by Jim Bates
hot apple cider
Jerry and his wife Jane have been next door neighbors of Lauren and I and for many years. He and I talk regularly, usually while one or the other of us is working in the yard or doing something else outside. He's a nice guy, maybe a little conservative for my tastes, but he's kind and decent and a good neighbor. Over the years I've heard many stories about his strong willed mother. So when he told me about Helen and how she first got her job at Macy's, and then how she'd been injured and unexpectedly laid off before finally becoming a volunteer Greeter at Macy's, it prompted Lauren and I to do something we hadn't done in a few years - we decided to take a drive into downtown Minneapolis to see the holiday lights and displays. Maybe we'd even run into Jerry's interesting sounding mother.
We went on a Thursday afternoon, the second week of December, driving on I-394 for half hour into downtown and then parking our car in the lot A ramp. We walked five blocks across the city with the expressed purpose of going to Macy's to view the recently opened 'Old Thyme' Christmas exhibit on the eighth floor, but as we came through the Seventh Street revolving doors we were lucky enough to see Helen. We'd never met her before but Jerry had described her well; there was no doubt the friendly, white haired lady who welcomed us with a "Merry Christmas! Thank you for visiting our store like we were long lost friends, was her. We introduced ourselves as friends of Jerry and she was charming and gracious and couldn't have been nicer.
We only chatted for a moment or two before more people crowded in so we left and made our way through the crowded aisles to the escalator and then up to the Christmas exhibit on the 8th floor. That's' where the Old Thyme Christmas theme was really put on display for all to see. A bustling, cobbled stone street scene had been created, and we walked along wide-eyed, admiring the quaint shops on both sides with workers inside illuminated by the glow of warm yellow lights. There were mounds of cotton snow all around, and the scene was populated with men and women out and about, carrying packages, dressed for winter in old time wool jackets and coats with colorful scarves and hats. There were children playing - ice skating and pulling sleds, and dogs running and cats hiding behind corners, and trees everywhere decorated with pretty ribbons and bows and ornaments and lights that twinkled. And, of course, softly playing in the background were the melodic strains of traditional Christmas music.
After Lauren and I viewed the exhibit we wandered around on various floors, window shopping and looking at other festive displays. We even saw a jewelry counter decked out with sprigs of evergreens adorned with tiny silver and golden ornaments and red bows. In a word, the effect of the entire store was enchanting.
When we were finished with our browsing we made it a point of making our way through the crowds back to where we'd entered, just to say good-bye to Helen, but we didn't get the chance. She was talking to a young Somali man with "Asid" on his name tag. They were carrying on an animated conversation and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and we didn't want to interrupt them. I noted she was wearing a red carnation on the lapel of her jacket, a gift, no doubt, from one of the many friends of his mother Jerry had told me about.
Lauren and I left then, feeling good and infused with a little more Christmas spirit than we'd had before we entered the store. It was nice to see the older lady and the young black man together. With all the crap on the news lately about people not getting along, and everyone freaking out over the color of someone's skin or their choice of religion, it was good to see those two together and how comfortable they were with each other. It was really good.
We walked through the crowded downtown sidewalks toward our car. The sun had set and every building had displays of Christmas lights on, filling the night with an festive glow. If it were to start snowing, it would have made the scene perfect. And then it did. We smiled at each other and Lauren took hold of my arm. Was it the time of the year? The seasonal festivities? Or could it happen anytime or anyplace? We didn't know, but for one brief moment the world felt right and in sync with itself, and we walked along smiling and nodding greetings to complete strangers. Sound weird? Maybe, but it felt like it was the right thing to do and that was good enough for us.
We took our time walking to our car, talking about what we'd seen at Macy's and about Jerry's mom, enjoying each other's company and the fresh snow drifting down and the pretty, colorful lights of the city - even the cold bite of winter in the air. And, most especially, the growing feeling that maybe Helen was on to something. Maybe it really was all about opening your heart to others and putting differences aside. Maybe it was about seeing those who were not the same as we were as people first and foremost, and not getting hung up on the color of their skin or where they worshiped. Maybe it was all about being humane and treating people with decency and respect, like Helen was doing; and like her friends were doing. And if that was the case, we were more than happy to join her. Which gave me the inkling of an idea.
Make no mistake, the city was loud. There were buses blasting by and cars speeding, kicking up slushy snow, and horns honking almost non-stop. In a way, it was kind of a madhouse. But, balancing the mayhem, there were also carolers on the street corners and bell ringers for the Salvation Army, and people like us, out having a good time, enjoying the soul of the city and finding joy in the season.
Foremost in my thoughts was Helen. In my mind I saw her back at Macy's talking to Asid and how comfortable they were with each other and how happy they seemed. It was little things like what she was doing that were making the world a better place, and she was doing it for no other reason than it was the type of person she was. And so was Asid, as well as all of the other friends Jerry had told us about: Clare, Simon, Leon and Rico. They were open and generous with each other. Skin color and religion didn't matter. The type of person you were was what counted the most. I wanted to be part of that world.
