Oldest Son brought his girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner; this made it a virtual certainty that he would bring her by at some point during the Christmas holidays. It also meant that we would have to get her a gift.
So we had two questions for the boy: When are you coming and what should we get for the girl?
Being a typical male of the species, he had no fixed or definite ideas on either subject. Not right away.
However, on the Thursday before Christmas, whilst I was 'Google-chatting' with him, he mentioned that he and his girlfriend would like to stop by over the weekend because he wouldn't be home on Christmas Day. (He'd made plans to visit the girl's family in Texas.)
"Oh," I typed back, "could you be more specific?"
"Sometime between 6:00pm Friday and 6:00pm Sunday," he responded.
"What are you -- the cable company?" I replied. Eventually, though, it was agreed that he would call home that evening and discuss these things with his mother.
He actually didn't call home until Friday night, but it was in the course of that later conversation that Long Suffering Spouse wheedled a gift idea out of the boy: His girlfriend would like earmuffs.
You know, the kind with the wire going over the head? Not headbands...
And certainly not ear warmers....
Oldest Son's girlfriend has long hair and the fit-behind-the-head ear warmers don't fit at all in those circumstances.
So, we had a practical suggestion. We did not then know it would also become a Quest.
In our blissful ignorance, we did not head out to the stores at First Light on Saturday; we had our coffee and noshed on Christmas cookies and enjoyed the peace and quiet before the Nocturnals
stirred. In fact, Long Suffering Spouse was pretty well convinced that this was just an errand she'd undertake on her own. I was pretty well convinced she was going out on her own, too: I hate going to stores when they're not
But it had been such a pleasant morning. When Youngest Son suddenly presented himself and informed us that someone would have to drive him to school for a baseball workout, I heard myself volunteering to go with and help get the earmuffs. Long Suffering Spouse darn near demanded identification: "Who are you and what have you done with my husband?"
On the way over to school, Long Suffering Spouse suggested a detour to a toy store. She wanted to see if she could find a board game. The store wasn't at the mall where we figured to get earmuffs... but how long could that take? We had time.
We should have seen the toy store as a sign: We found a legal parking space, with time on the meter even, but I could barely climb out of the car over the snow plowed onto the sidewalk. And the store had been picked clean -- either they'd sold nearly everything several days before Christmas or they couldn't afford stock for the shelves. Either way, we came up empty in our search for the board game. But we weren't discouraged. This was a mere diversion and we headed off for the earmuffs.
It had begun snowing... again... and traffic was beginning to snarl. We'd not yet made it to the mall when Youngest Son called. The workout was over. It seemed inefficient to ask his siblings to get him; we thought we'd swing by and get him instead and we did.
He wasn't too upset when we told him that we'd not yet gotten the earmuffs. There'd be a slight delay in getting you home, I told him, but how long could it take? Ten minutes? (In the movie version of this tale, this is where the soundtrack music turns truly ominous.)
Long Suffering Spouse was driving. I was happy to let her. It's far easier to drive in downtown Chicago, in rush hour, with bicycle messengers weaving in and out, dodging cab drivers who think the Rules of the Road are only for American citizens, while trying to avoid pedestrians stepping across the street at any and all points along the block, than it is to find a parking space in the mall on the Saturday before Christmas.
But we did park, eventually.
And there were no earmuffs at Target. Only ear warmers. Or headbands.
Nor were there any at Kohl's.
Penney's was on the other end of the mall; we walked through Sears on the way. There were no earmuffs in either place. Walking back, we stopped at several boutique-type places: Bupkis
We left the mall and went to two sporting goods stores in two other places: Nada
. All the ear warmers you could ask for. Headbands of all kinds of different fabrics. No earmuffs. The manager at Dick's Sporting Goods told Long Suffering Spouse that he'd not seen earmuffs in two years, but that he thought it might be a fashion thing and we should try a high end department store.
It had been snowing all the while... and we'd been at it for nearly three hours since picking up Youngest Son. His patience had begun to wear thin. Meanwhile my job was to text Younger Daughter and Middle Son looking for suggestions about where to hunt the elusive earmuff in the wild. They were not helpful.
And did I mention it was still snowing? It was snowing harder now, and getting dark. But Long Suffering Spouse was officially on a Quest. We were going to find earmuffs.
We headed east to Old Orchard, a fancier mall in Skokie, Illinois. From where we were it was about a 10 or 15 minute trip even at rush hour -- but, in falling snow, on the Saturday before Christmas, it took at least a half hour.
We were still en route when Younger Daughter texted me to advise that Oldest Son and his girlfriend were on their way. "They'd better not be," snarled Long Suffering Spouse. "We are not coming home without EARMUFFS." I broke the news to Younger Daughter. She promised to inform her brother. Then I suggested that she and Middle Son clean up the living room. This was not well received. I looked over to Long Suffering Spouse for some support, but her eyes were fixated on the snowy road in front of us, and she looked a little crazed. "Earmuffs," she kept saying, "earmuffs. Who would think it would be so darn hard to find earmuffs
?" I told Younger Daughter to deal with things as best she could.
There was no parking at Old Orchard. This is not an exaggeration. We drove around the parking lot for a good 15 minutes establishing that this was indeed the fact. Finally, Long Suffering Spouse told me she was getting out. I was to drive around until I found a parking space or until she called me to say she was ready to leave, whichever came first.
Have I mentioned I really, really hate to drive around in shopping mall parking lots?
But this was not an occasion to remind my wife of this fact. One look at her would have persuaded anyone of the truth of this statement. I therefore meekly acquiesced. She set off in the snow; I continued to drive around.
After another quarter hour I found a parking space. I reached Long Suffering Spouse on the cell phone. She was in Macy's. (Yes, that Macy's, which I have railed against
on a number of occasions in these essays for putting another New York label over a fine Chicago institution
. I did not care at this point. At this point, if Saddam Hussein's Bazaar was selling earmuffs, I would gladly have gone there.)
As I was searching for my wife, I received a phone call from Oldest Son. "What is going on with you people?" he asked. I told him that, instead of earmuffs, he should have asked for something easier to get, like the formula for Coca-Cola or the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Huh?" he said.
"Some day I'll explain," I said. "But with the snow, we're at least an hour away. So don't hurry over, OK?"
"OK," he said, but I could tell he was still confused.
It was around this point that Middle Son decided to get cute and text me: "This is what comes of waiting to the last minute." I texted back a suggestion that included the word "#@$%" -- at least, that's how I spelled it. But he figured out what I meant.
When I finally found Long Suffering Spouse, I found she had made a selection: She'd found earmuffs!
First, she found earmuffs that were made with genuine rabbit fur. She didn't much care for that idea, but she was at the point where they could almost be made of dog fur. (So was I.) Still, she thought she'd look further... and she was rewarded with a big fluffy-looking faux fur pair. We grabbed 'em and ran.
Well, we ran as fast as you can in a store on the Saturday before Christmas (and the last night before Hannukah, which, in Skokie, is at least as relevant a consideration, let me tell you). As things turned out, Long Suffering Spouse and I were very glad that we'd made the effort.
But that's a different story.