My husband and I never seem to celebrate Christmas the same way twice. We’ve celebrated with my family and with his; with kids and without; with fake trees and real trees; CONUS and OCONUS; together and apart. Along the way, we’ve celebrated the holidays in 8 different houses, and every year we find ways to make Christmas unique and memorable. But it’s the year we were homeless that stands out in my memory as the worst Christmas I’ve ever had.
Flash back to Christmas Eve 2002. The movers had just packed up all of our worldly possessions for our first PCS move, and we were living temporarily in a hotel at our first duty station. We were too tired to think about how we were going to celebrate Christmas. But the next morning, the reality of our situation trampled me like Rudolph on a rampage.
“Merry Christmas,” my husband whispered as we woke up Christmas morning.
I burst into tears.
I looked around the dismal hotel room that had no Christmas tree, no decorations, no presents, no signs of holiday life. We didn’t have a home. We had few belongings. We had no family or friends nearby. We didn’t even have our dog because my parents were keeping him until we got settled. All we had was a new life of uncertainties.
Mr. Roller Coaster, ever the optimist, hopped in the car to go exploring, but I clung to my pessimism and spent the day hiding under the covers feeling sorry for myself. I was still sulking and wishing the day would end when he returned and forced me to get dressed for dinner.
We drove for miles, searching for an open restaurant, for food that came from an establishment that didn’t offer a dollar menu. Finally we stumbled upon a bar on the beach, a local hangout that looked like nothing more than a broken down shack.
I was accustomed to huge Christmas feasts accompanied by homemade appetizers and decadent desserts. But as I stared through teary eyes at the menu, I realized I would be getting none of that. My Christmas dinner consisted of nachos and Bud Light.
Mr. Roller Coaster did his best to make me smile. He attempted to help me see the humor in the worst Christmas ever, but I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. Instead of gazing at Christmas lights, I stared at television screens. Instead of listening to Christmas carols, I listened to drunk people getting drunker.
I was still drowning my sorrows in nachos and beer when he returned from a bathroom break and grabbed my hand.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” I followed him, wondering what he could possibly want to show me in this redneck bar that would make me smile.
“Look over there.” He pointed to a wooden beam covered with names and dates hand-written in permanent marker. And that’s when I saw it: “Roller Coaster Christmas 2002.” (Of course it said our last name, not Roller Coaster, but work with me here.) I finally broke a smile. And finally, I saw the humor in our homeless Christmas.
We later learned we had spent Christmas in one of the most popular bars in town. During the next 2 years, we frequently returned for date nights and family visits. Each time we went, we found our wooden beam with our names forever etched in permanent marker and laughed about that terrible Christmas that introduced us to the roller coaster of military life. And when this infamous bar was demolished by a hurricane shortly before we PCS’ed again, I was devastated to think that our beam no longer existed, that the one thing that made me smile on that sad Christmas day was sitting somewhere in a pile of unsalvageable debris.
My husband and I didn’t have a Christmas tree. We didn’t have any presents to open. We didn’t have a feast. We didn’t have family or friends. But we had a wooden beam, we had a big hearty laugh, and we had each other. And when we headed back to our hotel room that night, I realized that this was the first lesson (of many!) that the military would teach me. It doesn’t matter what the crazy circumstances are. Sometimes all that matters is that we make the best of every situation and that we find a way to laugh through the tears.
Thanks so much, Wife on the Roller Coaster!! Tune in tomorrow for another lovely guest!