So I am going to preface this by saying that, although I have been writing my entire life, I have always had a somewhat irrational fear of sharing my writing with anyone. To me, my stories just never seem complete. They always seem like they could use one more read-through or one more editing session before I expose them to possibly judgemental eyes. But as my goal is to be a published writer, I am trying to get over this for obvious reasons. So rather nervously, here is my Christmas short story, "Christmas at the Holiday Inn." I'd love to hear if you liked or disliked it and why.
My ancestors are made up of both Aztec warriors and Spanish conquistadors. They were fighters, never giving back what they did not have to. I was raised to be proud in my heritage, to hold my head high and never forget what it meant to be Mexican. Christmas for my family was about gathering with the community and eating enormous amounts of food. My mother would work for days in the kitchen making every dish imaginable. We would put up our nativity set every year and count the days until the baby Jesus would arrive on Christmas Day. But the celebrating did not stop there. The festivities continued until January 6 for La Dia de los Reyes when the kings would come and bring us gifts. We would put our shoes at the end of the bed and try to stay awake long enough to see the three kings come in and give us our presents. But we would always fall asleep and in the morning, there would be little gifts in our shoes.
I’m not going to brag here, but I was a very popular girl in my town, among the boys at least. But all my life, I only had eyes for one boy. His name was Juan Gonzalez and he was the son of my mother’s best friend. We had played together since we were babies and finally one day in high school, he asked me out. Now I have learned that in America, it is not the tradition for girls to marry when they graduate high school, but in my village that is what people did, so Juan and I were married the summer after graduation. We had our own little house next door to my parents and our Christmases were happy and filled with family. We had a daughter named Beatriz the year after we were married and she was the light of our life.
But things weren’t always easy for us. For many hundreds of years, the people of our village made our living by farming the hills and fields outside of town. As the town got bigger, and the economy plummeted, we had to farm more and more area. But then the government came and said that the forest that we were burning down to make room for our crops was the habitat for a bird that was endangered. They told us that we couldn’t cut it down anymore, that it was protected now. We tried to make do with what we had, but many people had to leave the town and go to other places. We loved Mexico and being Mexican was always our heritage but we began to dream of going to America where we had heard that there were jobs and places to live.
In the spring our son, Javier, was born, and soon after, we found out that my uncle, who had gone to America many years earlier, wanted us to come live with him. He was going to be able to sponsor us so that we could go to America and get a job. Juan and I had a very difficult decision to make. We wanted our children to have the opportunities that they could get in America, but that would mean leaving our culture and our family behind. The children were so small, and we were worried that they would forget how to speak Spanish and would never remember who they really were. We spent many nights trying to decide what to do, but finally we told my uncle we would come to America to live with him. We would have to teach our children about their real home in Mexico, and perhaps, someday, we could return.
My father was in banking and he did well in that, so my younger sister and I grew up with all the latest gadgets. Christmas was about keeping up with the Joneses. We would have the biggest Christmas tree on the block and the best Christmas lights and the best Christmas dinner. That was how my father wanted it, and my mother went along as best she could, being the model housewife. But I don’t think she was always very happy with this. She had come from a small town and Christmas for her was about helping out the less fortunate and being grateful for what you had. Every year she would help out at a soup kitchen around the holidays, handing out warm meals to people who had nowhere else to go. She never took us along with her, although I never really questioned why until recently. When I finally did ask her about it, she gave me some excuses about us being too small or it not being appropriate but they sounded more like things my father would have said, so I think he didn’t want us to go. He died of lung cancer last year, after years of smoking, and I think she wanted to respect his memory by not telling me why we never joined her. But knowing my dad, I suspect he didn’t think that it would look good to have his children at the soup kitchen. I have often thought that it was a very nice tradition on my mother’s part, but I have always been too busy around Christmas to make the time, which I regret when I think about it.
I admit I was somewhat of a spoiled brat as a child, especially around Christmas. For me it was all about bragging rights at school and what I was going to get that year. Even when I grew up, I didn’t see the holiday as much more, until I heard my children talking about it in the same way I had, and then I realized how ugly that sounded.
