(or, how I saved Christmas)
When I came back into the living room, I saw Susan sitting on the futon looking forlorn and a bit weepy.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t think I really like Christmas that much,” Susan replied.
It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard her say, and I told her as much. See, Susan loves Christmas. So for her to make a comment like that, something must really be amiss.
OUR CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION had thus far been lovely. The sister missionaries in our branch, Sister Blosil and Sister Shumway, joined us for Christmas Eve dinner: a delicious meal of roasted chicken, German potato salad, and greens beans prepared by our resident chef, Susan, topped off with homemade pumpkin pie for dessert.
The next morning, Christmas morning, dawned cold and sunny—not a white Christmas, but lovely nonetheless. We woke up and had some breakfast and then went to the living room to begin unwrapping the piles of presents that had arrived—mostly for Fiona—over the preceding days and weeks.
Then Fiona had a meltdown about the new gray sweater Susan had picked out for her to wear. She said she didn’t ever want to wear it. Tears and wailing, a temper tantrum of the sort that only three-year-olds can have. We eventually got her settled down and in bed for an early nap (which she clearly needed). It was then that I learned of Susan’s startling conclusion that she just didn’t like Christmas.
“Susan, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say,” I replied. “What makes you say that?”
Susan mumbled a few things—Fiona’s meltdown clearly had not helped her mood—and then added, “And my family is down at my sister’s house and we’re up here and I won’t be able to see them—”
“Well, then, let’s go down there,” I interrupted.
“Do what?” Susan asked, incredulous that I had made such a suggestion. “We can’t do that!”
“Because—because—because we can’t. We haven’t planned it. We’re not even packed.” Susan assumed that two thirtysomethings with a three-and-a-half-year-old can’t be spontaneous. “And I’m two days past my due date. What if this baby comes?”
“Well, what if he does come?” (Colin’s name hadn’t yet been chosen.) “People in Washington, D.C., have babies, too. Remember?” (We ourselves had had a baby there.) “They have hospitals and stuff. A baby being born—very small concern.” (Maybe that was a little hyperbole.)
I continued: “And now’s as good a time as any for us to be spontaneous like this. We are, after all, about to have another little baby; it will be significantly more difficult to be spontaneous with two kids than with just one,” I noted, relying on my scant knowledge of statistics and probability. “And we just happen to have a car that’s free.”
It was this last point on which our ability to be spontaneous most particularly relied. We are, proudly, a carfree household. And while we love train travel, we also know that it can limit our ability to be spontaneous, especially given limited Christmas-day Amtrak schedules and the high cost of getting train tickets at the last minute. But some friends at church had let us borrow their car while they were home in Oregon for Christmas. And this car came with benefits. It was his company car, and his employer paid for all expenses, including gas. So it was zero cost to us—and an invaluable part of the road trip that I was now proposing.
“A car that we can take anywhere, anytime, with free gas—that’s not going to happen that often,” I said, underscoring my point that it’s either now or never. “Besides, what if this baby doesn’t come? After all, Fiona was ten days late. What if this baby doesn’t arrive and we don’t go anywhere? I think you would regret that.”
Susan started to see my point. “True. But—but, we can’t do it. We can’t just get up and drive to a place four hours away.”
“Sure we can. And we’re going to. I need to hop in the shower. When I get out, I would like you to be decided that we’re going to go, and start packing. Let’s give ourselves about two hours to get out of here.” Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t give my wife an ultimatum, but in this case, trying to convince her to see her family for Christmas, it seemed allowable. “Oh, and don’t tell your family.”
“Okay,” Susan said, uncertain of what she was committing herself to.
AS IT TURNS OUT, two hours was slightly more spontaneous than two thirtysomethings with a three-and-a-half-year-old could be. It ended up being around four hours later that we loaded into the car and got on our way.
