(Published in “Powhatan Today”, as “The Worst Holiday Ever”, Wednesday, December 22, 2004 – edited by Beth, 2007)
by Beth Holt
Somewhere, high over the Atlantic Ocean, my thoughts turned from the romance of Venice to the daily routine of life in rural Virginia. My oldest son, Chip, snoozed beside me on the huge plane – I’d slept on his shoulder for a good part of the trip, but finally, I was wide awake in a dark, droning airplane, and it was time to think about Thanksgiving.
I planned out the coming holiday week:
-Tomorrow, I’d sleep late and recover from jet lag.
-Tuesday, I’d straighten out things at my husband’s office.
-Wednesday, I’d shop and cook.
-Thursday, Thanksgiving 2004, we’d be home for the feast.
Son #2, Bryan, would bring his family in on Thursday night after gorging on holiday turkey with his wife’s family. We’d all leave for Belews Creek, NC on Friday morning, visit with Memomma and Dedaddy, then head for the Holt family gathering in Burlington on Saturday, and return home on Saturday night. Busy, but simple and straightforward — not much to sweat over.
The plane landed, and my “Rome Adventure” with Chip melded into a sweet memory as my long-suffering and vacation-providing husband, George, hugged us at the gate.
It was early Sunday night in Virginia, but very late Sunday night, Italian time, when we got home from the airport. I’d been awake for nearly 20 hours, and was starting to feel punchy. I walked into the house after being gone for ten days, ready to collapse on the first bed I tripped over. But as soon as I crossed the threshold, a terrible odor hit me in the face, and it was far stronger than sleep.
I gagged, and choked out the obvious. “What in the world is that stench?”
My husband just shrugged and raised his eyebrows. “What stench?”
I stared in disbelief. For a minute, I wondered if he’d gone wacko and stashed a dead body under the house while Chip and I were cavorting around Italy. The men in my life swore they couldn’t smell a thing, but something was dead, wrong, and rotten, and there was no way to go to sleep through it.
So, strung-out on no sleep with a wide-awake headache, I tried to track down the source. Moved furniture. Cleaned out the fridge. Took out the garbage. Washed the dishrags. Looked behind the stove. Rolled out the refrigerator. And found nothing. After an hour or so of searching and cleaning, I checked under my pillow and fell into bed.
The next morning, when I wanted to be sleeping off jet lag, I jumped out of bed, and filled the sinks with Pine-Sol to mask the mysterious odor. I searched high and low for the source but didn’t find a thing. After while, my exhausted body rebelled, so I left Central European Time behind and slept through the day and most of the night.
Tuesday morning, I woke up early, and the house still stunk to high heaven. I sprayed every nook and cranny with citrus, then headed out to the supermarket to join the Thanksgiving grocery crowds.
There’d only be four of us for turkey dinner, so I planned to cook a scaled-down version of the big deal — all homemade. I filled the metal grocery cart with “scratch” ingredients, but halfway down the pickle aisle, jet lag spoke up. “Buy the Ukrop’s ready-made version….save the staples for Christmas, when you have more time to prepare.” Jet lag was smarter than I thought.
Back at home, I turned my favorite DJ on K-95 up loud and unloaded groceries to my favorite country tunes. A few items needed to be put in the old refrigerator in the garage. I bounded out the utility room door, grabbed the handle on the fridge, opened the door, and — gagged. Coughed. Gagged again. And nearly passed out.
Good gosh, it was awful. The breaker had tripped, oh, a week or so ago, probably while I was enraptured by Fritz Kreisler’s romantic Introduzione in a marvelous concert in Venice. Everything in the freezer had thawed out and gone bad. What a mess.
I unplugged all the appliances, choked my way back and forth to the breaker box, then plugged everything back in to refreeze, so it would be easier to throw things out. I was aggravated, but mostly relieved. The mystery of the smell was solved, and we wouldn’t have to go through the holiday asking which baby needed changing.
But I still hadn’t unpacked from the trip to Italy. Suitcases had exploded all over the guest room. Clothes, souvenirs, and travel books were strewn across the bed, overflowing onto the floor and crawling around the corner into the baby’s room. It all had to be cleaned up to make room for Bryan and the grandkids.