But perhaps I should tell you about myself. I am in banking now, just like my father. I met my husband at school when we were both seniors and now he is in upper management at a law firm. We live in New York City and have two children, Stephanie and Kayla, who are teenagers, as much as we wish they weren’t. Christmas at our house is, unfortunately, a chore for Ryan and I as we try to get the house decorated and cookies and gifts sent to all the right people amid the demands of a sixty-hour work week. For the kids it’s more about what they are going to get each year, and the long lists of requests to Santa that are posted on the refrigerator. My sister and her family live on the west coast and they haven’t done so well for themselves financially as we have. For a long time, I was proud that we had outdone them, but recently I have realized that they may well be richer than us in other ways. They have a very close family and they haven’t lost so much of that family atmosphere that we have. So this year, I told my husband that I thought we should go over there for a visit since we had finally gotten to the point in our careers that we could afford to take a vacation. I made up some excuse about not wanting to be in the snow for Christmas but really I was hoping that my sister’s family would rub off on ours.
My tour was due to be up in the middle of December so I could be home in plenty of time for Christmas. I put in to take two weeks of leave beginning immediately after I got home so I could meet my son for the first time and spend some time getting to know him. But due to military complications, they delayed my return at the last minute, something both I and my wife had come to expect after being a military couple for almost three years. Finally, on December 21, I packed up my things and got on a helicopter that would take me home. I knew that anything could happen, but I was optimistic that I would be able to make it home in time for Christmas. The helicopter took me to the airplane, which flew me to Germany and then I boarded a civilian flight to New York. I was scheduled to land in Seattle in the evening on December 23 where my wife would be waiting to pick me up and then we would head down to our house at Fort Lewis, about an hour south. But when I landed in New York early in the morning of the 23rd, with an eight-hour layover ahead of me, I turned on my phone and saw that I had a voicemail from Melanie. She asked that I call her, and I had been on the phone with her enough to know that she sounded upset. So even though it was the middle of the night in Washington, I dialed the number, hoping everything was all right.
“It’s snowing in Seattle,” she said, sounding worried.
“Don’t worry about it,” I reassured her, “It’ll be fine. The flight hasn’t been delayed yet, so if they are still landing then we’ll be good.”
“But there is already almost six inches of snow and they are saying that there is supposed to be a foot by this afternoon. You know how bad the tires on the car are, Eric. What if I can’t come get you?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said again, “If it’s still snowy when I land, I’ll just catch a bus or a taxi or something down there. I don’t want you driving in the snow with the baby. So I’ll just plan on seeing you when i get down there.”
“I wanted to meet you at the airport. I’ve been so looking forward to it.”
“I know, baby. But this is for the best. It can’t be helped. You just work on getting the house ready for Christmas and I’ll be home to you both before you know it.” I could hear my son start crying in the background.
“Honey, Georgie is crying, I have to go. Be careful and call me when you land in Seattle, ok? And I’ll see you soon. I love you.”
“I love you too.” I was not worried about the snow. Seattle rarely got any snow, let alone enough to actually disrupt things.
I spent my layover napping in the terminal area, head propped up on my bag and hat pulled over my eyes. When I woke up, it was getting dark outside, and my flight was still an hour away. I got up and stretched and decided to find something to eat. I headed to a McDonalds, looking forward to enjoying some greasy, cheap American fast food. I ordered more food than I could probably have eaten in a week and sat down at a table. Just then I saw a middle-aged man and woman heading towards me, bags in tow. They looked like they had something to say. The man came up to me first and I saw tears in his eyes.
“Son, I just wanted to say thank you for your service. I know it can’t be easy to be away from your family any time of the year, but especially at Christmas. I know there is a lot of bad press about you guys; they only seem to notice when someone does something wrong, not all the good stuff you’re doing over there, but I want you to know that we all appreciate it very much.” He held his hand out and I shook it, thanking him, and the woman looked at me with such a look of appreciation that I was embarrassed, so I thanked them and they went on their way.
