For the last ten Christmases, Charlotte looked forward to December 25th and dreaded the 26th with equal measure of sentiment. With her divorce a new set of traditions had evolved that weren’t found in December issues of Southern Living or Better Homes and Gardens. They were not the stuff of Hallmark Christmas movies and certainly not anything Charlotte would have come up with had she not been divorced. She wondered if years later her children would reminisce with any fondness on their strange succession of December 26th s or forever block those days from their memories. Charlotte hoped the ghosts of Christmas past wouldn’t send them to a counselor’s couch the day after Thanksgiving for the rest of their adult lives. Instead she wished that with any luck, her children would find the humor and their recollections would become fodder for amusing anecdotes at future Christmas gatherings. Charlotte mused that the beginning of those stories might begin with, “Do you remember that Christmas in the parking lot when…?”
The very first parking lot Christmas came two weeks after Charlotte’s divorce was finalized. In the days leading up to Christmas, Charlotte worked feverishly to keep Christmas coming in spite of the Grinch. She had taken Mike, 6 and Sarah, 12 to pick out the perfect tree. With the help of the man who sold it to her, she tied it to the top of her car, drove it home and lugged it into the living room of her Victorian era home. Instead of being discouraged when the tree was dwarfed by the 14 foot ceilings, Charlotte found a packing box and instructed Mike and Sarah to help her fill it with the first edition books her ex had been collecting for years. Once full, the 3 of them pushed the box in front of the window and strategically positioned the tree on top. Beaming with satisfaction, the three stood back admiring their handiwork. Once school was out for the break, Charlotte, being careful to keep the presents from Santa out of sight, single handedly packed the back of the car with gifts and suitcases. Christmas was spent at her parents’ home in Wetumpka, Alabama. The holiday had not been the same and Charlotte ached for her children. Even so, in spite of everything that first Christmas was relatively happy. That is until the 26th. On the morning after the 25th to prepare for the inaugural parking lot Christmas, Charlotte repeated the packing ritual, this time not so carefully. Charlotte’s brother, James agreed to accompany them acting as bodyguard and moral support for “the changing of the parent” on the hour drive east to a preordained Burger King off an I-85 exit.
The trip was fraught with tension as soon as Charlotte sat behind the wheel. In the excitement of arriving in Alabama, she had neglected to refuel the car in advance, and stopping to top off the tank would prevent them from arriving at the court designated meeting time. Her newly acquired ex was less than pleased when Charlotte called to inform him of the delay. To make matters worse, she had not anticipated the increased traffic on 85. She had never traveled on the day after Christmas, so how could she have known it was such a busy travel day? To compensate for lost time, Charlotte gripped the steering wheel, exceeded the speed limit and wove in and out of the moving traffic. Every 15 minutes or so, her ex would call for an ETA. Charlotte tried to remain calm, but with each call her knuckles grew whiter. When she finally parked the car in front of Burger King, her rattled passengers sprang from the car grateful to be alive. The next ten minutes passed in a blur of activity. After the items in the back of her car were transferred to that of her ex, Charlotte hugged each of her children goodbye and tearfully watched them crawl into the car. As Charlotte and James turned to leave, James held out his hand and in a firm voice commanded, “Give me the keys, now.” She asked, “Why? I’m okay to drive.” To which James replied, “I don’t care what you think. I’m driving. I’ve never been so afraid for my life and I don’t plan to be again.” Charlotte sighed, tossed him the keys, sat herself in the passenger seat and fought back tears. The first parking lot Christmas was over. She prayed the next one would be better.
Twelve months later Charlotte found herself in the same Burger King parking lot, and it was not any better as Charlotte had prayed. Four months before Christmas, Sarah moved in with her dad and his new wife. Charlotte had gone through 3 lawyers and 2 counselors hoping to prevent the move from being permanent. By Christmas, she was exhausted and heartbroken, but she was determined to enjoy her time with Sarah. When the 26th came around, Charlotte hugged her children and without being asked surrendered her keys to James.
Over the next eight years the parking lot and escort varied, but she never grew accustomed to saying goodbye to her children at Christmas. During her brief engagement to the ZZ Top goateed biker, he volunteered to act as her self-appointed henchman. He arrived wearing his motorcycle boots, a stained Harley ball cap and yellow tinted sunglasses. He hopped into Charlotte’s car and casually tossed a wadded up beach towel at Charlotte’s feet. “What’s that?” she asked. His answer made the blood drain from her face. “Oh, it’s just my revolver.” Just as she was gearing up to give him a piece of her mind, Mike slid into the backseat unaware of the firepower resting on the floorboard near his mother’s toes. The rest of the drive was spent wondering what would have to happen to bring the gun out of its towel. Charlotte was comforted by the fact her fiancé also an avid hunter had never killed anything in the three years she had known him. Every time the car hit a pothole or came to a quick stop, Charlotte held her breath. She made a mental note to make sure James road shotgun the following year. It wasn’t until the drive home she learned the gun was not loaded.
The parking lot tradition had taken a curious turn the last two 26th of Decembers. At her ex’s request, Charlotte, Sarah, Mike and James shared a very awkward breakfast with him in the Cracker Barrel on the other side of the interstate from Burger King. Not wanting to be the uncooperative one, Charlotte agreed to the new wrinkle. Sitting across the table from her ex at the last sit down, assured Charlotte she had nothing to dread. If she could carry on an out of body conversation with the man who had derailed Christmas eleven years earlier, and survive a gun brandishing biker there wasn’t anything she couldn’t face. Perhaps Christmas was a little bit more than the feeling she had on the 26th of December. As long as there was love, it didn’t matter where it was shared.