“That’ll be them,” Mamaw announced, setting down her knitting. The pink and white yarn was taking the shape of a petite sweater for her namesake.
I smiled in anticipation of our guests, set down my drink, and walked to the front door of Sea Breeze. The historic house has been in Harper’s family for generations. It was one of the early summer cottages on Sullivan’s Island and a family treasure. Each nook and cranny was filled with charm, memories, and history. I’d met Harper in this house. Fell in love with her here. Married her and had our first child here. My best memories were now embedded in Sea Breeze.
This was my home now, too. Even after six months of marriage I had to remind myself of this. I made my way through the gracious living room to the front door. Thor was already there, prancing in excitement. Swinging open the door I saw the faces of my family clustered on the front porch—Daddy, Mama, and Miller. Miller’s dog, Sandy, stood by his side, straining at the leash, almost as large as Thor. I laughed when I saw the dog was wearing a Christmas-themed bow tie.
“Merry Christmas!” I called out, and opened wide the door, ushering them in. The front door wore a wreath of holly and the night air was relatively balmy. Thor and Sandy immediately pounced on each other, old friends, and greeted each other with a hearty bout of sniffing.
One by one my family passed me, each delivering the requisite hug and kiss. Each was bundled down with gifts. Mama entered in a beautiful red sweater twinkling with festive sequins. There were a few more silver strands in her hair but she was as beautiful as ever. She was carrying a large bouquet of flowers for Harper. When she leaned in close to kiss me I closed my eyes and inhaled her unique scent.
Daddy strode in behind her in his best tweed jacket. He was a bit broader in the beam these days, more gray in his hair, his big arms filled with gifts. “Hey, Son,” he said in a booming voice, filled with joy. “Merry Christmas!” His eyes searched over my shoulder. “Where’s that baby?”
“Merry Christmas, Dad,” I said, slapping his back. “Go on in. Harper’s waiting.”
Miller came in last. At fifteen he’d changed the most. He was already as tall as me but hadn’t yet filled out. He was lean and lanky in his green sweater over a checked shirt and tan trousers. And he was a looker. His brown hair had Mama’s waves and his blue eyes shone under long lashes.
“I got you something,” Miller told me, and handed me a small package clumsily wrapped in red paper with lots of tape. “I wanted to give it to you without everyone being around.” He looked up to check that the family had gathered in the living room. “It’s not very good. I mean.” He laughed with embarrassment. “I made it myself. It’s from the tree we brought home that night years ago. You know, the night you saved me.” His face colored. “Well . . . you’ll see. Merry Christmas.”
I took the package and looked at him quizzically. “Should I open it now?”
“No,” he replied quickly, and shook his head. “Just when you’re alone.”
With that he grinned sheepishly and walked into the room, calling Sandy and Thor to his side with a few claps of his hands.
I paused at the door and watched my family greet one another with heartfelt kisses and echoes of “Merry Christmas.” Taking this quiet moment I slipped away down the hall and out of sight. I tore open the red paper of Miller’s gift. Inside lay several wood discs sliced from the bottom of a small tree. On each disc was handpainted a white snowflake. He’d drilled a hole at the top of each for the red, white, and green ribbons. There were four of them, and on the back he’d written the names of my family: Taylor, Harper, Marietta, Thor.
I felt humbled by the thoughtfulness of my brother’s gift. These discs were made from the spindly Christmas tree that he had cut down that fateful Christmas he’d gotten lost in the woods. What had he said? “The night you saved me.”
Oh, Miller, I thought to myself as I looked down at the wood ornaments. That was the night you saved me.
I followed the sounds of cheerful conversation and clinking glasses to the foyer, then paused before entering the living room. I wanted to savor the moment. The fire crackled in the hearth, stockings hung over the mantel, carols played, and in the corner stood our robust Christmas tree. It was Harper’s and my first Christmas tree together as husband and wife. Our baby, Marietta’s, first as well. We didn’t have many ornaments yet. Harper had hung several white sand dollars with red ribbon and there were several palmetto frond flowers, treasures that had been handmade by Lucille, a longtime friend of the family. It seemed as if the whole house was encased in fairy lights. I thought to myself, This was a classic Christmas scene. It could be a painting. Or the last scene in a movie. Maybe it was only because I saw the scene through the veil of sentiment. No matter. I would remember the scene forever.
With an urge to be part of it all, I strode into the room and walked directly to the tree. There I began to hang the four wooden ornaments on selected bare spots of the leafy branches. One by one the family gathered around the tree to look at them. One by one, they exclaimed how wonderful the ornaments were.
“What a clever idea!”
“Did you make them yourself, Miller?”
“I’ll never forget that tree.”
Caught in the moment we began exchanging ornaments. This was a new holiday tradition. Ever since that homecoming Christmas five years earlier we McClellans came together on Christmas Eve to exchange ornaments and decorate the tree that my father and Miller had cut down together. This was the first Christmas I could welcome my family to my home to decorate the Christmas tree I had felled.
The tree had become our unspoken symbol of that important Christmas when we had all dug deep and fought for one another—for our survival. For our family. For our happiness. And in the process, discovering the true meaning of Christmas.
Mother received four wooden ornaments from Miller just like the ones I’d received, only hers bore the names: Jenny, Alistair, Miller, and Sandy. Mama and Dad gave us a crystal picture frame that held a photo of Marietta and the words Baby’s First Christmas. Mamaw presented us with a handblown glass dolphin.
I turned from the tree to watch my father settle on the sofa with the baby in his arms. He bent over her, cooing, utterly besotted. Harper hovered nearby, beaming.
“Look at her hands!” Daddy exclaimed, looking up. “A fisherman’s hands, I tell you.”