My flight came on time and I settled in for another evening of flying, anxious to get home to my family. As we approached Seattle, the pilot got on the intercom and announced that there was a lot of snow in Seattle and while the runways had been cleared for planes landing, most flights out of Seattle were being canceled. I heard a lot of groans around me as people realized they were going to be spending the night in Seattle instead of on a plane to somewhere else. But I still wasn’t worried. Surely there would be a bus or a train or a taxi that would be able to take me down to Fort Lewis.
But once we had landed, I collected my bag and then called Melanie.
“Honey, they’ve closed most of I-5,” was the first thing she said, and I knew that this wasn’t an ordinary snow storm. “I’ve been trying to get you a bus ticket or find a taxi that would go get you but I can’t.”
For the first time, I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t be able to be home by that night.
“Honey, I would love to see you,” she continued, “but I don’t think that it’s going to happen tonight. There is over a foot of snow outside. Tomorrow is supposed to be better, though, so maybe you should just get a hotel tonight and then come down tomorrow.”
I could hear tears in her voice and I could tell that it was breaking her heart to say it.
“There’s got to be someone that is going down there,” I choked, disappointment welling up in my throat.
“I don’t think so, baby. It’s only one more day. We’ve waited so long for this; we can wait one more day.”
But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. After I got off the phone with her, I got on the computer at the airport and looked for anything that could get me to Fort Lewis, or even to Tacoma. Nothing. Then I called every travel agency in the phone book and asked them for ideas. I even pulled my military-service-member-sympathy card, which I usually avoid using, AND the baby-I’ve-never-met sympathy card but nothing worked. Everyone was very sorry but there was nothing they could do. Finally I got a piece of cardboard and a Sharpie and wrote “Service member home on leave. Desperately trying to get to Tacoma. Can you give me a ride?” and stood in the terminal with sad puppy eyes. I had several people approach me and say that they were trying to get to Tacoma too but that they were going to have to stay the night in a hotel.
Finally, after hours of exhausted work, I sunk down in a seat at the terminal, defeated.
We kissed our family goodbye that morning and prayed to God that we would see them again someday. We were going on our Big Adventure to the States. We had two small suitcases and our visas. I was holding the baby, who I hoped would sleep on the plane, and Juan was carrying Beatriz, who was excited to go on the big airplane. We took deep breaths, looked at each other for support, knowing that our family and our Mexico would have to be with us wherever we were, and walked into the airport. The baby fell asleep just before boarding, and before we knew it, we were high in the sky. Beatriz spent the first part of the flight playing with the window shades, and I spent the next part of the flight trying to keep her from hitting all the buttons and apologizing to the stewardess every time she had to come over because Beatriz had called her. Finally the excitement wore off and she fell asleep on Juan’s lap. As we got close to Seattle, the captain said something over the loudspeaker in English which I didn’t really understand. I speak a little English, and Juan doesn’t speak any. When the stewardess walked by again, I asked her if she spoke Spanish and when she nodded, I asked her what the captain had said. She said that there was snow in Seattle, and if we were trying to go somewhere else, we might be stuck there for a couple of days. I was worried about this a little since we were supposed to get on a bus to Spokane, and we didn’t have much money to stay anywhere else or get a hotel room. I just hoped that the snow would not stop the buses from running.
When we landed, we checked with the people running the buses and they said that the bus might go to Spokane the next day but it wasn’t running that night like it was supposed to. We were going to have to spend at least one night in Seattle. We called my uncle to tell him that we weren’t going to be there in the morning and then counted out the money we had. Once we had bought all four of our bus tickets, we were only going to have enough for food and then a little left over for any emergencies. I called some hotels and with my broken English tried to ask how much their rooms were, but they were all much more than we could afford. We decided that we would have to sleep in the airport. I found some chairs that no one was using and took some blankets and sweatshirts from our luggage and made a little bed for Beatriz. Juan and I didn’t think we would get much sleep that night anyway, so we decided we could just take turns holding Javier. I was excited that we had made it to America, but I was also worried that we wouldn’t be able to get to Spokane. I got us some food and we all ate a little and then I had Beatriz lie down and try to get some sleep.