My idea suddenly crystallized. I stopped dead on the sidewalk and told Lauren about it and she agreed. We turned around and headed with a quick step back to Macy's. Thankfully, Helen thankfully was still there, in high spirits and just as cheerful as before.
I walked up to her when there was a break in the crowd and re-introduced myself and Lauren as friends of her son. She immediately remembered who we were. We chatted for just a minute before I asked her the question we'd come back to ask.
"Lauren and I were wondering if we could take you to dinner this evening when you're done working," I said to her. She didn't bat an eye, and nodded enthusiastically as I was talking, but before she could agree out loud, I added, "And maybe bring some of your friends from work along, too."
And she did. And that's how we got to meet Asid, Simon and Rico (Clare and Leon couldn't get away). We had a nice meal together, good conversation and, before we parted, made planes to get together for following Thursday. Hopefully, it was the beginning of something permanent for all of us.
And that may have been the end of the story except for one final thing. The next day I was out shoveling the five inches of snow that had accumulated since it had begun falling while Lauren and I were downtown. It had continued during our dinner with Helen and her friends as well as during our slow drive home and then long into the night.
I had worked my way out to the where the driveway met the street and was clearing what seemed like ten tons of the stuff left behind when the city plow had gone past when Jerry drove up, slid to a stop and beeped. He rolled down his window and greeted me with, "So when are you going to break down and join the twenty-first century?" I was nearly too tired to laugh, but I did anyway. This was our long running joke about my insistence on shoveling my driveway and sidewalk by hand. Jerry, on the other hand, had used his powerful snow blower earlier, finished quickly, and then had run out to open the his hardware store before stopping home to drop off a gallon of milk for Jane he'd bought on the way. I was happy for the break since I'd been out for almost an hour and a half. The snow had been wet and heavy, our driveway was long, my arms were sore, and I was beat.
I laughingly told him, "Never!" Even though I'd been silently wishing for one for the last half hour, picturing myself jauntily prancing up and down my driveway gripping a big, red snow blowing machine with both hands, merrily flinging snow fifty feet into the air.
We chatted a while, being neighborly, before he turned serious.
"So how'd your evening downtown go?" he asked.
"Good," I told him, "Really good." I took my hat off and wiped the sweat from my forehead. "The holiday displays were great. Really pretty." But I knew that's not what he was really asking about. "The best part, though, was that we saw your mom and even met some of her friends."
"Really? How'd that go?" He had a look between wanting to know and driving straight home without hearing my answer.
Well, don't ask if you don't want to know and he asked, so I went ahead and told him about our evening, specifically about how happy his mother seemed and how nice her new friends were. "There's a guy from Somali named Asid and he and Lauren talked cooking. We came away with the recipe for a dish called Qado that sounded delicious. We talked with Simon about the conflict in the Middle East. He used to live in Lebanon but he's been in the States for fifteen years. He's a Christian and had a pretty unique perspective about the different factions of Muslims and all the fighting going on between them. And her friend, Rico, gave me a hint on how to get rid of those Japanese Beetles that were feasting on my Morning Glories last summer. He said all I needed to do was brush them off the flowers into bucket of a little dishwater soap and water."
When I was finished with my re-cap of our dinner, Jerry was silent for a minute, looking straight ahead through the windshield, doing some heavy duty thinking, I figured. I told him, "Your mom said she wished you'd come down there. She'd like you to see where she works and meet some of the people she works with." I paused. He was quiet, thinking hard, I'm sure weighing the pros and cons, so I added, "They're good folks, Jer. You'd like them."
Finally he turned to me. I always felt Jerry had a kind nature and I knew he cared a lot about his mother."I'm glad you saw her down there. I've been thinking about maybe going down there for a while now. My mom can be a force of nature, that's for sure."
"I don't really think you have anything to lose. When was the last time you and Jane were in downtown, anyway?"
"A long time ago. Thirty years at least."
I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but I felt a little nudge wouldn't hurt. "The eighth floor Christmas show is done up old fashioned and is kind of fun. Jane would like it," I said, just to push him a bit more.
He looked past me to his home, thinking some more. Then he said, simply, "Well, what the hell. Why not?" I realized, then, he must have been ready, all he needed was a reason to convince himself. It was really that simple.
We chatted a bit more, and I told him about parking in Lot A. Then I waved good-bye as he drove down the street to his driveway and turned in. I may have been mistaken, but I could have sworn there was a look of relief on his face. Like he'd told me many times before, he and his mother had always gotten along well. He must have come to the conclusion that it was time to move on and accept this new phase of her life. Besides, like I'd told him, her friends really were good folks. It wasn't going to hurt at all to get to know them.
I finished my shoveling and walked up my driveway to the back door. I was thinking about Jerry and Helen. It was good he was going to make an effort to accept what his mother was doing and the new friends she was making. I know it sounds like a little thing and it may have been a long time coming and, yeah, I know change is hard, but you had to start somewhere. And that's what he was going to do. You couldn't ask for anything more than that. And, who knows, when all is said and done and for everyone concerned, next year might turn out to be a pretty good year.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit 8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com