My family and I had sort of an unusual Christmas. There were some challenges, but also many blessings. And there were a lot of worthwhile lessons along the way, which is why I thought I would share our experiences in this forum. They seem rather apropos in light of the themes running through recent posts to this blog.
Our family drove two long days to get to my in-laws’ home in a small town in Texas. Two adults, two young children and two energetic dogs in a compact car is no walk in the park! But it was fun in an odd way to be together with so much beautiful scenery to take in. With a break from our normally hectic schedules, I got some time to just talk at length with my husband, ponder deep thoughts and even do a few Sudoku puzzles. I was so proud of my daughters who generally were very good sports and did an admirable job of entertaining themselves with few toys and little room to move. We all pitched in to accommodate our normally active little doggies who did not have much to do beyond pretend to be lap dogs for a few days.
We had to spend one night on the road in each leg of our trip. Being in a small motel room with our clan is not easy. The doggies were out of their element and barked at any noise through the night. My husband and I got little sleep, but he stoically persevered. My wonderful guy even did all the driving and all the dog walking on the trip!
On our trip we were all sick at various points. As we hit the road, my older child was getting over a nasty stomach bug. And my husband had a cold as we left Arizona. Somewhere along the way, I got a bad cold and my younger child developed a fever. Bottom line, we all felt pretty cruddy and wished we could have just stayed at home in our nice comfy beds.
After two long days on the road, we arrived at my in-laws’ home and pretty much collapsed once we got inside. Kids always seem to recover faster than adults, so our children rallied to be able to help decorate the bare Christmas tree in my in-laws’ living room. My father-in-law thoughtfully made us homemade beef stew and chicken soup to nurse us back to health. My mother-in-law is a festive person, and had all kinds of edible and non-edible treats for us. I sat in a Lazy Boy recliner for long periods snuggling in a blanket, drinking herb tea and consuming a lot of Kleenex.
We only had four days to stay at my in-laws’ home, but on the third day an unexpected and dire plumbing problem developed. There was no way to wash dishes or bathe. And worst of all, the ability to flush the potty was curtailed. Unfortunately, this all became apparent mid-day on Christmas Eve, at which point there were few options since everything was closing for the holiday. The plumbing problem involved a municipal sewer line, but my in-laws live in a small town and services are limited in even the best of situations. The bottom line was that no one would come to fix the problem until the 27th at the earliest. It was a pretty serious situation with seven folks in the house.
The part of Texas where my husband’s family lives has been experiencing a horrific drought and has had little rain all year. Ironically, on Christmas Eve it rained all day. It was the answer to many people’s prayers, but the timing was tough on us. It was cold and overcast. Getting in and out of buildings and cars was tricky. This exacerbated the plumbing problem. We couldn’t just jump in the car to get to a public bathroom whenever we wanted. My poor father-in-law tried to fix the problem, but the cold rain made that difficult to try for more than a short period of time.
Out of desperation, on Christmas Eve afternoon my husband and I took our kids to the local Wal-Mart, which was one of the few places still open at that hour in my in-laws’ small town. When you have young kids, you cannot afford to not be near a potty, particularly if you have no way to do laundry! So our family ended up trying to kill time walking around the Wal-Mart for several hours, which is certainly not something we’d have done otherwise. Generally, I think poorly of retailers that exploit their workers and promote consumerism. I’m particularly not a fan of Wal-Mart for a variety of reasons. But I must admit I ate some humble pie and was quite grateful for Wal-Mart’s open doors that afternoon!
Walking around the big box store on Christmas Eve, I was touched by what I witnessed. In rural America, there is often a lot of poverty. Economic opportunities are generally pretty limited. Particularly in the aisles of the Wal-Mart toy department, I saw a lot of stressed-out looking adults. I discerned from various clues that many of them were worried about how to give their kids Christmas presents.
In the news when describing the economy and holiday retail sales, it is often noted that people wait until the last minute to do their Christmas shopping. From a middle class perspective, that characterization just sounds like simple procrastination. But the people in the toy aisles that afternoon did not look affluent or even middle class. I suspect that many of them had waited because it took that long for them to scrounge the funds to make their purchases. Some people pick up seasonal employment during the year-end holiday retail frenzy, and for many that is how they afford Christmas presents. But because of the short-term nature of such seasonable jobs, they may not get paid until close to Christmas.
