I wasn’t convinced. “Mama, I’ll tell you what my idea of a Christmas miracle is. If I wake up on Christmas morning and find Sandy under the tree, not only will I believe in miracles, but I’ll believe in Santa Claus!”
Mama stopped short and bent over with a guffaw that rang through the trees. When she straightened, her face was lit with laughter. She moved closer to bump me with her hip. “Well, all right then. If that happens, we’ll both get our Christmas miracles.” She added with more sincerity, “I hope yours comes true, Miller. I really, truly do.”
I didn’t know what to think then. Was she going to get me a dog as a surprise? Or was she just trying to get my spirits up again? This Christmas wishing was wearing me out.
Mama bent to pick up the wagon handle and began walking again. “Yes, sir, it’s our best haul yet,” she said in that cheery voice meant to change the subject. “And I couldn’t have done it without my best helper. Aren’t we the smart ones? We don’t need to spend a penny for the best decorations in town.” Mama’s grin mixed pleasure with pride.
I didn’t respond, lost in my thoughts about whether I might get a dog.
Suddenly Mama burst out singing, “Have a holly, jolly Christmas.” She looked at me expectantly, cuing me for the next line.
It was our favorite carol, the one we began our rounds of Christmas carols with every year. Of course I joined in: “. . . It’s the best time of the year.”
We sang carols as we walked the narrow path back to the truck, favorites that we knew the words to, sometimes taking turns with harmony.
When we got home, Mama set right to work. One by one she shook out all the boughs, trimmed the ends of the branches, and stuck them in big plastic pails of water out on the porch.
“Now comes the grisly part,” she said, slipping on a thick pair of garden gloves. “We have to kill off any creepy crawlies that decided to hitch a ride.”
She put back on her slicker and began pulling apart the long strands of Spanish moss like cotton candy and spread it out on the front walkway. Crouching low, she picked out twigs, leaves, and insects stubbornly clinging to the strands. Now came the hard part. Together we set up a huge pot that Daddy used to boil crabs. She filled it with water, added dish detergent, then swished the moss strands like we were washing clothes by hand, picking out bits of debris. With clump after clump she repeated this, then rinsed them with the hose. Next I cleaned the pot and filled it with fresh water.
“My mama used to check the moss for bugs, then put it up, but I don’t take that chance. I don’t want bugs in my clean house.” She set her chin. “I cook ’em up.”
And that’s what she did. She boiled the moss in small batches for a few minutes, then after it cooled I helped her hang the moss on a drying rack made of an old wood ladder and two sawhorses. She let me help now that the chiggers were dead. Side by side we bent over the moss, picking out the last bits of twigs or dead insects.
When we were done, our backs were aching and I was fit to eat a horse.
“What seemed like a windfall was really a whole lot of work,” I complained.
“There’s more satisfaction in decorating the house with things we made ourselves.” Mama crossed her arms and looked at the hanging moss. The sky was darkening and a hush had settled over the landscape. Mama’s face was a silhouette in the shadows. “Someday we’ll look back on today, Miller, and think all this work was the best part of Christmas. Going out to forage for treasures. You and me, on our great holiday adventure.”
“After our backs are healed.”
She laughed. “Agreed. Now come on, partner. We’re not done yet.”
By the time it got dark outside, the kitchen was covered with baked pinecones, smilax, berries, greens, garden wire, wreath frames, and all manner of craft supplies. When Daddy walked in at six, he was carrying a pizza.
“Hope you like pepperoni,” he called out.
Having pizza on the night Mama does her decorations is a tradition in our family. Daddy lit a roaring fire, the first of the winter, and we gathered around the coffee table in the living room, sitting on the floor to eat our pizza like on a camping trip. As I lazily chewed the warm cheesy crust, I looked over at my mama and daddy and I saw that they were smiling and talking in low voices like in the days before the boat was docked. I smiled then, too, thinking that maybe it would be an all-right Christmas after all.
I’m too old and beyond hope! Go and redeem some younger, more promising creature, and leave me to keep Christmas in my own way!
—Scrooge, A Christmas Carol
The phone was ringing off the hook all day, and all the calls were either for Taylor or the surprise homecoming party we were throwing for him. My emotions were soaring—the excitement, the anticipation, the joy—it was like old times when Taylor lived at home. With his all-American good looks and good nature, he was always popular with guys and girls alike. Everyone was excited he was coming home and wanted to be waiting for him with open arms. No one more than me.
“Taylor’s homecoming is our best Christmas present!” I kept telling everyone, meaning it. Because it was a gift that my son was returning home from the war—safe and sound—during the holiday. My family deserved this perfect Christmas gift. Something to celebrate.
It had been a long roller coaster of a year. Even before Taylor’s deployment I’d felt his absence. When Taylor left for the Marines, everything seemed to change. It seemed he took the youth and vivacity of the house with him. When he was at home, life seemed richer, fuller, and more fun. Throughout high school and college his friends hung around the dock on days off, sometimes going out on someone’s boat or driving off in a pickup. They were always full of plans . . . always drinking beer. The boys were always giving me compliments, too . . . some cheeky, which always brought a laugh to my lips. But they were always polite and grateful when I showed up with my special peanut-butter brownie recipe.
Miller was sixteen years younger than Taylor. He idolized his older, handsome, broad-shouldered big brother. He hung around Taylor and his friends like a mascot. Most boys would’ve been annoyed, but Taylor enjoyed Miller’s presence. Taylor’s friends were likewise gentle with Miller and his feelings. They had to be, or face Taylor’s wrath. He took his role as big brother seriously. As their mother, it was deeply satisfying to see their bond.