Ninety percent of us don’t have the picture-perfect Christmas depicted on FaceBook or captured on those cute holiday cards we mail out. They don’t really tell our true Christmas story.
When I was a kid, every Christmas my parents argued about where we were going to spend it. My dad was a momma’s boy from Texas and spending Christmas away from his mom, dad and four siblings was unimaginable. My mom, a Virginia girl, wanted to start her own traditions—and host Christmas at our home; plus, we lived within 30 minutes of her mom and siblings. Every year, they argued; every year we went to Texas until one year my mom refused. This time, she was not backing down.
My parents were passionate fire. Everything was heated—good and bad. I think they both liked that — were energized by it. My mom told me years later that some relationships always volleyed between a severe highs and lows, and some stayed at a steady neutral. One day, I had to choose which type of relationship worked for me.
They chose fire and Christmas time sparked a slow burn that was stoked into an inferno, as they brought up every past issue as fuel.
That Christmas the arguing was particularly heated because my mom refused to give in. So on Christmas Eve when my mother was out shopping, my dad packed up his white Rx7 with a few things and me and left for Texas—without my mom. I was 8 and this was the winter before he died, driving that same RX7 too quickly in the snow. I was young, but I was old enough to know that leaving my mom was fucked up and I told him so— a couple of hours into our trip. It was the first and only time I saw my dad cry. They were just a few silent tears that spoke of his guilt.
Maybe my need to make my daddy’s move a little less jerkified, I like to believe that he felt a huge unexplainable need to see his momma, his sisters and brother before he died (I’ve experienced many instances where it’s as if a person made sure they said goodbye to their loved ones prior to dying, as if they had some sort of premonition).
I’d also like to believe that maybe the universe assisted in allowing me and my Dad this special time together: bonding in a time of jerkification. I don’t remember a lot about my father, but I remember so much about that trip—our trip from Virginia to Texas—24 hours of us. He asked me to be his riding partner and explained how serious my role was. I had to ensure that he stayed awake and was traveling in the right direction. I looked at him with my two, twisted ponytails and my hot pink corduroys that I wore more often than was acceptable, and agreed.
Despite the size of our car, I recall picking up hitchhikers along the way—some riding- scrunched up in the back–with us for hours. Some smelling so badly that I had to breathe into my pink, puffer coat. One woman — a dirty blond with long stringy hair — fascinated me. You could see that she was pretty even though Exxon and Shell bathrooms were where she bathed and changed clothes. She gave me some strawberry lip balm to try. I took my finger in this metal pot with strawberries on it and wiped the scented, light pink ointment on my lips, then pulled down the sun visor to see if I looked different. I didn’t. As soon as we got to a gas station and the couple got out to use the facilities, my father admonished me for using this strangers lip balm. I turned from him after that—my 8-year-old attitude guiding me to look directly out of the front window, with my body twisted diagonally towards my door. He was the one who let these people in the car, after all.
I forgave him, of course. The radio, snacks and new passengers made me forget. I liked him, my father, and thought him rather cool. He ate beef jerky, wore shades, drove and talked to all the various hitchhikers as if we all were sitting in first class flying to Disney together. When they weren’t any hitchhikers, he talked to me. I don’t remember much of what we said; but I’m grateful for the conversation. Just the memory of the chatter is enough.
We didn’t stop much along the way. We were driving through the South in the 70s. At that time you only stopped at places you knew were safe for a Black man, which meant there were long stretches of nothing: produce fields, cows and static-laced radio. And, because we were on the run, somewhat, we didn’t have the cooler full of ham sandwiches, deviled eggs and sodas that would’ve normally been packed for the trip. I didn’t complain; I savored my Slim Jims and Now & Laters and kept my eyes opened for 24 hours because he assigned me an important task: I was his riding partner.
It was dark when we arrived to my Grandma’s. Several of my relatives rushed out to meet us as soon as they saw hint of his car lights bouncing and heard the gravel popping on the driveway when crunched by the car tires. My Aunt lifted me out of the passenger side and I was wet. I had peed on myself many miles back—refusing to ask my Dad to stop because that didn’t seem like what a good driving partner would do. I’m sure he knew I had peed, but he never said a word. Nor did my aunt. She just ran me a huge warm Mr. Bubble, bubble bath—I think one of the only ones I took in that house alone, without at least one cousin in there with me.
It felt good to be there with my family. I loved the journey—Dad and me. I missed my mom, particularly that next morning, when we all gathered to open presents. Then, I was too young to empathize with how hurtful that trip must’ve been for her; how she must’ve been embarrassed to show up at her mother’s house alone. But, I don’t remember them fighting about it when we returned. They were used to the fire and the burns healed quickly or even ignited the smolder they seemed to crave. She nonchalantly hosted a second Christmas on New Year’s Eve, this time at our home as she had desired. My Dad gave my mom a French cookbook; and she loved it. I was surrounded by toys. It was a picture-perfect Christmas.