Happy Birthday Norah – Christmas in the South



I’m still working on this messy essay but today is Norah’s 18th birthday, and I am remembering a boy named, Will, who came to all of Norah’s birthday gatherings over the years.

This is the first time we won’t be going home to Los Angeles for Christmas since I took a job in Birmingham in 2009 and here it is eight years later, and Norah is applying to colleges, graduating from high school this spring.

How did that happen?

Where is home again?

Usually we’ve boarded Southwest long by now, mom, daughter, and dog to barrel through the turbulent skies toward home with the help of a Bloody Mary during the worst of the bumps.

Olive tongue.jpg

Full disclosure: I’ve lived in 12 states and England and China. And nearly each place I hated saying good-bye to (okay, maybe not China so much where I couldn’t wait to board the Trans-Siberian Railroad for the next adventure) so maybe that’s why I am often homesick for  California even though I have found a home here in this bright red state with lots of burning blue lights.

(But speaking of bright red states, could somebody please send Alabama’s luv gov and darth roymoore vader to a land far-far away, please?)

Long live Ambrosia Starling!



Anyway, a kaleidoscope of Christmas-past spins from walks under the eucalyptus of Elysian Park with friends to gathering at the Farmer’s Market for café au lait and beignets or tamales and pints of red ale where carolers stroll through in old-fashioned clothes.

Martinis with Laura and JT in Mount Washington.

Smorgasbord with Heather in Pasadena.

Coffee and stories with Amy and Sally in Glendale or Echo Park.

A walk by the ocean with PB.

Cousin Mary Jo and Alice and Mike and all the music. Sigh.

http://www.schoolcraftandmurray.com/ #metrosexualsanta



And other things too…

My secret writing coven that began in the spring of 1991 with my closest friends.

Or the time our son, Flannery, convinced the Rite-Aid manager to sell him the beat-up display mechanical Santa to take to a Christmas Eve gig in Silver Lake where the show opened in a tavern to a woman singing “Ave Maria” in a Santa mini-skirt.

That Christmas in the Hyperion Tavern, I felt marooned on the island of misfit toys, myself included, but that’s another story, another essay.

Christmas in California also meant my parents and siblings coming to Los Angeles or going to San Diego for a family gathering. It was sitting by a fire-pit while somebody played the piano inside and friends and family filled the house.

There was also the Christmas I wore a man’s suit – Kiffen’s – so I wouldn’t cry. I needed the armor of a suit and not some flimsy girly dress to make it through Christmas Day without breaking.

It worked but that, too, is another essay.

Through it all, there was always Will. Will is Norah’s best friend from Los Angeles – the boy next door, the kid she grew up with in Silver Lake, who never missed her birthdays.

Will’s mom, Tina, was also Norah’s favorite cook in the world, and she loved wrangling dinner invites to Will’s house as a kid.

The birthday girl joined me in Alabama in 2010 as a sixth grader, and although she loved her family birthdays with Will in Los Angeles, she informed me this fall that since she has spent over a third her life here, she wanted to spend her 18th birthday with her friends in Birmingham.


With her parents tenured in two states two thousand miles apart, we’ve always tried to make Norah’s birthday a separate day from Christmas. It was also one of the few days a year that we were all together as a family – plus Will. For many years, big sister, Lucy, made a cake, followed by either a movie or an Echo Park paddleboat ride or a hike through Ferndell and hot chocolate.

walk in griffith park with sister and dadd.jpg

We have no Christmas decorations in Alabama and years of homemade ornaments sit in a box in Los Angeles. Our friend Rebecca started us making ornaments when I went to the hospital to have Norah in 1998. Rebecca showed Lucy and Flannery how to make them to keep the kids occupied while the baby was coming. Over the years, the ornament parties began to fall around Norah’s birthday, and we sculpted them out of salt and flour, baking them on low forever.

Here are Rebecca’s ornaments over the years. Our ornaments look very similar.


A garlic press fashioned crazy hair for Scrooge. Little fingers pressed out fat candy canes to paint red once the ornaments had cooled. My husband, Kiffen, made a saltine cracker that looked so real people mistook it for an actual cracker on the tree. The matte finish of sealant kept them looking freshly made.

Our stockings are also in Los Angeles. Aunt Beanie from Memphis made needlepoint stockings with the children’s names stitched on them like she did for all her nieces, nephews, and siblings.