I’d just started putting things away when the phone rang, and my husband hollered for help from Hopewell. Office work had snarled while I was roaming Rome, and hired help just ain’t what it used to be. I left the mess behind and hurried down to the office to straighten out the payroll, just in time to pay the clerk who’d made the mess in the first place. It took almost all day to fix what had been done wrong while I was gone, but that was okay. I still had Wednesday night and all day Thursday to get the guest room ready.
I was printing a batch of payroll checks when my cell phone played a familiar tune. Bryan was on the line. “Mom, Rebekah and I decided it might be better to come down this afternoon instead of waiting till tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”
Well, of course it’s okay with me, but my Martha Stewart timeline just went out the window. I put down the phone, stared at it for a minute, then grabbed the receiver and dialed.
If you walk into my house on any given day during hunting season, you’ll think it’s an arsenal for the militia. I used to complain about boots and saddles in the dining room, but lately, camouflage coveralls and shotguns of every gauge and barrel are propped up against windowsills in every room of the house. How did I end up being the lone female in a household of hunters? It was time to call the AWOL quartermaster to active duty.
To my relief, my youngest son actually answered his cell phone for a change. “David, this is Mama. You need to go home right now and put away all your guns. Micah is coming tonight.” My first grandchild, though precious and precocious, very well-coordinated, and drop-dead handsome to boot, is still a tad young for the hunter safety course. Let’s wait till he’s at least three.
I locked up the office, jumped into my car, and an hour later I was home, with only 45 minutes to get ready for the Thanksgiving Eve service at Emmaus Church. A hot bath would help me change gears. I hopped into the tub, but a few gallons later, the water turned lukewarm. “Hmm,” I thought, “There’s nobody else home. I haven’t done any laundry. Surely the element hasn’t gone bad. Maybe it just my imagination that the water is not right….” After I jumped out, dried off, and threw on some clothes, I I forgot all about it
I drove down Route 711 to the small country church, slid into a pew, and thought of all the things I have to give thanks for. My friend, Lorna, sat next to me. We’ve sung side-by-side for twenty years now, and we giggled a little as the pastor strummed his guitar.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…”
Familiar words with a familiar tune, but something sounded slightly out of whack. The melody he played usually sings “There is a house in New Orleans, they call the rising sun..” NOT your usual “Amazing Grace.” Minor key. Ominous. Handwriting on the wall?
The service ended, and I rushed back home. My bedroom was relatively clean, but the guest rooms were a mess with half-unpacked bags on beds and dressers. I stuffed stuff back into suitcases, zipped them up, and threw them into my room. I grabbed souvenirs I’d sorted, pushed them into a laundry basket, and shoved it next to my dresser. I cleared the guest bed of stacked summer clothing, but there was no place left in my room, so heck with the stacks. I tossed them on the floor.
I moved the dirty travel clothes from their pile on the guest room floor to another pile on my bedroom floor. In the span of fifteen minutes, I’d cleaned one space and trashed another, but now there was room for Bryan, Rebekah, Micah, Nathan, two porta-cribs, multiple baby toys, and a week’s worth of Pampers.
Shortly, the house filled up with people I love. George came home from an extra-long day at work; David safely moved all the firearms; Chip brought dirty laundry home from Fredericksburg; Bryan unloaded tons of baby equipment along with a wife, two sons and a dog. And I do mean unloaded, particularly when it comes to the dog. Yes, the sweetest dog in the whole world, perfect for Bryan’s little family, so they told me, but I learned the big-dog-little-boys lesson many years ago.
The dog – Buttercup — who, after Micah started talking, became Butterbutt, who, after Nathan was born, became more trouble than a young mama with two babies under two should have to worry about. Butterbutt had come home to stay. I’ve loved my share of dogs in my lifetime, but I thought that part of my life was long gone.
Dogs or no dogs, though, the best times are when the kids come home. It was a happy time, with hot chili simmering on the stove, everybody talking at once, all laughing at Micah, baby-talking to Nathan, eating tortilla chips and salsa — for about an hour.
Then, Rebekah moaned, “You know, I don’t feel so good.” Bryan looked up. “I don’t feel so good either.”
