We’d always been close, my son and I, but in the last few months, ever since he’d started fifth grade, it seemed like we’d been drifting apart. My wife said to be patient, that we’d just hit a bit of a rocky patch, and she was probably right, but the reality was that we just weren’t communicating as well as we used to. I didn’t like it, but tried, like she said, to be patient.
It turns out she was right. In December, when I picked Ned up at school, he unexpectedly turned to me and asked, “Dad, where’d you grow up again?”
Unprepared for him to have suddenly initiated a conversation, I quickly collected myself. “In a small town in central Minnesota,” I answered. “A couple of hours west of here.” I hardly ever talked about my past around home, but the fact that my son might be interested to know more about it gave me an idea. “How’d you like to drive out there and see it sometime?”
I’d taken a chance. He could always say no and we’d be right back to the way things had been – deafening silence. But the fact was, I hadn’t been back to my hometown for a number of years, ever since Mom had died. A road trip might be in order and give Ned and me a chance to rekindle our relationship.
He surprised me when he turned and grinned, saying, “Sure. That’d be cool.”
Well, there you go, you never know until you ask. So, on a Saturday, two days before Christmas Eve, we headed for Nativity.
My Grandparents had been farmers and for most of their lives. They’d milked nearly one hundred head of dairy cows on forty acres of rolling farmland north of the Minnesota River outside the small town of Nativity, Minnesota. You might have heard of it. It’s the town that pulls out all the stops and does lighted nativity displays every Christmas. Almost every home takes part, and it’s a pretty big deal. When my grandparents became too old to farm, they moved into town and opened up an antique store, McMahon’s, which is still in operation today. They ran it until they passed away. Then my parents took over until they died. Now my second cousin and his wife are the owners.
Growing up, I’d liked living in Nativity in some respects, but I’d also been born with a restlessness that couldn’t be contained by a small town out in the middle of rural Prairie County, a county known for producing massive amounts of feed corn and soybeans. I moved away after high school and never looked back. I’d always loved books so I went to college at the University of Minnesota, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, and got a job teaching. I’ve taught eleventh grade American Literature at Southwest High School in Minneapolis for the past eighteen years. This trip would be the first time my ten-year-old son had ever seen where I’d grown up.
After a two-hour drive, I spent about ten minutes touring the back roads south of Nativity showing Ned the country and where my grandparents’ farm had been. I guess from his perspective, once you’d seen one wood-frame farmhouse and one snow-covered field with corn stubble in it, you’d seen them all. Even though he was trying to be polite, I could sense his growing disinterest.
“Well, let’s head into town,” I finally said. “I’ll show you around. How’d you like that?”
He brightened up considerably. “That’d be great.”
We rolled into town in the early afternoon. Nativity has a population of around two thousand and is as thriving a community as one could expect given a town that size; maybe even more so, now that I think about it. The inhabitants are blue-collar and salt of the earth. Trust me, I’m not romanticizing the place, they are a hard-working lot: grain mill laborers and retired farmers, mostly, with a smattering of independent, self-employed welders, plumbers, and electricians, to name but a few. I think the notoriety of the holiday nativity displays helps. People come from all over the upper Midwest during the Christmas season to view them.
We drove down Main Street, past Hendrickson’s Hardware, Annie’s Bakery, and Don’s Appliances. The Prairie Sky movie theater was still in operation, as was Ed’s Barber Shop, and Jorgenson’s Dry Goods, the store that I remembered for selling everything from work boots and bolts of fabric, to prescription medications and penny candy. Even the town library that first fostered my love of books was still thriving. Basically, nothing had changed.
Snow from a recent storm was piled up along the curbs and evergreen garlands decorated the lamp posts. Every shop and store had brightly colored lights wrapped around the windows and somewhere someone had set up an outdoor speaker that was playing Christmas carols.
Ned is small for his age, a thin, freckled redhead who needs to wear glasses, and his eyes were wide with wonder as he squirmed back and forth in his seat taking in the sights. It was nice to see his enthusiasm. In the middle of town, I pointed out McMahon’s, the old family antique store. I was thinking about stopping in when Ned suddenly pointed and said, “Dad, look at that.”
I looked. Down a side street and a block over was the city park, and next to the bandshell was a horse-drawn carriage. It looked like someone was giving rides. Ned surprised me by saying, “That looks pretty cool, Dad. Can we go on it? Please?”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I’d never once considered that my son, whose two loves in life were playing baseball and anything on the X-Box, would be interested in something as, shall I say, unexciting, as a carriage ride. But I was wrong. He was, and that got me in the mood, too.
“Sure,” I said, smiling at him. “Let’s do it.”
We parked and walked over to meet the driver. He was a tall, thin and weathered, friendly old man, with a long white beard and red stocking cap. He warmly shook our hands and introduced himself as Bob. His horse was a big black gelding called Frisky. “His name’s a bit of a misnomer,” Bob remarked with an endearing chuckle. “But what he lacks in speed, he makes up for by being reliable and steady.” He patted Frisky on the flank and added, “Aren’t you boy?” The horse whinnied in return.
