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The Best Stories Are About Christmas

(And dogs)

      All the best stories are about dogs. This is the opinion of my 10-year-old daughter, so her claim carries some weight.
      But for me, all the best stories take place at Christmas. Whether I am watching Southern High School’s production of A Christmas Carol or reading the story of Nativity from the Gospel of Luke, I am reminded that miracles happen in the presence of those who believe, and all the best stories contain miracles.
      It just so happens I have a Christmas story about a dog and a miracle. It doesn’t take place in Annapolis but in a similarly old city surrounded by its own estuary and marshlands and steeped in its own history, 500 miles south, on the peninsula of Charleston, South Carolina.
       There, in 1972, my aunt and uncle, Linda and Harry, lived, worked and raised children. Harry was an auto mechanic and Linda a homemaker and stay-at-home mom to their three sons. Shortly before the birth of their fourth and final child, they adopted Mickey, a bassett-hound mix with the personality of a country preacher. The family moved to the suburb of James Island that same year, and Mickey basked in the semi-rural surroundings of his new home.
      Now James Island feels like a bustling city in its own right, but back then, it was a sleepy bedroom community. Located between the Holy City and Folly Beach, it was where suburban tract housing met marshland and the past. Linda and Harry’s brick ranch-style house was at the end of a street. A manmade canal ran through their backyard, and their lot bordered undeveloped land my cousins called the little hills. We often brought GI Joe action-figures and Barbie dolls to the little hills and played there. I was an adult before I realized the little hills were Civil War earthworks. 
      On most mornings, Linda would let Mickey out of the house. Being a social fellow, he would go visiting. He’d stop in on neighbors for a pat on the head and an extra meal. By the time he made it to the end of the street, his belly would be full and he would be too tired to walk all the way home. So he’d wait on the corner for the mail-carrier and hitch a ride in his Jeep. As the mail carrier filled my aunt and uncle’s mailbox with the usual assortment of bills, notices, magazines and letters, Mickey would hop out and waddle to the front porch where he would wait for the children to come home from school. A true creature of habit, ­Mickey rarely broke from his daily routine. 
      One afternoon, however, Mickey was not waiting on the front porch when the children got off the school bus. He wasn’t inside the house, either. Linda had opened the door for him that morning, as she did every day, but he had never returned home.
       In those days before internet, great effort was made through personal contact when tracking down a lost pet. Linda went door to door talking with neighbors. Harry checked the local animal shelters and the county pound. The children made hand-written signs that read Lost Dog and stapled them to light posts. Everyone cried. Everyone prayed. Everyone waited.
      A tearful week went by. Then, two. A month, and then, a year. Many assumed the slow-moving, low-to-the-ground Mickey had become an easy snack for a hungry alligator. Others believed a dog so friendly was taken in by someone who didn’t know, or failed to care, that he already had a loving home.
       Eventually, the tears stopped, and life, a little less happy, resumed its usual pace.
      Four whole years went by with no sign of Mickey. Then, on Christmas Eve, as Harry was leaving his job at the Sears Automotive Center in downtown Charleston, he spotted something in the parking lot sitting next to his car. In the dimming light of late afternoon, as he walked closer, Harry saw that something stand up on four short legs and wag its tail. “A dog?” he thought. “Why is a dog standing next to my car?”
       With the hustle of last-minute shoppers hurrying home, temperatures dropping and church bells ringing, Harry realized it wasn’t just any dog waiting beside his car. It was Mickey — and he looked every bit as fat and happy as he had been on the day he disappeared. Harry ran to his car, opened the door and Mickey hopped in as if this was now part of his daily routine. 
       As he drove home, one eye on the road and one on his newly returned companion, Harry, no doubt, was already asking the questions for which we would never have answers. Where had Mickey been? Who had been taking care of him? How did he happen to find Harry’s car in the parking lot of Sears, nearly 10 miles from their home?
       That Christmas Eve, none of the unanswerable questions mattered. What did matter was that a miracle had occurred. When Harry walked through the front door with Mickey at his heels, Linda and the children stopped trimming the tree, hanging the stockings and dressing for church. Mickey’s unexplainable, unanticipated return brought on as many tears as his sudden disappearance had years earlier. 
       This is how this story lives in my mind and how I have recounted it to my own children whenever they have asked for a happy story about my childhood. 
      In August of this year, Harry died, and I went home to Charleston to his funeral. After a touching service and too much good food, heavy hearts temporarily gave way to beloved memories. We sat in my aunt’s kitchen eating, laughing, reminiscing and reaffirming my long-held belief that Southerners are inherently great story­tellers. With my aunt and my cousins present, I said, “I always tell my kids the story of Mickey and his miraculous return on Christmas Eve! What a Christmas miracle that was!”
       Silence. “Susan, Mickey didn’t come back on Christmas Eve. It was a hot, sticky afternoon in July,” one of my cousins said, correcting me and correcting a memory I had held close to my heart for over 40 years.
       At that point, I knew I had a choice to make: I could accept that I had been telling the story wrong for as long as I could remember or I could continue to think of Mickey’s return as a Christmas miracle, a story heart-warming enough to be made into a seasonal Hallmark channel movie. 
      I am choosing to leave the story as it is in my memory with carols sung in the background and snow gently falling as Harry brought long-lost Mickey back home.
      After all, all the best stories are Christmas stories.