The Ice Cutters, 1911, Natalia Goncharova
Lisa reached into the back corner of the closet. She stood on her toes and tugged with her fingers, and finally the box came free. She carefully pulled it out and stepped down from the chair. The last box. She hoped it was the one she wanted.
As she set it next to the other boxes on the floor, Lisa heard little feet coming down the hall. Was naptime over already?
“Mommy, I waked up,” Josh announced. “What’s in the boxes?”
Caleb followed his brother on loyal little legs. “Peasants?” he suggested hopefully.
“No, not presents. Just some things we haven’t unpacked yet.”
Josh peered into one box and pulled out a tiny sweater. “Whose is this?”
“You used to wear that when you were a baby. And so did Caleb. Put it back, please.”
Caleb toddled over to Lisa and patted her belly. “Baby.”
“Yes, the new baby will wear it, too. But not for a while.”
Josh was already investigating the clothes in another box. “Did I wear these?”
Caleb pulled a skirt out of a third box, and knitted his blond brows together. “I wear this?”
“No, that’s mine.”
“Mommy was baby?”
“Mommy wore that before you were a baby, and hopes she’ll be able to wear it again someday.” Lisa sighed, and refolded the skirt. “Anyway, I’m not looking for clothes right now. I’m–no, don’t touch that one!”
Lisa swung Caleb away from the box containing the equipment and remnants from her stained glass class. Someday she’d get back to that again, too, but it was not a safe hobby to practice with toddlers in the house.
“What are you looking for?” Josh asked.
“Kiss-miss?” Caleb repeated.
“Yes. I’ve looked through all the boxes but this one. Shall we see what’s inside?” Lisa picked up her scissors and slit the tape. Her heart thumped with anticipation. The bright colors, the familiar shapes, must be right there beneath her fingers. She opened the flaps.
Papers. Kevin’s college notes. No wonder the box was so heavy.
The little boys looked inside. “No Kiss-miss?” Caleb stuck out his lower lip.
Lisa sank to the floor. “No. The movers must have left my box of ornaments in Grandma’s garage.” She wiped a tear from her eye.
Josh wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay, Mommy. Come on, Caleb. Let’s play trains.”
“Choo-choo!” Caleb hooted as the boys pattered back to their room.
Lisa knew she should put away the boxes and prepare the room for guests. But she felt drained after her fruitless search. She went downstairs for a glass of water, hoping Kevin would be home soon to help with the lifting.
She looked around the small living room. It was comfortable, but not very festive. She had hoped to be all ready for Christmas before Kevin’s parents came to visit. She’d bought the groceries and done most of the cleaning. But Kevin had been working late, training for his new job. He was too tired to decorate when he came home. They had not even bought a tree.
Lisa brightened. Maybe Kevin’s parents could find the box of ornaments and bring it along tomorrow. She gave them a call.
No answer. They must be still at work. Lisa left a message, and hung up with a little more hope.
It had been a blessing to live with Kevin’s folks, Dale and Donna. They had invited the young family to stay after Kevin graduated, just until he found a good job. The few weeks he expected had turned into two years, though, as Kevin applied for position after position. He worked some odd jobs during that time, and played with the little boys, but he’d spent more and more time grumbling about the economy and playing video games. Lisa was grateful that they’d had a comfortable place to live all that time. They’d never gone hungry. But she knew her husband hated depending on his parents.
Everyone was thrilled when Kevin was hired. Lisa loved the fresh sparkle in his eye, his new sense of purpose and responsibility. She also looked forward to setting up their own home, having their own space, and starting their own traditions.
As the moving van rolled away, scattering the fallen leaves, Donna pulled Kevin into a tight squeeze. “We’ll miss you so much, but we’re so proud of you.”
“That’s right.” Dale gave Josh a tickle before buckling him into his car seat. “But you’ll be back for Christmas, won’t you?”
Lisa looked at Kevin with concern. His parents’ Christmas celebrations were too glitzy for her taste.
“I won't earn much leave by then,” Kevin said. “We’ll probably be staying in our new home.”
Lisa breathed a small sigh of relief as she buckled her own safety belt.
“Then we’ll come visit you,” Dale declared.
“You bet,” Donna agreed. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without a child in the house!”
Kevin waved as he drove the car away, but Lisa felt frozen.
She’d had some time to thaw over the past couple of months, and had determined to show her in-laws a Christmas her way. A nice dinner on Christmas day, not a Christmas Eve extravaganza. Homemade cookies. Singing carols around the–well, someday she’d get a piano. Singing carols around the CD player, then. And a real tree. A small one, to be sure. Expense and living room space dictated that. But she looked forward to arranging her small collection of ornaments on a sweet-smelling fresh tree. Lisa closed her eyes, imagining the aroma.
“Behold the conquering hero!”
Lisa’s eyes flew open as the front door slammed. Little feet pounded down the stairs, and cries of “Daddy!” filled the air. Lisa struggled up from the couch.