And that was about the last thing he said for the next two days, unless you count calling Ralph. They were sick. Sick, sick, sick. Bryan took to the bathtub – but the hot water ran out. Rebekah woke to nurse Nathan, then tossed him to me and fell, helplessly weak, back into bed.
All the while, Butterbutt barked endlessly on the front porch. Which riled up the llamas, who shrieked the weirdest wails you’ve ever heard — all night long. Nobody got any sleep.
Tossing and turning, pillow-punching, and fuming , all I could think was, “I came home from Italy for this? Where’s the tuxedoed waiter with my hot cappuccino?”
Morning came, and it was clear the sick ones couldn’t make it to Rebekah’s family Thanksgiving. The rest of us weren’t worried, though, because the illness was due to some fast food chicken they’d consumed. Bryan needed another hot bath, but mysteriously, the water ran cold. So George belly-crawled under the house to investigate, and came back covered in cobwebs and probably a snake skin or two.
“Hot water heater’s working fine.” he announced. “There’s plenty of hot water – and it’s spewing all over the crawl space.”
It was Thanksgiving Day, and the water pipes popped a leak. A big leak. It was Thanksgiving Day, and sick people were sacked out, groaning, comatose, in the living room. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I roasted a turkey and warmed up supermarket dressing, but couldn’t make gravy till we heated pans of hot water to pour into the bathtub for Bryan, who shivered with fever.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and for the first time in holiday history, the china and crystal stayed in the cabinet. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I served turkey dinner on the kitchen table over — dare I admit it? — a paper tablecloth on everyday dishes, with — perish the thought — red plastic cups. Yes, red plastic cups. What had we come to? Martha Stewart went to jail and Thanksgiving propriety went right out the window.
Shortly, the chicken nugget food poisoning theory went out the window, too.
‘Cause Micah threw up. All over the family room carpet. Oh, it was a night to forget.
Friday morning, Bryan and Rebekah felt better, but were worn slap out. I called my parents and canceled our plans to visit them. David fled the germs, took his arsenal and went hunting, and proudly returned with a six-point buck. Then, he and George crawled under the house to fix the water pipes.
Bryan mustered enough strength to load everybody (except Butterbutt, who still barked on the front porch) back into his minivan for their trip back to Fredericksburg.
Saturday morning came, and it looked like the worst was over. It was time to head for Burlington and the yearly Holt Family Gathering and Gift Exchange. Only four of us could make the trip. We climbed into Chip’s Jeep Grand Cherokee, loaded up the presents, and drove our usual Thanksgiving route down U.S. 360. We’d barely crossed the Appomattox when David looked at me, and out of a pale green face, mumbled, “Mama, I don’t feel so good…”
Three hours later, we turned into downtown Burlington, and parked in front of the Georgia Kitchen, a nice restaurant located where the Treasure House used to be, the wedding gift store where all that china and silver we didn’t use this year originally came from.
Most of us had a delicious dinner and a good time with the sisters, brothers, cousins, and Aunt Lib (who, at 90, is a ball of fire and cute as a button). But David turned greener by the minute. Afterward, we stopped by the Holt family plot at Pine Hill Cemetery, but he refused to get out of the car. He already felt half-dead, and wasn’t about to get close enough to his final resting place to take up permanent residence.
We started back for home, and just after we turned off Rauhut Street, David called out, “Dad! Stop the car…!”
I should mention at this point that I’m not any good when somebody gets sick. I mean, if it’s a sore throat and fever, I’m a good nurse. I can even handle small amounts of blood. But throwing up? No. My gag reflexes are far too sympathetic. If somebody is sick, I am, too. George has always handled throw-up duty. Strange thing to brag about, but honestly, he’s gifted at it. And Chip is trained as an EMT, so he can handle anything.
George pulled the Jeep into a parking lot. David ran to the rear of the car, and Chip jumped out to help him. I stayed put, singing little songs, trying to think happy thoughts, “Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens….”
George walked to a nearby convenience store to buy water, Gatorade and a roll of paper towels. A few minutes later, the crisis passed, for a little while. And then, about every ten miles, it was, “Dad! Pull over!” David ran to the back of the car, Chip grabbed the paper towels – soon they honed Chinese Fire Drill into a fine science. Dave was one sick puppy and all he wanted in this life was to get home, but at this rate, we weren’t making much progress.
