I am fumbling in the console, looking for my Jim Reeves Christmas CD, when I notice the wall of rolling, gray clouds approaching from the east.  The sun is sliding slowly beneath the horizon in the west, shooting shards of orange-red hues into the purple-blue sky, presenting a striking contrast to the dark gray wall, fading into black in its core, bearing down on us like a biblical judgment.

It is Christmas Eve, and I am on the road, heading south from Ft. Worth to a family gathering in central Texas.

My kids are sleeping, and my wife fades in and out, dozing in the beautiful half-light of the evening.  I am alone to listen, to see, and to think.  The sight of approaching judgment prompts me to envision the massive, rolling wall as one of Pharaoh’s charioteers watching the Red Sea prepare to swallow him.  Even so, Gentlemen Jim’s music (Long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible says . . . ) eases my apprehension.  And the storm never came.

That night, we share a Christmas spread with my wife’s extended family and play a little game: Each of us draws a number for an anonymous gift.  But the game doesn’t end there.  After each gift is opened, the next person in line can either risk the luck of the draw or good-naturedly force a previous recipient to hand over a particularly desirable present, prompting a fresh exchange.  My wife wisely hangs on to a Shop Vac, a gift that will likely prove useful in a family with three kids and a dog.

Afterward, a kindly uncle asks about a close relation who has been diagnosed with cancer.  His inquiry takes me by surprise: I’ve been preoccupied with my own selfish concerns and had almost forgotten about it.  I thank him for his concern—and remember a painful moment from years before, when I had forgotten about the death of a boyhood friend’s father.  My youngest daughter, her sweet face illuminated by the lights of the Christmas tree, begins singing a hymn of the Christ Child, and all fall silent to listen and watch.  Somehow, I find the prospect of her salvation much more believable than of my own.

On Christmas Day, we enjoy an abundant dinner, and the family, as is traditional in these parts, retires to the kitchen table for a game of dominos.  Some appear to consider this a contact sport, so I choose to sit this one out.  

I can’t shake the melancholy that overtook me the day before.  It’s evening, but the sun is peeking out again, so I decide to take a walk in the breezy, brisk, 40-something degree air of this little town, retracing a walk I took years before down Pecan Street by the creek that runs parallel to Railroad Street, with a park sandwiched in between.

I walk down the cracked pavement of Pecan Street, strolling along the creek lined with its namesake trees, looking at the modest little homes bedecked in an equally modest array of Christmas lights, Nativity scenes, and merry Santas.  The post-September 11 flags are everywhere—on the cars, flying from the homes, and decorating the rusting bumpers of what we used to call, tongue-in-cheek, “cowboy Cadillacs.”  (One pickup’s sticker defiantly proclaims “Don’t Burn This Flag!”)

Over on Railroad Street, the railroad is gone, leaving behind a battered Santa Fe boxcar and the ghostly remnants of a feed mill—the ruins of a bygone civilization, there to remind us that our small towns, like the people who inhabit them, are fading away.  But the little homes are full tonight; the young people are back, and the old ones smile again and remember.

It may have been Gentlemen Jim’s music that eventually took the edge off my gloomy mood.  Sitting in the car a few days later, waiting on my wife to run an errand, I push the button on the CD player, and that mellow voice brings Jim back from the sweet by-and-by (May the good Lord bless and keep you . . . ), then reminds us of why the Christ Child was born (Dear Lord, forgive . . . ).  Suddenly, everything’s all right; the shadow has lifted from my soul as swiftly as it had descended days before.

The cold snap hasn’t ended, but outside, the thick, gray clouds have broken, so I step out to watch the sun arch westward in a halo of glowing cotton puffs.  A fat little sparrow bounces on the limbs of a leafless post oak, then flits over to light on an evergreen cedar.