Of course, as luck would have it, we would leave snowy New York and land in Seattle to a foot of snow and more falling. Wasn’t rain supposed to be Seattle’s problem? I called my sister in Centralia and found out that there was no way she was going to be able to come pick us up; we were going to have to get a hotel. My girls were too busy texting on their phones and listening to their iPods to care, so I called up a Holiday Inn near the airport and told them I wanted to get a room. They responded by telling me they were all booked at that location, but their location near downtown Seattle had some rooms. I told them I would call them back if I couldn’t find another place nearer the airport, which I did as soon as I found out that all the places were full. They told me that they would send a shuttle which would be there in an hour and a half.
We went to Anthony’s restaurant and had a lovely dinner of seafood and then headed out to baggage claim to wait for our shuttle. While we were there, I noticed an airport security guard talking to a young Hispanic man and woman with two small children. He was trying to explain to them that they couldn’t sleep there, which was apparently what they were trying to do with blankets and sweatshirts spread out over their chairs. The woman clearly didn’t speak much English and everyone was getting frustrated. I speak a little Spanish so I thought maybe I could help out. I told Ryan I’d be right back and I headed over there.
“Excuse me,” I said to the security guard. “I couldn’t help overhearing what was going on here. I speak a little Spanish so maybe I could help you out.”
I turned to the woman and introduced myself in Spanish and told her that the security guard said she couldn’t sleep here with her family. They would have to go somewhere else. She told me that they were trying to get back to Spokane but that the buses weren’t running and that they didn’t have any money for a hotel room. She looked exhausted and I could see she had a little girl who also looked tired and a baby as well. I couldn’t imagine traveling with two young children and having to spend the night in an airport.
I told the security guard what she had said, and asked him if she could just stay one night. They weren’t in anyone’s way, and I told him that they didn’t have any money to get a hotel so he would just be putting them out on the street in the middle of a snow storm. He was sympathetic, but he shook his head and said that they couldn’t stay there, that the only place in the airport that they could stay in was near the terminals past security, but they didn’t have a ticket and couldn’t go over there. They would just have to find somewhere else to go. I couldn’t believe that they would really put this poor little homeless family out on the streets so I demanded to speak to his boss and then told the woman, who told me her name was Maria, that I was going to try to help her. She seemed grateful, although on the brink of tears.
When the security guard’s boss came, he told me the same thing, that they were sorry but they couldn’t stay. I did what my father would have done, and called him some names that probably should have gotten me thrown out of the airport myself, and then I did what my mother would have done, and told Maria that I was going to get a hotel room for her and her family. I said that we were just waiting for the shuttle and that they should come with us. Ryan looked surprised when I told him that we were going to help them out, but I told him it was Christmas and we had more than enough money to go around, so the least we could do was to help out someone less fortunate than us.
When I finally realized that there was no way I was going to get home that night, I decided to make the best of it, and called around to get a hotel room for the night. At least there I would be warm and could sleep in a real bed, which was half of what I had been looking forward to. Finally I was able to get a room at the Holiday Inn, although not the one by the airport, which was full, and they told me a shuttle was already on its way and would be outside in about ten minutes. I hurried down there and stood waiting with a couple of other families. I was worn out and praying that the snow would be gone by the next morning. As we all crammed into the shuttle, I couldn’t help but notice a little baby boy about the same age as my son. I asked his mother how old he was, and she told me he was nine months old. The same age as Georgie. I couldn’t believe that I had missed out on his first nine months of life, to have come this far but still not be able to make it home.
When I got to the hotel and got my room, I called Melanie right away. Georgie was being fussy and she was busy trying to calm him down. I wished more than anything that I could be there to help her out with the baby but the best I could do was to try to talk to my son over the phone. He wasn’t interested in that though, so Melanie told me she had to go and she would call me in the morning. We were both keeping our fingers crossed that the weather would cooperate for us. I went to bed early, glad to be a in a real bed, but wishing that my wife and child could be there with me.
