There is one place I would love to take Duncan for a walk, but we can only get there at Christmas and only because my grandmother––who loved Christmastime more than any other time of year, and worked tirelessly to ensure it was as magical for her children and grandchildren as it was for her––built it with her own two hands. You won't find it on any map for no roads leads there. The only compass that will lead you there is a willingness to open your heart–– if only for one day––and allow your imagination to see the world as you did when you were very small and new to the world.
My grandmother was a woman who always needed something to do, be it quilting baby blankets for each of her grandchildren, constructing magical hot-air balloons from mesh and yarn, redecorating the house every few years, fishing with my grandfather, and then finally assembling the Christmas village that took a decade to build, although I'm sure if she was she still with us it would have continued to grow and expand as all good places should.
While many people have a Christmas village none compare to Grandma's. She hand-painted every piece––all one hundred twenty buildings––and all of the snow-covered trees that filled it. At first it was only a few houses and shops, but over the years it grew and grew and finally my grandfather was summoned to build a mountain, which he did because he wanted to make her happy and loved her more than anything, even fishing and tying flies. Each year the mountain rose up, nearly six feet high, in their front room, comprised of ten street levels. It was wired so that each home lit up as though the occupants were gathering for Christmas dinner. The Dickensian street lamps in front of the houses glowed a soft orange and cast warm pools of light in the cottony snow at their bases. A vast night sky hung overhead with mirrored stars and a miniature Santa in his sleigh, with all the reindeer, flying overhead. Down below, at the base, a farmhouse and livestock looked out over a long train track that wound in a circle, around it. An electric train chugged across it, vanishing into a tunnel on one side only to emerge a few moments later on the other.
It was remarkable feat, the pride of all her hard work and hobbies, and each year when we arrived on Christmas day, she would take me by the hand and lead me into the front room to visit the village and show me all the new additions, not just to the mountain but to her entire collection spread throughout the house, from the crystal snowman and woman who ice skated to the bells she hung in the door that played the most magnificent Christmas songs.
Grandma's death was the hardest thing I have ever endured and although my heart broke the morning she passed, I could not help but wonder how Christmas could ever be the same. The village was divided up among her children and grandchildren, never to be complete again. My portion, though, means more to me than anything else I own, and when I assemble it and turn on those lights I can't help but imagine trudging through its snowy street with Duncan, stopping in the cafe for a cup of hot chocolate, hearing the bell on the door ring when we enter the pet store, smelling the warm coffee and deep woody scent of the bookstore, listening to the bells toll in the church steeple that rises above the duck pond where the geese flock. Duncan's tags would jingle on his leash like silver bells and no one would mind my whistling "The Carol of the Bells," my favorite Christmas carol, as we peeked in the shop windows and waved to the people inside their warm, cozy homes as they draped garland on their trees or placed the star on top.
This is my seventh Christmas without Grandma but looking at my piece of the great village she created and sitting in the dark with Duncan while I envision our walk through it, has kept her Christmas spirit very much alive. Sometimes, in the house she painted with her address, which sits front and center, next to the big tree that lights up with a hundred tiny bulbs, I imagine I can see her there, back in the kitchen making divinity and fudge, preparing the dill bread she knew I loved so much, wiping her fingers on her apron at the sight of me outside her window.
"Merry Christmas, Curtie," she would say.
"Merry Christmas, Grandma," I would beam as we leaned in to hug and kiss each other on the cheek.
And then she would take me by the hand, pull me inside and lead me around to see the red and green and golden magic she loved so much.
Merry Christmas, Grandma. I miss you.