Before we left, Susan wanted to make sure her family wasn’t planning to come up to New York to surprise us (which, rationally, we knew they certainly were not going to do), so she texted our brother-in-law. “Hypothetically speaking, if some people showed up at your house in about four hours, would they have a place to sleep?” Susan inquired, hoping we wouldn’t put anyone out of their place. “Sure, as long as they don’t mind sharing a house with seven other people,” he replied (not realizing we weren’t being hypothetical, we later learned).
Before we got too far, we wanted to make sure we had plenty of gas in the car, so we stopped at Exxon to fill up. As we were pulling into the gas station, the phone rang. It was Susan’s mother, wanting to wish us a merry Christmas. “What are your plans this evening?” she asked asked. Susan fibbed, not wanting to give away our surprise: “Oh, nothing, just hanging out at home.”
The journey to Maryland was as boring and uneventful as trips down the New Jersey Turnpike usually are. The most exciting part of the trip was when we stopped at a rest area and had “dinner,” which consisted of the Harry & David snacks we had received for Christmas.
But the most exciting part of the evening was when we arrived at Susan’s sister’s house, a little after 21.00. After Fiona donned her Santa hat and practiced saying, “Ho ho ho, merry Christmas!” we rang the doorbell. Susan’s sister answered the door. Her reaction to seeing us standing there on her doorstep was the very definition of flabbergasted. One by one, everyone else, unsure of who would come knocking at 9 o’clock in the evening on Christmas and wondering what was causing her to sputter so, came to see who it was—and, boy, were they surprised.
Our brother-in-law, who had been in bed already, came downstairs and was dumbfounded. “I told you that we were coming,” Susan said to him.
“But you said ‘hypothetically’!” he answered.
“Wow, you guys totally win the prize for spontaneity. I can’t believe this,” Susan’s sister said admiringly. As we went into the kitchen for some of their leftover Christmas dinner, she called their brother. “Hey. You will not believe who just showed up at our house. Susan and Dustin and Fiona! They just drove down here without even telling us! Can you believe that? … So, what’s YOUR Christmas surprise?”
Susan’s parents were delighted that they were able to see their third-eldest child and grandchild for Christmas. “Oh, Susan, this is just such a wonderful surprise. We are so happy that you guys came down here,” declared Susan’s mother.
Fiona, too, was happy that Christmas had become a little more interesting than she thought it would be. She was excited to visit family members that she doesn’t get to see often enough, but she was perhaps even more excited to be in a house full of other people’s stuff that she could play with. She got right to it—and proceeded to drag her favorite cousin and one of her favorite people in the world along with her for every moment.
SUSAN’S MOM HAS THE SAME GOAL I have: to see every state’s capitol. Susans’ father, mother, and sister had originally planned a day trip to Annapolis, Maryland, and Dover, Delaware, to see those statehouses the day after Christmas. But they changed plans as soon as we arrived.
Since we were there just to visit family, that’s all we did. I did go out the morning of 26 December, as I do every year, to buy the next year’s Christmas cards (because they’re 50% off, of course). Susan’s parents had given Fiona a scooter for Christmas, which we brought along with us. Fiona’s grandparents got to see her ride it for the first time when we took a walk to the school down the street. That evening, we met up with Nana, Randy, and Amanda for hot chocolate at a Starbucks in downtown Bethesda. And we topped the day off with Home Alone 2: Lost in New York—a classic Christmas movie for anyone who grew up in the 1990s.
By the time we started off on our journey home the next morning, Grammy, Papa, and Mama’s sister had already left for Annapolis. For our part, we had seen enough of Interstate 95 on the way down to Maryland two days before, so we decided to wend our way on back roads through the countryside back to New York City. It was a beautiful trip, even if it did turn the normally four-and-a-half-hour drive from D.C. to New York into a nine-hour adventure.
We arrived home a little tired but glad we went—and still with only one child. “Okay, Dustin. You were right,” Susan turned to me and said. “Baby Brother still hasn’t come, and if we hadn’t gone to see my family I would have regretted it.”
And that is the story of how I saved Christmas 2013.
This article appeared on pages 24–26 of Issue 13 | January 2014.