Holiday Reflections: Christmas Turbulence

Dec 20, 2017

Caroline Ballard, age 8, posing with family friend Filomena Renteria after receiving Christmas presents in El Paso, Texas.
Credit Dana Ballard

This holiday season, the Wyoming Public Radio news team is sharing stories about memories and traditions that stand out to them. As a kid, Wyoming Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Caroline Ballard loved the predictability of Christmas, but one year everything turned upside down.

Growing up, every Christmas was the same for my family: a candlelight church service Christmas Eve, presents on Christmas morning – always opened one gift at a time going in family birth order – a big breakfast casserole after the bounty, and a traditional turkey dinner to end the day. We never left town. We hardly left the house.

But the year I was 8 years old, the month of December took a different turn. My grandpa Joe, who was in his 80s and had suffered for years from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, started to go downhill. A few days before break we were supposed to draw what we wanted for Christmas as a class assignment; I drew a little gravestone and wished my grandpa didn’t die.

But as life goes, he died on December 21st.

Because my family lived in Virginia and my grandparents lived in El Paso, Texas, we had to fly. The circumstances and the timing meant neither I nor my brothers, who were 12 and 15 at the time, were particularly excited about spending Christmas in the desert. We groaned and sighed, and generally were brats about the whole thing, though I tried my best to put on a good face so I wouldn’t end up on the naughty list.  

That’s how a few days before Christmas, and to my worry over whether Santa would be able to find us so far away from home, we ended up on a plane bound for El Paso. It was a small plane, roughly 20 seats - the same kind you fly in and out of Wyoming and not very good at mitigating turbulence. On the first leg of the trip we were connecting through Atlanta. As we started our descent, we hit storms in the area. The plane rocked up and down and side to side. We couldn’t land because of the weather, so we just circled around and around... for an hour. It was like being on a boat as big waves keep bringing you up and crashing down. The flight attendant said it was the worst turbulence she had ever experienced.

The first one to let the contents of their stomach go was my brother James, who had the weakest constitution. Then my mom grabbed the bag tucked into the seat in front of her. The air was ripe and the sound of vomiting filled the plane that just wouldn’t land. Finally, even though I had a pretty strong stomach, the power of suggestion was stronger. I barfed up the goldfish crackers I had eaten earlier that day onto my black corduroy overalls. The bright orange, acrid mess seeped into the seams between the plush, absorbent fabric. I was mortified.

When we landed in Atlanta we dutifully trudged to the Disney store, which was the only place open to buy new clothes.

Many hours, a new dress, and a few swigs of mouthwash later, we finally arrived in El Paso. To me, the southwestern Christmas decor of my grandparents’ house where we were staying was all wrong. There were little lights in the shapes of chilies strung up and wooden ornaments on a sparse pine. Where was the fat Santa? The mid-Atlantic feel of snow?

The week progressed with gray skies and beige sand surrounding us. Despite being in the desert, the day of the funeral was cold. There was fighting over who got to ride in the limos to the gravesite; one aunt suggested the people who loved grandpa most should have the honor. Eventually we all piled in one way or another, and because Grandpa Joe had a military funeral his procession had a police escort. My brothers and I were very impressed as traffic came to a standstill to let us pass.

The next day was Christmas Eve, and my parents recreated our traditions as best they could. We still went to a candlelight church service - at their childhood church. Milk and cookies were ceremoniously placed by the tree - there was no need for a fireplace in my grandparents’ one story ranch house in West Texas. As I drifted off in my mom’s old four poster bed, her scratchy pink sheets tucked in around me, I just hoped that Santa could figure it all out.

When I woke the next morning, presents had arrived and our stockings were filled to the brim. Relief flooded through me.

And it wasn’t only the living room that had been touched by Santa’s magic. Looking outside, the desert grays and beiges of the day before had been wiped clean, replaced by several inches of thick, creamy white snow. The flakes fell like big cotton balls onto my outstretched tongue as I spun in circles in my own, small Christmas miracle.