Stranded in Memphis on Christmas Eve

Watching the snow fall (and fall, and fall…..) this morning reminds me of Christmas 2004 – one that will live in infamy.

This was my first Christmas living far away from family and enjoying palm trees.  I had just moved to Houston shortly after Thanksgiving and loved it.  And I was excited to be one of the cross-country travelers over the holiday, probably because I’d never done this before and was naive enough to think it would actually be fun.

My original plans were to stay in Houston for the holiday and spend Christmas Day with the Moore family, but then, as the day grew closer, I ached to be with my own family.  So, I found a last-minute plane ticket to fly out of Houston on Christmas Eve morning, with a short layover in Memphis, and arrival by 5:30 p.m. in Moline.  Perfect.

I anticipated a little delay in my arrival, and since I was planning to go to candlelight church service in Durant that night, I dressed up in my church clothes.  I also packed all of my gifts in my carry on, because I’d rather have luggage tossed about than nice gifts ruined.

As I was waiting for my flight to depart from Houston on Christmas Eve morning, I couldn’t believe CNN was forecasting snow for Texas and Florida.  I must have brought the crazy Iowa weather south with me.  The Houston to Memphis leg of the flight was delayed about an hour, so when I got off the plane in Memphis, I had to run across the airport to make my connecting flight in time.

Or so I thought.  Sweaty and aching from running in heels while toting my gifts, I discovered the flight was delayed two hours.  I was slightly annoyed, but I could deal with it.  I still had plenty of time to get home in time for church.

Then came the gate changing, and more delays, and roaming the airport to find many others in the same predicament.  And those poor airport and airline employees.  I hope they had some strong liquor on their breaks – if they even had breaks that day and night.

I saw CNN coverage of snow flurries in Houston and lots of snow in Brownsville.  And I heard of the ice in Memphis.  All of this would be a minor setback in Iowa, but with no plows in Memphis, it was catastrophic.

By about 9:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I accepted the reality.  I was not going to be in Iowa, or anywhere in the Midwest on Christmas Eve.  I looked into switching flights yet that night, renting a vehicle, or hitching a ride, all to no avail.

I called Mom and told her of the unsuccessful surprise I had planned for her, cried, called Lexi, and cried some more.  I was an emotional wreck.  I had never been away from home on Christmas Eve.  True, I was 25 years old and a big girl, but on that night, I felt like I was a five-year-old again.

I tried to keep my spirits up as I watched people in the airport.  Entire families were stranded with little kids worrying about Santa finding them.  At least I just had to worry about me.

Then, some nice lady next to me told me to call the airline and beg for help.  So I did, and I cried some more – not to manipulate, but because I couldn’t help but cry.  The customer service rep and I compromised on a flight into Kansas City on Christmas morning.  Alleluia!  My best friend Jen lives in Kansas City and for the first time ever, just happened to be home during the holidays.

So, I called Jen to tell her of my huge ordeal.  It took me a bit to get through to her the severity of the situation because she was out partying it up with her family on the Plaza.  And then that made me cry again because I was being Debbie Downer during her fun Christmas Eve festivities.

Once Jen composed herself, she said that of course she could pick me up at the airport at 10:30 a.m.  I’d be there just in time for the Miller family Christmas feast, and her mom would be excited.

You see, Jen’s mom Sandy had suggested I fly to Kansas City for Christmas when she heard of my plans a week prior.  She said that way I could be with my best friend and her family and would have one short, direct flight.  So Sandy got her wish.

I located a nearby Memphis hotel and found a cab to take me there, checked in, and collapsed…….in my dress clothes, with no toiletries.  Nice.  But I could shower in KC tomorrow.

I woke up on Christmas Day with a knot in my stomach.  I was eager to get to the airport and checked in.  I went to the hotel lobby to find their free shuttle service to the airport not running, due to the icy roads.  The cab system was shut down for the day also.  No!!!!  This couldn’t be happening.

