Dave and I have bustled all week to prepare for our Christmas party. Brush in hand, I’ve dabbed Chelsea Blue paint on doors and sills that need touch-ups. Cupboards are scrubbed clean; furniture is lemon polish fragrant; potpourris are revitalized with cinnamon scent. Dry floors, massaged with oil, are a rich red-brown. I imagine the house stretching and waking, as rapturously pleased with itself as our cat Raven under a soothing caress.
We began decorating by hauling boxes and bulky plastic bags from the attic and crawlspace, every hutch and window seat yielding Santas, snowmen, teddy bears, and garlands. As I unwrap the tissue protecting each item, I remember its place in Christmases past. When Tucker and Casey were little, they helped craft the papier mache carollers. The miniature wooden village first appeared under my parents’ tree in the fifties. The velveteen Santa has been with us since Tucker was one, a gift from his grandparents on his first Christmas in 1980. Little hands, growing hands, aging hands have held and admired each memento.
After days of puttering, near every surface in the house boasts a vignette: a woodland village, nativity or Father Christmas. Still, something is missing. Greens.
Casey used to decorate the house with holly and evergreens, but she’s missed the party for the past few years since she left for college. Last week I was saddened by her blithe departure the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I yearned for the days when she lived at home, when she reveled in creating arrangements of holly, filling jars with cranberries, and hanging ornaments. But she was all asparkle at the thought of returning to school as she drove into the dusk, saying, “I’ll be back in three weeks for Christmas!”
An hour later she phoned from a rest stop on the interstate. “My headlights died! I do NOT believe this!” The hoped-for quick fix from Triple A did not pan out and we received another, more subdued, call. “Mom, would you and Dad mind retrieving the car from the rest stop to bring it home for repairs? I’ve called my roommate and she’s going to pick me up and take me the rest of the way to school.” And then Casey spluttered and sniffled on her end of the line. “The reason I was so cheery when I said good-bye was because I planned to surprise you by coming home to help with the party. And now I can’t because I won’t have a car!” Dear girl! It meant so much that she wanted to come.
So I inherited her job of collecting and distributing the greens. Yesterday, with a basket over my arm and shears in hand, I circled the yard, a snowy expanse marred only by deer tracks trailing from the woods to the bird feeders. What a glorious day to be browsing through holly and winterberries, green and crimson against naked limbs and white snow.
Laden with clippings, I returned to the house and strolled about adding a sprig of pine here, a branch of berries there. Shaded by a bit of feathery fir, the figures on the mantels appeared to relax and brighten. White wooden swans glided gracefully once provided a pool of pine. Even great-grandfather Francis’s somber face seemed almost jovial once holly boughs crowned the frame of his portrait.
Dave returned from Home Depot with arms full of pointsettias. We arranged the scarlet flowers around the victorian carollers singing amid cotton snow in the front hall fireplace. Candles graced tables, mantels and sconces. All that was lacking was the final touch of a match to bring the rooms flickering to life. In still semi-darkness, tiny flames dancing white and blue at the core, seem a visible glimmer of the spirit of a house. How much more so when they lend their glow to a holiday party.
This house has hosted over two hundred and twenty Christmases, but we held our first party here five years ago. Certain elements have remained constant: Dave wears jeans, an oxford shirt and Christmas tie; I greet friends in a flowing dress. Dave brews beer and smokes fish; I shop, bake, mix dips and decorate. The kids’ papier mache carollers sing in the front fireplace; Tucker’s velveteen Santa sits on the hutch in the living room.
But of course, some things change. Tucker and Casey are away at school. Where Casey and her friends Lindsay, Jess and Devlin once passed hors-d’oeuvres and washed dishes, now Lindsay’s little sister, Kara, and her friends help out. They are in the kitchen now, circling the poached salmon with lemon slices, filling bowls with nuts, and garnishing dips with dill and basil. Kara is a senior, so she’ll be gone next year. We’re here, but the kids grow up.
As our friends arrive, they set offerings of lacy cookies, brownies, and bisques among the cheese boards, crudite, crackers and platters of fish already arrayed on the dining room table. Pat inches aside a plate or two to make room for a thick yellow zabaglione in a cut crystal bowl. Michelle places her spinach dip in its cradle of pumpernickel bread on the sideboard. Barb brings a pyramid of zucchini squares. To me, it feels like the house celebrates with us as it glows with candlelight, the rooms echoing with hymns sung by the Westminster Choir.
My eyes well briefly with tears while I think of both the blessings and transitions of this night. My Dave is here with me, chatting with guests. Kara takes overcoats, just as Casey used to do. Hugs and laughter and love linger with me in the hall even as new arrivals head to the living room for a home brew.
A hooked rug I just completed lies on the floor in the corner. It features Santa against a midnight blue background. I imagine an unborn little one saying of it some day, “My grandmother made it thirty years ago.” I picture an older Casey arranging the alpine village on a spray of evergreen, perhaps preparing for a party of her own. And I allow myself a wonderful thought, that those future parties might still be here, in this house that delights to hold them.