Careering, squealing and with arms windmilling, a little girl in Minnie Mouse pyjamas flew past the lobby elevator on bright white roller skates with pink glittery wheels.
“Merry Christmas,” her mum called out, smiling through slightly gritted teeth.
This is Watertown, New York. The town Christmas (almost) forgot.
We found ourselves here after a seven-hour drive from Washington DC to friends in Canada ended at the very final hurdle, just tantalising minutes from the border.
Storm Elliott caught us up.
We’d checked the radar and our route had been clear but as we now well know – as Brits living here for the past seven years – US weather rarely behaves.
We limped past abandoned trucks, downed power lines and even pulled-over police cars in near-zero visibility, to the nearest town, where we found one of those ubiquitous US interstate-side chain hotels. There was room at the inn. ‘Room’… One.
We took it. It was us, the children and the dogs.
In the lobby were dozens of power line workers – some had driven from Texas (a 30-hour trip) – who had been called to help restore electricity to the thousands without any.
One told me he’d been up a pole and because it was so brittle due to the -34C temperatures, it had simply snapped under his weight. A drift caught his fall, but he had been ordered to rest inside for the remainder of the day.
The hotel had some food, and servers brought it out to us with the good grace to wear Santa hats.
They even attempted a ‘holiday cocktail’ with what was left in the bar, with a cherry on a cocktail stick and “plenty of ice”.
The blizzard outside battered the windows. Our dogs tentatively walked out to pee but had to be carried back in, just seconds later, their feet burned by the ice.
As we sat around the fire by the reception desk, people shared their stories of where they’d come from and where they were going. A young man heading to his girlfriend’s home showed me a small square box in his backpack.
It would be a New Year’s Eve proposal instead, he said.
The hotel chef had been on duty for four days and nights straight. They hadn’t wanted him to leave in case they couldn’t get anyone else in to replace him. The upside? There wasn’t a lot of food left, so not much to cook, he said.
We hunkered down overnight and, unlike many others in this once-in-a-generation storm, we were safe and warm.
Christmas morning has now arrived. My teens are still asleep and I’m thankful they are not the age of the wee one with her roller skates because although they are sad, they are resigned and understand.
“Did Santa bring you those fabulous skates?” I asked the little girl as she rolled by laughing.
“Yes!,” she said. “He knew he had to deliver them here instead of Auntie Pat’s”.
Her mum and I exchanged a look that only mums of children at Christmas would understand.