FOURTEEN years ago, small talk, seemingly artless and stupid, changed my life.
"What are you going to be doing for Christmas?" the woman asked.
I stared at her, hoping my silence would prompt her to remember that we were at a funeral. My mother's funeral.
My mother's body was upstairs in the church. I stood at the foot of the stairs, as if I were a child again, waiting for her to come down from adult service to meet me after Sunday school. She was not coming down.
I was having difficulty going up. Questions about silly things like Christmas weren't going to help me.
Although I gave her about 30 seconds of it, my silence did not jog the woman's memory. Neither did it make her disappear. So I told her I really wasn't thinking about Christmas. Somewhere during my mother's long illness and her death, I'd lost Christmas, I said. Besides, I thought to myself, what I hadn't lost I had thrown away two days before when I'd put all the family's Christmas ornaments out in the trash.
The woman's big brown eyes seemed to settle in a teary mist. She reached for me. I don't know whether she touched me. She said, "I understand how you feel, but you find your Christmas."
Later, alone in the dark emptiness of my mother's house, I went looking for Christmas in the only place I could be sure it would be: in my memory.
My search took me first to a train -- a choo-choo train. I was that young. Daddy was taking me to see the Christmas lights, I don't remember where. I was so excited that I could already see them, like visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.
After a while, the most beautiful woman who ever lived got on the train. After looking about the train, she sat next to my father and me. She was carrying a black and tan suitcase that seemed to be made of straw. She was so pretty that I couldn't look at her without giggling. I couldn't not look at her. So I looked and giggled, looked and giggled.
Although she talked to me as well as to my father, I don't remember hearing her speak. It was as though all of my other senses had shut down so that I could concentrate on seeing her.
I remember thinking she might be a college student. I saw her introduce herself. My father replied, "I'm Mr. Rivers, and this is my son, Jeffery." I saw her say that she hoped to do something wonderful with her life.
My father listened and nodded his head, the way he did when I told him I was going to be a professional baseball player, as if saying it made it so, as if he could already see it happening.
They went on like that for a while until she fell asleep with her head on his shoulder.
Remembering the train, my father and the woman made me understand that I've always felt a little bit of Christmas when a woman trusted me enough to put her head on my shoulder, trusted me enough to tell me her dreams.
No doubt, I would have stayed on that train of thought forever, if I hadn't been taken to another place by the memory of hearing my mother and father arguing in the middle of the night one Christmas Eve.
While I was supposedly sleeping in the next room, they were trying to put together a toy for me.
Although they were upset with each other, there was a special harmony to their voices as they worked together.
As I listened to them fight, I tried to imagine what this wonderful and complicated thing they struggled to assemble was.
The last thing I remember my father saying was something like: "Look, what time do you think he'll get up tomorrow? Let's put this stuff down for a while."
Relieved by the apparent truce, I began drifting off to sleep to the sweet sound of my parents' voices intertwined in a two-part laugh. I don't remember the gift; maybe they never gave it to me.
On and on, the Christmas memories danced in that lonely room 14 years ago, one connected to the other, like children holding hands. Some memories were happy, some sad, all were a part of me.
Since then, I have embraced Christmas like Ebenezer Scrooge returned from the spirits in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Like him, I have resolved to "honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."
I have found my Christmas.
I hope you have found yours.
Jeff Rivers is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.