On Christmas Eve more than a half-century ago, Sara Munroe, her husband, Tom, and their toddler daughter, Marsa, were en route home to Dallas from Oklahoma, where Tom was in graduate school. Midway through the trip they’d driven countless times, ice began falling from the sky. When Tom stepped outside to wipe off the frosty windshield, the wind was so fierce it blew a button off his coat.
Sitting inside the car, Sara couldn’t seem to stop sobbing. Not because she was scared of the storm or whether her family would be safe. Instead, she was crying because she was afraid of something almost as dire: missing Christmas Eve with her sister.
“The idea that maybe, maybe we wouldn’t be there was devastating to me,” Sara says. “I told Tom, ‘I have to be there. I have to be there.’ That was a selfish thought right there. But it was so important. It was my sister.”
They did make it, in nine hours instead of the usual three. And here, while telling the story these many years later, Sara pauses. She glances toward the other end of the pillow-piled couch at her sister, Ann Sanford. Their eyes lock. Sara’s left hand reaches out and grasps Ann’s right, which is reaching for hers at the same exact moment.
“You had your life and I had mine,” says Ann, 80, named Ralph Ann after their father and now known as “Auntie” to her family. “But that didn’t make a difference. It was a given we’d get together on Christmas Eve.”
For all the magic and mystery that make the holiday season serene, holy and quite often fun, its true treasure lies in those with whom you share it. For the past 75 years, for Ann and Sara, that has been each other.
Seventy-five years! Let that sink in for a moment. The sisters’ first Christmas together, FDR was president. A gallon of gas cost 7 cents; a loaf of bread a nickel. The population of Dallas was about 300,000, which included a family of four living in Oak Cliff — an engineer dad, a secretary mom, their 5-year-old daughter and her baby sister. The sisters shared a room. Every morning they can remember, their dad served them breakfast in the bed they also shared.
Theirs was a childhood of tradition, exemplified on Christmas Eve with dinner from Wyatt’s Cafeteria. “Daddy would pick it up,” Ann says. “That’s where we ate almost every night.”
“Ornaments were some things we’d make, or Mardi Gras beads,” Sara, 75, says. “I have bubble lights now because they were part of my childhood.”
Same goes for dressing in their Sunday best on Christmas Eve and “acting like ladies”; of playing piano duets in their yearly talent show; of opening gifts one at a time. Their dad, Sara says, “knew how to make just the two of us think we were the only two children ever who Santa Claus came to see.”
She looks over at Ann, then says in a mock-stern tone: “Don’t you go crying now.”
But if they want to cry, oh well. They are entitled to tears of happiness, of sorrow, of nostalgia; tears for who is here this hallowed night, and who is no longer; tears of gratitude and of grace for the one evening a year they can count on more than any other. It’s what they call, a half-dozen times during an afternoon conversation, “a given.”
So when Sara’s older daughter, Linda, who lives in Georgetown, asks her mother to come visit over Dec. 24, as she has been known to do, Sara will tell her: “‘No, I can’t. I can come Christmas Day, but I’m with my sister on Christmas Eve.’ There’s no question. There’s never a question.”
Ann: “No question.”
Sara: “You and I come first.”
No matter what, Ann says: “We’re always there for each other.”
Which is why, in 1969 after undergoing back surgery, Sara wasn’t about to stay in the hospital on Christmas Eve. True, she was in pain, couldn’t walk and couldn’t sit in a chair. But, she says, “I would get out for Christmas Eve one way or the other.”
They enlisted the help of her husband’s sister and brother-in-law, who owned a funeral home.
“They took me on a gurney into the hearse,” Sara says. “My doctor said, ‘This is the only thing you can do.’ On the way home, they drove me through downtown Dallas to see the lights. I said, ‘I don’t care how I get there, but I’ll get there.’ “
At this, Ann flings her arms out: “Nothing will keep us apart Christmas Eve!”
For many years past their childhoods, they spent Dec. 24 at their parents’ house. After their dad developed Alzheimer’s disease, they began going back and forth between their houses. For a long time, they still dressed up — in long gowns, even adorned with sequins.
Several years ago, the sisters’ children (they each have two) were spending Christmas Eve with their own families, so it would be just four that night — Sara and her husband, Tom; Ann and her husband, Sandy.
They went out to dinner at Ruggeri’s restaurant, a Christmas Eve which turned out to be one of the last all four were together. Sara’s beloved Tom, whom she’d known almost her entire life, died on Nov. 14, 2015.
Thanksgiving that year “was awful,” Sara says. Christmas Eve was at her daughter Marsa’s house.
“It was hard,” Sara says. “But” — she reaches across the couch and pats Ann’s arm — “she was there. I can’t ever imagine having a Christmas Eve without her.”
A month can pass without the sisters talking to each other. They just get caught up in their own lives and interests. Ann lives in DeSoto; Sara in North Dallas. Yet when the phone rings and one of them answers, “We just start up again midsentence,” Sara says.
“The bottom line,” she says, turning to Ann, “is that I think you and I could go through anything if we’re together.
“You know who you can depend on: Us. It’s us.”