My sister was running late.
She called my son's cell phone to say she was stuck on the two-lane part of the trip, driving behind a mowing crew.
"She says we have plenty of time to get a burger or something," my son, Jack, says after hanging up and slipping his phone in his pocket.
We have been making this trip for years, meeting my sister or parents at the state park rest area halfway between our house in the city and their house in the woods. It's a little over an hour drive each way.
Since the boys were very small, we have met at this same spot. When they were little, it was a longer hand-off, transferring car seats, then booster seats from our car to theirs. This year, Jack complained that he could have driven the entire way himself, now that he has his license. He could have saved Aunt Sissy the trip, he says, if only we would break down and buy a new car.
"I know. I know," I say; but secretly, I am happy for the hour's drive with Jack. Next time, he probably will drive the whole way himself. He is spending the week with my parents. His younger brother will have a turn later in the summer. My mother will fix their favorite foods, my sister will play cards with them, and my dad will make jokes and ride around with them in his four-wheel drive mule. Each boy will have another summer week to remember.
We drive down the curvy road that leads away from the rest area and the interstate and back toward the park area.
"Look," Jack says, pointing to a wood-framed souvenir shop on the side of the road, "fresh fudge. When I'm a grown-up, I'm going to eat fudge everyday."
I was still feeling a little fuzzy from the pancakes and syrup we had for breakfast.
"We do NOT need fudge," I say. "Besides...it's not really fresh in these little shops. I'm sure they ship it in from somewhere." I actually have no idea; but it seems unlikely that someone is in there making fudge.
We stop anyway.
Jack nearly laughs out loud when we walk in and see an elderly woman making fresh fudge; but before he can say, 'told you so,' the two of us are captivated by the store's inventory. The entire store is decorated with dozens of tiny Christmas villages. It's as if Jack, and I, and the little woman making fudge are giants in this tiny world of mitten-clad miniature figurines. Most of the people who populate the village scenes are only as tall as my pinky finger. Some are poised to throw snowballs, others are walking on icy streets made of glass, some diminutive children decorate a Christmas tree, a pink-cheeked couple sits on an elfin bench beneath the glow of a miniature working street light.
Each separate village boasts dozens of figurines and porcelain cars and intricately detailed houses and churches and shops. We tiptoe, trying to quiet the shuffling of our giant feet, past Dickens Village, A Christmas Story Village, Christmas in the City, Alpine Village, Holiday in the Woods, New England Village, Winter's Frost, Original Snow Village, the North Pole...
Each village's name is typed on a yellowed piece of card stock, propped in the frayed cotton snow in front of each scene.
It's mesmerizing and magical...the squeak of our shoes against the thickly-waxed wood floors, the hum of the air conditioning, the buttery smell of fudge, and these tiny scenes set up with such meticulous care.
After circling the entire shop, I feel as if I am losing track of time. My sister will be waiting, I think; but I can't help revisiting some of my favorite villages for one last peek. We exchange a few friendly words with the shopkeeper who talks to us while swirling a spatula over the thick rectangle of fudge she has poured on a block of marble.
She asks where we are from; and we tell her, but strangely we don't ask her the same question.
She says the store is open year-round, except for January and February. Her eyes twinkle from behind round, wire-rimmed glasses.
We leave the store, and trudge silently back into the heat of summer.
"I feel like we just passed up some excellent fudge," Jack says, once we are both in the car. I start to give in and go back to buy the fudge; but some part of me is afraid if I open that heavy wooden door again, we will find a typical souvenir shop...t-shirts and mugs and key chains; but no fudge, no Christmas village, no jolly Mrs. Claus.
I decide to drive away, preserving that magical place, choosing to remember my son and me, careful giants allowed a glimpse into the magical worlds of someone else's dreams.