This is one of my stories of Christmas magic, a little interesting moment that really did happen one Christmas night a several years ago.
A few years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also deepening to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon perfectly placed above the uneven horizon line, a mix of pine trees and the reaching bare branches of deciduous trees, these nearly silhouetted against the sky. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene as I drove along, vowing to remember the composition and carry its beauty with me.
As I followed the curves of the road the moon seemed to follow me on my right, a watchful presence as I drove through the deepening twilight. I had just driven my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. The two places were at least 50 miles apart and the journey took quite some time on both highways and back roads. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. At each place I stopped for a while to help them in and to get resettled in their respective spaces and discuss their care with staff. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen, there was very little traffic and the day had been beautiful, clear and sunny though cold and now, alone, I had some time to ponder.
Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.
A small valley opened out on my right, a flood plain along a stream, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on one side of the road then the other, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road while on the other side the hill would fall into a valley, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.
As I passed this little valley I noticed movement among the trees, probably a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, and more by intuition than actual fact it had seemed human to me. We recognize these things without realizing, that ancient part of our brain assembling patterns and instinctive knowledge before our slower logical brain can react, and making out of the pieces something we can recognize.
The fact that it might be a person was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, and while I might wonder if the person was in danger or in need of some sort I would be most likely to allow them their privacy. But something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why, probably that ancient brain reacting again, but I trust it when it does that. And even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there was a possibility I tried to pursue these little ideals that arose, stopping to explore. At that time, with all the complications of my life, I rarely felt I had the time to spend chasing an illusion, but I didn’t question the need to explore this one.
I had passed the valley by that time so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see into it.
That silent pale yellow moon, now nearly white, still shone on my right, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, and shone directly into the little space lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.
But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.
And if, instead of being the author, I was reading this and didn’t know the story, I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie, I remained alone, you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.
As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, typically a sour and sarcastic person but here, almost unrecognizable in her happiness. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.
Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio as I almost wished I was right then.
But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life; some of them, sadly, rarely so. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.
I had been thinking so deeply about them all as I drove in that deepening twilight under the watchful eye of that full moon, remembering where I had memories of them or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and even sometimes I get so lost in these necessary alternate realities that I feel the cold or hot or wind, I have the conversation, I see the light in a person’s eyes. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together, happy to be alive. I will never know which it was, but I would be comforted to know this was how they would all spend eternity.