But apparently the weather had other plans. In the morning I woke up at seven and looked out of my third-story window to see snow falling across the road outside under the streetlights. It looked like at least a few more inches had piled up overnight. I couldn’t believe it. The world was against me getting home for Christmas. Here it was, Christmas Eve, and I was a mere sixty or so miles away from the two people I loved most in the world, and I wasn’t going to make it. I was going to be spending Christmas at a hotel.
I flipped on the TV and called my wife. She said that she was going to try to drive up and get me. She assured me that she would be careful and that she would throw a couple of sleeping bags in the back of the car in case they got stuck. She was going to stop on the way to get chains for the car, and that they would be there as soon as they could. But I knew that our tires were bad, and on the news they were showing the dozens of car accidents. If I waited a couple more days, we could be together for many years to come, but if I was in too much of a hurry to wait, I could risk losing them both forever. I told her firmly that I didn’t want her to risk it, told her to think of the baby. Then she said she could just leave him with friends, but I told her that he deserved to have two parents. So she agreed not to come until the weather improved. I tried to sound happy and confident on the phone, knowing that if I sounded as upset as I felt, that she would try to come up anyway. But once I got off the phone, I lay down on the bed and tried not let the depression get to me.
Mrs. Martin had been very kind to us and had given us a hotel room and she even said that she would pay for another night too, so that we could stay as long as we needed. It was very kind of her and when we got out of the hotel van, Beatriz was very happy about the snow. She wanted to stay up and play in it, even though it was late, but we told her it would still be there in the morning. I had never seen snow either, so after Beatriz and Javier were in bed, I told Juan that I was going to go get some ice from this ice machine I had seen, but I hurried downstairs and went outside. It was falling out of the sky but it fell so slowly and it was crunchy underneath my shoes. I stomped around in in a little and let it fall on my tongue. I caught some snow in my hands and watched it melt but then I had to go back inside.
In the morning we woke up and there was even more snow than there had been the night before. We all put our coats on and went outside. There wasn’t much room to play on the sidewalk, but Beatriz loved it and she ran around throwing snow everywhere and laughing. I didn’t do much because I was holding Javier and I knew that it was slippery and I didn’t want to fall. But Beatriz and Juan were fun to watch.
When they finally got tired and we headed back inside, we saw Mrs. Martin, who was going out to get some food. She told us that she had already paid for us to have our room for another night since there was no way that the buses were going to be running. So we would have to stay over until Christmas. I thanked her a lot and told her that I needed to get some food for us too. She said that she would wait so we could go together. So I hurried upstairs and Juan and I carefully took out the money we had left and counted it out. We figured that if we only used ten dollars today, then we would have enough to buy something a little special tomorrow for Christmas. Maybe we could get a cake or something. So I took my ten dollars and kissed Juan and headed out with Mrs. Martin.
There was a grocery store about six blocks away and we headed towards it but when we got there, there was a sign on the door that said “Closed for Weather.” There was a gas station across the street from our hotel so we decided to try that, since we had seen a couple of people going in and out of it. It was open when we got there and after Mrs. Martin talked to the man at the counter, who I couldn’t really understand, she told me in Spanish that he lived above the store and that is why it was open. I got some cereal and milk for the kids and some sandwiches for us to have for dinner and Mrs. Martin got a whole bunch of snacks. She said that her kids didn’t like being stuck in the hotel and so she was hoping that she could keep them happy. I told her about Beatriz playing in the snow and we both laughed. She also bought a couple of movies and said that Beatriz was welcome to come over to their room and watch some movies if she wanted. Beatriz doesn’t speak any English, but I thought she might have fun playing with the big girls anyway, so I agreed.
We went back to the hotel and we ate. Then Beatriz went next door to play with Mrs. Martin’s girls and Juan and I sat looking out at the snow, wondering what we should do next.
