The Post I Couldn't Write...
I've had something in my heart since the beginning of December (Dec 3rd to be specific), but I couldn't share my thoughts. At least not until Christmas was over. So here, with tears, I share with you sad news (that if you're local you may already know), Ray Beesley passed away.
You may not know the name. You shouldn't know the name. The name was not important. But the man was.
He owned Beesley Event Photo. It was a family affair and as I found out after he died, that it was his daughter who took the photos. Ray wasn't behind the camera, he was in front of it. He was in countless holiday photos for decades. But it wasn't Ray in those photos, it was Santa Claus. Let me reiterate this; Ray did not "play" Santa Claus; he WAS Santa Claus. And it didn't matter if he was in his suit or grocery shopping (as I once saw him at our local Shoprite), he WAS Santa.
He wasn't about the photo or the list of gifts. He was about listening. He was about caring. He was about giving. And he was ALWAYS giving. Giving of his time (no matter what the season) and giving of his talent. (BEING Santa takes more talent than you or I could even imagine.)
I heard lots of stories about Ray after he passed away in early December. Mine is not awe inspiring or a tear jerker, but it is mine. It is special. And these stories, along with Ray, will always live in my heart.
My family first met Santa in December of 2006. The year prior, when my son was only 4 months old, I was hesitant to take him out to get a Santa photo. (Kind of silly when you consider all the germs he must have absorbed during his first few days of life when we lived in a motel room!) We had done a family photo in front of the tree which came out ok, but I really wanted a family photo with Santa. And I recalled that there was a Santa at the Wayne Towne Center, which was a smaller mall (and hence, I thought might be less crowded).
I don't recall any long lines when we went that day. I do remember immediately falling in love with Santa. I held my son as he sat partially on Santa's lap and partially on mine. My husband sat on the other side of Santa. Our photo was taken. And that should have been it, but Santa said a few words to us and told us how blessed we were to have our son. We already knew that and we let Santa know that we treasured (and despite times that can be tumultuous, still treasure) every second with our son.
We didn't just leave with the below photo, but with warm hearts.
We returned in the spring to get a photo with the Easter Bunny. It wasn't Santa, but it was run by Beesley Event Photo, so I felt compelled to go. Some kids were a little freaked out by the bunny. I can understand that. My son went right on up and smiled. I told the photographer we'd see her in the fall.
We kept going year after year. When the mall shut down, I searched on line until I found where Santa would be. There was NO way we were not going to have our family photo. There was NO way we weren't going to see Santa. I think it was more important to me than it was to my son. I felt the need to see Santa; to experience his humble kindness. I NEEDED it every holiday season.
I remember the year (was it 2009 or 2010) when Santa broke his foot/ankle so he wore his Victorian suit, which must have been easier to get in and out of than his traditional one. His foot/ankle was carefully hidden by a large gift wrapped present so you'd never see it in the photo. I probably wouldn't have even noticed it if he hadn't mentioned it to me.
I was always the one who spoke to Santa. My husband would carefully work with the photographer to pick out which shot we were going to purchase, while chatted with Santa. My son was usually too shy or nervous to say much of anything. But the photos show how happy he was to be with Santa.
As the years went on, the lines got longer. We started visiting Santa around Veteran's Day and NJ Teacher's Convention weekend. The lines were short (or non-existent) so we got to spend some quality time with Santa. And every minute you spent with him was quality. He was focused on you and you always knew that he cared about you. (Probably because he did.)
This year we were away that weekend. When we tried to go the following Sunday, there was hardly a parking space to be found. When I did finally find one and walked inside the line was incredibly long. I'd seen shorter lines for the most popular attractions at Disney World over the summer break! I had no desire to wait for over 2 hours for Santa, so we turned around and went home.
We returned on Monday evening. It was just after 7 and the shop was only open till 8. There was still a LONG line but we decided to bite the bullet and wait it out. My son was probably the oldest child there (he's 11), but was a good sport. As it became obvious that the wait was going to be more than 20 minutes, we let him explore. No longer in a mall, Santa set up shop in a store that sells Christmas trees and holiday decorations. My husband and I sat and waited. The line would move a little. We'd move up and wait some more.
It was after 8 when we finally hit the front of the line. There was only one family behind us, which is what I mentioned to Santa when I saw him. (So that he would know that his day was almost over.) We had our photo taken...no longer do we all fit on the love seat where Santa sits. My husband and I stand behind it, with my son next to Santa.
Photo taken, my son, no longer quite so shy, told Santa what he wanted for Christmas. (He'd been upset when he realized he forgot his Lego catalog at home, which is usually how he points out what he's hoping for. Luckily, he AND I had pretty much memorized the items that he wanted.) I took some additional photos of the two of them together. Before we left, as always, we wished him a Merry Christmas. He wished us a Happy Thanksgiving as well. (Which was three days away.) So I wished him a restful Thanksgiving and he said it would be a busy day for him as he had 4 nursing homes to visit. His "day off" and he was dedicating it to spending time spreading joy to others, as he always did.
Eleven days later I read that he died. I prayed that it was some sort of cruel hoax. Social media, after all, is not always the best method for getting your news. But sadly it was true. I sobbed. My husband sobbed. We didn't tell our son. I know we will have to, now that Christmas is over, but I still don't know how.
Ray Beesley died on December 2nd. I am thankful that for 10 years I got to sit by his side or stand behind him. I am grateful for the time we had with him, even if he didn't know our names. (Or maybe he did; he was magical about things like that.) I am so glad that we got to see him one last time. My heart aches and I miss him because a holiday tradition can be no more. Ray WAS Santa. He was the embodiment of what the holiday is about; of what kind of person we all should be.