Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Heidi Robbins wrote this essay for Ms. Alsup's Senior Writing Seminar. Life and Times encourages students to submit class essays for posting.

The ornaments now cover the sofa, the coffee table, the flat back of the piano, and the fire threshold. My sister and I had spent the afternoon carefully tugging away the yellowed newspaper that protected these ornaments and pulling them out of the dusty Wal-Mart’s storage bin in which they had nestled the past year. Tree decorating submerges the living room in chaos. The ornaments claim every flat surface, the lights lie in a haphazard heap on the floor, boxes rest in piles, the cat jumps from beneath the coffee table and tackles a strand of lights, and the radio plays Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

The tree dominates the holiday bedlam; its long, needled branches reach out in all directions. The two German Shepherds snore at the base of the tree, ignorant of the fact that their bodies add to the confusion. I step over their paws to hang a sequined turtle on a branch. Liesel hands me another ornament. My mother comments on the significance of each ornament: “Yes, that was your great-grandmother’s” or “Oh, of course, your grandmother, Mo, got that doll from Russia.” There are the terracotta Mexican dancers, the teacup from “Beauty and the Beast,” and the pair of Dutch clogs. Though each ornament tells a story of my family’s history, the tree tells a saga of my family’s present.

My mother, Liesel, and I do all of the holiday preparations on our own. We rush into the frenzy of the holiday singly motivated by the fact that “Daddy’s coming home at Christmas.” My father works overseas during the fall, returning to the States three days before Christmas. His arrival spurs all of our efforts, and we relish our opportunity to surprise him with the holiday cheer. Picking out and cutting the eight-foot Balsam fir is always a source of girl unity and pride. (click to continue.)

Armed with handsaws and a tape measure, we three girls trudge along the rows of trees. The snow, often at knee-height, collects in our boots, and Liesel and I resort to pushing each other into the snowdrifts and targeting snowballs at my mother’s derrière while giggling hysterically. We pause in front of several promising trees, circle them to determine how they rate in the scale of “Christmas tree perfection,” and usually move on. At long last we reach the perfect tree. After clearing away the snow from the base, we start the sawing. We take turns sawing, marveling at the deepening gouge. The tree finally falls with much pushing and tugging. The process is slow as Liesel and I drag it to the car; we continually trip and face-plant into the snow, rising to our feet again with snow on our eyelashes and noses.

The tree arrives home safely enough. Among the three of us, we wrestle its bulging branches up the front steps, across the porch, and through the front door. The green needles leave a trail behind us. As the tree lies across the threshold, filling the house instantly with the strong fragrance of wet evergreen, we fasten the stand to the trunk, only to realize that we sawed the end off unevenly and that more branches at the base need to be cut. Finally, we raise the colossal tree teetering to an upright position. The tip of the tree scrapes across the ceiling. “Drats!” puffs my mom from between clenched teeth, “Liesel, will you get the scissors and chop the darn thing off?” In the end, we heave the tree into position and then quickly secure it by rope to the wall. Our tendency to choose “Perfect Christmas trees” with crooked trunks is inevitable; we have learned from past experiences in which tree, ornaments, and all crashed to the floor to secure the tree.

Our holiday preparations continue. Liesel and I bake the pies for the upcoming family Christmas Eve dinner at our house while crunching on spare apple-slices dipped in cinnamon and crimping the crusts. My mother chops the chicken for the chicken, artichoke, and wild rice casserole. I set the table, folding the napkins into the animal napkin rings and placing the red candles in their stands. At midnight the kitchen still hums. I lay the sides of the gingerbread house on the drying rack, surveying my first attempt at constructing a homemade gingerbread house. Unfinished hand-painted ornaments spread across the counter-top.

The next afternoon, though, everything is spit-spot clean. The gingerbread house takes center stage on the table—its roof admittedly droops—and is ready to be plastered with candy. The colored lights and garland are strung across the porch. The tree glistens. This is the afternoon that Daddy is coming home, and we are all bursting with excitement.

At 4 pm, the Dartmouth coach pulls into Lebanon. My mom, sister, and I huddle together on the sidewalk waiting expectantly, looking for his tall form to stride off the bus. A family gets off the bus, two college students, a young woman, and then... “Daddy!,” Liesel and I scream and run towards him. We all share a bear hug that lasts for minutes.

Daddy’s arrival signals that Christmas can truly begin.