Been going through my Christmas story archives and pulled this one out for today.
“Well, what’a ya know,” Ben whispered, grinning, seeing his breath form vapors on the Christmas air. “Who would have thought it would be the brick sidewalk?”
He sighed. In one unexpected instant – as his feet had tread the bricks of this dear old sidewalk that had run the length of Main Street all his life – it had happened. He knew for sure the place he’d returned to was still ‘home.’
Just yesterday he’d been dreading coming back – as he had been for a week – from the time the doctors had told him he was almost well enough to make the trip. He knew for sure how much he had changed, and he couldn’t shake the deep, gut-wrenching fear that the whole world had changed as well – including the little town nestled at the foot of the mountains in Montana. He’d grown up here, played high school basketball, and dated the girl from three houses down the street until she’d decided to elope with the captain of the basketball team.
He had to chuckle to himself when he remembered how devastated he’d felt back then. It had been his first serious relationship with a girl, but in hindsight, he realized that he hadn’t really been in love – just fascinated with the boy-girl relationship.
Sometimes when he’d been hunkered down in the trenches, waiting the next command to move out into the threat of enemy fire, he’d started thinking about Allyson, and even though she belonged to someone else now, the memories comforted him. He knew even during those hours that it had nothing to do with Ally or their time together, but it was all about ‘home.’ When he thought of Ally, it took him away from the cold, wet, ugly war he was fighting.
Sometimes he’d remember his mother and could smell again the warm vanilla scent that so often clung to her from her constant baking. He’d conjure up the image of Granddad, sitting with his feet propped in front of the living room fireplace, sweet-scented smoke curling from his pipe. He’d hear again his father’s voice as he read the latest news stories from the paper as the family sat soaking up the security of their home and their quiet life together.
Then, sometimes, when he and his unit were on the move and trekking through secure territory, on their way to the next battlefront, he had remembered walking down that old brick sidewalk – past Old Man Chesterfield’s hardware store, Woolworth’s Five & Dime, the candy and tobacco shop, where he’d bought Ally that huge box of chocolates for the Valentine’s Day they’d celebrated together. There was Mrs. Gallagher’s Boutique next, and then Pansy’s Pancake House. Some days, when his senses were crystal clear, he could nearly taste those light, fluffy concoctions smothered in her special Cherry Cordial Syrup.
When he let his memory take him wherever it willed, he usually ended up thinking about Christmas, and he’d see again the decorations strung the entire length of Main Street, with lights in the windows of every storefront, snowmen standing sentry at almost every corner, and wreaths and holly hanging everywhere. He could almost feel the frost in the air and the festive atmosphere that surrounded shoppers and merchants alike from Thanksgiving to Christmas. And oh those chestnuts! The scent of roasted chestnuts hung over the main business district for two whole weeks before Christmas Day. And often he thought that sweet aroma was his favorite memory of all. Sometimes he swore he could smell those roasted chestnuts even though he was thousands of miles away on foreign soil with no hope of even a warm dinner for that night.
He’d been wishing he could have some of those chestnuts just minutes before the ambush occurred, but then bullets and grenades had killed all thoughts and images of anything but the hell breaking loose in every direction. Those same bullets and grenades had killed twenty of the men in his unit as well. When he’d taken the first hit in his leg and fallen, his best buddy had turned back to help him up. But the bullet that had caught his rescuer in the head had snuffed out his life in seconds, and Ben had taken a second bullet in the chest, blacking out at that point.
Five days later, when he’d regained consciousness in the hospital, he’d found himself hooked to all kinds of tubes and machines. The doctor had been compassionate and kind, assuring him that he was going to make it, but that it would be a month or so before he was fit to leave the hospital. When he’d asked about his unit, the news had been brutal, and he’d found himself so frozen by the grief that he hadn’t even been able to cry.
The day he’d been released and given his extended leave for home, his doctor had been wreathed in smiles. “We’re going to get you back to your family in time for Christmas, Son,” he’d said. And as much as the news brought a spurt of joy to Ben’s heart, it also brought a stab of fear.
He’s made a short journey first to the home of the man who’d been his best friend in combat, the man who’d lost his life trying to save Ben. He’d learned that Rick’s body had been shipped home for burial in the family plot. Ben knew he had to visit that grave and spend some time with Rick’s family before he could get started on the longer journey to his own family. And it was with that family, sitting in Rick’s home, remembering his buddy, that he’d finally been able to let the tears come. With his head on Rick’s mother’s shoulder, and her arms holding him tightly – the way she would never be able to hold her own son – Ben had finally cried out the pain and bitterness and loss.
Eighteen hours later, on the day before Christmas Eve, he boarded the bus that would take him to Montana. He had purposely refrained from letting his family know what bus he was taking. He had to walk out this journey one step at a time – in his own way and in his own timing. He had to find out what kind of world awaited him at the end of this journey, and he had to have the security of facing it on his own terms.
His physical wounds were almost healed, but the wound’s in his soul would be with him forever. And that’s what made him afraid. As long as he didn’t go home, he could always try to tell himself that it was still a place of peace and safety and love and laughter – and that life was still good there. But all the time he sat on the bus, heading to that little town in Montana, he battled with the fear. The questions kept circling through his mind: when he walked down the streets of his old hometown – when he stepped into his mother’s kitchen – when he visited the high school campus – when he sat in the park watching the breeze blow across the lake – when he met with friends in a restaurant –would he find what he’d left behind – or would it all be gone – forced out of existence by the same powers that had changed him forever?
Finally, at the end of the seven hour trip, he stepped off the bus, retrieved his suitcase and stood for a few moments just looking across Main Street at the row of well-remembered businesses – those stores and shops that had filled his dreams and imaginations hours at a time in the rare instances between battles.
Everything glowed with Christmas. It looked the way he would have expected it to look back before he’d had to wade through hatred, filth, and slaughter in another land. But could he relate to this place any longer? Could he ever belong here again? Would it welcome him – would he welcome what he found here now? He slowly walked across Maine and stepped onto the sidewalk that would take him from the north end of town to the south, where his parents lived.
He walked – slowly – hesitantly at first. His eyes caressed the old, worn bricks that stretched out ahead of him the whole two-mile distance of the business district, and he began to realize that each step he took was a familiar experience – the same experience he’d enjoyed for years, day in and day out – those warm brown bricks woven together by expert hands generations ago – just slightly uneven but plenty smooth enough for easy walking.
And every step reassured him. He began to breathe easier now, and as he took a good, deep breath, his nostrils twitched a little. Chestnuts, roasting, in a cart just up the street about two more blocks. He walked with more purpose then, his eyes still caressing the worn, welcoming bricks beneath his feet, stretching out before him invitingly.
Finally, he chuckled out loud. Yep … it was okay. … It was really okay. … He was okay. And this good old brick friend convinced him — more with every step he took — that home was still everything he needed it to be.