In that very odd manner that train stations have, it was cozy and yet too full at the same time. To Pastor Dillingham, it was a haven. Or at least the prelude to a haven. He was on his way home for the Christmas holidays. And everything within sight fairly sparkled with homecoming cheer.
It had been a tiring year in his parish. The war, you know, complicated everything. And while he delighted in the everyday mechanics of ministry as well as the time spent in the pulpit, the burden of grief he carried along with the families in his charge felt at times too monstrous to bear.
If hadn’t been for the unselfish assistance of the “twin saints” as he called them, he doubted he could ever have managed. Emma and Susan had been members of the Faith Chapel congregation for as long as anybody could remember. Sisters who had seen more of life than he was old, they were industrious souls, collecting clothing for the needy, distributing baked goods far and wide and ministering to the children of the city; he felt sure there could be wings hiding under their sensible coats. But, whether maiden humans or heaven’s angels, he thanked God daily for them. Yet even they could not entirely lighten his load. He needed a rest, a Christmas break.
And so home to the farm he was going. Pastor Dillingham felt like a schoolboy at the thought – for there was nothing like the village of Greyston in December.
Leaning back against the bench in the station, he closed his eyes and conjured up in his mind the look of the little town nestled in a glen against a backdrop of wooded hills. He recalled the scent of cinnamon escaping from the bakery and the twinkle of colored Christmas bulbs in the front window of the hardware store. Of course, being a minister, he naturally thought of the little chapel on the main street and wondered if the village children would be staging their annual production of the nativity story, complete with farm animals and turban-shrouded shepherd boys. The parents and grandparents would agonize through each line uttered, a beatific smile on their proud faces as their quaking offspring participated in the thespian triumph. The cocoa and cookies following would not be the best, but it would be devoured amidst cooing over the young stars among the commoners.
The real delight though would be to lie in his bed past 9:00 and then putter around in his dressing gown if he felt like it. The fireplace in his childhood home would crackle with welcome all day long; mother would bake his favorite treats and stuff him with fattening goodness and father would draw him into a discussion of war tactics or the new model Chrysler was making – both of which he was miserably inadequate to discuss – the first because he was a preacher, not a soldier and the second because, as a preacher, he couldn’t afford the new model of car. But never mind that; he and father would go at the discussion as if both of them had the brains and the means to merit both subjects.
It was while he was wrapped in the comfort of these anticipations that he took notice of a young man hunched on a bench a few feet away. The uniform was a trifle rumpled though his shoes retained a glint of spit polish in spite of the snowy weather.
He was obviously on leave from the service, a weary warrior needing rest. Pastor Dillingham sympathized with him. Whatever the battle a man was in, Christmas was a welcome break. But the look on the young man’s face didn’t reveal any hint of hope for relaxation and comfort. Rather, he looked as if he were headed back to the front if the drawn expression and slumped shoulders were a clue.
Pastor Dillingham walked over to the bench where the young man was seated and nodded in friendliness. “Where are you going to spend the holidays, young man?”
The boy seemed startled to hear a human voice directed at him. “What?” His eyes looked bewildered. ‘Are you talking to me?”
“Indeed, son. Where are you going for the Christmas holiday?”
Pastor Dillingham took the vacant seat opposite the young man, not bothering to ask if he could. “Oh, to a canteen, I suppose. They have free beds and food.”
Pastor Dillingham leaned forward. “No family of your own?”
“Nah. My grandmother died a year back and I never had anyone but her anyway. No reason to go back to that place. They had to sell the house to pay for her doctor bills.”
“I’m so sorry.” And Pastor Dillingham was. In his way of thinking, there were few creatures on God’s earth more miserable than the man without a home. It reminded him of the Scripture where the Psalmist referred to himself as an owl in the wilderness. This boy had the look of wilderness all over him. He sank back in his seat, closing his eyes and letting his hands fall open at his sides.
Pastor Dillingham knew what he had to do. But he resisted for just a minute, just long enough to relish in his mind the sounds and smells and comfort he wasn’t going to enjoy. Emma and Susan had assured him that his seat at their table was open on any occasion. They wouldn’t be a bit surprised when he showed up on Christmas Day. If he knew them, they’d already been stirring and baking for days as if the entire Royal Army was going to be fed in their parlor. And he almost smiled in spite of the lump forming in his throat.
Pastor Dillingham straightened his back and signaled the porter. Then he scratched out a quick note on a scrap of paper from his pocket. “Father and Mother, please receive this young man in my name. Give him my room, my favorite foods and all the love that I know you have in your hearts. Believe me, you are doing this as unto me. I know your love unites us though we may be apart. Happy Christmas. May He who came from heaven for us all grace your hearts as you open them to this representative of me. Lovingly, Your Son.
“Sir, please see that this is telegraphed ahead to Ephraim Dillingham in Greyston. And I find that I must return to the city. This young man and I are trading places for a while. I know I can trust you to deliver him safely to those who will be waiting.”
The porter nodded agreeably and ambled off. And Pastor Dillingham took the ticket held limply in the young man’s fingers as he dozed and reaching into his overcoat, he tucked his own glorious passport to home and love into the uniformed shirt pocket and stepped back with a smile on his face. He hoped the “twin saints” had roasted a big turkey. Pastors had big appetites, especially at Christmas.