Hanging out in the Wal-Mart toy aisles that afternoon, I particularly will never forget the bleak look of one young man who was staring sadly at a display of little toy cars that were just a dollar or two each. I had the impression he was contemplating getting a couple of those relatively inexpensive cars for his child or children, and he was not happy about it. I don’t know if he was worried that he might not be able to afford them. Or maybe he was stressed that that was too meager a gift. He just stood there staring at the little cars for a very, very long time as my own children and I lingered in the aisles trying to kill time because of my relatives’ plumbing woes.
Killing time at the Wal-Mart that afternoon made me both sad and grateful. I was sad that the birth of my Savior, which should be such a joyful and hopeful occasion, has devolved to a frenzy of consumerism that leaves poor families stressed out. I was grateful that despite the lack of plumbing, our family had a warm place to sleep that night with plenty of food and a lovely Christmas tree. And I felt guilty that my kids were likely going to receive many more presents than the kids of the parents around me in the Wal-Mart aisles.
I am cognizant that some of our brothers and sisters without decent housing sometimes go to retail centers to kill time on a regular basis to take advantage of the heat in the winter or the air conditioning in the summer. That Christmas Eve, I had a small sense of what that experience must be like. I felt a sense of vulnerability. In some respects, we were sort of homeless that afternoon. My in-laws’ home was not habitable at that point. Everything in town was closing and I had no shelter for my children. However, my in-laws’ plumbing problems were temporary, and our family had other options. I cannot imagine how scary and demoralizing it must be to be a parent and have on-going issues in providing shelter for one’s beloved children.
Because of the severe plumbing problems and the fact that everything was closed on Christmas day, my husband and I ultimately made the tough decision that we were going to have to go home a day early. We woke up early on Christmas day, shared a great breakfast on paper plates with our relatives, opened presents, finished decorating some gingerbread houses, then hit the road by mid-morning. It was depressing. And as we left, my younger child was in tears, which was a tangible expression of how the rest of us were feeling.
The weather was cold and damp. There were clouds in the sky. The mood outside mirrored in some ways the mood inside the car. As we drove out of town, we passed a dreary, cramped run-down apartment complex, for which I’ve always thought the term “tenement” would be apt. It was Christmas day and I saw a little boy and a man come out of one of the units to play with a small toy truck. I imagined their extended family might have gathered at the apartment to celebrate Christmas together. The units at that complex are so small, however, I couldn’t imagine there was much room for a young child to play under normal circumstances, let alone when there were visitors. Even though our family was sad and disappointed for the unexpected turn our Christmas had taken, I was reminded that we were very fortunate and should be grateful for our many blessings.
We drove through several small towns before we found one with an open gas station to buy coffee to keep us alert on the long trek. When we stopped, our doggies got excited and began barking like crazy. They are pretty small dogs, so it is kind of funny actually. It is like they are trying to be tough guard dogs when in reality anything over the size of a terrier could probably eat them for lunch—literally! Anyhow, as I got out of the car to go in to get coffee, one of the clerks was taking a cigarette break outside. She was a young woman covered in tattoos and looking a little disheveled. She was petite and very thin. Despite being outside in the damp cold, she had no coat or jacket. She looked pretty unhappy, which was probably pretty understandable since she had to work on Christmas day and was probably freezing. But upon seeing our dogs’ silly reaction to the gas station stop, she seemed to perk up and asked me about them. I was glad our doggies seemed to brighten her day. It reminded me of our church’s celebration of the Feast Day of St. Francis, when we thank God for the many blessings of animals in our lives.
As we drove on through the overcast weather, our family tried to make the best of the circumstances and remember the joy of Christmas. We rallied and actually had fun being together. We listened to some children’s audio books we’d borrowed from our library. My husband and I talked. The kids played in the backseat and took naps. We petted the dogs. When we could get signal, we sang along to Christmas music on the radio. And we were so grateful for functioning plumbing when we made pit stops at rest areas. Despite the fact that one of our dogs suddenly and inexplicably vomited all over my husband at one point, we had a good day.
Indeed, we were very excited to help brighten someone else’s day at one point. In the afternoon, in a desolate stretch of highway, we stopped at a rest area for a potty break. In a dark corner of the ladies’ restroom, I saw what I thought was a case for eyeglasses. I picked it up, thinking they could be someone’s necessary prescription glasses. In the light, however, I could see the case actually contained someone’s smart phone. No one else was in the restroom and few others were at the rest stop. We waited around and studied the other folks to see if anyone looked like they were searching for a lost phone. No one did. Finally, my husband contacted the last person who texted the owner of the phone, and was able to track down the owner herself. She and her husband were twenty minutes away. With no landmarks or other rendezvous sites and few highway exits in that desolate stretch, we finally were able to meet up and return the phone. The couple were senior citizens from Florida traveling to visit relatives in West Texas. They were so touched and grateful that we had made the effort to find them and get the phone back to them. Our family was thrilled to get to do a good deed on Christmas.
