A Christmas in Saudi Arabia (circa 1990)
Dreading a holiday doesn't necessarily keep it from coming.
Like the Whos in Whoville after the Grinch stole all their gifts and decorations, Christmas still came for the Americans in Saudi Arabia in 1990.
The community congregation hosted a candle-light service on Christmas Eve, followed by caroling around the compound. If the Mutaween heard us, so be it. They knew it was Christmas. They could get over it for once.
A couple of weeks earlier Mike ran into his old college roommate getting onto an elevator at one of the headquarters buildings downtown. He and Ron shared a barracks for three years, and in typical military fashion, had not seen or spoken to each other since graduation. But, also in military fashion, they picked up right where they left off. In the following weeks, Ron came to our villa for several suppers and days off hanging out at the pool. He showed up on our doorstep just as evening was falling on Christmas Eve and stayed over for Christmas Day, making himself useful by becoming a “great toy” to our kids.
Mike ran into another old friend through the course of his work, a former neighbor from our days in Germany. Jim also arrived on Christmas Eve and was easily convinced to spend the night and Christmas Day as a full-fledged member of the family. It broke my heart to see those two men doing all the little holiday things for my kids when they weren’t in their homes to do the same for their own children.
Santa Claus sometimes shows up in battle dress.
This kind of reunion and “mi casa, es su casa” was repeated all over Riyadh with military families just like ours. One set of friends on the compound left us the keys to their villa when they were lucky enough to get leave to go home for the holidays. They wanted to make their house available to some of the deployed soldiers who came to our church services regularly. If they got any time off over Christmas, they’d have a place that felt a little bit more like home. Those half dozen young men found, not only a nice break from barracks living, but a fully decorated Christmas tree waiting for them, complete with small gifts all wrapped with their names on them.
On the morning of December 25, 1990, my children were the one thing that made it seem like a normal Christmas. Their stockings were full to overflowing with toys bought last summer before the packers came. Their wish lists, mailed to Santa by Halloween to insure they couldn't change their minds, were reasonably fulfilled.
Seeing Christmas through a child's eyes will fill even the Scroogiest Scrooge with resounding joy. Our two adopted soldiers helped put things into perspective as well. Every smile shared with my children, every toy the guys helped assemble, every hug or tickle my children received from them, I knew was one meant for their own kids who were having Christmas for the first time without their Daddies.
This was the only Christmas in my life that Santa missed me entirely. The last two nights before Christmas Mike offered to go shopping for me, but I told him it was ridiculous to spend the little bit of free time he had doing something like shopping. The kids missed him. When this was over and things got back to something vaguely resembling normal, we could go pick out something for my Christmas present. It eventually turned out to be an eighteen carat gold necklace – definitely worth the wait.
After Santa's leavings were all discovered, unwrapped and squealed over, the four adults got busy getting ready for Christmas Dinner for a crowd of what would end up being about thirty before the day was over. I spent a good part of the day in the kitchen. Just finding the necessary utensils to serve all the food that was brought in turned out to be a full time job. Where was a local Dollar General Store when I really needed one? Eventually I had to resort to serving vegetable dishes and salads with soup spoons. But nobody cared. It felt like family, and on this Christmas that was what every single person was yearning for more than anything else. The feeling of being home . . . And after dreading the day coming for so long, it turned out to be so enjoyable, nobody wanted it to end.
In the eye of the beholder:
Late in the afternoon I was emptying the dishwasher – again. I lost track of how many times it had been put through its cycles. My guests were great helpers at filling it up. And this time, one of my closest new friends, Mary Ann, was assisting in unloading it, primarily because she knew her way around my kitchen from numerous past experiences. Mary Ann was a good five years older than me, having married a younger man on her second go at marriage. But our sons were the same age, not to mention our husbands were classmates, so a friendship had grown between us in spite of the age differential. This was a truism of Army wives. If our husbands were comrades in arms, so were we, no matter the details like age, ethnicity, or religion.
Mary Ann’s husband volunteered to go out and stay with the Saudi unit in the desert when the crisis first broke. He and one other of our officers had been out there for weeks at a time for months now. The command didn’t think they could rotate officers through the unit because the Saudis didn’t take to strangers, especially ones from the west, all that well. The mission was to build their confidence for what might lie ahead, so the officers who went in August stayed. Mary Ann and her boy were having their first Christmas without him.
Mary Ann and Bruce met at Fort Knox, Kentucky, when he was an armor captain. He liked tanks. My Mike had liked tanks too, and at West Point had a hard time choosing between the armor branch of the Army or the Queen of Battle, the infantry. When it came right down to it, he decided in a worst case scenario he would rather dig a hole for himself as opposed to digging one for a tank.
Bruce met Mary Ann the old fashioned way: at church. As a single, young officer he went against the grain and avoided the bars and strip clubs. Raised right, the pride of his momma, he trotted himself down to the local Baptist Church on his first Sunday in Radcliff, Kentucky. For his efforts, God had Mary Ann waiting for him. Newly divorced and left to raise her daughter without the support of a cheating husband, she recognized a knight in shining armor when she spotted one from her perch in the alto section of the choir loft.
Four dates later, they were engaged. The wedding was held in his hometown because hers had already seen Mary Ann in bride-mode. That was ten years, a son, and three PCSs ago.
Mary Ann hated to cook but loved parties. Early in our friendship we settled on a system of entertaining at my house with Mary Ann as the co-hostess who did most of the non-cooking labor. It was a system that pleased both of us because as much as I loved having people over and cooking for them, I loathed the clean-up detail.
“This was a great day," Mary Ann said, repeating the words spoken by most of the other participants of this holiday celebration. "You know, I dreaded the coming of Christmas so much, and here it's turned out to be a genuine pleasure."
"I think we all dreaded it,” I said. “We were so certain it couldn't seem like a real Christmas in this God-forsaken place."
Mary Ann stopped putting glasses in the dishwasher, turned, and with a confident smile gave me a Christmas present only one military wife would give to another one. “God hasn't forsaken this place, Kathleen. Who do you think made sure the Third Armored Division got here before us?”