for lovely holiday music, played only on strings.

Turning to the right here, the path followed a long, long stretch of the window glass. City lights were on one side of this space, while animated displays were on the other.

White deer cavorted with other snow-land creatures. A blue jay with a letter in its beak glided overhead.

"Did you see that, Hanna?"

"Yes."

"Did you see what the envelope said?"

"No."

"It said: 'To Santa Claus, North Pole – Special Delivery."

"Oh. Sweet!"

Angela smiled; she couldn't argue against that.

More tableaux followed. This time, home settings. Mother and child peered through frosty cottage windows to see Victorian children nestled in their beds. More blue jays circled overhead, literally carrying the tots' visions of sugarplums strung on a ribbon wreath between the four of them.

Hanna paused to drink in the scene.

Angela popped over to the neighboring window. In it, Pickwickian men in cut away coats and silk cravats stood in a cozy 19th century parlor. A mantel was bedecked with green garland and had stockings hanging in front of the fire.

The men dipped silver cups into a punch bowl and then cheered one another before tippling. Apparently the drink was a little too heady, for they stumbled back a bit with uproarious laughter.

The scene raised a smile on Angela's face.

In another moment, she glanced down to find her daughter by her side. The six-year-old was not looking at the scene. The broad grin on her face was caused by her mother's enjoyment.

Angela took her hand.

After several more scenes, another turn took them to a somewhat plain corridor. At the end was a black curtain, above which glowed a golden sign. "To Santa's Throne Room" it said.

Lifting the curtain for Hanna, and then going in herself, Angela was stunned.

A beautiful auditorium, about fifty feet square, was edged with more snow scenes and woodland creatures. The walls rose with lights trimming the space's classical pilasters, and headed up to an intricate plaster ceiling. 'They don’t build rooms like this anymore,' Angela thought.

Ho! Ho! Ho! rang out, and Hanna gripped her mother's side.

Aligned with the center on the wall opposite of them, a few steps raised up to a platform. Red banners hung with golden sunbeams, and an immense white throne housed a seated Santa; the most perfect looking one ever in Angela's eyes.

He wore a dark-red and white cap, had a full snowy beard, and was bedecked in a sumptuous costume of more Victorian finery.

Between them and the department store Kringle was a maze of velvet roping, however, Angela and Hanna were the only visitors.

The girl by her side was suddenly shy, acting a bit fearsome of the formidable realness of the Santa before them, but Angela spoke to her soothingly: "Don't you want to see Santa? Don’t you want him to know what a good girl you've been?"

As the girl apparently weighed her options, the man stood and placed gloved hands on his waist. His piercingly blue, mirthful eyes beckoned to them, and then he spoke warmly and with a fine accent Angela assumed was Dutch.

"Kom, kind! Come en sit with me. We will discuss your Kerstmis presents. Kom, kom."

The moment Angela was able to persuade Hanna into motion, the man kicked back his head and let out another jolly Ho! Ho! Ho!

As they walked to the side of the maze, heading straight up to the now-seated man, Angela chuckled for the care and 'authenticity' this store showed.

She scooped up Hanna and placed her on his lap. The man began to speak to her in low and gentle tones, drawing away the young one's uncharacteristic shyness with each word.

Angela stepped to the side, giving them some privacy, and stood near the hand-lettered exit sign.

She had memories of visits like this when she was a girl, but the mall Santas never had elegant digs like this one. The ambiance brought some of those feelings of childhood back to her; they were ones she felt recent times had forced her to say goodbye to.

And goodbyes are never easy.

Sorrow returned to her.

Even though it had to be done, the divorce was hard to get through. By the end of it, about a year ago, Daniel had to go back to Iraq for his third deployment. Their farewell with him had been heartbreaking.

 

Angela had a bad feeling. Besides being upset that her daughter's father was being called up again – having already survived two tours of duty – she was pissed off at the unfairness of fate. He was trapped, just like the country that had sold him and everyone in uniform out, for some vague, 'conservative' notions of projecting force overseas, and raising taxes on the working classes to pay for it.

Daniel, however, was the picture of unsmiling calm. Perhaps it was more resignation than anything else, but he looked both sad and determined.

They sat by the broad glass windows overlooking his commercial flight. In a short time he'd get on a plane bound for the airport closest to the base he needed to report to. The man silently cradled his daughter.

It reminded Angela of that first Christmas, when Hanna was an infant and her father held her to the tree to see her grandmother's ornament.

This Christmas, 2004, that baby-picture decoration would go on the branches again, as it had every year, but Daniel would not be around to see it.

"It's unfair, Dan."

