The man — grizzled, disheveled — sat down heavily on the leather mall couch and looked lovingly at his unlikely companion, a small bespectacled girl with blond pigtails.
The man’s cap, a well-worn camouflage model with the John Deere logo, asked more questions than it answered: Farmer? Hunter? Veteran? Mechanic? Exurban lawn enthusiast? Flea marketer? Or a guy who can’t be defined by the cap he wears? Together, this unlikely couple pulled apart a package and set its contents on the mall floor.
Out of the bag came a box and out of the box came a doll, along with doll accessories, including a tiny brush and comb, and a tiny pair of eyeglasses nearly identical to those worn by the girl. Carefully, the girl removed the glasses from their tiny cloth case and placed them over the doll’s eyes. She proudly held up the doll for the man to see. “She’s beautiful,” he said. And then he slid off the leather mall couch onto the floor for a closer inspection.
A big, important day was coming soon, full of presents and candy and singing and roasted victuals and church and maybe some heated arguments or wild accusations or long-held confessions followed by pie, but the man and the girl were having Christmas then, right there on the mall floor. It was impossible to tell whether they thought about Jesus and if so, as a god or maybe just an idea: a symbol for what you get when you combine unconditional love, mercy, grace, compassion, goodwill and the feeling that anything is possible.
All around them, shoppers scurried past on critical missions to find last-minute gifts for their nearly overlooked or hard-to-please loved ones to later re-gift: a motorized singing fish, a George Foreman Grill, a handheld blackjack game. A capitalist carol reminiscent of Homeland Security played in the distance: He sees you when you’re sleeping / he knows when you’re awake / he knows if you’ve been bad or good so you better not deviate from established societal norms for goodness sake!
The man and the girl were unaware of the song or the shoppers scurrying about. They had eyes only for each other and the doll, whose tiny, blond hair the man began fashioning into pigtails.
Maybe they believed Jesus was born in a manger on Dec. 25, or maybe they reckoned Jesus was more of a feeling you held in your heart as you walked that long, dark journey when there’s no moon and the trail disappears, and you have to forge a brand-new path altogether because good ideas never come from staying on the safe, well-worn path. Good ideas come when you dare to blaze a new trail, and good ideas are always dangerous, like unconditional love, mercy, grace, compassion, goodwill and the feeling that anything is possible.
A woman walked up and dropped her parcels onto the leather mall couch and said, “You two make a picture,” and the girl held up the doll for the woman to see. “Did you thank Grampa Tully?” said the woman, and the girl said, “Thank you, Grampa Tully,” and the woman said, “Put her back in the box so we can take her home and wrap her.”
Without complaint, the girl carefully removed the doll’s tiny eyeglasses and placed them inside their tiny cloth holder, and Grampa Tully said, “If you treated your own glasses that way, you could probably get a pair to last more than a week,” and then he winked to take the sting out of the comment. Before she slid the doll back into her box, the girl said, “Hug her, Grampa Tully,” and he hugged the doll with a sweetness that could be nothing less than a Christmas miracle: not peace on Earth, not health care for all, not the Cubs winning the World Series, but a grizzled, disheveled man in a camo Deere cap sitting on a mall floor hugging a doll like he meant it.
Satisfied, the girl put the doll into the box and the box into the bag and gave the bag to her grandpa, and they all walked away to find out if any of them could remember where they parked the car.