As he always does this time of year, Charlie Beale opened the closet and reached for his Santa Claus suit.
But something was different, something just wasn't right.
His wife of 30 years wasn't there to check the details, to make sure he looked fat.
"She would help me get things right," Charlie said. "She kind of added to it and told me what I needed to do."
Melanie Beale, 51, died of cancer in September, leaving behind three children, two grand children, and Charlie.
She was his inspiration to first don the Santa suit in 1997 - an idea spawned by the movie, The Santa Clause. She suggested he do something to take his mind off past Decembers - months marked by the deaths of his father and grandmother.
"We thought becoming Santa Claus would be something super to do," he said.
Each December since has indeed been super, he said. Seeing the children smile and hearing their Christmas lists always helped him get into the the holidays. As did having his wife attend the events with him.
"She enjoyed watching me in the outfit," Charlie said. "She also liked watching the kids' faces."
But this December has been different: Melanie wasn't around to celebrate their 30 years of marriage on the 19th and she's not here to make sure Santa is rosy and jolly.
Charlie decided to be Santa this year partly for the reason Melanie suggested years ago - to take his mind off an otherwise difficult month.
"You become a different person when you put that suit on," he said.
The joy she got from seeing him in the suit made it easier to put it on that first time, at the Columbia County tree lighting ceremony on December 1.
Todd Glover (from left), Tommy Mercer and Charlie Beale get into the Christmas spirit at a Christmas luncheon at the Emergency Management Office.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
"Once I got it on that first time, I was fine," said Charlie, recreation director for Columbia County. "But taking it out that first time brought up some memories."
Once such memory was of their first Christmas as a married couple.
Because Melanie grew up in a Jewish family, she never had a Christmas tree. Her first one came in 1971. After a two day honeymoon in Atlanta, they went to an Augusta store and bought her a tree.
It was so big, Charlie said, he had to cut a little more than a foot off the top to get it into their garage apartment off Baker Street in Augusta.
"We got the biggest thing she could find," Charlie said. "You had to squeeze near the door to get around it."
Thinking of that first tree made it very hard to put up one this year.
"I got it in the stand and my daughter decorated it," He said. "We're getting there, we're getting to Christmas."
Before he can get to Christmas, he had to get through their anniversary. Charlie said he spent some time at Melanie's grave - something he does several times a week anyway - and talk to his wife.
"It's a calming sense to go and do that," said Charlie, who said he cuts the grass around her gravesite with a pair of scissors at least once a week.
For Christmas this year, Charlie is keeping with tradition - as difficult as that may be. He and his children will go to dinner as usual on Christmas Eve, then to his uncle's house to meet up with the rest of the family, where Santa will make his usual appearance.
There will be one very important addition to this and every year's list of Christmas traditions though. At some point on Christmas day, Charlie, Heather, Chip and Michelle will pay a visit to their wife and mother.
"We'll go as a family," Charlie said with tearful eyes. "We'll do that I'm sure."
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