Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including GODS IN ALABAMA and A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY. Her most recent book, SOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY, is about a single mom who stumbles into the middle of a mini-mart robbery, where the actions of a stranger cause her to fall irrevocably in love with him. In this Holiday Author Blog, Joshilyn fondly recalls the eight-hour car rides her family would take on Christmas Eve day, and the books they would read out loud to pass the time. Looking back, she can appreciate just how lovely the journey was --- never mind the destination.
This is an Advent story; it begins with my mother's voice.
The day before each Christmas finally came, my family would rise in the darkest part of early morning, before the edge of the world had so much as turned gray. We'd tumble sleepily into Guacamole Gus Bus, my dad's green VW van. Dad drove eight hours to northern Alabama, where our whole clan was gathering. Mom sat in the passenger seat with our standard poodle, Louey --- a truly noble soul --- curled at her feet.
My brother, by virtue of being four year's worth of taller, got the long 3-seater bench in the back. I curled on the shorter bench in the middle. This was before child safety was invented; we lolled, seatbelt free, in piles of quilts and pillows.
Somewhere in the van's dark depths, mom's tightly wound teacup poodle, Musette, would be hiding. Musette hated children and cars and life and noises and breathing and other dogs and sunshine and hope and Christmas. She lived only to creep out and pee on the blanketed piles of sleeping children.
So my brother and I would try to stay awake, but the movement and the dark and sweet sounds of my mother's voice undid us. We would drift away into dozes, listening to my mother reading to my father as he drove.
It was the earliest version of the audiobook. She read him Reader's Digest Condensed Books, essays by Erma Bombeck, John Steinbeck's lighter novels and, if she really believed we were sleeping, she would break out the racy stuff: Ian Fleming, F. Scott Fitzgerald, JAWS.
I'd fade in and out of sleep, so that the stories blended in my dreams. Bond infested Gatsby's outsize mansion, hunting British secrets in the champagne fountain. Great white sharks in oven mitts hindered Erma's hopes for a truly organized pantry.
When the sun was up, we'd stop for Hardee's sausage biscuits --- a rare treat --- and the reading would begin in earnest.
In my memory, the family book was the same every year: THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER. We'd pass it back and forth, taking turns reading our favorite scenes, as the Herdman children --- unholy, feral, prone to violence --- invaded and then took over the local pageant.
I haven't read that book in decades, but I can tell you, strictly from memory, that the choir girls painted their eyelids with Vaseline to make them shine, that the narrator says “Away in a Manger” sounds like "a closetful of mice," and that the worst Herdman of all, Imogene, pitches out the gold and frankincense and makes her brothers drag a ham up the middle aisle. A ham! For the kosher keeping Holy Family! But that ham was the nicest thing she had, and I remember loving her for it.
My best memory of this book isn't a plot point, though. It is the voices.
I hear the opening scene in the young voice of my brother, cackling so hard he eats half the words, as the Herdman's burn a shed down and then steal all the firemen's donuts. It didn't matter. I knew the scene by heart, and could fill in his gaps.
I hear my own baby voice reading the part of the sour little girl who felt she should have been cast as Mary. I hear my mother doing tiny Gladys Herdman's Angel of the Lord voice, sharp and nasal, very shrill and very Southern. My mother's Gladys was truly terrifying --- I believed that girl could make all the shepherds actually tremble, in fear of Herdman head conks. I remember my soft-spoken father's signature chuckle, a warm chocolate-colored kind of sound, punctuating all the scenes.
The drive was eight hours in the car each way, and, at the time, each hour seemed endless. Christmas was just ahead of us, and the feeling of it coming closer, mile-by-mile, made the road stretch out ever longer. But in my memory, now, I understand those drives were never long enough.
If the Advent story has a moral, then it is this: There is beauty in the waiting. If I could go back, I wouldn't visit any actual Christmas day, I wouldn't want to see the tree or re-open my pile of plastic presents by Mattel, long broken and forgotten.
I would go to that van, to the sound of pages turning and my mother's voice, my family's laughter, the familiar story, the good dog snoring and the bad one creeping slyly out to steal my last bite of sausage biscuit. I would settle myself into that too short middle seat, waiting with those I loved best, as my father drives us all toward something wonderful.