I spent last weekend at the Ancestral Manse in Forestburg, SD. As the house is directly behind the only year-round storefront in town, I can report that business was about average for a December Friday at Doren’s Bar. I drove into Forestburg in the dark (sunset this time of year occurring shortly after lunch), but was buoyed by a very respectable display of holiday lights. There was just enough snow to make everything white but not enough to get easily stuck. Temps were in the single digits, but tolerable due to the absence of the usually stiff prevailing northwest winds. Skies were clear enough to see the stars. A sliver of moon made it possible to hear but not see a flock of geese coming in remarkably low. I usually refer to Canada geese as “sky carp” for what I consider to be obvious reasons, but for a moment even I could muster up enough romance to think maybe they were coming in low to check out the colorful lights, too.
Like a sockeye salmon, it’s not unusual for me to feel the pull to return to my spawning ground when it gets close to Christmas. We moved to Minnesota when I was about two years old, but we always returned to my grandparents’ farms for Christmas. And I mean always. For 26 of my first 27 years we made the 300+ mile trip to do Christmas with both sides of the family. In fact the first 21 were in a row, stopped only in 1983 by a monster blizzard which left 10 foot snow drifts on the highways between Rochester, MN (where I worked) and Plainview (where I lived).
Each of those visits had both traditional ritual (oyster stew, the annual photo of my Grandma Linda, my mother and my bothers and me washing and drying dishes before opening presents) and unique memories (the hand-made Batman and Robin costumes sewn by Grandma for brother Bruce and me. I was Batman). However, there was one year that stands out for its unpredictability and sheer wonderfulness. And it had nothing in particular to do with me. It was when I was around 9 years old. After dinner and presents on my dad’s side we made the 15 mile trip through a generous but gentle snow to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Robert Cope’s ranch. It was also home to my cousin Laurel, who is one year older than me. The Copes were unique among my extremely small extended family. They were Horse People. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d make the bet that there were always more horses on the ranch than there were people. This, considering the combined number of horses on all of the farms of all of my relatives was zero, most definitely made them the Horse People in our little group.
Horses have always scared the heck out of me. In fact, I’m not terrible fond of any big animals. Frankly, the little ones don’t do much for me either. My total time on a horse amounts to less than five minutes of sheer terror. I’m not usually a control freak, but for me five minutes on a horse had all the allure and romance of a bungee jump, a car wreck and a plane crash all rolled into one. But I know Laurel loved horses. Much later in life when I returned to South Dakota, I caught a glimpse of the 2006 South Dakota State Park Permit on the windshield of a car. It’s a photo of a couple riding horses through one of South Dakota’s State Parks. Yep, that’s my cousin Laurel and her husband Manley.
Anyway, back to Christmas 1970 or so. The Cope’s house had a big rectangular picture window on the east side. There was a grass lawn extending out the gravel road that ran by the ranch, covered this Christmas with snow. As presents were distributed to four generations of family seated throughout the living room, the drapes on the picture window were closed. Presents were opened and thank-you’s exchanged. As everyone was basking the post-present afterglow, there was a rustling of sorts outside. Santa making a delivery, perhaps? Someone peeked behind the drawn drapes, and then turned around with a look of astonishment. Slowly the drapes were drawn, parting like drapes on a theater stage. The front lawn was brightly lit with two big spotlights. There was no wind, and the huge snowflakes falling against the black night sky made the 3D view through the picture window better than IMAX. There, tied to a post as big as life was a real, live PONY. SANTA BROUGHT LAUREL A PONY! It was simply the most amazing Christmas gift I had ever seen. Everyone in the room was mesmerized by this living, breathing, moving life-size shadow box. It was breathtaking.
Looking back, what made it all so memorable is that while the pony was a gift from Santa to Laurel, the moment was a gift to all of us. There was no jealousy, no “Laurel got a pony and I didn’t”. It was simply a magical moment, whether you were the one getting pony or not. Too often we judge our happiness against the happiness of others. We’re jealous of what they have, and mad about what we don’t, missing the point that the shared moment was the real gift.
Age and time may have embellished this Christmas memory, as age and time will do. No matter. I know where Santa comes down on the deal. And I always go with Santa.