Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Joel Sanda

I didn't know Joel Sanda personally. In fact, I had only been to his house, a couple blocks from mine, a handful of times to see the elaborate train sets, villages, and other Christmas decore that filled his seemingly small home.

During the December months his street was lined with cars, so when we did go to visit the congested area, it required walking in a couple hundred yards in the frigid Idaho weather. Then you had to wait in line outside his house; ultimately standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers who also came to see the amazing collections one man filled not only in his home, but in his heart and life.

I never felt any initial connection the event but simply considered it one of the annual Idaho FAlls traditions that were an option during the December month. Preferably for a date and not simply an LDS mutual activity on a Tuesday night!

One particular time I went on a date with my HS sweetheart and I recall being glad we could walk hand in hand through the cold winter night to his house. That particular visit we actually scored a parking place close by Joel's house and therefore our hand holding was brief but it stands out in my mind.

As a teenager, what astounded me, was the extent Joel went to in decorating. I didn't realize it was to bring joy to a lonely heart, a smile to a child's face or a reminder to frenzied adults to slow down and recall the magic of Christmas. And to so many strangers, nonetheless.

Joel's dedication went to the extent that he made large, mouse like holes through the walls of his house so that the trains could chug through to the other rooms, circle his displays and capture our imaginations before they disappeared into the menagerie.

Heck, Padre has a coniption if he hears me pound a pin sized hole in the wall- to hang a painting- so the fact this man could go through dry wall like that showed some serious dedciation that I had to admire!

Another aspect about Joel's house that astounded me, was the welcoming spirit he had to all who came inside. I mean, here were complete strangers, shoulder to shoulder, walking through his living room- which was devoid of any furniture but the tables that held his trains and miniature towns- who would mingle down the hall, passed his bathroom- the door open and welcoming if you or a kid needed a pit stop, and into two separate back bedrooms. Then turn back track so you could see the basement.

Everyone had to be considerate and allow time for those in front to shuffle around one another to exit a room and head to the next, down the hall, and into his kitchen. His kitchen!! I remember looking at magnets on his fridge holding letters from school kids thanking him for the display, and even seeing a pot or two next to the sink signifying that he had soup for dinner.

You were treated like family, given license to make yourself feel at home and meander through his house like a relative or back door friend. Passing his dining room table you turned left and descended into his basement.

The stairs seemed steep to me at the time but that could have been a child hood memory, and again you passed by strangers as they were retracing their way up the stairs and out of the house through the front door. It was a bustle of activity. I even recall a ledge on the right that held a collection of cups. Were they Irish? Is that just a figment of my imagination? Were there his Nutcracker collection all lined up?

The details are fuzzy.

The basement seemed to have a softer glow to it. At least it did the last time I visited. I recall that he had his manger scenes set up down there at one time and I liked those. He carefully placed lights to create the ambiance needed.

The carousels, moving trains, chattering children- all made for quite an evening.

However, I often felt rushed. If there were a lot of people in line to see the display I felt guilty and tried to make my way through the house as quickly as I could. There was always so much to see! One or two things always caught my eye. Whether it was the ferris wheel that turned amidst a carnival below, a train that blew real steam as it crept through the intricate play land.

The one time I went to Joel's thatI don't recall a single part of the display, except that I was with my Sweetheart. My only recollections of that evening are the feel of his warm hand in mine, clenching it every so often- the way he did, to keep it warm as we waited outdoors and even as we weaved in and out of rooms. The way I could lean into his chest as we waited for those in front of us and he would hold me close to him.

The wait didn't bother me then because I was in my own dreamland. The way my man smelled overpowered any scents that others visiting brought into the house. Only his cologne, mixed in with whatever his mother used to wash his laundry and his signature scent, filled my nose and my mind.

I know we must have made others gag. Not because of major displays of affection. But that we were lost in each other and probably held up the line at some point due to the state of oblivion we were in at the time. But we were there to be with each other, Joel's seemed a nice excuse and it proved to create a lifetime memory. The kind that belong in some Richard Sparks novel made into a movie. O.K. not quite. But you get the pic.

It was back when things were innocent in life and the displays took and take you there, again and again.

--That was the extent of my Joel Sanda recollections. The last visit I made to his home was when Jaden was small- but just tall enough to get a bird's eye view of the magic in front of him- which a lot of us adults missed. However, I recall being worried that he'd break something and was on the look out for him to not touch anything. (I hate that stage- the one that you worry about what your kid does and the financial ramifications. Funny, that doesn't ever end.)

The first connection I felt toward Joel Sanda- the real connection- came when I worked the voting polls two Novembers ago. It was my last time volunteering; doing the day long stint of helping community members cast their votes. I enjoyed seeing my neighbors, catching up with many of them, that, I'd either delivered papers to, or simply saw as we drove in and out of our neighborhoods and waved to each other. We didn't have time to talk to one another outside of that because life is like that, right?