I thought my girls had been annoying on the airplane, but stuck in the hotel with nothing to do, they were even worse. I picked up some movies at the 7/11 for them, hoping to keep them entertained, and I invited Beatriz Gonzalez, the daughter of the family we met at the airport, to come over and play. Maria brought her over about noon and she was adorable. She didn’t speak English and I had hoped that she would have fun with my girls, but they didn’t want to play with her. They were too busy with their Nintendo DS’s to even look up and I ended up spending the afternoon playing with her since I wanted to her to have fun. I put in a Christmas movie for the kids to watch, although Stephanie spent the whole movie texting, keeping the screen carefully turned away from me the whole time. While they were watching the movie I began to think about what we would do if the snow didn’t stop. It was still coming down outside and the weather report said it might be two or three days before it melted off. It was Christmas Eve, and I really wanted to do something for Christmas. Of course I had gifts for the kids but I didn’t want that to be the only thing that we had to do the next day. Slowly an idea began to form in my mind. There had to be some other people stuck at the hotel today besides the Gonzalez’s and us. Maybe we could put together a sort of Christmas celebration for them all. Once I got this idea in my head, it wouldn’t stop. I began to picture a huge table with several families all enjoying a big Christmas dinner and music and new friends. It was a great idea. All I had to do was to pull it off in the next twenty-four hours. I headed across the hall to talk to Maria.
In my broken Spanish I explained my idea to her and although she said she liked the idea, she seemed like she was holding something back. Suddenly I realized that she didn’t have any money to pay for anything and she felt bad asking me to pay. I wanted to be tactful so I told her that I didn’t mind buying the food if she would help me cook it and help me decorate and everything. Once she got into the idea, she got very excited too. I could tell that she had been wondering how she was going to make Christmas for her little family and that she was seeing all the fun we could have.
“Well,” I said, “if we are going to do this, then first we have to figure out how many people are going to come. I guess the only way to do that is just to start knocking on people’s doors.”
The hotel was pretty big so it took us a while. A lot of the rooms were empty but we finally got two families, six individuals and three couples to agree to come. At the last door that we came to, we knocked and a man in a military uniform opened the door. I remembered him from the shuttle ride from the airport.
“So a bunch of us are stuck here at the hotel for Christmas, so we’re putting on a sort of Christmas dinner for everyone. There’s no cost or anything, but we’re trying to get a head count to see who wants to come. We’d love it if you’d join us tomorrow.”
He looked at me sullenly and shook his head.
“No thanks. All I want is to spend Christmas with my family.”
“Well where are they?”
“They are at Fort Lewis and I haven’t seen them in a year and now I’m not going to be home in time to spend Christmas with them.”
I felt sad just looking at him. “Well, I’m sorry,” I said sincerely. “But if you change your mind and would like to come to our dinner, we’re just down the hall in 303. Just let me know.”
“Thanks,” he said, closing the door.
“Merry Christmas…” I said to the door.
“Is he not coming?” asked Maria.
“No. He wants to go see his family but he can’t,” I said sadly.
Now that we had a list of who was coming, we needed to find a space to have dinner in. I went downstairs and talked to the manager, who told me that he had a conference room available but that it was going to be an extra charge to use it. I told him that we were just putting it together for the people who were stuck in the hotel and asked if we couldn’t use it for free since no one else was going to be using it. He admitted that some of his staff were going to have to stay there for Christmas since they couldn’t get home and I agreed that the staff could come to the party too. So in the end, he said that we could use the conference room as long as we cleaned up after ourselves.
Then we just needed to get some food. We knew that the grocery store just up the street was closed, so I got online and found a grocery store a mile away and called to confirm that they were open. They were. Maria and I decided to take our girls with us so that they could get outside and burn off some energy, so we all bundled up and headed out into the still-falling snow.
On the mile walk to the store, I asked Maria questions about her family as best I could in Spanish and then translated her answers for Stephanie and Kayla. She told us that her uncle had bought a bookstore in Spokane and that he was going to hire them to work for him so that they could come to America. When we got to the grocery store, I told everyone that they could grab whatever they wanted to have with Christmas dinner and put it in the cart. Then we went up and down every isle, picking up both ham and turkey, plus stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy, rolls and tons of other things. My girls began to get excited about the shopping, remembering Christmas dinners we had had in the past, including the one where I burnt the ham and put too much salt in the rolls and we ended up ordering pizza and giving the pizza guy a huge tip for delivering on Christmas.
