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December 10, 2021

My Desert Christmas

We are kicking off this year’s Holiday Author Blog series with New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Diane Chamberlain. Her new domestic thriller, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE STREET, releases on January 11th and revolves around two women --- a generation apart --- who find themselves bound by tragedy and an unsolved, decades-old mystery. Diane recalls the first Christmas she spent with her boyfriend, Rick, in San Diego, which was 3,000 miles away from her family in New Jersey. She enjoyed so many wonderful Christmases with her loved ones, so it was especially difficult to be so far away from them that particular year. Fortunately, on Christmas morning, Diane came to a realization that led to something totally unexpected --- and a memory she will treasure forever.


I was 20 years old and living with my boyfriend, Rick, in San Diego when our first Christmas together approached. I was a bit of a rebel back then, stubbornly leaving my New Jersey family, physically and emotionally, to begin my life with the guy I loved. Rick was in college, and I didn’t have a job yet, but we scraped enough money together to buy a small, crooked tree for our tiny apartment and wrapped inexpensive gifts to slip under it.

The closer the big day came, the more depressed I found myself as I thought of our families 3,000 miles away. Christmas had always been a special time in our house, full of rituals and fun. My father was an elementary school principal, and he would somehow procure a tree for every classroom in his building --- something that would be frowned upon today but seemed wondrous back then. He’d save an extra tree for us.

On Christmas Eve, my siblings and I would gather to decorate the tree with delicate glass balls, lights and tinsel. We were not allowed to open any gifts on that night, building our anticipation for the morning, when we could open a single gift before church. That would always be something practical for the cold morning --- new boots or gloves --- but by then we were just thrilled to tear the wrapping paper off anything. After church we’d open the rest of our gifts, and although money was tight in our family, my parents always managed to get us the things we wanted most. After spending the afternoon enjoying our gifts, we’d go to our cousins’ house for dinner, where we’d sing carols and play charades and, on one memorable occasion, learn the limbo.

Now, though, it was just the two of us, and the yearning for my family was deep and surprising.

Early on Christmas morning, we went through the motions, sitting on the floor by the tree as we opened our gifts, but neither of us could deny the emptiness we were feeling. I was telling Rick about my Christmases with my cousins when I remembered that all my relatives were not in New Jersey. I had an aunt and uncle in Arizona. I hadn’t seen them since I was 10, but with my sudden yearning for family I blurted out, “We should visit them!”

“Maybe some day,” Rick said.

“Let’s go today!” I was certain I could persuade him. He was usually up for an adventure.

I called to make sure our sudden visit would be welcome. My aunt was surprised but quickly agreed we should come. I put on my handmade maxi dress, we climbed into Bessie, our green 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, and we were off.

Well, San Diego is not around the corner from Sierra Vista, Arizona. Without stopping, the trip would take seven hours. It was strange to sing along to carols on the car radio as we crossed the dusty heart of the desert, as alien to us as a distant planet, and ours was often the only car on the road. Who else would be in the middle of the desert on Christmas Day? We stopped to snap pictures of ourselves next to cacti, and I picked up a tumbleweed that I stuffed in the back seat and would later mail to a New Jersey friend in a huge, feather-light box. The terrain gradually shifted from flat bare earth to scrubby green chaparral as Bessie chugged into the high desert and the air grew thin and crisp.

My aunt and uncle lived in a mobile home surrounded by cacti and succulents with a view of distant mountains, purple in the setting sun. A glittery ceramic tree sat on a table in their tiny living room, and they regaled us with stories of living in the Sonoran Desert, the flora and fauna of which had become my uncle’s passion. They fed us turkey sandwiches and store-bought potato salad. They probably had some conflicted feelings about their niece “living in sin,” but they embraced Rick as if he were family. That night, Rick and I fell asleep on a pull-out sofa to the howling of coyotes instead of the sound of jingle bells.

Many other Christmases have come and gone since then. Rick and I eventually parted ways, and I went on to create my own family and my own traditions. But the memory of that special Christmas --- the long drive to the high desert and the warm visit with relatives I hardly knew --- will always stay with me. It rivals any other Christmas in its simplicity and joy.