Joel came in to vote and while he waited for those ahead of him and I pushed the button on the recorder that gave the well rehearsed tape on how to vote; I stopped it and looked up at him from my seat (which I'd been glued to for the about 6 straight hours)and asked if he had started to put up his collections.

He was solemn. He told me that he wouldn't be able to put it up in his house the upcoming season. I was shocked.

Something serious had to be going on- he'd done it for years!!!!!!!!!! I leaned back into the chair I'd been glued to all day.

Concerned, I said: You are kidding me!" And asked: " why not?"

"Well, I've had cancer and I just can't get it up this year." He held his emotions in bravely in tact. But I sat horrified at what he was feeling.

I hate to admit, but sitting at my little desk where I played the same tape over and over all day to voters about hanging chads,etc. it was the first time that day that I really looked my neighbor in the eyes and heard him.

I could connect to pain. Suffering. Not cancer. Not of being able to put up his Christmas collection, but of the pain that accompanied what you lost with that physical malady. No I haven't had cancer. But I've had enought to have to had to have seen a lot of the dreams, hopes and goals I wanted to do- thrown out the window.

We looked at each other and took in whatever it is people take in when you have an understanding of reality. I thanked him for his display.

Stumbled through some thoughts on what it has meant to me.. Asked if the Post Register had heard about this new turn of events, promised to get them called and a story done on it.

I wanted to offer to help set it up or something. How awful! We depended on him to keep the tradition in Idaho Falls alive! -Yet in my heart I knew that he needed to rest. All that stuff...

that wonderful, Christmas stuff- was okay to leave alone for the time. Heck, I could barely help folks vote, let alone set up that whole thing!

I knew I wouldn't see him again at the voting polls or anywhere after this point. I knew that this unique man's hobby would silently fall into the archives of memory and I.F. lore - that I needed to somehow make that happen.

Joel voted. We said good-bye. I wished him luck throughout his battle in the chemo. Did I stand and shake his hand? I can't remember. I hope that I did. I should have hugged him but I wasn't going to cross that boundary at the polls. Luckily,not many went to vote so we had the time to talk. The fact he made the effort even though he was sick, made an impression on me. Which made me make another mental note that it if he could at least do that... then I needed to always make the effort not onlhy to vote, but to serve others- bring some happiness.

When the paper did an article on him, I read it and felt a bit of sadness. But not a great deal. I didn't know him, you see. Just respected and appreciated his ability to share joy with others. I didn't know his life story. Just that he liked to bring smiles to our faces and that must have made him a special guy. And that, sadly, we wouldn't have his house on our tradition of things to do list.

'Til this year, when Madre started bringing one Joel building home at a time; a boarding house here, two story drug store and Barber shop there,

a bridge and a horse drawn sleigh pulling bundled up passengers past a church.

Little by little she set each village upon the mantle and lit them with a soft glowing bulb. It seemed to bring the spirit alive. Yet I wasn't totally sold on the whole Sanda buying up of his collections idea.

Every pay day she'd come home and sneak a new Sanda item found, onto the mantle or hutch. I'd been suspicious when she started skipping her lunch at home and race to wherever it was she was finding these little treasures. When her shift ended, I thought she'd be home with in her usual time but as December continued, I knew she was out adding to her personal collection.

Later I would spot a train station on the china cabinet;

knowing it wasn't just Joel's love of trains that instigated the purchase, but triggered memories of her father, working on the trains at night and the low mournful sound they make that can be heard from the exact area that Joel's treasures are being sold: The Trackside Mall.

Soon a boarding house and a small cabin with a covered bridge were added- She was acting like a delighted school girl at Christmas time with each new treasure she'd bring home.

I couldn't help but pull out some of my woodland animals to add to the scenery around her collection and rearrange the trees or some of the pine scenery to make it look natural.

One day, I cornered Madre: "What's with all the secrecy? Where are you getting all these things?"

"Oh, I found out that Joel Sanda's villages are being sold and some of them are at the Trackside mall!!" she said excitedly.

uh, oh.

Me: "Trackside Mall? Where the heck is that? (thinking that the Grinch would catch on to it and flip gasket.

Madre: "Oh, it's down by Pacific Recycling."

Me: "What?" J takes his pop cans down there to recycle and I never saw a mall once.

"But I'm done now. --I think I might need a little bridge for this display. Hmmm..." She'd get a calculating and imaginative look but resolve: "I'm done. I won't buy any more!" She said like an in decisive alcoholic.

Each lighted house started to help us feel the Christmas spirit; They were up before the tree. It was Fun to lift up the grandkids to stare into on the mantel and hard to keep them from picking the ones up at eye level on the hutch. It started the magic.

(Special Thanks to Roy Orbison's In Dreams randomly playing from one of Padre's radios on the am station. It helped me re-create a dreamy feeling and find some inspiration to capture the feel of Joel's display and love gone by. And gracias to Padre for ruining the moment when he discovered that his Roy Orbison CD is missing. I swear it wasn't me!!! )

Part Two of Joel (Trackside Mall Post) coming...

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