Well, that’s all we needed. We bundled up in thick, wool blankets that smelled faintly of horse (an aroma that was surprisingly pleasing), and Bob and Frisky set out walking at a leisurely pace, clip-clopping down Main Street, bells jingle-jangling from Frisky’s leather harnesses. People waved at us from the sidewalks, and we waved back. Next to me, Ned grinned. It was clear he was having a great time.
When we were done touring downtown, Bob turned Frisky toward the quiet streets and quaint neighborhoods nearby. It didn’t take long to get to my old house, a well-maintained two-story structure, built in the style of (what else?) a farmhouse. As we drove by, I asked Bob to stop. When I told him my parents and I had once lived there he was more than gracious. “Jack and Arlene were your folks?” He grinned as I nodded yes. “I knew them,” he said. “They were good people.”
Next to me Ned leaned over and whispered, “They sound nice. I wish I could have met them.”
I fought back a sudden wave of nostalgia and said, “I wish you could have, too, Ned. They would have loved you.” I took a moment to collect myself and added, “Like Bob said, they were good people.”
Ned smiled at me, and, at that moment, something came over me. I had a sudden urge to hug him, so I did. He didn’t resist. In fact, he hugged me back.
Bob giddy-upped to get Frisky going again, and we made our way back to the park. By now the sun had sunk low in the sky and evening twilight was enveloping us. There was a lavender glow in the western horizon, and the air was cold and crisp and still, accented by a faint aroma of wood smoke. One by one, as if by magic, the lighted nativity displays began to come on, reflecting off the snow and casting pools of light into the townsfolk’s front yards. Soon, all of Nativity, it seemed, was glowing with an ethereal, magical light.
Ned was enthralled, “Dad, this is so cool.”
“It is,” I said, almost speechless, looking around in awe, suddenly overcome with feelings of warmth and good cheer. “I’m glad we’re here,” I whispered to myself.
“Me, too,” Ned said.
I hadn’t realized he’d heard me. We looked at each other grinning, experiencing a shared bond we hadn’t felt in months. It was deep and close, like parent and child close, or father and son close. Maybe even closer.
We said goodbye to Bob and Frisky and watched as they loaded up some more passengers. I thought for a moment, then asked, “Ned, are you cold?” The temperature was in the low twenties, but with the sun going down it felt colder.
“Naw,” he grinned. “I’m good.” We were dressed for the winter weather in warm boots, heavy jackets, mittens, scarves, and knit wool hats. He was watching a group of kids playing hockey on a skating rink in the middle of the park. “I’m not cold at all.”
“How about if we go for a walk?”
“Sure. That’d be fun.”
Let’s go, then,” I said, and off we went, walking through some of the same neighborhood streets Bob and Frisky had taken us on. It felt good to be out in the invigorating air and stretching our legs. We even went by my folk’s old house again. This time there was a man outside making some adjustments with his nativity display while a little girl played in the snow near him. They both waved as we walked by, and we waved back.
“Happy holidays!” Ned called out.
“Happy holidays!” came their friendly response.
It was completely dark when we made our way back to Main Street, and by now we’d worked up a healthy appetite. “You hungry? How about if we get ourselves something to eat?” I asked Ned.
“Sure, that’d be great. I’m starving.”
We went into the Blue Dot Diner. It was crowded and hot, with moisture condensing and dripping down the inside of the windows. I could just barely make out fifties rock and roll music playing in the background. The place smelled of fried onions and grilled burgers, and I swear I could hear Ned’s stomach growling as soon as we stepped in through the front door. We ordered cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate malts, and wolfed it all down in a matter of minutes. A more memorable meal I couldn’t recall.
In fact, the entire day had been memorable, but after dinner, it was time for us to make the long drive back to Minneapolis. As we pulled out of town, headlights cutting a path through the deep darkness, Ned turned to me and asked, “Dad, how come you don’t come back here more often?”
I thought for a minute before answering, “Honestly? I don’t know. I guess I’ve just moved on with my life. You know, with your mom and you and your sister and my job, I guess I’ve never felt I had the time.”
He was silent for a minute before saying, “I liked it. It was fun being here.”
“What’d you like most?” I asked, curious.
“Well…” After thinking about it for longer than I would have expected, he said, “I guess that it was just so different from where we live. But, different in a good way,” he added, grinning. “It’s not as crowded. The people were friendly. I liked Frisky.” He paused, then said, “I don’t know. It’s hard to put into words.”
I laughed, “Yeah, I get that.”
He looked out the window for a moment, then turned and asked, “Dad, I was wondering…maybe we could come back again sometime. Would that be okay?”
I didn’t have to think. The best part of the whole trip was sharing it with my son. “Sure,” I told him. “Anytime.”
He grinned, “Cool.”
It wasn’t exactly like it used to be, us talking together like we used to, not by a long shot. It was better.
Then we settled in for the long ride home, chatting back and forth, already planning for our next trip. I’m not saying a town can bring a father and son closer together, but, then again, who knows? Maybe it can. Especially if it’s a town like Nativity.
DECEMBER 2019 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: THE VIEW FROM LONG LAKE.