Seeing the priest’s vestments flapping in the cold wind, Ray buttoned his coat and put on his hat, gloves, and muffler as he made his way out of All Saints church. Late afternoon light, coming in through the stained glass windows at the front of the building, lit the path to the opened doors. The choir enthusiastically sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” as the people left.
“Peace be with you Ray… and a Merry Christmas Eve!” said Father Adam to Ray as he exited the church. Others followed close behind as he usually sat in the last row and was the first to leave.
“Same to you, Father Adam,” said Ray, walking down the steps. “Wonderful mass today.”
“Thank you!” said the priest, gently shaking Ray’s extended hand with both of his. “We’ll be having Midnight mass later and several services tomorrow. Will I be seeing you and hearing more of your… joyful singing at any of them?”
“I’m home after the Tower’s dinner and gift exchange, but I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said, rubbing his hands for warmth.
“Well, I know they appreciate your help at the Houston Heights Tower. You and… Maggie, have done much through the years to brighten the lives of their residents… and you continue to do so.” The priest’s countenance changed to one of concern. “How are you doing?” he asked gently. A gust of wind whipped his robe about, but it didn’t break his piercing gaze.
“Oh, I’m okay Father… really. Thanks for asking,” said Ray. “I’ll admit, the first couple of years have been difficult, but I’ve got a wonderful church family, close friends, and nieces and nephews watching out for me.” He paused. “Of course, I miss Maggie very much… but those of us left behind have to go on living, don’t we?” His smile acknowledged the priest’s concern.
“Yes, we do,” said Father Adam sympathetically.” Well, I hope you have a wonderful evening. I’ll see you tomorrow. Peace.”
“Thank you, Father. Goodbye,” said Ray, and the priest turned to greet the shivering parishioners as the choir sang on.
Ray was about to leave when a woman—decked in a spangled, red and silver holiday jacket with matching skirt, and fur hat and black leather boots—fast approached with opened arms. Drawing him into a crushing embrace, she shouted brightly with a thick, colorful, Louisiana accent “Ay Bay-BEEE! Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Camille,” said Ray, releasing her; she kept her hand on his shoulder. Her cheeks were rosy red from the cold; but her eyes were sparkly, full of light. They had met in church a year earlier and gone out several times for coffee.
“Watcha doin’ tonight honey?” she asked saucily, arranging and smoothing out his muffler.
“Oh, Eve dinner and gift exchange with the folks at the Tower. Calling my niece later… plenty to keep me busy. You?”
“Oh, me and my new friend are going to a party in a few minutes,” she said, pulling a compact from her purse. “He’s picking me up here. Didn’t I tell you that I had met him and that I was now officially off the market?” she said with a chuckle, inspecting her face in the mirror.
“Tha-a-at’s right,” said Ray sarcastically, slowly crossing his arms and looking far off, “but remember, I told you a year ago that I was off the market… first!”
They laughed, as there had been an undeniable spark between them when they first met; ultimately, it turned into something that was more akin to a good friendship, or like best friends.
“There he is,” said Camille, looking towards an approaching Land Rover. “I’ve got to go, but let’s have lunch next week so I can tell you all about him. He’s wonderful!” She hugged Ray tightly and whispered in his ear, “Love you darlin’!”
He shut his eyes and her back tightly. “I love you too… and I’m looking forward to hearing more about him. Have a great time tonight…and tomorrow!” She walked to the car and opened the door, but before getting in, turned and waved goodbye. Ray waved back. With a wink and a coy smile, she stepped in, closed the door, and left.
He looked at his watch: 5:10. Needing to be at the Tower by 6:30, he started off towards Heights Boulevard.
The wintry-grey sky with low-lying clouds and brisk gusts of chilly wind made it feel like a true winter. The last vestiges of leaves falling off the trees and whirling in the streets more than made up for the lack of snow: All around him, flurries of deep purple, red, orange, yellow, and gold leaves of all shapes danced as he made his way. Cold as it was, he decided to stop at Waldo’s for a cup of coffee to warm himself. Entering the warm coffeehouse, he was met by an empty space with a lone barista, wiping down an espresso machine behind the front counter; acoustic Christmas music played in the background.
“Still open?” he asked the young man.
“Yes sir, till six,” said the man with a nametag identifying him as Carl.
“Then I’ll have a large, brewed coffee-of-the-day, with a splash of crème, to go.”
“That’ll be two dollars sir. And it’s fresh, just had some myself,” he said as he poured coffee and crème into a large cup.
“Thank you, Carl. Here you go,” said Ray, giving Carl a twenty-dollar bill. “Keep the change and Merry Christmas!”
“Thank you sir!” said Carl with a wide-eyed smile, “and a very Merry Christmas to you too!” With twenty in hand, he waved at Ray and watched him go out the door and walk across the street to the esplanade.
Ray and Maggie stopped often at Waldo’s for coffee after church to enjoy on their walk home. They had lived in their home on Heights Boulevard just north of 14th since becoming newlyweds in the late sixties. After she died in 2009, he sold it and moved to a small condo on Heights at 15th, but continued walking the same path they walked to and from church when she was alive, recalling the many stories, conversations, and thoughts shared along the way over the course of forty years. December was her favorite month for these special walks down the boulevard, as she loved the cooler temperatures, turning of the leaves, and the multitude of Christmas decorations and lights on the houses up and down the street, especially the Victorians. And as December 24th was her birthday, she relished the walk after church more so in the late afternoon as it was getting dark, because she got to see each house lighted, as if each one were a glittery, colorful present meant just for her.
