Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
“Mask up, kiddo!”
It has become my mantra of late, especially when taking my youngest son, Cassidy, on an outing during these trying times. Today is no different.
I get mine on, as does my wife, Annie. But, Cassidy stalls.
“Come on, kiddo,” I state calmly and patiently as possible.
“You know what we’re here for,” Annie adds. Her voice is stern, but composed.
He mopes and lets a staccato “Hmph” out before he complies and puts the mask on. Still, he does it in defiance. He brings it far enough to cover his mouth, but not his nose.
“Cassidy,” Annie says between clenched teeth.
Annie, however, checks herself. She takes a deep breath and relaxes. Composed, she gets out of the car. I follow suit and head to Cassidy’s door.
I’m not letting him out, just yet. This whole mask thing has to be resolved. Thus, I reach in to adjust it. Often, he’ll fret or pull away from me.
“You know why we’re here,” I state. “ You don’t want to be on that naughty list. Do I make myself clear on that matter?”
“Is that why he’s not here?” Cassidy adds.
It stops me in my tracks. I know who he’s talking about and doesn’t have anything to do with the jolly old man in the red suit. I fumble for an answer. He knows the situation, but still its complexity gets him confused...and hurt. It hurts me too.
Finally, I repeat myself: “Do you want to be on that naughty list and not have your wish come true?”
After some rumination, he shakes his head and sheepishly says “No.”
Leaving the Car
It’s a relief to finally exit the car. We’ve sat in it for a half-hour with the heat at full blast. We waited in a half-empty mall parking lot as the sky grows to an inky black after 4 in the afternoon (nights come early in Spokane during this time of the year).
The frosty weather, the early sunset and dusk are common; half-empty parking lots in December aren’t. This is supposed to be the height of the shopping season. Yet, there is hardly a soul traversing the lots to reach the south entrance to the mall.
Then again, we are here for a reason that goes beyond Christmas shopping. December is the time when Old Saint Nick sets up shop in the malls across America. It’s that wonderful time of the year when the jolly old man awaits to hear the dreams and desires of excited children. And, that is usually what Cassidy, Gordon (who isn’t with us), and their cousins anticipate.
Cassidy lets the mask slip below his nose, again. I point it out and he whines a bit.
“Keep telling you,” I respond, “it needs to cover your nose as well as your mouth.”
Annie’s cousin pulls in next to us. Lina (best known by Cassidy as Auntie Lina), her adult son, Chris, and his children -- Hope and Matt ( Cassidy refers to them as his cousins despite being, technically, his third cousins). Being two to three years apart in age, the two are his play buddies. Thus, when he sees them, he rushes over to hug them.
Too Long in the House
Despite the hassle of masks and social distancing, the need to get out of the house is strong. I spend the mornings online teaching everyday and/or conducting IEP meetings by conference calls. In addition I have office hours and weekly faculty meetings through Google Meet video conferencing.
I’m trapped in the house -- sometimes alone -- despite being connected to a group of students more than 900 miles away. This jaunt to the mall is a welcomed relief from that monotony. Even the stabbing cold of the night or the desolate scene at the mall can’t dampen my elation of being out.
I can’t help but think of season pasts when a visit to the mall Santa was different...and when one particular person missing tonight, was with us.
The time has come, Hope, Matt and Cassidy are ready. So are the adults (however, we have another party to meet inside).
Thus, we traverse through the well lit parking lot toward the mall’s south entrance.
Still, as I follow the children, I can’t help but think of season pasts when a visit to the mall Santa was different...and when one particular person missing tonight, was with us.
Of Christmas Past
The Christmas past seems so long ago. Back then, we were a family of four, heading to the local SoCal malls to do our shopping and, of course, see Old Saint Nick. It was a family tradition back before we moved to Spokane. And, more than anything, I’d like to keep it going.
But, this virus had other plans. As did the serious turn of events that inflicted Gordon. He couldn’t join us. He was moved from the Ranch to a group home for those with serious social/emotional disorders. He’s probably in a good place and getting the attention he needs (and, hopefully, the tools needed to eventually return to us).
Still, as we approach the atrium where this year’s Santa is located, I can’t help but think of those trips with the boys throughout the OC less than two years ago. And how can I forget? There were photos taken and they’re in frames in nearly every corner of our home.
They’re always the same; Cassidy and Gordon sit on both sides of Santa, beaming with toothy grins. And why not? They were ready to tell the jolly old man everything they desired to see under the Christmas tree on that fateful morning.
When I think of those photos, it momentarily fills me with wonderful memories, and I can’t but grin to myself. However, the moment is short; our family’s situation, as well as the pandemic’s wicked effects, invades my thoughts...and the smile evaporates.
I force myself to ignore the situations and fill my head with Christmas cheers.After all, the current one feels so bleak.
Lines and Lines
From outside, the mall seems like a beacon. Within, it’s brightly lit. It’s a comforting and inviting site; especially in the early evening.
The light, itself, can give the perception that everybody inside is warm and vibrant. However, upon entrance, several things jump out. Some stores and kiosks are devoid of customers. Some are closed. And, of those open, in particular a department store on the opposite side of the entrance, it barely has a soul within.
