Orange Beach, Alabama – December 25, 2012
“Some nice folks offered to take us in for Christmas tomorrow to weather the storm,” I told Giulia. “I haven’t met them yet and they warned me that it can get a bit wild singing and dancing with the kids, but I promised them that we can sing and dance with the best of ’em!”
“I can sing,” Giulia said. “Just not on the right key, but I play a mean tambourine and I know we can dance to any song.”
A red-eye flight on Christmas Eve from California, a three-hour drive from the airport with a boat strapped to the top of the car, a giant hug from a friend she hadn’t seen in almost two years (but had the guts to come paddle with for a few days), and Giulia arrived for Christmas in Orange Beach, Alabama.
I came in a few hours earlier from a half-dozen miles out with the sky dark and ready to burst, but the storm held off until I slipped into the Bear Point Marina next to a wild-looking boat covered in Christmas lights.
“That’s it,” Lori told me. “You’re in the right spot. We won first place in the parade this year. My husband Mike’s coming to get you at the boat ramp.”
Mike and Lori’s house on Christmas is like fireworks on the 4th of July, supernovas in the sky, parade confetti fluttering in the wind. It’s loud, it’s bright, it’s noisy. You’d need ear plugs if the sound weren’t pure joy. If you could bottle the place up, power plants would disappear and you could light city blocks.
It’s kids and grand-kids music and dancing, ripped wrapping paper and torn packages. It’s tables turned into castles, bumped heads turned into tears that only grandma can stop, raised glasses and cheers. It’s trying on sequined mermaid tails, dancing on the porch, and people in and out of the house to say hello. It’s three generations of hugs and stories about a fourth, walkie-talkie conversations with a two-year-old, and a table filled with pies. It’s honey-baked ham in the oven topped with slices of home-grown pineapple. It’s bacon wrapped green beans and stuffing loaded with sage. It’s a tin of fudge and a couple of fortune cookies left over from Chinese take-out a few nights earlier.
“You’re family now,” Mike told me when I first arrived. “You see something you want to eat, you gotta serve yourself or you’ll starve around here.”
It’s dolphins on everything–plates, shower curtains, blankets, even the pumpkin pie–and Lori’s story about becoming the Dolphin Queen when she looked out at the water and saw those beautiful animals playing in the bay. It’s Mike and Lori dancing in the kitchen like a pair of 17-year-olds in love, looking at each other in a way that gives anyone who’s ever had a broken heart hope. It’s their little terrier Mia who decided to live there one day and never left, even if it meant she couldn’t chase squirrels anymore. It’s a storm bending trees outside as two friends from law school–a girl from California and a boy from Tallahassee–found themselves in an Alabama house feeling less like strangers and more like family every moment.
It’s like no Christmas I’ve ever had before, but then again, Santa used to bring me Legos and video games, not tall blondes from California and a Dolphin Queen.