Yesterday we landed back in the Place of Sun, after three days cramped inside our minivan. Damon drove the five kids and I from Seattle down to San Diego in one weekend blast. The weather was fine, the car didn’t blow a tire or malfunction in any way, and no one threw up…not even once. A Christmas miracle, indeed!

There were a few glitches, of course – someone spilled a bag of Reece’s peanut butter cups all over the back seat and then neglected to pick them up, or say anything, until one by one we emerged from the car with vast clouds of smooshed chocolate all over our derrieres. (Not appealing!) There was the three-hour stretch where we drove crazily hunting for Annalise’s ear buds, and I made everyone change seats like a wild game of ‘Fruit Basket Upset’ right there on the highway, and still we couldn’t find them. And finally there was our picnic lunch in Eugene, Oregon in which enormous, hungry Canadian Geese surrounded us, eager for our PB&J’s. Three of the five kids chased them off, but not before deluging their shoes with muddy, frozen, slush-water. For the remainder of our journey we ransacked interstate bathrooms en masse, with most of us sock-clad, bud-less, and covered in chocolate.

Hours of boredom and bickering were tempered by bouts of ear-budded silence and/or sullen pouting. Until finally one child begged Damon to tell a story, and here is what echoed through the minivan as we sped down the I-5:

“When I was a boy, I spent one Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in the Tri-Cities in Eastern Washington. They had lots of money, and only one grandchild  – me – and so they bought me mountains of presents. I didn’t have to share these presents with anyone, so that Christmas morning I played and played, surrounded by one fabulous new toy after another.

Then, in the afternoon, my Dad came to their house to pick me up. My parents were very young – just twenty-three – and divorced, so the arrangement was that I spent the morning at my Mom’s parents, and the evening with my Dad’s parents. Well, this arrangement was not to my liking, because Grandma and Grandpa Kirk didn’t have much money at all, and hardly any toys. I didn’t want to leave all my new presents to go to their boring house. So when my Dad showed up at the door, I started crying and screaming. I ran and hid under the coffee table and the grown-ups had to pull me out, screaming and kicking.

My dad put me in the backseat of his car, where I yelled and cried like a baby all the way over to his parents’ house, even though I was five years old. Looking back on it now, I think my Dad must have felt very sad to have a little boy who didn’t even want to spend Christmas with him.

Then we got to my Grandparent’s tiny little house on Perry Loop, and my Dad carried me inside still kicking and screaming.

But then I stopped screaming and just stared and stared. Because there, beneath their Christmas tree, was an enormous Army fort all set up for battle that my dad had built just for me.

See, my dad didn’t have a lot of money either. But he had bought all this wood, and after work at night he had cut hundreds of little wooden slats for me, so that they would all fit together like Lincoln Logs. This must have taken him hours and hours, to cut all those little pieces. Then he built these into one great, big fort right there under the Christmas tree. He bought some bags of  blue and green plastic army men, the kind like in ‘Toy Story’, and positioned the men all around the fort, ready for an epic battle.

It was really cool. Better even than the gifts from the store. And now, when I think back on that Christmas, I almost cry, because that one fort, all by itself, waiting under the tree, just for me, was so amazing.”

Damon finished his story and our car was silent. We cruised down the highway and in the momentary quiet I teared up there in the backseat , too. Because I had never heard that story before. Not once. Damon was still surprising me after almost twenty years of marriage. And because it was a sweet story. I could picture the young, skinny Nathan meticulously building piece after piece of fort, taking pleasure in making such a simple, yet elaborate, gift. And because there, outside the car doors, I spotted Annalise’s ear buds flapping in the wind, rockin’ their way on towards the Sun.