Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fear Not

Merry Christmas. Our family is celebrating Christmas on the 28th because that's the day we can all be together, and so this morning it is probably more quiet at my house than it is at yours. And the quiet gets me thinking about the many, many Christmases behind me. The Ghost of Christmas Past is paying me a visit, but this is a good ghost I enjoy having around. A lot of the memories blur together, but there are some that are so distinct -- clear and round and whole -- like the favorite ornaments on the tree that I unwrap every year and think, There you are. Hello, Christmas.

There's one Christmas I think back to every year. Back to before I had kids; way, way back to when I was a kid around ten, when we drove from Hamden, Connecticut to Ottawa, Illinois in a blizzard. The car held a trunkful of wrapped presents and my dad and mom; my sister, Suzanne; me; and our black miniature poodle, Babette, who would later help herself to the leftovers of our 25-pound turkey, narrowly escaping death -- both from the effects of the turkey and from the threat of my grandmother's barely contained wrath.

But before all that, we had to get to my grandparents' house, and things were not going smoothly. We crept along with the snow barreling down and the windshield wipers frantically ineffective, my dad hunched forward in his seat, my mom tense, both smoking. Even Suzanne and I had stopped fighting about whom Babette liked better. A temporary peace, a ceasefire if you will, erased the imaginary line that had served as the border between our two hostile countries in the backseat.

My parents were much younger than I am now, in their early thirties, attractive, successful professionals,  who usually kept life interesting and fun for their young daughters. Before the blizzard took over, we'd been singing road songs, eating salami sandwiches my mom had passed back to us, playing the alphabet game. Five years later, they would divorce, but as much as things would change for our family, all four of us always remembered and talked about this road trip. As I write this now, I want to call my father to help me fill in the details, because he had that kind of memory. But my dad died seven years ago. He was a risk taker, a man who had to turn around and repay the toll many times in his life, a man who was raised in Buffalo Center, Iowa, and who swore he'd still be there if it hadn't been for hitchhiking.

Which brings me to the next scene in our story. My father was paying at a toll booth when he spotted a hitchhiker up ahead. He was covered in snow, but as my dad drove slowly past him, the hitchhiker smiled and waved, and something in his smile reminded me of Jim Croce, a singer I'd recently seen on television singing "Time in a Bottle."

"That's the same guy," my dad said.

Jim Croce? I thought.

"What same guy?" my mom said.

"The guy I saw back at the Whatchyamacallit toll booth." (My father didn't say Whatchyamacallit here; if he were alive, he would tell me the exact name of the toll booth and its exact location. Forgive me, Dad, I'm doing my best here without you.) "We could have given that poor kid a ride the whole way. I'm turning around."

"Donald! WAIT!"

But my father slowed the car down even more, looking for an exit he could take. He drove back and repaid the toll booth operator.

My father picked up hitchhikers. If they were young women, he would lecture them on the dangers of hitchhiking. He would only pick up men if my mother, Suzanne and I weren't in the car. But my father was also a man who was not above breaking his own rules. This drove my mother understandably crazy.

"Jesus, Janice," my dad said. "He's obviously trying to get somewhere. He didn't strangle the kind people who gave him a ride this far."

"How do you know it's even him? He's covered in SNOW."

"Exactly. That's why we're giving him a ride."

As my dad pulled over to pick up what Suzanne called The Abominable Snowman, Babette barked like a Doberman Pinscher in attack mode, and my mom  yelled, "Donald! It's not him! Just GO! Don't stop!"

But my dad ignored us all, and leaned over my pissed-off mother to roll down the window for the Jim-Croce-Abominable-Snowman-Family-Poodle-Killer.

"Where are you coming from?" my dad shouted over Babette.

"Well, Sir, Vietnam. But more recently, Connecticut."

"Yep. I thought I saw you back at the Whatchyamacallit toll booth."

"Yes, Sir, That was me. On my way home, Sir." He told my dad the name of his hometown.

"We can give you a ride to your front door. Hop in."

My mother got out of the car. I waited for her to fling open the backdoor and yank Suzanne, Babette, and me out, but she didn't. She let the snow-covered soldier in to sit between them, and then got back in the car. She offered him a salami sandwich, and hot coffee from the thermos and then a cigarette.

Babette settled down and fell asleep while Suzanne and I, who usually happily ignored most adult conversations, strained to hear the three adults murmuring in the front seat. I traced the name of the soldier etched on my POW bracelet. I wanted to lean forward and show him the name and ask if they were friends, but I was too shy.

While he spoke, I watched the snow melt off his hat and jacket and slip down the back of the seat like teardrops. My parents shook their heads, fell silent. The three of them smoked more cigarettes, said more things I couldn't quite hear.

And then, a shift, a rise in the soldier's voice as he leaned to look out the window. In the far distance, he said, he could see his parents' farmhouse. My father again offered to drive him to the door, but he declined. "No thank you, Sir. I've been dreaming about walking up and over that hill for a long time now."

My dad nodded, pulled to the side of the highway. It was snowing still, but in big soft flakes that lollygagged their way down. The soldier turned and patted Suzanne and me on our heads. "I hope Santa's good to you girls."

Both my parents got out of the car. He shook my father's hand and then they embraced. My mother wrapped her arms around the soldier, too, and said, "Merry Christmas."

