Angels Wings

I went home for Christmas alone that year. I was separated from my husband and had traveled home for some shelter and comfort from the emotional drain that would become divorce and starting over. I had just finished my pilot’s training that fall and was excited to talk with my grandpa about flying. He and Grandma and I had been at an air show a couple years before and it was at that airshow on that day that I decided to learn to fly. I remember the feeling of shaking the hands of the Blue Angles pilots as they walked past the crowd. One of them paused in front of Grandpa and acknowledged that he was also a flyer. They traded words and the Angel pilot issued a grateful gesture to Grandpa, acknowledging his service during the war. Grandpa had earned his wings in the 1940s, during the middle of WWII, then became a bomber pilot and had flown missions over Normandy and Germany. He had shrapnel stories and target-and-turnaround stories. I wanted to hear them all. I was excited for him to congratulate me in person for my accomplishment. My aunt had earned her licence a couple years before, so we were a trio of pilots from three generations. I was interested in everything flying then, and also looking back to family for bonds and support during the tumult of a relationship failure.

My brother was freshly discharged from the Marines and still getting a handle on regular life. He was mostly MIA from family functions, but since I’d moved away I had only seen him at my wedding about 4 years before. I pleaded for him to join us for Christmas and he begrudgingly obliged. Mom was fighting with her boyfriend this Christmas, so he stayed behind leaving the three of us to trek across the frozen tundra to the house where I’d spent Christmas for the past 25 years.

The drive from Minneapolis to South Dakota in December is never one to take for granted. Weather was warmer than normal, leaving wet snow and lots of it in a pre-Christmas storm. Mom wanted to back out at the last minute because she didn’t want the wrath of family for her own relationship failings. I had to nudge her out the door. I’d flown from Michigan to be with family and didn’t want to spend it with a depressed mother, alone in a house that wasn’t decorated or feeling very festive. I offered to drive. My brother didn’t show. Phone calls and a couple hours later Mom convinced him he could buck up, and we drove northeast with snow falling, to load him into the car before heading west, back across the slick, snowy city and out onto the prairies of the Great Plains.

I followed the plow for the first 50 miles. It took 3 hours, but I felt safe in the tunnel of snow. There was one car ahead of me and 3 behind. We all followed the plows in a line at slow pace. Once we were clear of town we passed maybe 5 cars. The plows were pushing so much snow that they were cutting through about 6 feet of white in order to clear the roads. They had effectively cut a trench the width of the highway. We drove through it. The worst that could happen was I’d slide around a bit and maybe side swipe the snow-wall on either side of the highway. Mom was white knuckled and silent in the passenger seat from the experience of years of driving this route. She knew the risks. Years before, we had been along this same road on a Christmas eve. I was about eleven when we left a stoplight and spun across the highway in a full 360, across the 4-lane highway, and into the opposite ditch, into two feet of snow, hitting a giant Yield sign with the passenger’s side of the car. After my dad pulled my mom back together, we walked half a mile to the only door we could find and knocked on it. The shop owners were just locking doors and refused to open up. My mom shouted, full of anxiety and adrenaline, but stopped short of tears, as her young family stood outside, wrapped up and staring in the locked door window on Christmas Eve in the middle of nowhere.

After much persistence and rapping at the frosted window the owner reluctantly unlocked and helped my dad push the car out of the snowy ditch and allowed us to use the phone to call my grandparents and let them know we’d be late. Luckily the car was still in driving condition, though the passenger window had shattered and lay in tiny cubes all over the floor of the car. My dad drove the rest of the way while picking glass shards from his lip and cheek. My mom huddled in the passenger seat, holding a plastic sheet across the window so we wouldn’t freeze for the next two hours before we arrived. My brother and I huddled in the floor of the backseat under pillows and extra coats to avoid the swirling wind.

So with that history, Mom was a little nervous to say the least. I took cues from both of them in the car as I drove, and there might have been talk about turning around, but the storm was over the top of us and we were about half way through the drive at that point. We could either turn back, under the east-moving storm, and sit, defeated in an empty house, or fight through to the frightened and waiting arms of family.

We stopped along the road a couple of times just to get out of the car and breathe. Night had not yet fallen and the tension in the car was palpable, so stepping out into the 20 degree air relieved a bit of that. Three more hours passed, then a couple more. We made another call to check in. Everyone at the Christmas house was waiting white knuckled as well. I drove. My brother told stories of his Marine experience to pull our minds from the angst of the road. Eventually, long after dark, we rolled into the driveway and walked through the front door at Grandma’s. I took a deep breath and dropped the keys on the table. Mom broke down into tears of relief. Now she had to face family without a partner again and the arrival and relief from the road forced her to think about that again.
Everyone put on happy faces and exchanged presents. We ate Grandma’s feast. We tried to relax into the comfort of years past and the full, warm house, but no one talked about any of the separations or relationship problems that hovered over us. We all just marched silently over the obvious pain. Then Grandpa pulled something out of his pocket and placed it in my hand. It was his pilot’s wings from World War II. “Figured you’d appreciate these,” he said. I did. It’s still one of the treasures I hold most dear almost 20 years later. 
Then all too soon it was time to drive back. The storm was over and the roads were clear. But before we left, Grandpa took my hands and said, “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, young lady, and if you fly the way you drive, you won’t be a pilot for long.” I was crushed. It wasn’t the congratulations I’d wanted. I left the house with a lump in my throat and drove all the way back with dead silence in the car. I dropped my brother at his house then turned the car off in Mom’s driveway. She broke into tears again and apologized for Grandpa’s reprimand. 
It was a messy Christmas. It was a messy time of life, but I enjoy the memories of that time when flying was new, when I was a bit more bold than I am now, and when I inherited angel’s wings.