My first few years in New Orleans I was piecing together little bits of work — scraping by, but managing. Not enough to buy a flight home for Christmas, though. It was hard to be away from family, but I fell right into a new family so quickly in New Orleans that it stung so much less to be away.
My first couple of years, I shared Christmas with Sydney and her parents, who had flown in for the break. Those Christmases always remind me of Mr. Lewis’ infectious laughter.
Every Christmas Eve was marked by Chaya and Greg’s Reveillon Dinner with mountains of food and rivers of drink. Some Christmas mornings were extra blurry because of those feasts. In a good way.
One year I slept on the Charpentier’s houseboat down the bayou to get up early Christmas morning and run with Kimb’ly Longstreth over to the house before everyone woke up for presents with her family, Paul David Longstreth, Michelle Charpentier Theriot, Jen Wren Charpentier, and even Tricia Boutté-Langlo. It was lovely to be in the midst of a family, even if my blood family was over a thousand miles away.
Christmas 2004 I was supposed to go down the bayou again, but the houseboat was full, so Instead of sleeping over, I’d drive down super early Christmas morning, so I’d still get there in time for the sleepy family to sip some coffee and open gifts, then move on to lazing around, and eventually fried turkey, sweet potato crunch, and peas and onions among other trademark Charpentier traditions. I got up long before the sunrise and loaded the car I’d borrowed with the little gifts for my Cajun family and the gifts my mom and Dad had sent for me to open on Christmas morning.
I hit the road and was on my way. After driving for a while, I was stopped by blue lights lighting up the dark as I approached the Luling Bridge. The officer told me that the bridge — in fact, all the bridges I could take to Houma or Bourg were frozen over and closed. He said that they might reopen when the sun comes up and melts them, but it’s still be another hour or so before sunrise.
I called Kimberley and let her know that I wouldn’t make it for the gifts but would surely make it for dinner later.
So I turned back to New Orleans, with the sun still about an hour from rising, I took the slow way into town, crossing through neighborhoods full of houses, mostly dark. I’d grin when occasionally I would drive by houses lit up, assuming they were frenzied inside with the early morning mania of kids seeing piles of presents and believing in the magic.
I drove along Carrollton, beside the streetcar tracks until it turned at riverbend. St. Charles Avenue stretched out before me, studded with glorious mansions, some dark, some twinkling just like in every other neighborhood in the city for that moment, as the sun slid up low in the sky, but not bright.
I thought I’d wait out the icy bridge over breakfast somewhere. At that time in New Orleans The Trolley Stop famously never closed, so I pulled in to a relatively full parking lot. I walked into a sea of uniforms, sky blue, navy blue, a couple of safety orange vests. Of course! This is where the first responders come for their Christmas morning coffee and breakfast and quick round of the dozens with each other and flirtations with the waitress. It made so much sense. And it was exactly where I wanted to be. For all my childhood, my dad would inevitably have to work the midnight shift on Christmas, which would make me and my brothers go insane waiting from when we woke up at 5 or 6 for him to get home at 8, take off his uniform, lock up his gun, get his coffee, and finally let us tear into the presents. I had never really thought about what he had been doing in those early morning hours, working the graveyard shift so there would be something under the tree for all of us, and the tree, and the house it was in. East Bridgewater did not have an all-night diner and he was probably the only officer on for all those hours, but, eating my eggs and drinking my coffee that morning, I was happy for those watchers of the night that they had a way to spend those hours away from their families that had the laughter of people who are in it together, even if they are not where they’d most want to be.
So I finished my breakfast around 7, checked with the state police to see if the bridges were open yet and got the word that they would not likely open at all.
Disappointed, I didn’t have the heart to go open my presents in my little empty apartment, so I turned the car in the other direction, turned on a Christmas music station, and drove to Bay St. Louis, parked facing the crashing waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I opened my presents there, one by one, thinking about how sweet it is that my mother made sure to send me a package of wrapped gifts every year, even deep into my 30s, even if it’s paper plates and slippers, because she wants me to have something to open on Christmas morning. Once I finished opening my gifts, the Christmas Shoes came on the radio, signaling it was time to change the channel and head back home.
Of course, I had assumed I’d be having fried turkey and sweet potato crunch for dinner, so I had nothing remotely feastly in my house to eat and everything was closed. Everything except Walgreens. So I got some frozen chicken wings, stove stop stuffing, a can of cranberry sauce, and a lemon Hubig’s pie for dessert, and made my way home. After my noonday feast -which was quite delicious, I must say — I settled into a nice little nap. About an hour later, I was awakened by a call from one of the young people from the People’s Institute Youth Agenda, calling to wish me a Merry Christmas. I was so touched that he thought to call me. As I tried to tell him, he started whooping and hollering that it was snowing!
I looked out the window and, sure enough, it was snowing in New Orleans on Christmas Day! We hung up quickly, and I ran outside to see all my neighbors leaving their houses in wonder and delight. Children were trying to gather enough snow for snowmen, young couples were tossing tiny snowballs at each other. People were laughing and hugging each other, trying to skate along the street with their slippers. Having grown up in Massachusetts, snow was not new to me, but that day it was for me all over again.
After everyone was cold and wet (New Orleanians are not experts on managing the wet and icy parts of a Christmas snowfall), we went to our houses to warm up. Just as I was starting to wonder if this would be a Christmas that I actually did not spend any time with any of my family and friends, Denice Warren Ross called to see how my day was going and invited me over for evening gumbo with her and her family.
For the longest time, it made my mother so sad to think that I had an all-alone Christmas. She hated to think that I opened my presents alone in my car so far from home. Because she’s a good mom, and hates to think of her children being lonely or sad. And, from the outside, I can see how that day could appear sad. I mean, Christmas dinner from Walgreens, I get it.
But it is a Christmas that I truly cherish. I got to see things about people and connections and simple joys and things that get lost in the piles of ripped up wrapping paper that I would not have seen otherwise. I got invited into a family at a sacred time, even if I couldn’t actually get there. I got to see the world my dad was a part of that he would not have thought to show me. I got to be near the water, and some new slippers and paper plates. I got to bear witness to a whole community finally experiencing the fantasy of a white Christmas they had only ever seen in movies. I got a loving call from someone I didn’t know very well wanting to make sure I felt a part of his city, his journey. I got a good nap, some delicious gumbo.
And I had the great gift of understanding that this fluke of weather and circumstance led to what is likely the only Christmas in my life I will ever have not surrounded by people who love me. That is a gift I could not have dreamed of asking for.