Hark, the herald, people sing,
Joy to no more suffering,
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
Men on earth are reconciled.
Joyful all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With all nations then proclaim
Men on earth are all the same.
“Mother,” Brenda Saffold said as they got in the Yellow Cab outside Water Tower Place. “I don’t know why you insist on wearing pearls and three-inch heels to go holiday shopping.”
Margaret looked over her shoulder at the cabbie, who was loading their gifts into the trunk of the taxi. She was obviously older than her daughter, but not by much; some of that genetic, but much of it due to makeup and Botox. She pulled her fur closer around her and looked out at Michigan Avenue through the falling snow.
“That cabbie better not steal anything,” Margaret said under her breath. “And he’d better be careful.” She opened her door and craned her neck back at the cabbie. “Hey, that’s breakable there,” she almost shouted at him.
“Mom, would you relax?” Brenda said. “When was the last time you heard of someone stealing something? Chicago is safer than Iowa these days.” She leaned forward as the cabbie got in. “Erie and Fairbanks, please.” He put the taxi into gear, switched on the meter and joined the sparse traffic headed south.
“We have so much to be thankful for,” Brenda continued. “Remember how you couldn’t walk down Michigan Avenue without being accosted by a homeless person or a veteran with no legs? Now look at it.” She pointed out the window at the empty sidewalk.
Margaret sighed and nodded. “Things are much better these days. I don’t think anyone could argue with that.” She smiled at the younger woman. “And you played a big part in it all.” She patted Brenda’s arm, in the way that only a mother could. But then she frowned.
“I just wish my daughter would dress more presentable in public.” She looked disapprovingly at Brenda’s jeans, tennis shoes and hoodie.
“I have to dress this way,” Brenda said. “I’d like a little bit of privacy, if there is still such a thing. People know my face. Besides, I spend sixty hours a week wearing a dress and talking to cameras, so I am entitled to dress down once in a while.”
“Well, I am proud of you despite the way you dress,” her mother replied. Margaret looked forward at the cabbie, who drove with his face stiffly held straight ahead, no smile on his face, almost an automaton of efficiency. “So what was it you were going to share with me?”
“It’s a man I met last Christmas, uh holiday season,” Brenda said, catching herself. “Sorry, still having a hard time making the transition.” She looked at her mom and the cabbie to see if there was any reaction, and when there was none, she continued.
“I forget his name; Byron Smith, I think it was. He was playing a saxophone on a street corner when I was shopping. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the blues played live. He would mix it in with old carols. Most of it is that processed stuff you hear in the grocery store. But the blues he played was the old stuff, the good stuff. Remember those old 45s Dad had in the attic? I used to sneak up there, plug in his old record player and listen to them for hours.”
Margaret nodded. “Now you would be hard pressed to find that kind of technology still around. What the EMP in the war didn’t fry, The Guardians replaced with their own tech.” Margaret looked out the window. “Newer isn’t always better,” she said wistfully, then turned and looked at her daughter.
“You of all people should know that.”
Silent night, restful night.
All is calm, all is bright.
This year’s shopping is over and done.
Wrapping presents has just begun.
Holiday joy has been released.
Joy and fun and peace.
The taxi stopped at Erie and Fairbanks, just as they requested. While Brenda paid the cabbie and told him to wait for them, Margaret looked around at the neighborhood.
“Brenda honey,” Margaret said. “I think you picked the wrong location.” Brenda turned and looked around them. The shops were closed, their lights turned off. Across the street, the brownstone homes were all dark.
“This is the place. I have a perfect memory,” Brenda said. “But last year, these shops were all busy. There were children playing under the streetlights, street hockey. I remember because I was afraid the cab would hit them. There were holiday lights on the houses over there. And there was a Christmas tree over there.” She pointed at a small park where the small street forked and went southeast and northeast. She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“A Christmas tree,” her mother echoed. “Do you hear yourself? You should listen to your own speeches. They’re called holiday trees. How could you forget?”
Brenda continued staring at the empty street, then pointed at the corner under a street light. “Byron was right over there. He was playing some traditional carols. I remember because it was one of those songs that we don’t hear anymore, one of those that they could never get transitional lyrics for. Besides there are some songs that make you think of the original lyrics and message regardless of how much they change them.”
Margaret didn’t respond, but continued watching her daughter as she scanned the area.
“Over there they had barrels burning and a soup kitchen,” Brenda continued. “I saw what looked like a pastor and some teenagers helping out with serving food to some homeless people….” Brenda stopped and stared.
“That must be it,” Brenda said, more to herself than to her mother. “Some well-meaning person saw what the neighborhood had become—more into giving than receiving—and reported them. Someone wanted to keep the holiday spirit by doing away with the Christmas spirit.” She paused and looked back at the empty street corner. “The music was great. The neighborhood was so obviously happy. But it was the Christmas spirit. That was the problem.” She stopped and stared at the place where the soup kitchen had stood.
“Dear,” her mother said to her, a hand placed on Brenda’s shoulder. “You yourself have said that change is always hard. We are so much better off with The Guardians today. No war. No crime. Everyone fed. How can we have room to complain?”
“You’re right, Mom,” Brenda said. “I have less room to complain than anyone. I have a great job. Every year it seems like the world is more successful and in less need than the year before. And yet, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost something.”
“Sometimes you have to lose something to gain something else,” Margaret said. “It’s great to be nostalgic about the old ways, but that’s just it. They’re the old ways.” She turned to the cab. “Come on, Brenda. Let’s go back to the hotel.”
“Like you said, Mother,” Brenda said, getting back into the cab. “Newer isn’t always better.” She slammed the cab door and they drove off into the falling snow.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to celebrate.
Come and behold them, presents lain before you.
O come let us adore them, O come let us adore them,
O come let us adore them.
Gifts to receive.