Not all stores are like that; Some stores have lines of customers. One particular place near us has five to six people -- all social distancing and wearing masks-- standing within black rope barriers. They wait until three shoppers exit the business and the employees signal for them to move forward.
“How many in your party?” a masked employer for Build-A-Bear asks.
“Thwee,” one muffled patron states as he holds three fingers up.
“That’s perfect” the employee states as she unhooks a rope-barrier in front of the entrance. “You all can come in.”
The same scenario plays elsewhere throughout the half-empty mall. The people wait quietly, often staring blankly into the store's window as if they are dreaming of normal times when entering a store without precaution was a reality instead of a distant memory.
We reach our destination in an intersection of the mall, an atrium that reveals popular retail businesses on the first floor and the food court on the second. It is here where we meet half of our group. Lina’s daughter Emily and her grandson, Benjamin. In addition, Emily’s fiance, James and his three children, Eliza, Martin, and Earl.
We exchange greetings, but keep it brief. Santa awaits! And, the kids let us know it. Immediately we find the line we want; the one that leads to Old Saint Nick.
Something dawns on me as we get in line. I didn’t get a good look at Santa. In fact, I didn’t see him at all. I assumed he’d be in the middle of the set-up. But, as I glance toward the expected place, he’s not there.
Finally, I spot him. Strange, he is nearly barricaded behind stacks of ornately wrapped gift boxes, dozens of plastic fir trees and real poinsettias. He sits in an antique sofa chair and wears a big red mask that encapsulates his iconic beard. He doesn’t move much, either. In fact, I mistook him to be part of the decor. It’s only when he slightly moves his head and raises his gloved hand to acknowledge a nearby child waving in his direction that I realize it’s really him.
There is another sign that things are off. I watch two siblings, 8 and 9 respectively, be guided to a bench by one of Santa’s helpers -- a masked version of Mrs. Clause, I assume. The bench they sit at is six feet away from Santa.
Nearby, a photographer tells the sibling it’s safe to take off their mask. They do so without a thought. Additionally, she asks them and Santa to “look toward the camera.”
Several shots are taken. Afterward, the two are escorted off the bench and past Santa, never getting too close to him. It’s a sign that sitting on Santa’s lap and gushing over gifts they want will be a non-factor. If those kids don’t get the chance, what do Cassidy and company do?
Line moves fast and we are about ready. Emily and her family are the first to go through. Our turn is next. Cassidy, Hope and Matt immediately take to the bench. The helper gives the okay to remove the masks. Hope and Matt have their off in a moment’s notice. Cassidy hesitates and glances at Annie and me.
“It’s okay,” Annie says. “We’re family.”
And can you get some books for Gordon, my brother? He likes reading but he is not here. And I really wish he was here. He was bad, but I know it’s not his fault. That COVID thing did it and it needs to go. Can he come home?
With that assurance, the mask comes off. Cassidy looks toward the lens without the photographer’s bidding. He flashes an impish grin. Hope and Matt do the same.
The photographer snaps a few photos. All of them beaming from ear-to-ear. Next, she asks us -- the adults -- to join in the next shoot. In less than two minutes, the session is done.
We are ushered to the exit and toward the kiosk where the photos are produced. While heading there, Cassidy cranes his head back and forth.
“Dad,” he asks, “where’s Santa?”
I pointed toward Old Saint Nick. Like the happy imp he is, Cassidy waves and says “Hi!”
However, it takes a while for Santa to react. He has been staring forward, lost in the thought. He finally acknowledges Cassidy with a low, but hardy “Merry Christmas” and a slight wave from his gloved hand. Then, he goes back into that trance. Quiet and rigid and with very little twinkle left in his eyes.
Cassidy being Cassidy doesn’t hesitate.
“Santa!” he says from afar, “ Can I get a DVD and Legos?”
Santa transforms at that moment; a sparkle in his eyes returns.
“And can you get some books for Gordon, my brother? He likes reading but he is not here. And I really wish he was here. He was bad, but I know it’s not his fault. That COVID thing did it and it needs to go. Can he come home?”
“Oh,” Santa responds after being peppered by pleas from the musings of a 7-year-old. He didn’t expect it, at least, from what I can observe from his raised eyebrows.
”If you two are good little boys,” Santa says with a warm assurance and precision, “ then you’ll see each other, again. You love him, dearly, and it shows.”
Then he adds: “cheer up and hope! This will be over soon.”
This will be over soon; those words play in my head over and over. It’s what I want. It’s what Annie wants. It’s what Gordon, Cassidy, Lina, and her kids and grandkids. It’s what everybody wants.
Oddly, those sentiments sound more pertinent coming from a haggard and seemingly isolated Santa seated in the middle of a half-empty mall.
Hope in Darkness
It’s time to leave. The photos are produced at a kiosk near the exit to the display. Annie and Lina pick the ones they want, pay for a package of them. Finally, we’re on our way, down a lighted corridor and toward an uncertain night that seems just a bit more brightly than before.
We kept a tradition going, despite the current state. In return, we walk away into the darkness of a chilly Spokane night. We walk away with some assurance that things will get better. We walk away with hope.
© 2021 Dean Traylor