Kevin swung the two boys into the living room, then caught Lisa in a hug. “I’ve completed my certification. I'll meet my first client after Christmas!”
Lisa gave him a kiss. “That’s wonderful, dear,” she said. “Oh, look at the time. I haven’t started dinner yet.”
“No big deal,” Kevin said. “Let’s pick something up on the way.”
“On the way to where?” Josh asked.
“To buy a Christmas tree.”
Lisa and the boys cheered, and the family piled into the car. After supplying everyone with hamburgers and fries, Kevin drove straight to the tree stand in the mall’s parking lot. The brightly colored lights turned off as they approached. Kevin stepped out to talk to a man who was sweeping pine needles.
“All sold out, sir,” Lisa heard him say. “They went fast this year. You could try the supermarket, or the lot on Old Holly Road.”
There were no trees left at the supermarket, either. Lisa and Kevin had different ideas about how to find Old Holly Road, and it took them a while to reach it. When they finally found the tree lot there, it was empty, too.
“Maybe this is why Mom and Dad use a fake tree,” Kevin said, leaning on the steering wheel. “Is it normal to run out the day before Christmas Eve?”
“I don’t think so,” Lisa answered. “Where I grew up, most lots had a few scraggly trees left even after Christmas.”
“Huh. Well, we’d better take the kiddos home.” Kevin nodded at the boys. They were asleep in their car seats, and Caleb was losing his grip on a handful of fries.
After helping Lisa set up the guest room, Kevin spent most of Christmas Eve shopping. Lisa wondered if he would come home with a fake tree. If he did, she’d be stuck with it, probably forever. Ugh. But having no Christmas tree would be worse.
She tried not to think about it as she rolled out sugar cookie dough. She helped Caleb wield a star-shaped cookie cutter with his pudgy fingers. Josh cut out a cookie and held it up. “Is this what our tree will look like?” he asked. He wiggled the tree shape until it broke and fell to the counter, leaving just the point in his hand.
“Probably so.” Lisa squished the dough together and rolled it out so Josh could try again.
“Will we put up a 'table?” he asked.
“This is the table.”
“No, a Christmas 'table.”
Lisa frowned, trying to read Josh's mind. “Oh.” She remembered that Dale built an elaborate train set on the coffee table each Christmas. “You mean like Grandpa's? We don't have anything like that.”
Lisa slid the cookie sheet into the oven, and the front door opened.
“Don’t look,” Kevin called, sweeping past with something held behind his back.
Josh covered his eyes with his hands. Caleb put his hands on his own face, but missed one eye.
“Did you bring a tree, Daddy?” Josh shouted.
Kevin looked around the corner. “No, but I have an idea. Come here, kiddos.” They followed him to the living room, and he shut the kitchen door.
Lisa finished baking the cookies and started some soup for dinner. A pair of headlights swept up the driveway as she stirred. Donna's sweater sparkled as she came through the door. “Merry Christmas Eve, Lisa, honey,” she said with her usual broad smile.
Dale followed her inside, carrying a box. “We couldn’t find your box, Lisa, but we thought you might like these.” He set the box on the table.
Lisa’s face fell as she looked inside. Instead of the treasures her own grandparents had sent each year, or the cute ornaments her crafty aunts had made, there were packages of silver bells, violet balls, strings of blue lights, and a huge silver star. They had never been opened.
“We can’t use these.”
“Sure, you can! We bought them all on clearance last January,” Donna said with a wink.
“But we don’t have a tree.”
The kitchen door opened. “Yes, we do,” said Kevin. “Come see.”
The little boys rushed at their grandparents, who paused for hugs and tickles. Kevin took Lisa by the hand and led her to the living room. On the floor she saw that a large moving box had been cut in the shape of a fir tree. The boys had obviously been coloring it, with large swathes of green ink and little patches of green crayon.
Tears came to Lisa’s eyes. Kevin put his arm around her. “It doesn't smell great, but I think we can have some fun with it. Okay?”
Lisa wiped her eyes and smiled. “I’ll go find the construction paper.”
After supper, Kevin led the way to the living room, flexing his muscles. “So, I cut this tree myself, and hauled it all the way from the shed with my bare hands. Let's dress it up.”
Dale frowned. “That's not a tree. That's a tree by-product.”
“Start producing some decorations for it, then.”
Dale chuckled. “I'm no artist. You kids go ahead without me.”
“I'll help you.” Josh handed his grandfather a piece of orange paper. “Draw around my hand, Grandpa.”
“Me, too,” insisted Caleb, and the decorating began.
Donna snipped lacy snowflakes to tape to the cardboard tree. Lisa tied yarn into bows. The boys colored their handprints, then drew stars, train engines, and more abstract shapes.
Dale traced his own hand, colored it like a turkey, and cut it out, too. “I call it, 'Self-Portrait,'” he said, taping it onto the tree.
Donna rolled her eyes. “That's you, all right. Full of stuffing and nonsense.”
