This was published in Nov. 2011 in my local Patch.com edition, but I thought it was appropriate for this week.
It was 1984, and I’d just arrived in California, young, newly divorced looking to reinvent myself and my life. The timing wasn’t so good: Christmas just a few weeks away and I was alone in a new place where I knew no one. It was me and my cat, BeeBoo, and the vast unknown that was the South Bay. After the initial excitement had worn off, I was more than a little disconsolate.
I lived in Los Gatos, close enough to venture to downtown, where I’d walk around in the crisp fall air, looking at the holiday decorations, wondering what I was doing there and how on earth I’d ever make friends. My human interaction consisted of short conversations with grocery clerks and gas station attendants. (Yes, there was such a thing, once upon a time.)
Days seemed long, nights were even longer and so cold. I spent many hours curled up under a blanket, talking on the phone with family and friends back East. When I hung up, forlorn, alone in my house, I wondered if I’d done the right thing, if I would ever call this strange and beautiful new place home.
The world outside Los Gatos seemed huge and frenzied. I’d moved from a small, sleepy, Southern town to this big place with multiple freeways that were bumper to bumper with purposeful people all going somewhere. I felt awed and intimidated by the crush.
My sense of direction had never been good, so the thought of venturing beyond Los Gatos was daunting. But after a couple of weeks of walking the same streets, the isolation was overwhelming. After petting BeeBoo for courage and murmuring a “wish me luck” into her furry ear, I threw on a jacket, grabbed my car keys and drove off into the unknown.
I found Highway 17 right away, and took it north, past the Camden exit and then Hamilton, where I spotted a huge Peace on Earth sign atop a lone tall building. The Lark Avenue exit was next, followed by 280, another freeway. It seemed like a maze; would I ever learn my way around?
Throwing caution to the wind, I took an exit and drove around some neighborhoods, trying to remember my bearings. Christmas lights twinkled in the dusk and a few fir trees leaned against garages, waiting. I took it all in, wondering if next year I’d have a tree and ornaments and friends with whom to share the holiday. It seemed impossible.
I found my way back to Highway 17 and had to choose the way home: north or south. (Like I said, my sense of direction had never been very good.) I chose south, tentatively, apprehensively, and entered a line of traffic at a metering light, something I’d never seen before.
Surrounded by commute traffic, I slowly made my way south. Exit after exit seemed unfamiliar. It was already dark. Was I going in the right direction? Was I going to be lost? Who would I call if I couldn’t find my way home? I tried not to panic.
And then, I saw it. Peace on Earth. Huge, it lit up the rooftop and, relieved, I let it lead me home. Throughout my first Christmas in my new home it served as a beacon in the cold night, reassuring me that I was on the right track, going in the right direction.
Later, I learned that the sign sat atop Tower 1 of the Pruneyard shopping center, but to me, then, it was just a familiar holiday milepost somewhere off Highway 17.
Some 10 years later, the aging light display went dark. It had become a safety hazard, officials said. I looked for it every Christmas thereafter, long after I’d learned my way around, and was disappointed that it no longer shone over the freeway.
And then, in 2001, there it was, lighting the Christmas sky again after a 7-year absence: Peace on Earth. Alone in the car I smiled until my face hurt. I remembered how that sign was the one thing I could count on during those first dark, empty days in California, and then about how my life had evolved here: career, marriage, friends, a house. It was fuller than I could have even imagined all those years ago.
Last week, the Pruneyard held its annual Peace on Earth lighting ceremony. I stood in the dark on the shopping center’s main drag and watched when, at precisely 7:30 p.m. the sky lit up with a wish, a hope, a prayer—and my beacon home: Peace on Earth.
A little thrill rushed through me. I breathed in the cool air and said my own prayer for peace on earth, then went back to the restaurant patio where my husband and a friend waited.
To some The Pruneyard’s Peace on Earth is just a sign, another set of holiday lights that goes up and down without much notice.
But every November, when I look up and see it blazing its blessing against the night sky, I know I’m home.