The Last White Christmas

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For Mark Murphy, Savannah’s 1989 snowstorm was unforgettable — and bittersweet

Looking East down Bay Street; 1989 / Courtesy Savannah Morning News

I was a little afraid of the woman behind the American Airlines counter.

You know the type: Perfect makeup, chestnut hair wound into a bun so tight that it made my cheeks hurt. She stood as erect as a ballerina in a starched, dark blue uniform that had not a single wrinkle. Her movements were measured, almost robotic, as though she slept standing up in a closet some place inside the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

I could see her computer monitor reflected in the lenses of her half-rimmed glasses. Her fingers clattered rapidly across the keyboard. Suddenly, the typing stopped. Her lips twisted, as if she had bitten into something foul. She arched her eyebrows ever so slightly before glancing up at me.

“Your flight is canceled,” she said. “Savannah’s snowed in.”

“Snowed in? But it never snows in Savannah,” I said.

“That’s what it says,” she replied. “All flights into Savannah are canceled due to snow.”

I went back outside. My wife, Daphne, and 3-year-old son, Christopher, were still in our aquamarine Acura Integra.

“Our flight is canceled,” I said. “They say the Savannah airport is snowed in.”

“What are we going to do? Christmas is in two days,” Daphne said.
Some context here: At the time, I was a second-year medical resident at UNC-Chapel Hill. My mother had died, suddenly and unexpectedly, the year before. Mama’s death was a devastating meteor strike out of nowhere, transforming a relatively idyllic extended family life into an emotional wasteland. Since Christmas had always been my mother’s favorite holiday, my siblings and I agreed that we’d all return to our hometown of Savannah to spend the holiday together with our father that year in an attempt to salvage something decent from the pain of our mother’s death. As the oldest child in the family, the only one who was married, with the only grandchild, I simply had to go. There was no other choice.

“We’re driving,” I said.

The year was 1989. The internet was not really a thing back then, so we were not prepared for what we were about to encounter. We were ignorant, driving blind. And yet the road ahead beckoned.

The sky was a leaden gray from horizon to horizon. Snow began falling after we had been traveling for about an hour. Soon, it was drifting down in huge clumps and accumulating in irregular heaps along the roadside.

“Watch out!” Daphne shouted.

An old Ford pickup, fishtailing in the snow, slid awkwardly through a stop sign and T-boned us. We came to rest on the side of the road. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Christopher thought the driver of the truck looked like Mario, from the video game.

Mario was profusely apologetic, admitting the whole thing was his fault. We exchanged insurance information. He offered me a sip from the flask in his hip pocket, which I politely declined.

We waited for the police for hours, but they never came. The snowstorm was relentless. When Mario’s friend (who did not look like Luigi) arrived to pick him up and take him home, he offered us a ride, too. Our Integra was drivable, so we bid them adieu and drove on.

Entrance to the Wormsloe State Historic Site; 1989 / Courtesy Savannah Morning News

I-95 was a rolling parking lot. As we crawled along at 10 miles in an hour, it was getting dark. The snow was getting deep. Driving conditions were dangerous and getting worse. “We’ve got to find a hotel room,” I said. “I bet they’re going to close the interstate.”

We holed up that night in a dilapidated Days Inn in Dillon, South Carolina, near a roadside tourist trap called South of the Border. By morning, the blizzard had dumped 15 inches of snow on the place. When I stepped out of the hotel doorway, the sun was out, at long last — but I encountered another dilemma.

I couldn’t find the car.

I eventually discovered our newly bashed-up vehicle buried in a snowdrift. Rummaging through a dumpster in the parking lot, I found an oblong piece of plastic and gradually dug the Integra out. We followed a convenient snowplow all the way back to Savannah. It was Christmas Eve, but we had made it home.

On Christmas Day, Savannah was still blanketed in white precipitation. It was the first White Christmas in recorded Savannah history. There hasn’t been another since.

The holiday was too short, as holidays often are. Before long, we were meandering northward back to Chapel Hill, the snow having largely melted away. The only exceptions were a few slump-shouldered snowmen standing in the shade beneath the drooping limbs of the myriad oaks and pines that lined Highway 15-501.

My mother was gone. That much was evident. Her absence had left a deep wound in our family, a wound which would never be healed. But despite the anguish of her loss, the love she had painstakingly fostered in each of us had survived. As we gathered for the holiday, we rekindled that love anew, honoring her memory with something tangible and permanent — and we managed to move on with our lives at long last. The White Christmas of 1989 represented a turning point for us, a moment when we realized that we were going to make it without Mama after all.

Christopher is 33 now. He and his wife, Abby, have a daughter of their own. My younger son, Josh, and his wife, Katie, live across the country in Seattle. Nevertheless, every year, we all make it a point to get together in Savannah for the holidays. On that crazy Christmas holiday 30 years ago, as arduous as our journey home was, my mother taught me one final lesson, something she understood better than anyone: that as long as we had love for one another, our family would endure.