The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my daughters and I went to breakfast at the grand Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. Then, after eggs and bacon and pastries in the elegant ballroom, we walked a few short blocks to the mall.
We do this every year. It’s how we officially kick off the holiday season. We spend a day in the city to do a little shopping, wave at Santa sitting in his big chair beneath the giant tree, and enjoy the crowd.
By the time we made it to the toy store, I was tired. My favorite boots were pinching my feet, so I motioned toward the bench in the mall just outside the store and told my youngest daughter that’s where I would be. Her sister was in another store.
“Take your time,” I said, glad for the chance to sit for a minute. “Take as long as you want.”
While she looked at the art supplies and the model horses, I looked at the people around me. There were busy men and women carrying shopping bags and hurrying from one stop to the next. And there were strollers who were only window-shopping, moving leisurely through the crowd.
A group of carolers, dressed in Victorian costumes, appeared and began to sing. The songs were old and very familiar to me. I didn’t need a book to sing along, I had heard them since the day I was born. Songs I had sung and songs that had been sung to me for as long as I could remember.
As I sat on the bench listening, I noticed a man sitting at a table nearby. He didn’t look like the other shoppers thronging the mall. His clothes were dirty and ill-fitting. His hair was too long and shaggy. His shoelaces were tied around his ankles to keep his hand-me-down shoes from slipping off his feet.
The man was someone who had come into the mall, away from the street, to get in out of the cold. He wasn’t a shopper, he was just passing through.
When the carolers started singing, the man looked up and then slowly rose and left the table. He moved, a bit unsteadily, in their direction. And it was the way he walked, like a sleepwalker or a toy being pulled by a string, that held my attention. I watched him as he found a place to stand and watch the performers.
The carolers sang one song after another. And the man never moved. He stood there, focused on the four young singers and the music.
As I studied him, struck by his reaction, I wondered where the music was taking him. I wondered if the old familiar carols filled some empty place inside him.
I suppose it’s possible he was remembering some really dreadful holidays, when hands were raised, voices were harsh and comfort was in short supply. But I don’t think he was.
When something triggers a memory like that we move away, not toward, the reminder. We duck our heads and hurry past, anxious to get out of the line of fire. But the man in the mall did everything but levitate in the direction of the singers. His face was rapt and open. He was pulled into the music, not pushed away.
My daughter called me to come into the store with her so I got up off the bench and did as she asked. When we came back out into the mall and met up with her sister, the man was gone.
I looked down at my little girl’s face and I linked arms with her sister. I thought about the man. Somewhere, some time, he’d been someone’s little boy.
I don’t know where he went at the end of the day. I went home. But deep inside us both, we sang the same song.
This column first appeared in The Spokesman-Review in December 2006.