We spent Christmas night in a midsize town in West Texas, where my husband had booked a room on-line before we left my in-laws’ home. We had seen plenty of fast food places open in smaller towns, so we had had no concern about finding something for dinner. We knew there would be no turkey and dressing, but we were looking forward to a decent burger. Unfortunately, as it turned out, no restaurants or grocery stores were open in the town where we stayed that night. While my husband and older child walked the dogs at the motel, my younger child and I drove all over town looking for a place to get something—anything--to eat. We were all really hungry. To be able to stay a bit later at my in-laws’ home that morning, we had committed to not stopping for lunch and had just nibbled on some holiday candy in the car. We were all looking forward to something hearty to fill our hungry tummies. I must admit I began to panic a bit as I drove around and only saw dark, empty restaurants and stores.
Rather desperately, I stopped at several gas stations looking for some food for our family, but the best we could find was a self-serve corn dog and burrito display. As I contemplated buying up the contents for our Christmas dinner, I asked my younger child what she thought of that option. Honest to goodness, her face lit up and she squealed, “yeah!” without any trace of sarcasm. (We don’t eat a lot of fried foods, so apparently she considered this a great treat.) I tried to put out of my mind questions I had about the composition and origin of the corn dogs and burritos. Instead, I tried to share my child’s excitement and gratitude.
When I got back to the motel, my husband and older daughter were also graciously supportive of our makeshift Christmas feast. We dug into the bounty, which was wonderfully augmented by some delicious oranges and the decorated gingerbread houses that my mother-in-law has sent with us. Our tummies were satisfied. And I was mindful that many that night could not say the same thing.
With happy tummies, we then snuggled into the beds. (The motel’s heating was not that robust and it was pretty cold that night.) We turned on the TV and watched the end of Elf, which always cracks us up. And we saw part of the Grinch. That latter film seemed quite apt that evening because of its message of Christmas not being about stuff but about non-material things like love and gratitude.
I was so proud of my kids’ positive attitudes despite the unexpected way we ended up spending Christmas. They were good sports and we had had an enjoyable day together. Though things had not gone according to script, we were grateful for our many blessings and had fun.
The next day was pretty grueling, but we made the best of it. We were treated for a while to see snow on the ground along the highway—a rather rare occurrence in that part of the country. And the rest stop where we stopped to picnic at lunchtime actually had some snow on the ground. Being able to touch it was a terrifically exciting treat to my Sunbelt kids.
That evening we finally got home and were grateful to be in our own beds and to have a large yard for our doggies. It had been an atypical Christmas for us, but my husband and I were sure God wanted us to learn lessons from the experience and everything that happened was part of his plan. We are grateful to have family who love us and to have plenty of material comforts. Doing without them briefly certainly reminded us of that.
During those long hours in a small, cramped car, while reflecting on our many blessings, many things went through my mind. Particularly in my thoughts were two lovely families we know.
The mother of one large family lost her battle to cancer this year. This is the first Christmas they will have celebrated the birth of Jesus without her. They are a very faithful Christian family, and are consoled that the mother is now with her Savior. But I can imagine how they must miss her presence particularly at this time of year. I really mourn for them.
The other family in my thoughts during the long drive is related to my husband. The wife was diagnosed with ALS this year. ALS is one of the cruelest diseases around. Because of her condition, this could be her last Christmas on this Earth. Her muscles are already beginning to decline. Even if she is alive next Christmas, she will be in much worse physical condition. I can imagine how bittersweet this Christmas is for her and her husband. My heart breaks for them. But I admire and am proud of them that they gathered their family together for a terrific Christmas celebration to make merry and cherish their time together.
The truth is that none of us is guaranteed another day on this planet. And no matter how much we spend, material things will never satisfy us or bring us true happiness. Time with loved ones is the most precious gift any of us can receive. Indeed, having loved ones is a tremendous gift unto itself. Many people are alone during the holidays. Even if our family was not where we thought we’d be or eating the things we imagined on Christmas, I was so grateful to be with the people I was with. Though unexpected and unorthodox, in many ways this may have been one of our best Christmases yet. Indeed, we are very blessed.
Like a parent feels compassion for their children— that’s how the LORD feels compassion for those who honor him.
1 Chronicles 29:13
And now, our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name.