By Trace Browne posted on December 21, 2011
“Ladies and gentlemen-we are beginning our final decent into Albany International Airport. Estimated arrival time at the gate will be in approximately twenty one minutes. Local weather is snowy and thirty-two degrees.” I had long since put down my book and had been watching the tiny constellations of lights from the small towns in the darkness below. I hear the large engines fire down from the soothing hum of the last few hours and feel the slight pressure change in my ears and stomach. I wonder how it will be this time? I’ve done this flight so often, but tonight held the anxious anticipation of coming home for the holidays.
Outside through the near whiteout in the window, the twinkling white lights had given way to the Christmas tree colors of decorated houses. What a pleasing thing really, I thought. The beautiful lights and snow had all the makings of a classic tale. I found myself sentimentally drifting into memories of Christmas’ past and how much I used to enjoy surprising family and friends by showing up as a surprise on Christmas Eve.
Oh, it was difficult to keep it a long-distance secret; to have to feign my sorrow and regret for not being able to get away at this most treasured, but busy time of year. Three thousand miles away and trying to finagle time from work during the holidays? Not probable. I would always feel tinges of guilt and almost shame, knowingly pulling the winter wool over my dear ones eyes. “No!” I would think “not allowed!” It all would be worth it to see the looks of surprise and feel the warm embraces.
I thought once again of perhaps my favorite Christmas memory: another surprise late Christmas Eve drive from Washington to Vermont. I had a catering engagement in a fancy D.C. home on the 24th. The hour was getting late and if I didn’t get on the road, I feared that I would miss out on the most magical night of the year. It had started to snow- but not as heavily as it is tonight. After the party had ended, I wondered if it was wise to get on the turnpike and arrive at a time when even the littlest elves still had sleep dust in their eyes. It was just a momentary hesitation, for I knew there was nothing that would stop me. Without going back to my home, I started on the darkened road north.
Carols and Christmas music on the radio were my company, and I thought (as I was getting close to New York) ‘this would be a fine midnight mass’. I found myself starting to rock back and forth in the drivers seat to stead my chariot in hopes of getting there faster, indulging child-like excitement of what I might find in the hours ahead. It is how I’m feeling tonight. Back then, like tonight, Bing Crosby could not have asked for a whiter Christmas.
A half an hour out of New York, I saw the sign for ‘Route 7 North’. My dear Auntie G and many wonderful cousins are only forty-five minutes up that highway off of the Connecticut Turnpike, I thought. Auntie G is my mother’s younger sister and she with her six kids and the six of us all grew up together. I’ve always looked at my cousins more as brothers and sisters and cherished my favorite Auntie G. What a lucky guy to have so many ‘siblings’! Especially at Christmas time. Somewhat unconsciously, I found myself in the ‘exit only’ lane, but didn’t try to change. I knew the longing I felt inside to see them had taken control. The holiday visit would be a quick trip. I knew better than to get all worked up about not being able to see so many people in such a short time, but every trip I would try my best.
I would be happy just to drive by their house, I thought. Route 7 went from New Haven up through Seymour, where all of Auntie’s family lived. I took the exit that led to their road and found the street number. Auntie G’s house is on a hill up a steep driveway and I had parked at the bottom as to not wake anyone with car engine noise or headlights. I could not see any lights on from so far away. It was three thirty in the morning and all should be nestled and snug in their beds.
Whatever was guiding me that night had me out of the car and up the driveway, trying not to crunch too loudly in the frozen snow as I crept up towards the house. Turn back I thought, don’t wake anybody up. My feet kept going forward. I was thrilled to spy a dim warm glow of a light in the kitchen. A night light perhaps? I really couldn’t make it out until I was but inches away. I could see her robed figure through the frosted window. The frigid temperature didn’t matter as I watched in silent happiness.
There was dear Auntie G at the kitchen table in a tangle of ribbon and wrapping paper, dwarfed by the mountain of presents she was trying to ready. Just like my Mom, she waited until we were all put to bed and asleep to finish up Santa’s work. I tapped lightly: tap-tap-taping on the window pane. A little too softly I was afraid and had to do it again. She was pulled from her concentration, and by habit, looked towards the stairs that led up to where (hopefully) everyone was still fast asleep.
I tapped again and she spun around towards my direction. I watched as she pulled closed her open robe and walked towards the window. I pulled back and as quietly as I could began to sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Quiet as a church mouse they say, or as quiet as I could be. Oh- her face as she looked out on the yard to see what was the matter! She threw open the sash-door and ran to embrace me, not minding either, the cold night air. What a time we had! First thing she did was to put on a pot of coffee. We finished wrapping all of the gifts and by then it was time to put them in a big sack to deliver in time to hear the pitter-pat of grandchildren’s little feet rushing to see what was under the Christmas tree. At each stop was an open door, warm greeting, and another pot of coffee.
In Albany, the snow was falling heavily. Despite it being New York’s capital city, it doesn’t take long to get onto a smaller two lane winding road that leads to Vermont. What tiny little miracles to see the wreaths on the doors and beautiful lights and candles in windows of the old Victorian houses in the small towns one drives through on the way home. I find myself picturing our big old yellow farmhouse, and wondering what I will see when I peer through the windows there. I imagine the wonderful smells of cinnamon and spice coming the kitchen. The sound of choral music. What a sentimental old fool I am. A happy sentimental old fool! For tonight is the night when anything and everything might happen.
I turn off and go through the old covered bridge that leads to our home. Over the river and through the woods, to a grandmother-like house I go… In the blizzard, I see it-looking as fine or finer than any sight I’ve ever seen. I stop for a minute to look. To look at the warm glow in each window, the boughs of evergreen on the front door that is never used, the billow of smoke from the chimney. I thought about all Christmas’ past and wondered of Christmas’ yet to come. But right now, it is about Christmas present and wonder whether I will walk ever so quietly to the door and softly sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas?
Through the snowy frosted window I see a figure inside. Bundled in a sweater and sitting patiently reading by the wood stove, I see the one who waits for me and I’ve come home for Christmas. ( ‘T’)
Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveler, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!
~Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1836