Silence.

"I mean"

"Angela. I don’t have any say about when the Marine Corps calls me up."

"I know, Dan. I just mean, it's so close to Christmas. That's the unfair part, that you won't see it, again."

He sighed, and Angela felt guilty. She was tormenting him, so why couldn't she stop?

The airline attendant clicked on the handset of her intercom. "Attention passengers. We will now begin pre-boarding for flight…."

Daniel got up and helped Hanna to the floor. He shouldered his duffel bag and stood still.

Hanna latched onto his leg.

He crouched down to her. "You be a good girl, Hanna. We'll talk on the phone, I promise. And you listen to what your mother says, okay?"

She nodded.

"I love you, Hanna. Never forget that. Please. Never."

She nodded again.

He stood, and tears flooded Angela's cheeks.

Her man hugged her; silently holding her for a moment as the attendant called for military personnel to board. 'He's so strong for everybody else, but not for himself,' Angela thought as she cried uncontrollably.


As she stood there, reliving this farewell of more than a year ago, an older gentleman offered her a warm smile. The Santaland attendant was a gentleman in his mid-sixties, and very dapper and composed in his Victorian garb. He picked up a booklet from a stack near the exit and went to her; Hanna and Santa continued their conversation in confidential tones.

"Your daughter, I presume?"

"Yes."

"She's lovely. You must be so proud."

His sincere tone brought Angela a little more into the moment. "I am. Hanna is a wonderful girl."

"Here," the man said, handing over a coloring book with bright covers. "This is a small gift for Hanna from the store and our employees. Every child who visits us gets a Santabook to take home and remember their experience. We've always done this."

Angela took the book and scanned the man's kind face. His gentle eyes and gray hair told her he'd seen many Christmases. "Thank you. I'm sure my daughter will enjoy coloring it tomorrow. We'll have some time – " She stopped herself from going on.

"You are welcome, young lady. You know, I have an eight-year-old granddaughter. Mina is a wonderful girl too, and she loves visiting with Santa Claus." He offered his hand. "The name is Jacob Jordan. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

They shook. "Angela Williams. Nice to meet you too."

Angela was intrigued by this man and his in-character authenticity. She could swear his Victorian getup and manners were things he felt very comfortable in wearing and doing. "You do work for the store, right? You're not a private contractor hired by the store for the season?"

"Oh, no, I work for the store."

"For a long time?"

"Yes, young lady, for a very long time."

Angela pondered this but did not press, instead she complimented the store on its holiday finery. "Well, I'm very impressed. We had dinner earlier and were walking around downtown – you see, we're from out of town – and saw the people gathered at your display windows. We decided to come it, and everything is so lovely. This store is a treasure, I'm sure. You've all done amazing things for the holidays."

"Thank you. I and many many other people have worked hard and sacrificed so much to make sure Famous-Barr creates these wonderful holiday experiences for young and old. As a voice for them, I say, thank you from the bottom of our hearts."

"How long have you had Santa Claus here?"

Mr. Jordan chuckled. "Oh, since the beginning. This store – William P. Barr and Company – invented the tradition."

"No?! Really?"

"Oh, yes. One magic Christmas in 1880, the world's first department store Santa came to life. We’ve had one every year since then – one hundred twenty-five of them to be exact – and it's all happened right here on this very spot."

"Amazing."

"Yes, yes it is. We've tried to make the world a little bit better by volunteering our time, helping children's charities – doing our part for the community that supports us and the people who live and work in our region. However, times are changing."

"Oh?"

"See, next year, our biggest rival will buy our parent company, and I'm afraid they will not have a Santaland in 2006."

"Oh…that is sad."

"I agree. But sometimes we must all simply be grateful for the moment. We must be glad that we have hope for the future and one another to lean on in times of crisis."

The man's words were simple, but profound.

Angela's thoughts drifted back to having coffee with her ex-mother-in-law that same afternoon.

 

The suburban house where Dan grew up was spacious, if a little old-fashioned. It smelled of many happy meals.

Sounds of Hanna running and playing with her young cousins drifted to Alice and Angela as they sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee and nibbling on holiday cookies. Neither felt like eating though.

Alice said, "The Veterans' Affairs Officer told me the memorial service will be downtown, at the Soldiers' Memorial."

"Oh."

"It's a…a lovely place. Very peaceful and calm. He said Daniel and four others recently killed from the area will be eulogized"

She stopped, apparently reading Angela's horrified face.

Her ex-mother-in-law sipped coffee and then continued calmly, "Don't worry, dear. You won't be called on to say anything. This is a military honor, so only a few of his commanding officers will laud him, and…his…service."

