“It’s been two whole years, Kenny! I can’t wait to see you!” Remembering Mom’s exuberance disrupted the directions in my head, and I slowed to a stop. No other headlights shone in front or in back of me. Because sane people are off the road, I told myself. As I reviewed the map on my phone, I mused on how quickly a well-known route can fade from memory.
My planned arrival time had been afternoon, but after weather delays at Metro and a chaotic rental car crowd reminiscent of the shopping scene from that Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Jingle All the Way,” I would enjoy no egg nog until eight p.m. at best. The four-lane road was packed with a healthy layer of snow, but the plow had obviously been by earlier. I had to be pretty close now, but everything had that familiar-yet-not look to it. I started rolling again, street lights helping me peer left across three lanes and a median at snow-crusted street signs for Harrison Avenue. Without warning, the right front tire sank into a pothole the size of Lake Michigan, and I quickly swerved the sub-compact to protect the rear wheels.
I really wasn’t prepared for Christmas; certainly not one like Mom had planned. Wearing a medium jacket, no hat and no gloves, I had fully acclimated to my new home in Tallahassee. Even my snow boots, unused since I’d moved south, still rested in dust back in my closet. I imagined myself a thousand miles away in my favorite cushy chair, a bowl of chips and a bottle of root beer on the table, watching the game taped from Christmas Eve. That vision wooed my heart like a siren. But then I heard Mom’s voice in my head: “A fine celebration of Christ’s birth, tinsel on the television!” Please don’t misunderstand; I love my family, but I had rather enjoyed the previous year, my first Christmas on my own, spent quietly in my apartment without fuss.
The roads were still empty but for my slow-moving rental. “Harri—” in reflective letters caught my eye, and I rolled diagonally another five-hundred feet to the next left turn lane. In Detroit suburbs, a six-foot-wide raised median typically separates two-way traffic on divided roadways. At intersections, direct left turns are not permitted. If you discover you’re headed the wrong way or see your turn, you first must drive past through the intersection and make your way to a left turn lane without causing an accident, execute a u-turn, go back to the intersection, and then turn right onto the desired road. You have to turn around to get where you’re going.
As I made my way down Harrison Avenue and neared my old neighborhood, a faint memory surfaced of building snowmen with my brothers, along with our inevitable snowball fights. Driveways and mailboxes began looking familiar in my headlights. I passed the tiny corner store where I’d worked at my first job and recalled Mom enumerating who would be at the party.
“Uncle John is coming! He wants to hear all about your new job. And your cousins from Alpena, Tom and Donna, you know their little boy is three now? And big Uncle Ralph–remember he always slaps Daddy’s back so hard? Oh my word! Oh, and I almost forgot Auntie Pat! She’ll be beside herself when she sees you!”
Well, let me tell you as a matter of fact, Auntie Pat is beside herself most of the time. But she gives delightful hugs, and I do enjoy her special brie tarts. I could almost taste the buttery pastry crumbling in my mouth. On the other hand, to hear all the same old tales from Uncle John of ‘when I was an engineer….’ didn’t thrill me. Conversations with Donna usually entailed questions like “So Ken, when are you going to… meet a girl… get married… start a family?” Many uncomfortable options to choose from.
Snow-capped porches and roofs on both sides of the street were adorned with pine garlands, red bows, lights, and the occasional ornament. One yard charmingly displayed an authentic (if rusty) sleigh resting in snowdrifts with lighted reindeer hitched to its reins. It took me a moment, but I recognized the annual set up as belonging to the parents of my best neighborhood friend growing up. Stoutly-proportioned snowmen stood proudly in many a yard as well, wearing unique wardrobes assembled from odd items of clothing. A small grin emerged on my face, and I turned left onto Calliope Place. Two blocks to go, and, despite my dread at revisiting stories and people predictable as a lake-effect snowfall, I realized a peculiar warmth was rising in my heart.
After parking on the street–judging from the crowd of vehicles, I was last to arrive–I trudged through six inches of fresh snow, stepping in footprints where I could, and gazed at my old house: a banana-yellow two-story with white trim and peeling muntin windows. The air was crisp and hushed. Powdered cherry trees edged the drive and the weathered porch steps still sagged–perhaps a bit lower now–under my feet. Reaching the top, I touched a column worn to bare wood from many a visitor’s hand, and as I lingered there, my thoughts suddenly brimmed with vivid memories of bike rides and birthdays, tree forts and football games.
Taking a deep breath, I noticed snowflakes like tiny feathers begin meandering to the earth. I wasn’t sure how snow could have a smell, but it seemed to now, and the aroma was sweet. Strains of Bing Crosby and laughter and warm light seeped through curtained windows. I paused, savoring the glow, and was stunned at the lump in my throat. I heard Aunt Pat’s unmistakable squeaky voice and chuckles of Uncle Jack and Dad as they certainly were teasing her, Mom chiding them to leave her sister be. I couldn’t suppress a laugh.
Special thanks to Jeffrey Snell for sharing this spiritual story with us!