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The Christmas Eve Stranger

Updated: Dec 23, 2019

A Chance Encounter At The Magic Pan

It was as busy as could be expected that Christmas Eve. The oversized mall was bustling with the kind of crowd that can either be infuriating or invigorating, depending on what kind of person you are. Some folks were frantic, down to the wire and still clueless what to buy, while others enjoyed leisurely window shopping and making a last-minute purchase or two.

It was the mid 90s, and I was with my mom and grandparents at a restaurant inside the South Coast Plaza mall called The Magic Pan. I must set the stage for your first, as the backdrop of the story is what heavily contributed to the wonder of the evening. The restaurant was mildly upscale; waiters wore white button-up shirts and long black aprons as they moved attentively through the starch tablecloths and well-dressed patrons. I remember dark wood paneling and molding, evergreen colored carpet and dainty wall lamps. Three steps led up to an alcove room, where we were seated at a corner table. It was dimly lit and perfect in every way. It was the kind of setting I so often wish I could crawl back into; where people were friendlier and not so easily divided; back when we had more in common than not and we actually talked to each other instead of staring at our cell phones.

Our meal was over, and we all lingered with coffee and dessert. I don't remember how the conversation started, but my grandfather began talking to the man next to us. He was reserved and by himself, in a cream colored cable-knit sweater. The small talk soon turned into a full blown conversation, and we happily invited him to join our table. I don't recall much of what we talked about, other than he was on a business trip and would possibly be alone for Christmas. I remember laughing and feeling happy, like the idea of goodwill toward men was alive and well again. It was like an old fashioned movie, where everyone is elegant and frankly, the best version of themselves. My grandmother, who herself was a bit reserved and sometimes prickly, ended up inviting him over for Christmas day. He never came, but we understood because we were in fact, strangers.

I can't quite put my finger on what it was about that night that made it so memorable. Maybe it was the fact that he was alone, we were a family, and the four of us felt that fleeting joy of befriending a stranger. Have you ever met someone like that? I have a handful of times in my life. It's hard to describe those encounters isn't it? I can only hope you had an experience like this too, and are able to relate.

A few years later 9/11 happened, grandma died and we left California and moved to Tennessee. Grandpa passed a few years after that, then the recession, job losses and our son was born. Needless to say life went on, and moments like the night at The Magic Pan became fewer and farther between. I often think that's one of the hardest things about being an adult. Each day the wonder dies a little more.

I have desperately scoured the internet for pictures of the long-gone Magic Pan, but have only found a few. The photos I've found don't capture the enchantment I remember, but, then again, they probably never could. The eatery still exists, but only as a fast food chain-nothing like the classy restaurant it was.

So many things like that are long gone now. My grandparents, places from my childhood, my son being a baby. Places in time I can't get back to; I can only remember them as I reminisce. When life gets hard these are the memories I cling to. The Christmas eve stranger is one of my favorites, because, for a moment, everything in the world was as it should be.

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