Damn. 'Am I that transparent?' Angela thought. "Well, I would speak, if called upon."

"I know, dear." The older woman drew in a cleansing breath. "After the ceremony, there will a long line of cars, and we'll travel in the lead to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, where the funeral will be."

"I…."

"What, sweetheart?"

"It's all still such a shock. The call last week from the Pentagon, then yours ten minutes later. Oh, Alice, I know this is real, but it seems like some horrible dream I just can't wake up from."

"Yes. I know. Me too."

More happy sounds came from the front of the house.

"How is Hanna holding up?"

"She's young. 'Daddy being gone' is such a familiar mindset for her already, and yet when I told her 'Daddy won't be coming home this time' she grew so upset."

Alice reached a hand and placed it on Angela's lower arm.

"I mean…." Angela fought back tears. "How do you teach a six-year-old about death?"

"As plainly as you can, which you have done, so please don’t think you haven’t. At her age, 'Daddy can't come home, but he wanted to,' is about the best you can do. When she's older, you can tell her what happened; tell her that her father is a hero, one who died with a Purple Heart and a Medal of Honor."

They seemed like hollow trappings to Angela at the moment.

"That brings me another point to keep in mind, Angela. I want you to accept the flag from his coffin."

"Alice"

"I do want you to accept it. You two may have been divorced, dear, but he never quit loving you. You are and will always be closer to him than me, so please, you must accept the flag. Do it for Hanna."

Angela nodded, but started to cry. Her mother-in-law squeezed her arm.

"I feel miserable."

"So do I, dear."

"But, Alice, I feel guilty. What if I had been a better person; what if I tried harder to keep the marriage together; what if; what if; what if…."

"You must try and stop beating yourself up. At times of crisis like these it's hard to remember the basics, but one is that it takes two to make a marriage work. Half of the issues were out of your control, so why dwell on them, sweetheart? Daniel was changed. There's nothing you could have done to prevent or reverse the course of that. But, I know you loved him still. And I know he loved you and Hanna so much. He told me so on our last phone call, so please, Angela, just remember how he felt about the two of you. That never changed."

She took and squeezed Alice's hand.

Her mother-in-law continued, "We'll get through this – together."

 

Hanna came bounding up to them.

Angela handed her the Santabook. "Here you go, darling. It's a Christmas present from the store."

The girl took it and scanned the pretty cover; it showed Kris Kringles' portrait being colored by a pair of elves at the North Pole.

"Did you have a nice visit with Santa?" Angela asked.

"Yes! I told him all sorts of things, and he listened to me, Mommy."

"I'm glad, dear. And this is Mr. Jordan. He works here, with Santa."

"You are a very lovely girl, Hanna. You remind me of my granddaughter."

Hanna was silent a moment.

"Thank Mr. Jordan, honey. He thinks you're pretty."

"Thank you."

"You are welcome, and I'm glad you had fun here this evening."

She nodded, fumbling with her coloring book.

The Santaland music was interrupted by an announcement: "Attention shoppers, the store will be closing in five minutes. Please make your way to the cashiers with your purchase, or start heading to the exits. As always, thank you for shopping with us this evening."

Jacob Jordan got down on one knee. "You see, Hanna, you are a very special little girl. You will be the final one to sit on Santa's knee. Please always remember that, all right?"

She clung to her mother's side, but nodded.

He rose and stepped back. Beautiful sincerity shone in his voice as he told them, "And, on behalf of all those who work here – past and present – I'd like to wish you both a Merry Christmas from Famous-Barr."

 

˚˚˚˚˚

 

Back on the First Floor, Angela had a renewed outlook. Things were bound to get better, they always do.

"Hanna, let's grab a few things on our way out."

"What things, Mommy?"

"Oh, Hanna, even though it will just be you and me tomorrow, spending Christmas at the hotel, it doesn't mean we can't celebrate a little. We'll pick up some brandy snaps and fruitcake here and indulge in a bit of holiday joy; it's what your father would want, wouldn't he?"

The girl smiled and bobbed her chin.

"Yes," Angela affirmed. "He wants us to be happy, Hanna. Please never forget that, okay?"

"Yes, Mommy. I know. But I will miss him."

She lifted Hanna into her arms. "Me too. I will miss him, but he will always love and look after us."

As she walked them over to the table with the holiday treats, Angela began to heal. She resolved to herself that our kids are our hope for a better future. She was glad she and Dan had made the world a better place with Hanna. And she kissed her daughter with joy.

—AC Benus,

A Better Place: Christmas at Famous-Barr 2005 (2016)

 

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