I thought about walking, but it was a good three miles, and in my high heeled boots, that wasn’t going to work.  So I camped out in the lobby, and at the suggestion of the hotel staff, waited for anyone who might be going that way with a vehicle.

A family of three (one child) came downstairs and started to load up their SUV.  I will never forget that SUV – a tan Jeep model with a Sooners decal on the back window.  I asked the couple if they were going to the airport, they said yes, and then I asked if I could get a ride with them.  I told them I could pay them too.  They said no!  And the reason: They didn’t have enough room.  Are you kidding me?!  They had one little boy, and hardly any cargo.

As I watched them pull away, I realized that every good Christmas story needs a Grinch or a Scrooge, so this was merely a means to an end.

Then down the stairs came a French family of seven, all boisterous and wonderful.  They were in the lobby less than two minutes when the mom came over and asked (in English) if I was waiting for someone.  I told her I needed a ride to the airport (not even expecting or asking for their help), and she said they’d be happy to give me a ride.

So, I crammed in with this huge family, who clearly didn’t have any extra room for an Iowa girl, but they made room for me.  It was all I could do not to cry during that 15 minute ride.

I checked in at the airport and had a celebratory Starbucks.  Merry Christmas to me!

Then, about halfway through my latte, they changed gates on me.  Careful not to spill my precious drink, I rushed across the airport with about 30 others.  Whew.  That was close.  We boarded the plane, and it was surreal.  I was finally back on a plane and headed to the Midwest!

Ha ha.  Not so fast.  I sat in that plane for nearly an hour while the crew de-iced it.  By the time we were in the air, I was worried the plane was doomed to crash.  It just seemed too much like the day Patsy Cline took off in a plane and it crashed in the movie Sweet Dreams.  OK, so this was a bigger plane and we had no mountains.  I was going to be fine.  This Christmas craziness was turning me into a drama queen.

Jen, bless her soul, was waiting for me at the KCI airport when I arrived over an hour late.  Again, I cried.

And then the search for my luggage proved unsuccessful.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  But yet I felt robbed.  After all I had been through, I wanted my luggage.  That’s what I asked for by not taking a carry on with the necessities though.

Jen - Christmas 2004
My lifesaver and best friend Jen

Jen’s home was a sight for sore eyes.  I ate some fabulous Christmas food, after taking a long shower and borrowing some clothing from Rachel (Jen’s sister, who by the way, had no flight problems).

Addison & Nina
Addison modeling her boa, with Nina looking on

Jen’s family was already like a second family to me before that day, but I appreciated them even more after that Christmas.  Dan and Sandy took me back to Iowa with them on the day after Christmas.  They even claimed me as someone they knew when they swung by to see relatives in southern Iowa on the way home.  I was quite a site with my hodge podge of borrowed clothes and my high heeled, knee high black boots.

Miller Family Christmas 2010
Dan, Rachel & Brian playing Christmas Day games

While this Christmas story had a pretty happy ending, I still had moments on Christmas Day when I ached to be with my own family and doing the things we always did together on Christmas Day.  After all, that vision prompted me to buy the last-minute plane ticket.

I wanted to do what I always did, but sometimes we need to start new traditions.  And often those new traditions are not started by choice and we fight them.  Reflecting back on Christmas 2004, I now realize being away from my own family that year was a good thing.  I was forced to accept that we can celebrate in more than one way, with a variety of people.

My luggage arrived in Moline – three days after Christmas.

Luggage
Finally reunited with my luggage!

During my 2005 travels back to Iowa, I shipped the presents ahead of time and had a carry on with all of the essentials.  I also wore sweatpants – just in case.  Of course everything went smoothly then.

Upon hearing this story, various people suggested I watch The Terminal with Tom Hanks.  After watching the movie a few months later, it definitely put my Christmas 2004 airport issues into perspective.

This year I am staying in the town of Durant during Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas.  I know cross country Christmas travels will be in my future, so I am savoring the low-key Christmas this year.  But then again, a lack of craziness doesn’t give us as much to talk about the next year.

Merry Christmas!

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