To Sande…On Our 25 Christmases Together.

Twenty-five years ago, in the week between Christmas and New Year, I had dinner alone at Gampy’s neighborhood bar in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon district. It was a bitterly cold Sunday night. To my left, the restaurant had a few patrons, but not many. To my right, outside the big picture window, heavily bundled pedestrians moved briskly against a wintry wind bearing down on Charles Street’s snow-piled sidewalks.

It looked to be a lonely night, and I accepted it as such, even as I found myself flashing back to my bar seat (different bar) at our ad agency’s Christmas Party the week before. I couldn’t stop thinking about her…the Creative Director who had once dubbed me the Idi Amin of advertising and who had spent the bulk of the Office Christmas Party making regular pit stops at the bar to replenish her champagne glass and deliver zingers aimed squarely at the account man she hated—me. Somewhere along the way that evening, we actually started speaking to each other and ended up going home together. Hey, these things happen.

A week later, I’m sitting at Gampy’s, debating whether or not to call. No, I thought. Bad idea. Get a grip on yourself. One more drink. Then, home.

Fate intervened during that drink, and I suddenly found myself asking the bartender for a bottle of champagne to go. I drove up Charles Street, parked outside your house, dialed your number on my car phone, and almost hung up when you answered. I managed to blurt out something to the effect that I was wondering if I could stop by.  “OK,” you said, without hesitation, “but I’ll need an hour.”

For the next hour, I sat cradling the champagne, watching the clock, and wondering what I had done. Four months later, we got married.

I don’t know about destiny, but somehow we both knew that we had found our soul mate. Everyone should be so lucky.

Here’s to our twenty-five Christmases together…and to many, many more.

1988. A pregnant Debbie & John provide a Hanukkah touch, as we host our first family Christmas.

1989. Christmas dinner at your parents, then the evening flight to London. We arrive at Claridge’s Hotel on Boxing Day and sleep like babies, waking only for room service.

1990. Another family Christmas on Cloverhill Road, this time with Mark Westerman representing the Hebrews. Two days later, we’re off to Vienna, where the only thing worse than the weather is your cold.

1991. Stung by the Austrian experience of the previous year and my heavy travel schedule throughout ’91 (I had literally arrived home from a rather intense meeting in London the day before Christmas Eve), we stay home for the holidays…despite your gift to me of a trip to Montreal. To this day, I am sorry that I opted against it. We both had cabin fever by New Year’s Eve.

1992. Our first year as expatriates living in London. It was Christmas in the States and New Year in Prague. I’ve never been colder in my life. Aside from the charming Czech habit of tossing firecrackers at pedestrian ankles, and the restaurant maitre d’ matchmaking single male diners with hookers, we were part of history when the New Year rang out Czechoslovakia and rang in the Czech Republic.

1993. Christmas in Nairobi and New Year in Mombasa. A Christmas dinner of cheese sandwiches, accompanied by the local Salvation Army band. An aborted walk through town, thanks to menacing looks beyond the hotel gates. A fabulous flight north to experience our first taste of safari. Riding camels to an impromptu desert shopping mall. Fighting for breath on Mt. Kenya. Landing in the Masai Mara as wildebeest migrated across the runway. Watching a VW-size insect suddenly take flight and transform into a Jumbo 747, sending us lurching for cover. Racing wildebeest and zebra across the Kenyan plain in our convertible van, the warm wind on our faces as the African savanna stretched endlessly before us. Making an ill-advised river crossing at midnight on New Years’ Eve, the barge massively overcrowded, ours the only white faces in a sea of darkness. Arriving in Mombasa, anxious to savor the remnants of an outdoor New Years’ Eve feast until we noticed the roaches having at it. Experiencing a service ethic at Mombasa’s beach resort by which all others could only be measured superior. And all this while “momma” had a busted leg!

1994. We decide to stay in America this year, opting for the desert warmth of Arizona, and some time with 19-year old Pete. I don’t think the temperature ever reached 60, and that was only on the one day the sun actually shined. But the trip to the Grand Canyon—the flight, the view, the IMAX, the entire experience—made up for anything the weather lacked.

1995. A pit stop in America, then off to Morocco. Great weather, nice people, tireless beggars. The Marrakech bazaar was indeed bizarre, but undeniably alive. A villager’s family home in the Atlas Mountains had dirt floors and a TV. My attempted generosity of a few coins to some children led to a feeding frenzy. The Berber market had a parking lot for donkeys. Wonderful mint tea sweetened by a sugar cube the size of a golf ball. Magnificent horsemen put on a fantastic show at a desert fortress, as we enjoyed our dinner the old fashioned way—with our fingers! Riding out of the city in our horse-drawn cart as you took clandestine photos of the locals…seeing all too clearly why the natives never eat with their left hands!

1996. Christmas in an odd South African cabin camp, and New Year in Cape Town. Our walk in Johannesburg was probably as dangerous as the one we aborted in Nairobi, but we were somehow oblivious. The drive to Cape Town offered spectacular mountain scenery, but paled in comparison to the magnificent beauty of the rugged coast road to the Cape of Good Hope. We dined with Maggie Thatcher in the heart of wine country. You watched in horror as a baboon stalked me. Our overnight trip on The Blue Train made me as giddy as a kid at his first sleepover.

