My mother had fallen ill during the Christmas Season of 2011. That horrible demon known as Alzheimer’s was slowly tightening its grip on her memory and functions. It was soon obvious that she needed to be institutionalized and have round-the-clock care and treatment for her devastating illness.

The darkness of winter grew longer each day, and our holiday spirits were darkened as well. My wife Yoko and I thought it would be a good idea to brighten up her home once again with a Christmas Tree in the living room to help rekindle the flames of the Christmas season. So for the first time in more than a few years, there was once again a Christmas tree in mom’s house.

Seeing that tree set up in the living room made me recall that I had stuffed my American Flyer train set somewhere in the confines of her garage. I poked around for a bit and turned up the missing ornament that made the tree complete. After a bit of coaxing and a good cleaning of the wheels, it was chuffing down the track again for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, making hard left turns at 100 scale miles an hour! And oh, the smoke, the unforgettable smell of that blue gray haze that pumped out of the stack with each turn of the wheels—the train clattering over the crossing bell, lights flashing as my Flyer train went racing by. All evening long it ran, conjuring fond memories of seasons past.

Her gift from that Christmas long ago had a great impact on my life . . .

The next morning, as I hurriedly prepared for the day, I rushed by our Christmas tree scene from the evening prior. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly became aware of the resemblance of our 2011 scene to one I recalled from a photograph taken many Christmases ago. Back to the garage I went, this time in search of that photo album. I found it! There it was, on the second page of that album, me with my American Flyer set, Christmas 1962! Indeed the resemblance was striking!

“The rest of the day can wait” I thought, “I need to make this Then & Now image right away!”

I suppose that by creating of this Then and Now image I was trying to connect with my past. Recalling these happy visions of a six-year-old with his train set running under the Christmas tree turned out to be a very therapeutic experience for me. Somehow, it gave cause and purpose to continue ahead no matter what the future may hold.

A few weeks ago the future caught up with us and my mother passed away peacefully with her family by her side. It was a sad experience indeed, but it came with a great sense of relief as well, knowing that her struggles with an awful disease is now over and that she can finally rest in peace and be with God.

Her gift from that Christmas long ago had a great impact on my life, both professionally and personally. It planted the seed of understanding the meaning of responsibility, to respect and care for your possessions, how to share your joy with others, and a deep appreciation of history. This year her gift will give once again as the Flyer rolls around the Christmas tree filling our home with that wonderful blue-gray smoke, and filling us with many fond memories of a great woman and a wonderful mother. 

Steve CriseText and photographs Copyright 2018

10 thoughts on “Christmas Then and Now

  1. This is just an amazing re-creation!! A real “Time Machine” effort. This combo should be framed and mounted up on an appropriate wall!!

  2. Steve, wonderful story that relates to so many of us of a certain age. I was six in 1951 when my Grandfather built me a layout with a simple loop and two switches on a plywood board. I remember that morning seeing my “layout” for the first time. I still feel the joy of that moment. Only difference was I was a Lionel kid, thanks to Grandpa’s German friend who owned the Treasure Chest Lionel store in Garfield, NJ. I never did understand how American Flyer could run on two rails…

  3. Steve,

    An outstanding story, great writing, and as always excellent photography. Thank you for sharing your Christmas past and present. Many of us, me included, cherish a link to our youth with that loop of electrified track around our parent’s living room tree. I have a photo of myself at the age of 4 months watching the Santa Fe warbonnet Southwest Chief. I no longer have that set, but do own a pair of O-27 Lionel Lines freight trains that have been in the family; and will be passed on to my nephew/Godson. The train around my tree this year is an On30 D&RGW #268 Bumble Bee with matching wooden gold coaches – again to someday be handed off to a family member.

    With the photo excursions some us participate in we try to recreate the bygone era of the rich railroading past- in a way your story and pair of images has done exactly that.

    A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


  4. So often simple gestures, or acts of kindness become the most memorable and meaningful in our lives. Thank you for the reflection, I hope your story resonates for others as it does with me.

  5. Your story brings back so much of my past also. When you mention the smoke it brought back what my mother did for me. I use to put pills in the stack and the engine would smoke, I put to many in and would clog it and my mother would have to take it apart to clean it! You and I are only a few years apart so I can relate to much of your story thank you for sharing. It has given me some ideas for a story myself.

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