Cold but safe at Christmastime


Randy Riley - Contributing columnist



It was a stupid thing to do. We should never have left Wilmington that night.

It was Christmas Eve, 1983. On that Christmas Eve — the coldest Christmas Eve on record — it was just me and the two boys. We were living in a townhouse apartment on West Locust Street.

I had made several mistakes over the past few years, but at that time, I was trying to make the best decisions I could for the boys. That evening … I almost blew it.

Mom and Dad had invited us over for a family Christmas Eve gathering in Germantown. The plan was to spend the night, open gifts the next morning and enjoy Mom’s special brand of home cooking with the whole family the next afternoon. Their house, the house we all grew up in, was on South Maple Street.

It was normally slightly less than an hour drive from Wilmington. That night? I wasn’t sure how long it would take.

As I was preparing to leave Wilmington, I knew that I needed to secure an old twin bed frame and mattress onto the luggage rack of my little, brown Ford Pinto station wagon. Mom wanted it for one of the nieces or nephews.

The problem was that it was nearly minus 20 degrees. The windchill made it feel like minus 60. It was nearly impossible to tie knots with my gloves on. Barehanded, I could tie the ropes for only a few minutes before I felt my hands start to freeze. Then I had to rush back into the apartment to warm up and thaw out.

It took quite a while to get everything tied down. While working outside, every square inch of my exposed skin would start freezing within minutes. It was brutal.

The car was filled with gas so I could keep it running the whole time. It was freezing outside, but at least the car engine was staying warm and kept the inside of the Pinto comfortable. Once the car was loaded with gifts, and extra coats and blankets, we headed west on State Route 73.

Despite being as prepared for driving in a blizzard as I could, the simple act of loading my sons into the car and heading out in that snowstorm was stupid, and should have cost me any consideration for a father-of-the-year award. In hindsight, it may have been one the stupidest things I have ever done, but I was determined that the boys would have a normal Christmas in Germantown with my family.

It was very windy. Snow was blowing and drifting. We drove along at a slow, but steady speed. At one point, I was fortunate to follow a snowplow for several miles.

Other than the tension of driving in such horrible conditions, it was an uneventful drive. Within slightly over an hour, we were at Mom and Dad’s toasty warm house. The boys were delighted to be there. Mom and Dad smothered us with love and warm food. It was a wonderful, memorable Christmas Eve.

All of my siblings lived in Germantown. The next day we were all together. As usual, we laughed about the silly memories of Christmases gone by.

We laughed about Uncle Bob filling our mouths with whipped cream straight from the aerosol can until it almost came out of our noses. Someone would always ask my brother, Jeff, to pass them a roll and then we would have to duck as it flew through the air from one end of the table to the other.

There is absolute joy when families gather and share. Sheer joy and love.

This year, despite having fairly good weather, more families than ever will spend Christmas apart. What the blizzard of 1983 could not do, COVID-19 will accomplish in 2020.

We have immediate family members who have tested positive for COVID-19. We have other family members who know they have been directly exposed to people who have tested positive for COVID-19. They have all undertaken a self-imposed isolation.

Currently, we all feel fine and we certainly want to keep it that way.

I told our son in Dayton that we might just drop off their Christmas gifts on the front porch of their house. He emphatically told us, “No.” He doesn’t want to do anything that might put us in danger of exposure.

We appreciate that and love him for it. So, we are staying home.

We will Facetime our kids and grandkids, but for the first time; for the first time ever, we will not see our family on Christmas. That is heartbreaking.

There will be many families that ignore the warnings from our federal, state, and local health departments and they will gather for Christmas. I pray that they do not become part of the next surge.

We will stay home this year and celebrate the birth of Christ. I’m sure more than a few tears will be shed when we talk with the grandchildren by telephone.

There is nothing like the joy and excitement of Christmas that is written on the face of a child. Our prayer is that we will get to experience that joy again next year.

Next year may be freezing and cold, but we pray that the experience can be safely shared.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

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Randy Riley

Contributing columnist