Grow up in Texas and you get confused for all sorts of reasons. If you’re a bookworm, as I was, you compare your family’s home and the land around it with what you read about. Your own life and its surroundings always fall way short. I spent years reading about kids who went up to their attics on rainy days and went through old trunks, discovering hidden treasures.
“Where’s our attic?” I asked my mother one time.
As it turned out, our attic was accessible by a hole in the ceiling. You had to use a ladder to get up there and, when you did, you couldn’t walk around.
“It doesn’t have a floor,” Mother explained, which sounded fishy to me. Later, it occurred to me that even if we had a floor in our attic so I could walk around, there wouldn’t be any musty old trunks up there. When we moved — which we did, frequently, since our father worked for an oil company — we always bought new houses on the edge of town. You couldn’t have old, musty trunks to discover in the attic when no one else had lived there before.
Besides — what was I thinking? — we lived in West Texas and it never rained. So why bother with the attic and the nonexistent trunks, when you never had rainy days? Also, forget the basements kids always had in the books I read. We didn’t have basements in West Texas, either, even though they certainly might have come in handy come tornado season. We had simpler, more pared-down lives on a single floor with seasons that were pretty much designated as summer and non-summer and tornado.
But, year after year, what really hurt was Christmas. How many times did I have to hear Bing Crosby crooning about how he was dreaming of a White Christmas? How many years did I listen to meteorologists blab about how the rest of the country was — yes! — having a White Christmas? And wasn’t it magical and beautiful and just perfect?
Well, not in West Texas. As usual in non-summer, the wind blew and the sun shone in a fierce blue sky. Snowflakes (and snowmen and snow angels and all the assorted paraphernalia of a White Christmas) never showed up in December. Try February, if you were lucky. But never December.
Years passed and I read different books and never had a White Christmas, even though I lived for six years in Virginia (which my parents always referred to as “the northeast,” much to the hilarity of my friends). I didn’t dream about White Christmases, I didn’t think about them, I went for years without hearing Bing Crosby. White Christmases were for other people.
Until that Christmas Eve 10 years ago. I was at home with my husband and two children, and my father had come to visit us, leaving Mother behind in the nursing unit in West Texas where she was being cared for. She was in the final stages of advanced Parkinson’s and had lost her mind; to her, the days had no names or interest, nor did the people around her. Late that afternoon of December 24, Daddy got a phone call from the nursing home. Mother was dying.
I couldn’t let him leave by himself. He and I packed our bags and jumped into his car for the 300-mile drive. We waved good-bye to a warm, cheerful house and family and began our drive. If there’s anywhere darker or lonelier than West Texas after dark on Christmas Eve, I hope never to see it. The road was empty and monotonous and black. Here and there, towns were lit up in festive Christmas lights — but for some reason, that just made our trip more solitary. Everybody was somewhere else, feeling warm and welcomed. We were driving a long, cold road with an uncertain end.
By the time we got to Midland, Mother was a little better. She would live, as it turned out, another week. Daddy and I returned to his apartment, where he had no food, where the clutter that was slowly revealing his Alzheimer’s was mounting. The next day, we woke up to a white Christmas. We finally found a restaurant that was open, then a movie theater. The following day, I flew back to Austin, leaving the snow and isolation behind me. My only white Christmas had been the worst holiday of my life.
Be careful what you wish for — how many times have I heard that? That year, it had some meaning. These days, I’ve given up on attics and basements and I’ve written my own books that have houses without them. As for Christmas, I’ve come to realize I like it brown; in fact, that’s what I’m dreaming about right now.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)