Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (9/19) — Chapter Nine, Garland (1/3)

HOW LONG AFTER CHRISTMAS DAY should garland adorn the church pulpit and sanctuary? How long does the Christmas season last? Yes, there is an answer, most definitely.


BOONE, N.C. (Dec. 29, 2019) – Sitting here in the living room of our Rutherwood house on a warm, rainy Sunday morning in late December—the last Sunday of the year and decade—I think about where I’d rather be right now. After all, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is prime travel time.

No, we didn’t go to church today, though I’m wondering who’s there and who else isn’t this morning. Once the Christmas cantatas and Christmas Eve candlelight services are past, folks often take a Sunday or two off—maybe even two months of Sundays until Ash Wednesday—in order to catch their collective breath before penitent Lent sets in and then joyful Easter rolls around. I also wonder if the tree is still up and all the garland, candles, bows and banners remain on display. It is still Christmastide, after all.

THE 18TH TEE of the Donald Ross course at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn lay outside our room window during our stay on Dec. 31, 2012. No, I didn’t sneak outside to play the hole when no one was looking (because I’d left my clubs at home).

When we were full-time teachers and had disposable income, we spent several post-Christmas attitude adjustments and New Year’s Eve celebrations in Asheville, staying either at the old Grove Park Inn on the west-facing slope of Sunset Mountain or at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel downtown next to the Thomas Wolfe house, “The Old Kentucky Home.” Asheville is our favorite town in western N.C. that isn’t home, though it easily could have been, as we both were offered jobs there at one time or another.

On the eastern end of the state, where we lived from 1987-1997, our favorite town is Ocean Isle Beach, which was our home for eight of those 10 years before we moved back to the mountains. At Ocean Isle, we rented an old beach house on one of the island’s natural canals. We could sit on one porch and watch mullet skip down our canal past floating docks and past boats of all sizes towards the intracoastal waterway. From our street-side porch, we could look south and see the ocean beyond Second and First Streets, or look west at day’s end toward Sunset Beach to catch the sun’s last rays from our state’s doglegged coastline.

Since moving to Boone some 22 years ago—gee, time flies when you’re having fun—we’ve gone back to Ocean Isle Beach once during this holiday period. That time, the weather was unseasonably warm, as it is now, and we even played rounds of golf in shirt sleeves a couple of days, at Lion’s Paw Golf Links near Sunset Beach and at the now-defunct Ocean Isle Beach Golf Course. We’d also wanted to play our friend Junior Hughes’s Goose Bay Par 3 Golf Course near Shallotte Point—a track closer to our speed—but it wasn’t open. Junior had built the course all by himself; therefore, he ran it on his own schedule.

Over the years we’ve spent a few of these holiday breaks outside our beloved home state—a couple of them visiting family in central Pennsylvania, a more diverting one in what is our favorite American city, New Orleans. As I’ve written elsewhere, New Orleans isn’t our favorite city due to its reputation for letting the good times roll on Bourbon Street. That particular street is, in fact, our least favorite part of the Big Easy, a filthy strip of disgusting businesses we’ve tried to avoid the five times we’ve visited New Orleans since our first trip there in 1984. We’ve gone for NOLA’s food, music, history and food.

The time we were in New Orleans between Christmas and New Year’s Day was in 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region and then levee failures flooded much of the city outside the French Quarter. We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites across the street from the Convention Center, where so many horrors occurred among the thousands of homeless folks who sheltered there after the storm. That Sunday, which was New Year’s Eve, we watched the NFL Carolina Panthers beat the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome, where thousands more evacuees had found shelter—and six had died—after Katrina. Later, we listened to jazz at the official celebration on Jackson Square, shared our muffulettas with Lenny the Human Jukebox on the riverwalk after he sang some Al Green and Marvin Gaye to us, and we simultaneously saw and heard on CNN and out our hotel window the same fireworks display.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON reminds us, “The sun will shine after every storm.” These words appear on a hearthstone in the Great Hall at the Grove Park Inn.

For various reasons, travel is much more difficult for us now, but mainly due to physical and financial limitations. Still, one of our goals for the coming year—not necessarily a resolution, as such, but a goal—is to go somewhere that isn’t within a three-hour drive of Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte or of a hospital with a competent urologist who knows one end of an endoscope from the other and is willing to handle an emergency case while on call at night (unlike Dr. Bauer at Grace Hospital in Morganton).

Oh, my, this essay just took a pointed turn, a dogleg left, didn’t it? But, yeah, that’s part of our reality now—if post-traumatic stress disorder, something that happens in a person’s head, can be called real. Thanks to that five-hour ordeal in the Grace ER—from around midnight to 5 a.m. on May 16, 2018—followed by a predawn ambulance ride to CMC in Charlotte before our regular doctor finally handled the problem a couple of hours later, we’re afraid to go anywhere. The worst part of it lasted approximately 11 hours.

And, by the way, which situation is worse—suffering excruciating pain for hours on end, or watching the person you love more than anyone in the world suffer and not be able to help them? Obviously, the right answer is the former one. However, neither situation is one any sane person wants to experience.

So if you know us, you’ll understand why we’re hesitant to take long trips or even to change our current day-to-day schedule, which—like Dr. Pepper’s “pepper-uppers” at 10, 2 and 4—has us taking care of personal business at regular intervals, except around the clock at 12, 3, 6 and 9. And, yes, it’s 24/7/365, to complete the code. Also, our breaks require more supplies than just a soda bottle, and they take 10-15 minutes to perform. That means we’re both already losing at least an hour of beauty sleep every night.

Yes, yes, I know. I shouldn’t whine, because everyone has it tough in one way or another. Everyone has a cross to bear—even during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, when it doesn’t hurt all that much to rest a bit easier on a Sunday morning and think about where we’ve been and where we’re going in the year ahead. That’s what I gather, anyway. I mean, there’s always the next Sunday morning, right? And nothing ever happens that isn’t meant to happen, right? I guess we just have to wait and see.