Empty Nest Christmas

The kids were grown, and Christmas wasn't the same, but she learned to accept change.

Posted in , Nov 28, 2010

Kids under the tree at Christmas

My husband, Mike, emerged from the basement, lugging a dusty, bulky box—ornaments for our eight-foot Fraser fir. 

"That should do it," said Mike, lowering the box with a grunt. He had already wrestled the tree into its stand and strung it with lights. The whole living room winked red and green. I looked at the lights, then at the box. Just the sight of them should have made me happy.

I love Christmas, love getting ready for it. The beautiful antique Nativity scene Mike's mom had handed down to us adorned the armoire. Christmas cards dangled from yarn in the archway between the living room and the front hall.

But this year it just didn't seem the same. A few days before, our daughter, Kate, had called to say she'd be spending Christmas with her fiancé Aaron's family in North Carolina. They had met a year earlier at Cornell, where Kate was a senior.

I was thrilled for her. But now I realized—she wouldn't be decorating this tree. Or opening presents Christmas morning. Or eating Christmas dinner. By next year she'd be graduated and married, living who knows where.

Clattering sounded above, and my 16-year-old, Andy, bounded down the stairs. Well, I thought, at least everyone else is here. "Just in time to decorate!" I called to him, smiling.

"Sorry, Mom, gotta go. Guys are waiting!" He rushed out the door, basketball in hand.

I turned to Mike, but he was bent under the tree, pouring water in the stand. I remembered just one year earlier, when Kate was home from school and all four of us had listened to Bing Crosby carols while covering the tree with ornaments. Corny, maybe, but it made us all feel good.

I had marveled then at how effortlessly Andy stood on a stool and reached atop the tree to affix our gold star. He was six feet tall! How had that happened?

"You know what?" said Mike, working his way out from under the tree. "I think I might have missed a box. I'll go check." He trooped down to the basement, and I turned to the big box on the floor.

We'd collected a lot of ornaments in 26 years of marriage, many of them much fancier than the cheap silver balls we'd started with. I pulled out a delicate blown glass star and hung it from a branch. The branch drooped.

I know how you feel, I thought and sat in a chair, suddenly weary of decorating. Mike returned from the basement with another, slightly battered box.

"Let's finish tomorrow," I said, silently projecting ahead to next year, when Andy, too, would be away at college. "I think I'm done with Christmas for today." Mike gave me a look but didn't say anything.

That night, turning restlessly in bed, I shared my troubles with the Lord. I know what the true joy of the season is—your birth. But I feel like my family is slipping away.

The next morning Mike and I tackled the boxes. What was in that old one, anyway? I didn't recognize it. I blew a layer of dust away and pried it open. Yellowed tissue paper crinkled.

I reached in and pulled out something rough, a construction-paper star, about the size of my hand, covered in sparkly glitter. I gasped. Nearly 20 years before, Kate had come home from preschool and proudly presented us with that star. I could still see the glitter covering her hands.

I reached in again, and out came a Styrofoam ball, blobbed with glue, beads and more glitter. "Mike, look!" I said. Mike knelt beside me and we both grinned at Andy's trademark handiwork with a bottle of Elmer's. "This must be a box of the kids' ornaments."

The box yielded more treasures: a crooked paper chain connected with dozens of staples. A popsicle-stick reindeer with a red poof-ball nose. An empty pudding container filled with confetti, Polaroids of the kids glued to cardboard circles and threaded with yarn.

Shoving the other boxes aside, we went to work. Soon the tree was festooned with funky handmade ornaments.

My spirits rose with each one—each tiny Christmas memory, all those mornings when Kate and Andy would perch at the top of the stairs, Santa hats crooked on their heads, waiting for Mom and Dad to arrange the last gifts and light the tree before coming down.

Okay, Lord. So they're growing up, moving on. That's good, right? I slipped an arm around Mike's waist and looked at the tree. Christmas would change—our family would change.

Andy would soon head off to college, and maybe one day we'd be having Christmas at Kate and Aaron's house, putting up ornaments their kids had made.

Those were things to look forward to. Just as, all those years ago, I'd looked forward to the time when Kate and Andy would move into adulthood—Andy reaching the top of the tree by himself!

Memories aren't just about the past, are they, Lord? They're your way of reassuring us you'll be there in the future too. What a wonderful gift.

That evening Kate called from North Carolina. "I miss you guys!" she said. "I'm having a great time here, but I wish I could be there with you."

"Funny you should say that, sweetheart," I said. "You'll never guess what we found in an old box...."

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