December 1951. Jamestown, N.Y.
Nancy Johnson is in no condition to brave bitter cold and crowds to see Santa Claus, no matter how much her 2-year-old begs. She's way past full term, closer to 10 months pregnant than nine. Her husband is out with some buddies.
But the mom inside Nancy caves. She and her son, Terry, catch a bus downtown and wait in line at Sears & Roebuck. Terry, who has wised up from his recent Halloween experience, sees something wrong with the jolly old man's beard. "Santa's got a mask on, Mom! Santa's got his mask on!"
"Tell that kid to shut up," someone yells from the line.
It's getting late by the time they leave and trudge uphill on icy sidewalks to catch a bus. Nancy clambers aboard an idle vehicle, only to discover it's a tour bus with sightseers headed home.
She disembarks and waits, with no more than bus fare in her pocket, her feet aching and a tired toddler in tow. She seeks shelter from the wind in the alcove of a jewelry store. An hour passes, maybe two. No more city buses come. Finally, someone stops.
The tour bus driver has dropped off his passengers and come back for her. "I'll take you home," he says.
They talk all the way, winding down one-way streets. She talks of her troubles. She points out a beautiful field of pine trees. They're spruce, he tells her.
Nancy invites him in for coffee, but it's late, and he has to go.
"Pray for me," she tells him. He promises. As he drives off, she notices the name on the side of the bus: Sharman Tours.
"I never forgot that man. I fell in love with that man that one night," Nancy says. "I was 19. … I was married. He was married. … I couldn't tell anyone. I told God."
• • •
Summer 2010. Holiday, Fla.
Nancy, now Nancy Ericsen, lives at Sunshine Christian Homes. She has lived a full life. She divorced her first husband after three years and married a nice man named Bob Ericsen. In 2007, two months shy of their 50th anniversary, Bob died.
Nancy began to spend time at Sunshine, a senior living center, with a man named Don. He had also been married twice and recently lost his spouse. He looked familiar the first time they met, but Nancy couldn't say why.
The two watched movies, dissected crossword puzzles, shared bottles of ginger ale.
Nancy had found friendship and peace at the age of … what?
"You know what that is?" Nancy says. "Doesn't matter. It's only a number."
"Yes," Don pipes in, "and mine is 90."
• • •
One day not long ago, the two thumbed through Don's scrapbook. Old photos glued to construction paper, a half-dozen pages, some falling out. There was his dog, Brownie. There was Donald Benjamin Sharman, circa 1944, in his Army Air Forces uniform. And there was a cut-out print ad of a bus with "Sharman Tours" emblazoned on the side.
"I know that bus," Nancy thought. "I know that man, and I know that bus. Where have I seen that before?"
Nancy couldn't sleep, not that night or the next. Then, as if a light had flicked on, the memories came flooding back.
The kind bus driver. She remembered his face, his mannerisms.
"That's the angel that picked me up and took me home," she says later, sitting at Don's side. He takes her hand.
Don recalls driving his tour bus in upstate New York in the early '50s. He was the driver on the Jamestown route, though his memory of that night is hazy. He beams when Nancy talks about her hero.
"Don feels like God sent him to me," Nancy says. "I feel the same way. God sent me to him."
• • •
Most days, Nancy meets Don in the Sunshine lobby around 10 a.m., after chapel and exercise. Often, there's drama club practice. The entourage is putting on a skit inspired by the '80s sitcom The Golden Girls. Nancy plays Betty White's character, Rose. They're prepping for a show in August.
Don isn't part of the club, but he'll show up to support Nancy.
And after the show, he'll be there to escort her to her room.
To take her home, again.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-893-8242.1 inch 1 inch of body type 1