Maria shyly asked if we could get some candles since they always had candles in Mexico and I told her that we absolutely could. Just then little Beatriz spotted a piñata on the shelf above some of the dairy products. It was a Christmas tree and she squealed and pointed and tugged at her mom’s pants. I asked Maria if they had piñatas with Christmas in Mexico and she nodded but said that we didn’t have to do that. But I thought that my kids, as well as some of the other kids at the hotel, might think that was fun. I didn’t think my girls had ever done a piñata before so it would be a new thing for them to enjoy. While I flagged down a grocery store worker to have him take it down, I put Maria in charge of getting things to fill it, and she hurried off with Beatriz. While I waited, I looked at my girls, and noticed that, for once, they weren’t texting on their phones or playing with their DS’s. They both had smiles on their faces and were chatting about Christmas and about how much fun they were going to have. I have to say, it was a pretty heartwarming sight.
When we had finally gotten all the groceries, I suddenly realized that we were going to have to carry them all a mile back to the hotel and I was glad then that we had brought the kids to help us out. We loaded up bag after bag with everyone carrying as much as they could, and we slowly made our way back through the snow. When we got to the hotel, the manager, who had been so kind in letting us use the conference room earlier, saw us coming and rushed out to help. He told us that he had a kitchen in the back and that there was a large refrigerator and freezer so we put all our groceries back there. We would have to start cooking in the morning so that we could eat by afternoon but we could decorate with some of the stuff we had bought now.
The manager gave us permission to move the Christmas tree that was in the lobby into the conference room, and then I hung the Christmas lights and the streamers while Maria filled the piñata with all of the goodies we had collected. We put up a long table down the middle of the room and covered it with a red table cloth. Then we put up candles all down the middle of the table. We didn’t have any dishes so I went next door to the restaurant that was there. It wasn’t open but there was a Japanese couple inside who apparently owned the place. I knocked on the door until they opened it, and asked them if I could rent their dishes. They finally agreed as long as I came over to wash them all after dinner. I paid for them and took them back over next door.
After we went to the store and got a bunch of food, we came back and decorated the room that Mrs. Martin had gotten. The kids were really excited and I showed them all of the things that I had gotten for the piñata: little candies, nuts, a few small toys. Then I let them help me put them into the hole in the piñata and I showed them how we would hang it up and they would take turns being blindfolded and trying to hit it. The Martin girls giggled and said that they thought it would be hard, but I told them that it was one of the funnest parts of Christmas. After we got it all decorated, the room looked great. We decided not to let the kids see it until the next day, so it would be more fun for them.
Once the decorating was done, we decided to divide up the work of cooking all the food so that everything would go well the next day. We realized that we needed a few more people to help out since there was a lot of work to do. So we asked a few of the other people who were coming to dinner if they would come down early to help us out and some of them agreed. We were still a little shorthanded, but it would have to work.
When the lady from down the hall came to ask me if I wanted to come to dinner on Christmas, I was surprised, but I didn’t feel ready to spend Christmas with a lot of people I didn’t know when I couldn’t spend it with the people I did know. But after she left with a smile I thought that maybe I had been a little bit rude to her. I hadn’t meant it to be that way, just everything was not going the way I had hoped and it came out rather rude. Later that day I called my wife again and told her about the lady’s invitation. She told me that I should go, that it wouldn’t help me feel any better if I just sat moping around my room. She said it sounded like fun. She was right of course, so after I got off the phone, I went in search of the lady who I thought had said that her name was Alicia. When I found her, she was setting up in the conference room downstairs. They had a Christmas tree in there, and lights and things and it looked very nice. I apologized for being rude earlier, and explained that I was just depressed that I couldn’t see my family on Christmas. I told her that if there was still room for me, that I’d love to come to dinner and I asked if I could help out or anything. She was very kind and said that she totally understood and of course there was room and she said that they needed some more people to come in early and help cook in the morning. I told her that I wasn’t a very good cook but if someone would show me what to do, then I would gladly help. She said that would be great and I told her I would be in the kitchen at ten o’clock sharp.
