By Caitlin Kelly
For Jose and I — now 20 years together — Christmas is a time of very mixed emotions.
Now, gratitude for health and friendships, for work and for savings when there’s less work!
But Christmas 1971 was a life-changer for me, and 1995 for him.
I was living in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother, in a quiet residential neighborhood, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, in the area of Lomas de San Anton, named for a small, nearby waterfall, Salto San Anton.
I walked uphill a few short blocks every morning to school. Two tall narrow windows framed the most unlikely of images — two extinct volcanoes, Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl.
I had few friends, then 14. We had no telephone. We knew no one, really.
My mother was attending CIDOC, and also had some students there; my mother had never attended university, so I have no idea what or how she taught.
She is bipolar and, as Christmas came closer, was clearly losing her mental health. I had no one to tell. My father was in Toronto, long divorced from her.
She totally de-compensated on Christmas Eve, driving to the airport in Mexico City to pick up a friend of mine, arriving from Toronto for a two-week stay. It was terrifying.
The evening ended with her minivan stuck in a ditch, in an industrial city nowhere near home. Her 19 year old female student, luckily with us, took Laura and I to a hotel. We then spent the next two weeks alone and unsupervised.
I moved back to Toronto later that month to live with my father for the first time in seven years, and never again lived with my mother. I wasn’t going to risk it twice.
New York Times photographer Jose R. Lopez (my husband) in Bosnia on assignment
Jose was then an ambitious single guy working for The New York Times as a photographer — asked with two weeks’ notice to go to Bosnia over Christmas for an indefinite assignment.
In the depths of bitter winter.
-01/03/96–On Military Route “Arizona”– An anti-personnel mine explodes after it was safely detonated by members of the Croatian army. Soldiers from the Croatian army were clearing the mines along this route that the US Military will use when they take up the peace keeping duties. PHOTO: Jose R. Lopez/New York Times
This would include sleeping one night in an unheated shipping container and getting caught in a blizzard while trying to get from Split to Tuzla, with Neevis (their translator) and the reporter, Raymond Bonner.
The worst part of a former war zone? Destroyed infrastructure. Their car, a Nissan Altima, got stuck. You don’t want to get stuck in a blizzard anywhere, let alone a bombed out Bosnian road.
12/17/1995–Bugojno, Bosnia-Herzgovina–The stain glass windows of the Catholic Church in this small village reflect the damage done to this house of worship during the three year war. Residents of this small village packed the church on the first Sunday service after the Dayton Peace Accords were signed on December 14, 1995, bringing an end to the 3 year-old civil war. PHOTO: JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES
At the very last minute, shopping for his supplies back in New York, Jose had bought a large metal carabiner, the sort used for mountain climbing.
When a UNHCR truck pulled up and Wolfgang, a member of their team, stepped out to help — if only there was a way to attach their car to his truck –— the carabiner did the trick.
Coworkers had created a care package for him, which he opened on Christmas Day — a pair of nylon stockings wrapped around a pack of Marlboroughs (“These worked for my Dad in WWII,” the colleague wrote.) There was chocolate. A flashlight.
12/27/95–On Military Route “Arizona”- A sign warns of mines that were planted in a field during the Bosnian war. In a report published by the Bosnian and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, it stated, ” In Bosnia and Herzegovina there is still remaining more than 80,000 mines/ERWs. Mine problem is present in 129 municipalities/cities, or 1,398 affected communities/settlements. PHOTO; JOSE R. LOPEZ/NEW YORK TIMES
Christmas Day he was all alone, staying in a Tuzla hotel.
In the dining room, alone, he ate a bowl of chicken soup, all there was to eat.
We never eat on Christmas now without a deep understanding how fortunate we are.
Wishing you the merriest of Christmases — happiest of Hanukkahs!