December 26th, 2009
07:37 AM ET

Dear President Obama #341: The great Christmas washout

Reporter's Note: President Obama remains on vacation in Hawaii. That sounds nice. But I’ve never been that fond of sand, so I suppose I’m happy enough back here in the snow of DC, writing my daily letters to him..

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Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Dear Mr. President,

Well, the Christmas trap I set this year and explained to you in yesterday’s letter both worked and didn’t work all at once. The girls apparently managed to avoid all the alarms, but once they were convinced they had beaten the system, they accidentally stumbled onto that jingle bell tripwire anyway. So we have engaged in a day long debate about whether that constitutes a win for the kids or the adults. Great fun.

The presents were lovely, as were the calls to and from family members, some of whom we failed to catch up with, but you can bet we’ll track them down before the weekend is over. Other than that we spent the day lounging around, watching Christmas movies, snacking and enjoying each other’s company. I chased everyone around with a toy air gun from a nephew that shoots little foam balls, and sported a New York Dolls t-shirt from an old friend. I cooked eggs and sausage for breakfast on a brilliant new griddle from my elder daughter, and savored diving into a new book from the younger. As I write this we are in front of a beautiful fire, just being a family. All in all, a really nice day despite a cold rain outside.

I don’t think I can ever recall a bad Christmas, but I do remember one that was rather trying, and rain was a big reason. We lived in central Illinois at the time, in a house my dad and mom built in the middle of a soybean field, and that December was very wet. Winters in that part of the country can often be long and gray, (Who am I telling? You’re from Chicago!) but this one made it seem as if the floodgates of heaven had opened. Day after day the rain poured, filling the ditches alongside the roads, creating makeshift ponds in the fields through which the stubble of corn stalks pushed up like an agricultural re-creation of the last scene of Titanic.

I didn’t thing much of it. I was in seventh grade and my interests lay much more in figuring out whether I could convince a dark haired wonder named Kristie to go to the spring dance with me. Sure the dance was months away, but at that age such things take immeasurable calculation and there is no such thing as starting too soon. On top of which, our house was new; a welcome replacement for the more than 100 year old farm house that we had been renting since moving to town. Lincoln was believed to have stopped by for water in those long ago days when the house was young, but as best I can tell he didn’t leave any evidence of that legendary passage. The old house had no insulation and was so cold in winter, we effectively lived entirely in the kitchen and ventured elsewhere only to sleep and dash for the bathroom where a space heater gamely held out against the brutal temperatures. We once recorded a mere 16 degrees Fahrenheit in my sister’s bedroom. Anyway, there was no reason to be the least bit concerned about the weather in our new home; a snappy split level with aluminum siding, central heat and a gravel driveway.

Or at least so we thought. Then on the eve of the holiday, Mother Nature came calling instead of Father Christmas. Our family had just returned from church, and we were going to gather as we always did to read our favorite Christmas stories aloud before heading to bed. My brother and I had our bedrooms downstairs while everyone else lived on the upper level, and he and I went dashing down to change into something more comfortable for the final festivities. But the moment our feet hit the downstairs carpet we knew it would be a Christmas unlike any other. A pronounced squishing sound was followed by the shock of frigid water rushing around our socks, instantly freezing our toes, and informing us that we were in for a busy evening.

The basement was not merely leaking. It was flowing like a river; water boiling through some invisible crack in the cinderblock walls. The alarm went through the house and the whole family ran for mops, buckets, and towels. Mom and Dad called out assignments and we all leaned into it, the kids pushing water through the carpet with rolling pins toward the parents who frantically mopped and sopped, wringing their towels and mops into buckets. We ferried the buckets back and forth to the bathtub, emptying them time and again. Our arms ached from the effort, and our fingers grew stiff with the bone-numbing cold. Heaven knows how long it went on, but eventually my folks declared the worst of it past, and the carpet squeezed out enough so that we were able to set up fans to blows across it and hurry the drying. We isolated the primary culprit; a leaky joint in a garage stairwell. Then we barricaded the area with soaked towels, and my mom and dad divided the shifts for keeping up with it around the clock; mopping, wringing, emptying, again and again every few hours. We would all carry on that duty for the next couple of weeks until we could get it patched.

But it did not spoil the night, and did not ruin the season. Once the disaster was averted, we read our stories as always, and retired. My bed was pulled out into the middle of the room and raised up onto blocks of wood. I had to brace myself for the damp, freezing floor every time I stepped down, but it did not matter. That year, a radio station was playing particularly nice Christmas music and I fell asleep listening to beautiful tunes, the whirr of the fans, and the periodic tramping of my parents up and down the stairs to mop, soft reminders that life if often not perfect, but your attitude and perseverance usually count more than your circumstances. I remember it to this day as if it happened last night, and it is strangely one of the nicest Christmas memories I have; a little piece of my past that tells me the spirit of Christmas is not only beautiful, but enduring; even in a flood, able to find a lifeboat and paddle on.

Hope all is well with the vacation. Going for a nice run tomorrow, I think.



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Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. salma

    oh My God.........I'm speechless Mr.Tom........may be because its 4 am here in Egypt & I can't feel my toes, but still its a beautiful story that drew a smile on my sleepy face

    December 26, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  2. Tammy, Houma, LA

    It is those odd Christmases that make us realize what is important. For as long as I can remember my maternal grandmother has had our Christmas meal cooked (either by her cook or a caterer). When I was five, we all contracted food poisoning (never did find out if Grandma got a refund on the meal). What I do remember is my paternal grandparents coming in to take care of my parents and me. I just remember my paternal grandmother holding me. I found out what comfort and security meant in the scariest thing I'd experienced until that point in my life. It was an amazing gift. Going eat another catered Christmas meal at my maternal grandma's in a bit. Wish me luck. Happy Holidays!

    December 26, 2009 at 11:26 am |