Kevin searched the Internet for origami instructions, and busied himself with sheets of aluminum foil. He showed Lisa his creations.
“Christmas cranes?” she asked.
He grinned. “Silver swans a-swimming.”
Soon the flat tree was covered with colorful, fanciful, utterly original decorations.
“This certainly is unique,” Donna said, surveying their work. “I'll never forget this little tree.”
“Neither will I,” Lisa agreed. “But how will it stand up?”
“Got it covered,” said Kevin. “Make me another big bow, will you?” He looped some yellow yarn through a hole near the point of the tree. After attaching Lisa's bow, he hung the loop on a hook in the ceiling. The cardboard tree dangled, swinging slightly in the breeze from the heating vent.
“Pity,” said Caleb.
“Yes, it's a very pretty Christmas tree,” Lisa said, hugging her sons, “though I feel like I've forgotten to do something.” She yawned.
“What about a 'table?” Josh asked.
“Not now, Josh.”
“The tree is just fine this way,” Kevin declared, “and you're tired. Go ahead and get the boys into their pajamas. I'll take care of the dishes.”
Lisa woke with a start. “Did you hear that?” Kevin did not respond. How could he not hear it? Lisa shook his shoulder. “Kevin, what's that sound?”
He rolled over and grunted at the darkness. “Huh?”
“That rustling sound. Listen.” Lisa sat up, heart pounding. “There's a light on, too.”
Kevin raised himself up on one elbow. “I doubt our presents would attract burglars,” he said.
“Well, probably not.” The gifts they had set out, after tucking the boys in, made a pretty meager pile.
“I bet it's Mom and Dad, sneaking some more packages downstairs. Go back to sleep.” He rolled over again.
Lisa lay down, breathing deeply, willing her heart to stop racing.
She woke again to the sound of giggling. Weak sunlight glowed around the edges of the window blinds.
Kevin sat up. “It must be Christmas morning,” he said, grinning.
Lisa pulled on her robe and headed for the boys' room. “I wish your dad wouldn't tickle the boys awake.”
“He was already awake, weren't you, little man?” Dale laughed along with the toddler.
“Merry Kiss-miss, Mommy!” Caleb called when he caught his breath.
“Merry Christmas, sweetie. But where's Josh?”
“I dunno.” Caleb collapsed in a fresh round of giggles.
Lisa walked down the hall to the guest room. “Josh, are you bothering Grandma?”
Donna put down her magazine. “He's no bother, but he isn't in here.”
Lisa grabbed handfuls of her own hair. “Where's Josh?”
Kevin looked out of the boys' room, surprised. “What do you mean?”
“He isn't there, he isn't here.” Frantic, she hugged herself. “I heard noises last night. Maybe someone took him!”
Kevin put one hand on Lisa's shoulder, and smoothed her hair with the other. “Calm down, Lisa. He's probably getting a head start on the presents. Let's take a look downstairs.”
Caleb and his grandparents followed silently as Kevin led Lisa down the stairs. At the bottom, she closed her eyes, afraid of what she might see. Kevin stepped out into the living room.
Soon he returned and took Lisa's hand. “Come and see,” he said quietly. Lisa let out the breath she was holding, and followed him.
The gifts had not been disturbed, but there was a mess beneath the dangling cardboard tree. Josh lay curled there in a nest of crayons. Lisa dropped to his side, giving his round cheek a grateful kiss. Josh's blue eyes opened in the pale morning light.
“What are you doing down here?” she asked. “You gave me such a fright.”
Josh looked surprised. “Sorry, Mommy. In the night I waked up, and I made the 'table you forgot. Look.” He pointed to a folded piece of cardboard, standing near the trunk of the swinging tree. Lisa picked it up.
Brown crayon marked walls and a roof. A yellow star with eight or nine points shone at the top. Smiles split the round faces of three figures within—one wearing blue, with long hair, one with a pointy brown beard, and a small one between them, balanced on an X. Curly-hided animals stood nearby, smiling, too.
“The stable. You're right, that's just what we need.” Lisa wiped her eyes.
Caleb knelt down next to her, and pointed reverently to the central figure in the drawing. “Baby.”
Lisa sat on the couch, sipping hot chocolate. She watched as Dale chased Josh through a tunnel of empty moving boxes. She leaned her head on her husband's shoulder. “The boxes were a great idea, dear.”
Kevin grinned. Dale poked his head through a window in one box. “They're just like you. No matter what we gave you, you'd just play with the boxes.” Then he roared, and crawled after Caleb while Donna snapped photos.
Lisa looked around the room. She could barely hear the Christmas music from the CD player. The cardboard tree swung. Wrapping paper, crayons, and packing peanuts littered the floor. It was not quite the vision she had had for Christmas morning. But it was perfect. She picked up the cardboard Nativity and studied it again.
“Your mom was right, Kevin.”
“It just wouldn't be Christmas without the Child.”
For more Christmas tales, see my Anthologies page