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When we were kids, a holiday trek to Nashville to see the Christmas decorations was a big event. Our small southern Kentucky town strung decorations across the streets that comprised the town square, but the size, flair and sheer gaudiness of Nashville’s decorations drew us to the big city like moths to a flame.
The biggest thrill awaited at Harvey’s, a downtown department store. On the third floor at Harvey’s, throughout the year, a full-sized carousel gave kids free rides while their parents shopped on other floors. At Christmas time, the third floor became a candy-cane and snowflake bedecked paradise with a throne for Santa, his huge red velvet bag stuffed with candies, and sales clerks dressed as elves ran the show.
We waited in Santa land while our parents shopped at Harvey’s, then drove down Broadway, our faces smashed against the car windows as the dazzling array of street decorations flew past. Our final destination was the Parthenon, an exact replica of the ancient Greek temple, set in the middle of Nashville’s Centennial Park. On the front lawn of the Parthenon, every year, a massive nativity scene was erected and lighted with spotlights. Sightseers drove their cars round and round the circular drive, necks craned to see the 10-foot tall figures of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men, eyes straining inward to the hay-stuffed manger where an oversized baby Jesus raised his chubby arms to the sky.
“I believe it’s prettier than last year,” my mother said.
“They do a really good job, don’t they,” my father agreed, cheerfully steering in circles.
Years later, as an adult, I lived in Nashville and the Parthenon nativity scene, deemed an inappropriate religious display for a multicultural city, had been removed from the city’s collection of Christmas decorations.
But I could still remember the slow drive around that brightly lighted scene. And I could remember the drive home to Bowling Green, down dark highways that rose and dropped, rose and dropped, lulling us to sleep. Leaving the bright lights of the big city behind, we returned to the cozy universe of the inside of our station wagon, warm breath fogging the windows, our father’s expert hands resting atop the steering wheel, guiding us home.
I am still dazzled by the spectacle of a big city, especially around the holidays. A few years back, I walked the streets of Chicago after Thanksgiving, relishing the role of observer among large, anonymous crowds, a camera moving in and among the throngs, invisible behind my observer’s lens. The shoppers were good-hearted and jolly. The big stores had their magnificent Christmas decorations up, each store window a separate, elaborate tableau of glitter and light.
The city’s energy, its constant motion, its hotel lobbies decked in red velvet and gold and swags of greenery — all thrilled me the same way Nashville’s Christmas lights had thrilled me as a kid.
Even O’Hare was beautiful at that time of year. I felt flattened and let down awaiting the delayed flight home to Colorado Springs.
The flight arrived late, and our town’s little airport was deserted except for a handful of tired-eyed greeters, there to meet family and friends. I ran into a friend who was waiting for a colleague, also on the Chicago flight.
“Did you have a good time?” he asked, then he said, “Oh, don’t even tell me. I don’t want to know.” A big city guy, missing the city. I waved goodnight and walked to the shuttle that would take me to my car. The kind driver wound up and down long aisles of cars, helping me try to spot my red Subaru. Our lone, near empty van roamed the lot until, finally, we found my car.
“Drive safely,” he said. A thin sheen of ice covered the car and the parking lot. The night was perfectly black and the edge of the airport parking lot was as silent as the deep middle of the woods.
As I opened the trunk, I heard a shriek, no, a squawk, echoing across a long distance. I looked around, then up, and found the source of the sound, now grown to a burble of squawks. A flock of snow geese, white against the black sky, sailed overhead in a wavy V formation, honking directions, flowing across the empty western sky.
I got into my car, rolled down the window, sucked in the cold night air and drove toward downtown Colorado Springs where sleeping sidewalks glowed red and gold beneath tired Christmas lights. My Subaru knew the way home.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.