Daylight was just about gone. I was drowsy enough to sleep sitting up, my head lolling against the back seat as we crossed the state line into Virginia. Five minutes till six; only an hour more, and we’d be home.
And then — and then…. WHAM.
Something hit us, and hit us hard. The Jeep bucked. The hood flew up, and my eyes flew open. “If anything’s behind us, we’re gonna be hit again…” The car lurched to a stop. It was dark inside, and I smelled something smoky, like burning electric wires. I felt confused, helpless, disoriented, and frightened. “Something’s wrong with the engine…where are we….what’s happening??”
I started to panic, but Chip’s firefighter training comes in handy in times of crisis. Calm as a cucumber, he checked on his little brother.
“Dave — are you all right?”
“My hands are burned…”
“BURNED??? I struggled to unfasten my seatbelt. “I smell smoke…is the car on fire?”
“No, Mom, it’s okay – calm down — what you smell is the air bags.”
I was still groggy. “The airbags went off?? What happened?”
“We hit a deer.” Or rather, a deer hit us.
The deer had bounded across the westbound lane of U.S. 360, jumped the median, and landed right smack on top of us. Nobody saw it coming.
The front end of Chip’s car was a mess — radiator pierced, headlights smashed, the grill broken. A hundred feet behind us, a small four-point buck lay dead in the ditch. He was little, but you’ve got to hand it to him, he’d placed himself just right for maximum impact.
We’ve lost count of the deer that have attacked our cars over the past 10 years, but the number is in the high teens. My theory is that they’re out to even the score, and well… David did get a buck on Friday.
We were lucky. Everyone was okay, except for poor Dave, whose knuckles and knees were rug-burned from impact with the airbag. And he was still sick. He sat on the shoulder of the road wrapped in a blanket, and impossibly, continued to throw up.
Chip called 911, and talked with the Nottoway County dispatcher. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Shortly, the Amelia County dispatcher called my cell phone. “Where are you?”
“Uh. We’re on 360, in Amelia….Jetersville, I think….” I realized that a GPS would come in handy during an emergency, when you don’t know where you are, you’re disoriented from the shock of the circumstances, and on a road in the dark with nothing but trees for miles and miles.
A state trooper arrived. He radioed the dispatcher.
“We have a passenger with superficial burns on his hands from the air bags.”
The dispatcher radioed outward, “One of the passengers got burned.”
The trooper sighed, and shook his head. “That’s not what I said. Now, in about five minutes, we’re going to be inundated with pickup trucks.”
Sure enough, every EMT in Amelia County raced to the scene. Within seconds, we found out there’s not a thing they can do for stomach flu.
I needed to get my poor child home – so what if he’s twenty? He’s still my baby, and there we were, stranded on the side of the road. Have you ever considered how accident victims get home? There’s an ambulance if you’re hurt, a tow truck to handle the car, but when you’re just plain stranded, it’s up to you and your thumb.
I called our dearest friends in Powhatan, Barbara and Cody. They don’t ever answer the phone. The answering machine picked up and I began to babble.
“Hey…if you’re listening to your scanner, and I know you are, that wreck in Amelia County is us…and I don’t know how we’re gonna get home….” My whimper grew into a sob.
Barbara’s voice came on the line. “It’s you?? It’s you??? Hang on. We’re on our way.”
Thanksgiving weekend. The longest one on record. Jet lag. Messed up bookkeeping. A thawed out freezer. Busted hot water pipes. Canceled plans. Plastic cups. Butterbutt. A wreck. Three thousand dollars for a 4-point buck. Stomach flu, which probably isn’t over yet. What’s next??
After all that, it occurred to me that I need to add to all the high-minded touchy-feely things I’m thankful for. Here’s the down-and-dirty list.
Thank you, Lord, for:
Hot water, and the pipes that carry it.
Paper towels. Bottled water. Red plastic cups.
Cell phones. Air bags. Volunteer firefighters and EMT’s.
Friends who’ll come get you after you’ve had a wreck.
And the phrase,
“Things could’ve been a lot worse.”
Copyright 2004, Elizabeth F. Holt
Chip’s Jeep Cherokee. Totaled.4-Point Buck. Totaled.We waited till David graduated high school before posting this photo in the newspaper.