Editor’s Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome
Just when I had become fed up with your politics and your policies, the Christmas season arrived. There is simply no room for “Bah humbug!” when celebrating the holidays in our sweet town.
We probably celebrate the holiday season like most small towns in America, but I feel certain Ocala represents the holiday spirit best of all. While other towns may have Christmas lights and parades, we have our people. And that’s what sets us apart.
The holidays are a time when the spotlight on acts of kindness and service is amplified, a helpful reminder that we should love our neighbors.
It doesn’t take a grand gesture such as a huge monetary contribution or saving someone from a burning building to show you care. Ocala’s citizens know that it is the small, simple acts of kindness towards their neighbor that can touch someone’s heart for days, weeks or years.
I myself have experienced several acts of kindness just within the last two weeks.
My husband and I were recently enjoying a date night at a local downtown restaurant. We squeezed into the last two seats at the bar, thrilled to have an hour or two with each other. We exchanged brief pleasantries with a gray-haired, smiling gentleman to our left, who was dining alone, and then turned to each other to discuss the week’s events.
As we finished our drinks and appetizer, the bartender noted that our tab had been taken care of by the gentleman to our left. When we turned to thank him, he said, “It’s my pleasure. I just ask that you pay it forward. I’m here in Ocala because my dad is in hospice and my sister recently passed from COVID-19. Life’s short. Pay it forward”
We left the restaurant grateful for that gentleman and determined to pay it forward.
Last weekend, my husband and I took our two rambunctious preschoolers to an early dinner at an outdoor restaurant with live music. Our children danced, sang and ran around while we tried to keep up with them in between bites of our food and sips of our drinks.
A smiling woman with close-cropped hair and a loud laugh came over to us to ask if she could dance by our table with our kids while we finished our meals.
She explained, “We were stationed in Italy when my daughter was this age and the Italians at a local restaurant would gather her up and entertain her so her dad and I could eat a peaceful meal. She’s 18 now and doesn’t need entertaining anymore, so I’m continuing the tradition. I’ll stand here and entertain them while you finish eating.”
While it seemed odd at first, it was so appreciated. That woman had no idea how helpful her three minutes of doing “The Sprinkler” with our children was for us.
Lastly, I witnessed an act of kindness occur through a local Facebook page. My friend and former colleague, David L. Moore, asked for donations to purchase gift cards for Mr. Vernon, the crossing guard at Eighth Street Elementary School. Mr. Vernon has served as a mainstay in the morning routines of countless adults and kids in southeast Ocala as he shepherded generations of children safely to school. The response was overwhelming and contributions poured in from people who didn’t even have children at the school but waved to Mr. Vernon every morning on their way to work. The neighborhood contributed more than $350, which was used to purchase Publix, Visa and WaWa gift cards.
Ocala is like a Christmas tree with a myriad of collected, meaningful ornaments, which in my metaphor represent our people. The ornaments are not all shiny and perfect, nor are they all uniform. Some ornaments sit contently at the back of the tree while others shine brightly, front and center.
The tree has some holes that need filling in, representative of our need to continue growing socially, culturally and politically. A string or two of the tree’s lights flicker on and off reminding me of our need to work together, despite our differences, to continue to make Ocala a bright, shining light for the world to see. There will be some years our branches will look more like the Charlie Brown tree than the Rockefeller Plaza tree, but our cherished ornaments will remain the same.
Wishing you and your loved ones the merriest of Christmases.