1997. We had everyone at “our U.S. house” (a suite at The Harbor Court Hotel) for Christmas, and looked forward to the New Year in Istanbul…at least until you got massively ill on Christmas night. Ironically, the disappointment of cancelling Istanbul led to our best New Year’s Eve celebration ever. That very day, I called Phil, who somehow squeezed us into London’s thoroughly overbooked Langan’s for one hell of a party, proving once again the power of spontaneity over planning!

1998. Christmas, New Year, and Ramadan in Oman. We missed our Kier Royales but that just gave you more time to browse the hotel shops. No drinking in public, but that didn’t keep us from getting quietly blitzed in our room on New Year’s Eve! “Saddam’s cousin” gave me my first-ever straight razor shave in Muscat. We visited a desert fort where real Lawrence of Arabian rifles propped against turrets, as if an assault was imminent. Meanwhile, next door in Yemen, westerners were literally being kidnapped and killed. Then there was the plane journey home and the long delay on a Dubai runway, where nicotine withdrawal seriously tested your patience with my being able to sleep like a baby.

1999. That September, in anticipation of our return to America, we bought our Falls Road home. You relocated while I remained in London on my personal Mission Impossible. On Christmas, we all convened here—it would be Nicholas’ first Christmas and your sister’s last. I suspect she knew it. I know that you sensed it. For my part, I am forever sorry that that final Christmas was not more special for you and Pat. I wish I could give it back to you both.

2000. With the loss of Pat still painfully fresh, Christmas was small. Pat’s spirit hovered on Christmas Eve at your parents’ house. Your and Pat’s traditional day-after-Christmas sister’s day out replaced with only memories.

2001. When our amazing three-week Mongolian adventure literally ended in Ulaanbaatar on 9/11, we soberly flew home over the smoke-filled skyline of Lower Manhattan. Terrible as that event was, three months later, we had the mother of all Christmases, thanks to the number of mothers in attendance. Yours, mine, Mrs. Jackson, Pat, Rosemary, Chris and, though we didn’t know it then and it was ultimately not to be, even Mary was with child. Maggie and Joe were with us too. It was a festive and happy day for all. As always, you made it so.

2002. It was Lexi’s first Christmas, as we settled in to a holiday pattern of delicious Mooshie dinners and the havoc of a wild exchange of gift giving in serious need of a traffic cop.

2003. More of the same—only ratcheted up by Lexi having arrived at “the terrible twos” and Nicholas, now four, being firmly ensconced as “your favorite boy in the whole wide world.” Eightieth birthdays were all the rage…my dad’s was that July, my mom’s just a couple weeks away, and your mom’s a couple months later.

2004. This year’s special package was a two-month old Olivia. Oh my, we’re in for trouble now.

2005. Clouds appeared on our horizon, as my dad was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, yours was getting more than a bit forgetful, and the Jacksons were talking about an impending relocation. But that Christmas (actually, Thanksgiving) did bring a new member of the family to help unwrap presents. Little Man had arrived!

2006. A beautiful young lady, named Carey, came into our lives, thanks to Pete. We lost the Jacksons to Sparta, NJ but gained them as holiday houseguests. My dad had a very rough year in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities; poignantly punctuated for me when I brought him home from one of those awful places just before Christmas and saw him cry for joy at being home. This would be Mr. Harry’s last Christmas with us.

2007. A brutal year. My dad passed. Your dad was firmly in the grip of dementia. We cancelled a long-planned trip to Tibet to focus on selling our parents’ homes and moving them into retirement communities—my mom in April, yours just two weeks before Christmas. Mary was pregnant. Life went on.

2008. Zachary had arrived to liven up a Christmas full house. Then we headed off to PA’s beautiful Nemacolin Resort for a very wintry New Year.

2009. Christmas as usual. Looking forward to Jackson Hole soon after.

2010. Carmen & Vicki join us for Christmas dinner and are treated to the sophisticated after-dinner merriment of the family children (small and fully grown) shooting items off each other’s heads with Nerf guns supplied by Pete, leader of the fully grown contingent. A few days later, the London boys—Rene and Shaun—arrive for a two-week stay, highlighted by Dan’s New Year’s Eve bash at the Hippo.

2011.  Fairly fresh from a week in Florence, living la dolce vita in Amy’s sweet flat, Christmas features the now standard revolving door of family ins-and-outs, and the pleasure of a Harlem Globetrotters Show.

2012. OK, so the last dozen years haven’t exactly had the same cachet as the first dozen…London, Nairobi, Prague, Muscat, Vienna, Marrakech, Cape Town and more, having yielded to Falls Road, Nicholas, Lexi, Olivia, Zachary, Little Man, Carey, The Hippo, lots of old and many new friends. Not a bad trade!

Thank you for being the special person you are, the best friend I could hope to have, and the love of my life.

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