The one Christmas we brought the stockings to Tennessee, Uncle Jimmy stuffed lottery tickets into each of the 20+ stockings of siblings and grandchildren that lined the living room.


Jimmy, the oldest boy of thirteen, is now gone too.

On Norah’s almost Christmas birthday, we always ordered Alegria, her favorite restaurant in Los Angeles – a Jason (beef burrito), an Alexis (chicken burrito) and a chimichanga, and two large containers of tortilla soup with chunks of salsa, fresh lemon, guacamole, homemade chips, and piles of grated mozzarella.

But Alegria closed over a year ago, and Will has grown up from the little boy who used to slide his broccoli on to Norah’s plate into a lanky high school baseball player. So how do we have Christmas in Alabama without Alegria or Will or Rebecca or the people we love?

Before we knew Alegria was closing, Norah called up the owner, Nadine, to ask her if she could watch her cook in order to write a story about the restaurant that Nadine ran with her two daughters. Nadine, distracted, advised her to watch YouTube videos, but there was so much else Norah wanted to say to her – what Alegria had meant to her only she couldn’t find the words. It was a short phone call. Still, I would like to thank Nadine and her daughters for feeding us for years.




But what about Will? When Norah and Will saw each other it was as if no time had passed except Will grew taller, which was annoying to Norah, who used to be able to wrestle him to the ground with ease.

He texted a few days ago and said, “When are you coming for Christmas?”

When she didn’t answer, he wrote, “Are you coming home?”

Prodded by me, Norah sent him an explanation with apologies to which Will simply responded, “That’s cool.”

Will’s parents were our neighbors. We met them one Halloween when Norah, age two, trick-or-treated as Charlie Chaplin. Flannery was Salvador Dali and Lucy, Pippi Longstocking. Norah knocked, and Will’s mother, Tina, opened the door to greet a tiny Charlie and knelt down to hug Norah in tears. Her husband stood behind her, comforting her. I hung back with Salvador and Pippi. We later learned an adoption had fallen through. Tina’s heart was broken, but seeing tiny Charlie Chaplin began the healing. They adopted a chubby baby boy, Will, a few months later.



When Will was little, he used to show up at our door and ask, “Can I come in and play with Norah?”

Then he’d follow me around asking a litany of questions.

One day when he came to the door, I was crazy busy with house of teenagers, so I said, “Look, Will, if I let you come in are you going to follow me around asking a million questions?”

Will nodded solemnly and said, “Yes.”

I laughed, although he didn’t and marched inside.

We did buy a tree for Kiffen’s arrival, and he brought the stockings and a few ornaments. Norah put the tree up. It has a string of lights and three new Alabama ornaments from friends who heard about our ‘nekkid’ tree, and we’re actually going to string popcorn and cranberries around it.

Maybe Christmas in the South will be a time to look at the wintry Alabama sky and the way the raindrops on bare branches resemble tears.

Maybe it will be a walk at Red Mountain in seventy degrees.

Maybe it will be cups of strong coffee and back roads and the smell of pine and orange and missing people – especially those gone too soon who were just kids themselves like Flannery’s friends, Noah and Anton.

Here are some of Anton’s photographs.


But where is home? Lucy and Trent are coming from Chicago and we’ll meet them in Chattanooga and journey onto Nashville, but we’ll miss our son, Flannery, who is spending the holiday in Los Angeles.

That’s the hardest part of all.

Kids in Andalusia.jpg

Where is home?

Maybe I’ll figure that out one day, but in the meantime I’m going to write cards to everyone I love by a fire with our dog, and I’m going to start with a boy named Will.

Then I’m going to make Norah a birthday cake or pie – she hasn’t decided which one she wants yet. Then I’ll remind her to finish her college apps, and she’ll tell me she needs to go Christmas shopping.

Maybe we’ll go to a movie.

We’ll pack for Tennessee.

We’ll definitely call Will.



PS – an old birthday post 🙂





4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Norah – Christmas in the South

  1. please tell Norah I said happy birthday. Hope you all have as happy a Christmas as you can, when you’re not all in the same place. (your posts tug at my heart, and for some reason this one tugged harder than most)


  2. Happy birthday Norah!

    This is a different Christmas for us…I refuse to call it sad, though many tears have already been shed…I look forward to it still…this is a season of our lives that we will remember, we will laugh and we will cry, and wish for a better 2017…I hope the new year is filled with joy and peace, and the College of your dreams!


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