Christmas Day dawned bright and clear. It was still too cold out for the snow to melt and the roads were as icy as ever, so no one was going anywhere. But the sun streaming down on the bright snow outside was beautiful and everyone in my family was excited to begin the day. At ten o’clock everyone met in the kitchen and we began divvying out the tasks. Even Eric, the soldier with the baby he hadn’t seen, came by to help out. As we cooked, we all chatted about our favorite Christmases and what we had been planning to do that day, had the snow not changed all of our plans. By two o’clock all the food was ready so we called everyone down and let them into the conference room. You should have heard the squeals of delight that came from the children and the ooohs and aahhhhs from everyone else. There were Christmas lights and streamers hung around the room and a huge Christmas tree and then, of course, the table was chock full of food on every side. Everyone took their seats and we dug in. When we were finally finished and everyone sat back from the table, no one could eat another bite. But the day had only just begun. The kids ran off to play games and the adults chatted and talked for another hour or so as we let the food digest. Everyone told stories about memorable Christmases they had had in the past. One of the families had their grandfather with them and he had been in the war in Korea and he told us stories of the Christmases there. Eric passed around pictures of his little baby and everyone exclaimed over him and said how cute he was.
I was in the middle of telling a story about a Christmas from my childhood, when suddenly I heard a tentative knock at the closed door of the conference room. I was sitting closest to the door so I went over to see who was there while everyone else began to talk about something else. When I opened the door there was a pretty young woman there with a baby in her arms all bundled up as though they had just come out of the snow. She looked behind me at the people in the room and said quietly,
“Excuse me, I’m looking for my husband? Eric Shute?”
Suddenly I realized who she was and I turned to the table. A couple people were looking up but Eric had his back to us and didn’t see her. I pointed to him silently and she walked towards him and said,
He turned around surprised and the look on his face when he saw her was all the Christmas present that I needed. He jumped out of his chair and ran to her as several of us had tears in our eyes. We tried to turn away and give them a private moment but it was impossible not to watch their joyful reunion. Eric held his son for the first time, kissed his head and then looked back and forth silently from mother to child as though he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Merry Christmas,” she finally choked out. “I couldn’t do it. I know you said not to come up in the snow, but I couldn’t be so close to spending Christmas with you and not do it. I just couldn’t.”
Eric tried to speak but he couldn’t and finally he turned around to us at the table with his baby in one arm and the other around his wife. We all looked away real quick so he wouldn’t think we had been watching, and then looked back as though we were noticing them there for the first time. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he said,
“Hey guys, this is my wife Melanie and my son George.”
We all clapped and cheered then and finally it felt like the day was complete. While Eric had still been missing his family so much, it hadn’t quite been a perfect Christmas. Now it was. We grabbed an extra chair for Melanie and dished her up a big plate of the leftover food. Then she told us how it had taken her almost six hours to drive the sixty miles from Fort Lewis, about all the times she had to stop and feed George along the way and the close encounters she had had with ice and other cars.
After she had eaten, someone pointed out the piano in the corner of the room and asked if anyone could play some Christmas songs. One woman could and we all gathered around the piano and sang. The kids had been off playing but when they heard the music they began to come back into the room and soon everyone was singing. Then Maria set up the piñata and the kids took turns trying to hit it while the adults laughed and looked on and finally the whole thing broke open and sent the children scrambling.
As it began to get late, everyone slowly said good night and Merry Christmas and headed back to their rooms. I had been intending to bring down the Christmas presents for my girls once everyone else had left, but when I saw how happy and content they were without any gifts, I decided to let it go. They would still get the presents at a later time but I didn’t want to spoil the wonderful day we had had.
When we had finally cleaned up everything and headed back to our room, my oldest, Stephanie, plopped down on the bed with a happy smile and said contentedly,
“That was the best Christmas ever.”
And I think everyone would have agreed with her.