I grew up in Florida. Everybody knows it doesn’t snow in Florida. Not even that final northernmost strip of land that lies down in a bed next to Georgia. We didn’t understand the sentiments behind the song, “White Christmas” and I never once hoped for one. Why would I waste my time? The best we could hope for was the temperature dropping below 68 degrees. So we could wear us some Christmas gloves. And not sweat.
In the “winter” of 1989, all of that changed.
I was a freshman at a tiny little private college called Florida College. It was in Tampa, which was even warmer than my hometown of Tallahassee. I didn’t own a car, so when holidays rolled around, I walked around campus scouting out people that might be heading northwest and have an extra seat in their limo. I had nothing to offer them. I didn’t bake or knit or draw crazy cat pictures. I was broke and had an afro. In December of 1989, though, I don’t think I even arranged my own ride. I came up empty and my ride materialized through my brother and his friend, Rick. Rick had an old truck and no family nearby. I had no truck and a family that had invited him for Christmas. It was a match.
I knew Rick already, so it was a comfortable ride in a light blue truck that didn’t seem like it was going to make the round trip without a tow at some point. When we arrived in town, I was greeted briefly by my mother, who immediately handed me the keys to the green Plymouth Horizon in one hand and a slip of an envelope in the other. The paper scrap had an address. Apparently I was babysitting. Like, right then. I didn’t know the family, but that’s how things worked in those days. Without social media, people hired sitters on word of mouth. I went without questioning it, because I was broke and carless and getting babysitting cash over the holidays was the best I could do for myself.
I remember backing out of my driveway that night and shivering in a car that was past its prime the moment we drove it off the lot 9 years before. The door handles didn’t work from the outside and it was the color of algae. The heater took forever to kick on and at this point in my day, I needed heat. I could tell as Rick and I drove north that afternoon that the temperatures were dropping. But I hadn’t seen a forecast and my knowledge was limited to how it felt as I stood in my driveway.
It felt cold.
The kid I was watching was young and went to bed early without resistance or fanfare. The house was only a mile from my own and was lit up with the colors of the season. I liked it. It felt like Christmas inside that house. I was sitting in a recliner, biding my time and enjoying the quiet, when the shrill ring of an 80s telephone sent a life-threatening panic to my heart. I clutched my chest and jumped out of the chair. Where was the phone? Who could be calling? Should I answer it? It’s not my house.
I found the phone in the kitchen and answered it, “Mitchell Residence,” as I had done a time or two. I really only answered it to stop it from ringing.
“Hey, it’s me,” my brother said. He sounded urgent.
“Dude. Why are you calling me here? How did you get this number?” This was odd behavior.
“Mom looked it up. Have you been outside?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t been outside. I’m babysitting. I’m responsible!” I answered.
“Go outside. NOW. Just put the phone down.” This was freaking me out a little, so I set aside my responsibility argument with the phone and ran down the hallway and out the front door. I stood there under the yellow glow of a street light and looked around. There was a hush in the air that only comes with winter. I felt like I had walked into a sacred prayer service inside a stained glass sanctuary. But I wasn’t a violator. I was an invited guest. My breath burst and hung in the frigid air as I took in the scene before me. I raised my arms to the sky. Magic was swirling all around me. And with it–snow.
My algae colored car bumper was white with it. It was gathering in patches on the driveway. Snow.
Oh! My brother.
I raced back in, carelessly letting the door slam shut behind me. A wreath jingled precariously against my bull in a china shop entrance. I grabbed the phone off the counter.
“I saw it!” I heaved.
“Can you believe it? When do you get done there?” he asked. He wanted to play in it.
“No idea,” I answered.
“Come when you can. And drive carefully.”
I hung up the receiver and stood there with the goofiest smile on my face. It was Christmas and it was snowing. In Florida.
Driving home from that babysitting job was like trying to push a cart at IKEA. I was all over the place. But with only a mile to go and not even one other car on the road, I made it back into my driveway safely to find my brother and Rick standing in the snow like bouncers. I couldn’t get the door shut behind me before a wimpy little ice ball hit me in the back of my head.
We scraped together snow balls for an hour before it occurred to us that we were wasting all the snow. We wanted it to last, so we stopped and went inside to let it run its course. I even thought about spraying Scotch Guard on the grass to try to protect this winter wonderland.
By 10 a.m. the following morning, the neighbors down the street had used every last flake in their yard to make a 2″ snow man and accompanying snow dog. Their yard for the next 3 days was green, with 2 little white mascots. We left ours alone, deeming it sacred space. No man’s land. An inch fell that night and the days remained just cold enough to leave a thin fleecy remnant on the lawn, like an overused woobie in a child’s crib. It was patchy. There were flaws. But it was white enough to call it a white Christmas.
It is the only one I’ve ever had.
I’m headed north in a couple of days to New York City to try my hand at another. Al Roker flashed the White Christmas forecast up on the weather screen this morning with all the major cities in the northeast. He says snow is unlikely for Manhattan.
And I say, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…”