I admit it: I was feeling pretty grumpy this holiday season. Downright Scroogish, even. Christmas has always been my favorite time of year; I love the parties and laboring for hours to choose gifts for people I care about, and I love the cheer of my parents’ home where my big family gathers.
But this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas my car broke and my camera lens broke and my couch broke and my furnace broke and my dog got sick and my daughter made me really mad...and pretty soon I was that person in the store throwing stupid random stuff in my cart and trudging through the motions without an ounce of Christmas cheer in me.
The only slice of joy I clung to was the prospect of a few laughter-filled days with my family up north, a time to decompress and forget for a while about all the things that had left me feeling blue. I’d never missed it in all my life, and I knew this year time with my family was my last chance to rejuvenate my Christmas spirit. Then, right on cue, came word of a Christmas Eve snowstorm that promised to upend even that, and my mood wasn’t pretty.
Bitter and determined on the eve before Christmas Eve, I loaded up the car with my girls and our stuff and we set out across icy roads for a 340-mile trek to the boonies. I hate driving on bad roads and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but I choked back the tears (most of them anyway) and blasted Christmas music until the roads were so terrifying I had to shut the radio off.
To call it white-knuckle driving would be a laughable understatement. As we drove north the storm intensified from sleet to snow to a blinding blizzard, and the only thing that kept me from stopping for the night was the certainty that the next day was only going to be worse and we’d spend Christmas in a hotel room eating food from the vending machine and opening the presents we bought for other people.
Compounding our troubles, the storm was tracking north right along with us, and it seemed we never could quite drive fast enough to get ahead of it. As the miles wore on I was pretty sure it was about time for that nervous breakdown that had been inching up on me all month, and I wondered if there was enough tissue in the car for a crying jag.
But suddenly we were on dry roads, having finally edged in front of the storm, and I felt a surge of victory. “HAAAA!” I said out loud and punched the accelerator to 70. “Nice try, storm,” I thought to myself as we cruised along for what radar said would be clear sailing the rest of the way.
Clear sailing if you don’t count my hood popping open, that is.
At full freeway speed my hood suddenly opened about five inches, and I swear my heart stopped beating for a second. With visions of a scene from Tommy Boy in my head I slammed on the brakes and angled for an exit we were just about to pass, shaking and absolutely certain someone had put a hex on me.
Under a gas station light at the top of the exit ramp I got out to inspect the hood, which is a joke really because I don’t know the first thing about them except that they aren’t supposed to open by themselves.
I lifted the hood a few inches, flicked the safety latch with my finger, and stood there staring at the whole latch assembly hanging by only the cord that connects to the hood lever inside the car.
I got back in the car and did the only thing I could: called my dad bawling. He offered to come get us, but we were in Rush City, still 160 miles from my home- town, and that seemed like a bad plan. He tried to explain how I could bungee it shut, but with my luck I figured that would kill us all for sure.
In a stroke of luck, one of my sisters was just 40 miles ahead of us and turned around to come pick up my girls while I waited for AAA to find me some help. As we sat there the storm caught back up to us, and as I watched the flakes swirl around the car I was literally numb with defeat. I hated my car, snow, Christmas, and pretty much the whole world, and I was decidedly bitter over how incredibly unlucky I was.
After kissing my girls goodbye I wandered into the Holiday store, not really looking for anything but sick of sitting in my car for what had already been six hours. I stared at rows of potato chips while I contemplated my nervous breakdown, not really caring that I’d cried off all my makeup and was starting to look a lot more like a strung-out crazy woman than a happy holiday traveler.
The sales clerk, a cheerful looking older gal with rosy cheeks and bright red lipstick, looked me over with a furrowed brow when I went to pay. “Tough night?” she asked sympathetically, and I realized I must have looked like hell. I nodded and tried hard not to start crying again. “Anything I can do to make it better?” she asked. “Well you can sell me those chips, that would make me feel better,” I said.
“Why don’t you go get yourself a cup of coffee, it’s on me,” she said with a wink. “That will make you feel better.”
I smiled weakly at her. I didn’t really want any coffee, but I couldn’t refuse her kindness so I got a cup and went back to my car and waited for Mike from Mike’s Towing, the guy who was about to save the day.
Shaking his head while he looked at the hood latch assembly, Mike showed me where it had snapped off the frame in two places and a safety bolt had fallen out, something he’d never seen before. He said that it was kind of a miracle the safety latch actually held and my hood didn’t fly all the way up. “You’re pretty lucky,” he told me. Funny, lucky wasn’t exactly how I’d been seeing the whole thing.
“I’m not supposed to do this with a winter storm going on,” he said, “but if you follow me back to my shop I can weld this for you right now.”
Now I should mention that it was 11 o’clock at night and people were probably going to be calling from the ditch any minute with the full force of the storm upon us, but if this man was willing to save me from Christmas alone in a hotel room I was going to let him.
Standing in Mike’s shop clutching my free cup of coffee watching this man fix my car at an impossible hour I felt a transformation wash over me, an epiphany of sorts that felt a lot like Christmas spirit.
Here was a stranger doing an amazing kindness for me on the eve of Christmas when I had nowhere else to turn, and my thoughts wandered to Mary and Joseph having nowhere to go until the kindness of a stranger gave them shelter in a stable. Now I’m not Mary and there were no farm animals in Mike’s shop, but it felt kind of like the same thing. The lady at the convenience store and Mike, this was Christmas, I realized as I watched the welding sparks fly, and I felt a warm holiday glow come over me.
“Merry Christmas,” he told me when he was done. I must have looked like I was going to cry again because he followed that with, “I’m a happily married man who celebrated my 15th anniversary this year, but you look like you need a hug,” and he hugged me.
As I drove away I did shed a few tears, but these were tears of gratitude that washed away all the misery of the past few weeks. Instead of counting all the things I was mad about I was counting my blessings: We were very lucky the hood didn’t cause an accident, lucky it happened where it did, lucky my sister was close by, lucky Mike could get me back on the road. As I drove four more hours through a blizzard with carols blasting, my Christmas spirit was alive and well, it only took a snowstorm, a close call, and a couple of kind strangers to help me find it.