Back in the car, my dad didn't shift into drive right away. The car idled, filling with Christmas. My mother scooted closer to my father and laid her head on his shoulder and he reached his arm around her. I heard her sniffle and sigh as we all watched the soldier make his way through the snow, toward his waiting home, white with lights.


  1. Wow! I love this simple story of kindness with a dash of suspense. How you moved expertly through the family scenes to the meeting the hitchhiker to build up towards the reunion in the end is wonderful.

  2. Touched my heart and a flood of memories. I was out hitchhiking myself Christmas eve 1965. I was in the Army and on my way home from jump school and got off a bus at 3 in the morning in a blizzard. The junction of US 24 and US 31 was the closest I could get by bus. After about an hour a Semi pulled up and picked me up. He dropped me right in front of my Mom and Dad's house. The door was unlocked as usual and I freaked my mom out at 4AM in the kitchen. How he got that truck up our street still amazes me.( I ended up driving trucks for over twenty years) The reason he picked me up was that his son was in Vietnam. Wish I had gotten his name. A year and a half later I was in Vietnam via France and Germany. To this day I will not pass a soldier hitch hiking. Period. Thanks for reminding me why. It had gotten to be a habit.

  3. P.S. This is my first Christmas alone. My wife is in Texas visiting her mom and we had Christmas last weekend. Hope to see my brother and his family tomorrow. Thanks for sharing.

  4. beautiful; best christmas story i've heard.

  5. So many Christmas memories, but this one stands out. Dad rum pum pumming, Mom's yummy sandwiches, you kicking me in the backseat, good times. I love you and miss you. Merry Christmas!

  6. Wow - you've never told me that one! An awesome story that makes me love you daddy even more.
    Merry Christmas, Sere'!

  7. wow your dad is brave to do such things on the roads, back then tho things were safer i suppose. great story, thanks for sharing.


  8. Thank you, Seré for filling my own heart with fond memories of Christmas past. If ever there was a time when I needed to be humble and thankful for all the tiny miracles of 'life' that happen around us everyday, it's now!

    Peace, love and laughter to you and your family this holiday season. xo

  9. What a wonderful Christmas story. Full of memories of Christmas cheer, a never-to-be-forgotten car trip, and how showing true kindness to a stranger can have its own reward. In essence, this is what the Christmas spirit is all about.

  10. Shopgirl: Thanks so much! I'm really glad you enjoyed it. Wishing you very Happy Holidays.

    Turtle: What a great story. I bet it felt so good to walk into your mom's kitchen...and so good for her to see you there. (Once she got over the initial shock!) Thanks for writing, and Happy New Year to you.

    Anonymous: That's really kind of you. Thanks, and wishing you Happy Holidays.

    Suz: That's funny, because I distinctly remember YOU kicking ME...

    Maija: Aww, thanks Maija. He loved you too. :)

    Julie: Thanks, and yes, it was definitely more common to pick up hitchhikers back then, but still risky. Unfortunately.

    Spence: Wishing you lots of those tiny miracles throughout the season... and a new year full of hope and all the good things you so deserve.

    Penelope: Thank you! The experience definitely touched my family and stayed with us all these years. Happy Holidays to you, Pennie.

  11. What a touching story. You're blessed to have been brought up by such kind, caring people.
    Hope you have a fabulous 2012.

  12. Seré! You're back! So glad to see you writing here. I've missed you and your beautiful words!

    What a wonderful Christmas memory you've inked. We see now, where your beauty, within and without, comes from. And that last line, wrapping it all up in gorgeous Christmas fashion, "white with lights", is stunning.

    This story makes me wonder about a lot of things, like who's the soldier and what became of him... Some questions may not have answers, but it's enough to have these warm memories, isn't it? And what could have been one of those white-knuckled treacherous drives (not to say it wasn't!) turned out to be a real blessing.

    We are in January 2012, my dear. Your year, Seré! Looking forward to reading more of your wonderful words.

    Merry, merry! :D

  13. Hi Seré Prince Halverson, my name is Tarcísio, I'm a writer from Brazil. I've been reading the magazine called Writer's Digest and I read about you. Congratulations for be so strong and creative. I really liked this Christmas story that you wrote. I'm in US since september and I had my first Christmas here, so this story is exactly what I had experienced.

    Have a good new year!

  14. Carol: Thank you my friend. Wishing you a Happy New Year, full of more wonderful writing and adventures.

    Jayne: Thank you! I've missed you too! Heading over to your most brilliant blog to get caught up. And yes, I've wondered about that soldier over the years. If this had happened recently, we'd just google or friend each other on facebook.:)

    Tarcisio: Welcome! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and for your kind message. I I hope you're enjoying living in the US...My novel will also be published in Brazil (later this year, I believe). Best of luck to you with your own writing!

  15. Wow, I loved this so much! found your blog via Natalia's interview today, and I'm so glad I did! Really looking forward to your book, too. Thanks for a lovely read this morning -- reminding me of what's important at Christmas and in life.

    1. I'm so glad you stopped by, Julia. Wonderful to read this message from you. Thank you.

  16. Hello Seré,

    I read the 1/29 Argus Courier article about you and then read your blog. Great stories! I would like to invite you to be a presenter at Writers Forum in Petaluma. Details on my website: I looked for an email address for you, but can't find that. If you will email me, I'll provide more details that way. Some friends we may have in common: Chris Walker, Susan Bono, Joan Frank and others, I'm sure. I facilitate writing workshops at Copperfield's, Petaluma. Just trying to let you know I'm legitimate!