He crossed 11th and walked past the elaborately lighted Milroy house, which was their favorite; he stopped at the gazebo across the street and turned to take a long look at it. Seeing his breath, he took a drink of steamy, hot coffee. “Isn’t it beautiful Ray?” she would say with excitement. Their niece, Katy, had seen the house on a number of occasions when visiting her aunt and uncle; childless as they were, they enjoyed her holiday visits very much.
“I better call Katy,” he thought, recalling that he needed to call her as soon as he got home from the Tower, to wish the family a Merry Christmas and confirm spring travel plans.
Down the esplanade he continued, taking note of the holiday cheer glowing from nearly every window: blinking lights of every color; elaborately decorated trees; large televisions with scenes of funny holiday movies and football games; and people drinking choice beverages while watching their well-bundled children play outside in the front yard. Occasionally, he could hear Christmas carols, even the festive wail of Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is You.”
He crossed 14th and sat at the bench in front of the convenience store, looking towards his old house. It was alive with three young children, a boy and two girls, laughing loudly and taunting each other with showers of leaves since snowballs weren’t available. Inside, just off of the front window, the new owners sat with another couple, laughing at some funny story or event. He and Maggie did the very same thing for many years. After a few minutes, he sighed and got up to continue his journey. “Merry Christmas!” shouted the children as he walked past the house, to which he responded with a wave. At the sound of the children’s voices, the people inside looked out the window. “Did the new owners recognize me?” he thought for all of a moment, as he continued on to the Tower, accompanied only by the howling wind and swaying of bare tree branches. He crossed at the corner of 19th by St. Andrew’s Episcopal, where the sounds of a choir and organ could be heard. Having crossed Yale, he noticed that 19th was completely lit, though nearly all of the businesses were closed, except for Shade, which was hosting a large party; inside, people were talking, laughing, raising glasses of champagne to each other with great merriment, and posing for pictures. The joyful ringing of Baptist Temple’s carillons signaled 6:00; their full parking lot signaled the start of their Christmas Eve service with potluck following. Casa Ramirez and all of the stores that followed had their Christmas lights on: You could look into each window and see that great care had been taken to decorate the shops for the season. Approaching the Tower, he turned towards the Heights Theater, where people, arrayed in festive garb and fancy hats, were arriving for an evening gala. Flashing lights and music poured out of the doors as people entered the space. He remembered going to the movies with Maggie as teenagers when they courted and after they got married, until the theater burned down in 1968. He was happy to see that it had been saved and renovated for special events. “Merry Christmas Mister!” called a girlish voice from across the street. Apparently, he had been fixed in a gaze, which the attractive woman with a cigarette thought was meant for her. “Merry Christmas to you too!” he exclaimed loudly, with a wave. She flicked her cigarette into a bin, blew a kiss with both hands, and ran back into the venue. Realizing he had a few minutes to spare, he thought it best to call his niece to tell her that he would call for a longer talk in the morning. “We’ll chat in the morning, Uncle Ray. Bye!” she said. He turned off his phone.
Entering the Tower, he went to the activity room for the assembled feast. He greeted the residents staying for the holidays. Families, friends, and children—some with smiles; some with scowls—poured in bearing wrapped packages and platters of food. Music throughout the facility made the mood festive and bright. He sat at a table with friends he and Maggie would visit throughout the years, many of which she’d known growing up in the neighborhood. Discussions and well wishes for Maggie’s Birthday abounded. After all, it was there that they’d spent many of her birthdays, hosting a party for those who really needed it, those who wouldn’t have holiday visitors: on her birthday, she was happiest giving them gifts. Maggie coordinated the dinner and exchange for years until she fell sick; now, it was coordinated by other. After hours of laughter, and recollection, Ray said his goodbyes and left for home.
Turning back the way that he came, he walked towards Heights Boulevard for the much shorter journey home, arriving in less than fifteen minutes. Once inside, he stowed his winter wear and placed his keys, wallet, and cell in their place. He turned on the Christmas tree lights and music he had set up before he left for church. Out of a cabinet he took a short glass and added a few ice cubes followed by a generous pour of his favorite bourbon, an annual gift from his niece. Walking towards his recliner, he sipped his bourbon and reached for his favorite portrait of Maggie. He sat down, placed the frame on his lap, and rocked slightly.
The black and white portrait was taken when she was eighteen, about a year into their courtship. Ray wasn’t there when her parents took her to the studio to have it taken. Years later, she would tell him that the photographer wasn’t happy with the expression on her face and—after many suggestions—told her to think about something or someone special right before the count of ‘three’. “I thought of you,” she said. The photo showed the depth of love she had for him, from the very beginning.
Rocking gently, he sipped his bourbon and gently caressed her face in the frame. Judy Garland’s voice filled the room:
“Have yourself, a merry little Christmas…”
“Happy Birthday, Maggie,” he whispered, gazing longingly at the photo. “I did all the things we used to do on your birthday. I went to mass and sang carols as loud as I could to embarrass and make you giggle. I got my coffee and walked past the beautifully lit houses you loved. I sat at the bench near our house and watched the new owners carry on with their friends as their kids played outside. They’ve brought life and energy back into our happy home. I saw a large party at the old theater. In fact, a woman outside of the building called out to me, wished me a Merry Christmas, and blew me a kiss! Can you believe it? I went to the Tower to have dinner with our friends and helped with the gifts. They miss you and wished you a Happy Birthday. A wonderful time was had by all.” He sighed and took another sip of bourbon.
“Once again as in olden days, Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us, Will be near to us once more
Someday soon, we all will be together, If the fates allow
Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”
“I miss you, darling…but I am grateful for the gift you gave me: a lifetime of happiness and memories to carry me till we meet again.” Clutching the portrait to his chest, he closed his eyes and listened to the music, waiting for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, to attend unto him until the blessed morning.