Our Coldest Christmas

It was an injury right before Christmas 1977 that sent us looking for warmer weather. My husband’s accident could have been more serious. He was flown to shock trauma in the chopper and was there for a few days’ observation as the docs worried about his head injury. But my chides about him being hard-headed were literally true, and he was soon out of danger. His shoulder, however, was another matter.

Editor’s note: Traditions return at holiday time to knit our past and present into a garment we wear into the future. At Bay Weekly we’ve made it a tradition to tell you a story of holiday memories cherished. This year contributing writer Louise Vest leads us to Florida on a chilly search for warmth.

Christmas Eve, the family gathered at our house. By Christmas morning, my husband and I were having conversations about a vacation south. Why not? It was cold in Maryland, and he wouldn’t be working for a while.

We had never escaped Maryland winter for warmer climes, and the idea sounded wildly exotic. With a new baby due in June in addition to our three-year-old, we’d soon be busy. This might be the only time for many years we could manage such a getaway.

Once hatched, the idea became an imperative. By nightfall we were packing. I called friends and my nearby parents and took down most of our Christmas decorations — except the anemic-looking artificial tree.

We drove the truck camper so we could save money by staying at campgrounds. It was exciting, the thought of spending a few days in Disney, then the beach, where husband’s shoulder could heal in the sun, daughter could make sand castles in December and I could read in a lounge chair under a palm with my only worry those soft breezes that might muss my hair. It was a good time to escape, as it was already so cold in Maryland that Chesapeake Bay was freezing over. I’d never seen the Bay freeze before, and I didn’t want to now.

We were getting out of Dodge, ready to worship the sun.

Snow In Jacksonville

But where was it? The winter nipped at our heels, or rather our wheels, as we drove south.

Our second day on the road got us to Florida. We stopped for the night just below Jacksonville, optimistically securing an oceanfront room. It was our first ocean-view room, and what a crazy view it became later in the day with the sea frantic, palm fronds thrashing and sleet falling. There was no heat in the room, so we cuddled. By 5am we had had it. We left in a hurry, warmed up the truck and dressed there.

Then the snow began to fall.

Power was out in many places, but we found a restaurant about to open. Lined up under the awning waiting for the doors to open, we struck up conversations with strangers, the weather making all of us instant compatriots as we looked out at palms pelted by sleet. We wore our Maryland winter clothing; locals, however, were not prepared for the havoc being heaped upon them.

Among our under-the-awning gang was a man in a Confederate officers’ jacket. I knew this was the South, but I hadn’t expected Florida to secede from the Union again. Noting the stares, he laughed. He was a Civil War reenactor, he explained, and this wool coat was the warmest item he could find to wear — until the Salvation Army opened and they could shop for less dated outerwear.

Our new companions gave us travel tips, and my husband got his spare jacket from the car to lend until the place finally opened and we flocked inside to warmth courtesy of a generator. Inside we all relished the hot food and conversation. Our relatives are into reenacting — in true Maryland form, some for the South, some the North — so we embarked on a lively discussion about the hobby with the Stonewall wannabe and his wife.

Wintry Mix

We hop-scotched from town to town, hoping for a change in the weather. But every day was colder and grayer than the next. We had fun the odd warm day at Disney World. When the weather turned cold again, we gave up seeking warmth and headed home.

When we pulled off the main road to visit a park and playground, we had a flat tire. A pregnant woman and a man with a bum shoulder should together have made one person able to change a tire, but another family stopped to help. After the spare was on, the kids played together, enjoying a few moments of reprieve from car travel, while the grownups stood about talking. Our rescuers were Floridians who had once lived near the Okefenokee Swamp. The wife was a character, full of stories about how her local gators kept door-to-door salesmen away. We stood with these strangers and laughed until tears came.

As we drove north, it got colder with a wintry mix of sleet and rain. In Georgia, we stopped at a Greek-themed restaurant with a plethora of items on the menu — including Maryland crab cakes. Of course we skipped over them, shuddering at the thought of what foreign states could do to crab cakes. We topped tacos off with baklava. The place wasn’t crowded, so our waiter spent a lot of time with us. He said he knew Bert Reynolds and that he used to swim with Johnny Weissmuller. We didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but we enjoyed him.

My husband and I agreed that the people we’d met generated the only warmth we’d find that year in the South.

Continuing up the coast, our nerves were raw. There were power outages and even gas shortages. With freezing rain, then sleet and then snow, we didn’t want to venture onto the even-more-slippery side roads, so we made no more stops except for gas and a phone call home. My parents reported that people were skating on the Potomac and that the Bay was also turning into a huge skating rink.

We skidded into Maryland on black ice.

Warm at Last

Finally, we pulled safely onto our street and slid to a crooked stop in the driveway. There was our Cape Cod, looking like a palace. My dad had cleared a narrow path through the ice up the steps to our door. I could smell oak logs burning in our wood stove. Inside, my parents were waiting. Dad was reading the paper and smoking his pipe filled with Half and Half, and Mom was at the stove stirring crab soup. My Christmas tape was playing Silver Bells. And there was the tree I had abandoned. With its lights lit, our thin, fake tree looked, at that moment, as lovely as the tree at the White House.

I didn’t expect such a reception, but it seemed my parents knew just exactly what we needed, and that gave me pause. What a gift, I thought, to know what is needed and to give it, which led me to think for a moment of the very first Christmas. Mom pulled me out of my reverie, hugged my daughter and said that the soup was hot. Warm at last, we had a wonderful meal and evening together gathered around our bright, skinny tree.

Many years and vacations later, I would take warped solace in the fact that the winter of ’77 wasn’t my worst vacation. There was that New England deluge debacle, the Mother’s Day Massacre down-y ocean, March madness in Moscow, etc., etc. But as holidays go, that year was the best non-Christmas Christmas I ever had.