Thirty-Eight Days

Christmas Day, 2014

We all wandered downstairs after getting ready for the Christmas church service that morning. The smell of cinnamon pinecones traveled through the house. As I waited for everyone to get ready, I observed all the decorations because I knew as soon as the sun rose tomorrow morning, Mom would be taking them down.

Red and green wrapped presents of all different sizes had magically appeared overnight and sat underneath the tree begging to be opened with tempting silver bows. Gift bags with snowmen, penguins, and Santas printed on them taunted us with white tissue paper peeking out from the top.  

The tree was lit by clear white lights with a silver bow wrapped around the tree like a reassuring hug. Various ornaments hung from the evergreen plastic branches as a visual representation of who our family was. The snowman that held snowflakes with all five of our names printed on it. Mickey’s Fantasmic Hat that used to live as a monument at Hollywood Studios. A paper wreath that was made in fourth grade art class. A plastic One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The sensuous leg lamp from The Christmas Story, which we watched every Christmas Eve night. An Air Force ornament. 1997, 2000, and 2004 baby ornaments. A transparent bulb with a class of 2015 tassel inside. A glittery eighth note with a pink bow and a pinecone at the top. A Spiderman hanging off a web. Frosty the Snowman that would sing once the button was pressed. The Green Bay Packers ornament that was tucked in the back because we could get away with it that year. Small frames with old pictures and memories held inside.  

All five identical stockings were hung by the staircase in order from oldest to youngest in the family. Mom had made them as our family grew. Our names were spelled out in red font at the top of the stocking against the white fabric. There was a sequined Santa smiling and waving with a cotton ball for the top of his hat. A small tree was behind him, and a single present lay at his feet.  Only four stockings this year looked like they were filled with small gifts.

That was just the tip of the iceberg for our Christmas decorating. Throughout the house, there were at least five other different themed Christmas trees. A strictly gold, red, and green tree. A snowman tree we won at an auction. A blue, green, and silver themed tree. A nativity set on a table in the kitchen. A sign that counted down thirty-eight more days. A brightly lit ceramic village that lived on top of our kitchen cupboards that was missing the ski slope this year. A festive tablecloth covered the dining table with a vase filled with fake snow and green, red, and gold ornaments on top. This year, only the lower half of our house outside was lit up with Christmas lights. This was only our second Christmas in this house; we were still working out the decorations.

Later that morning we eventually returned from a two-hour long church service with the smell of church incense still lingering on our suits and dresses. We all changed out of our church clothes into something more comfortable. We didn’t open presents right away when we got home like we normally did; instead, we made scrambled eggs to pass the time until 2:00 P.M.  

Right at 2:00, Daniel, being the youngest, tore into the presents. He ruined the aesthetically pleasing display of gifts, creating a chaotic pile instead. He eagerly handed presents to their different recipients as the three of us filtered into the living room, choosing to either sit on the uncomfortable black leather couch or the carpet-like rug. Mom walked over with her iPad, choosing to sit in a corner on the couch with the red Santa hat no one had claimed laying beside her.

We went one by one, like we did every year. The Christmas music played in the background like we were trying to enjoy it one last time before the holidays were over. We were desperately grasping onto as many old traditions as we could. Josh Groban’s soothing voice sang “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” beneath the chatter.  

Wrapping paper soon blanketed the ground like the snow we wished we had. The different gifts were revealed as I assumed the role of photographer with the Olympus camera Dad had given me for my birthday last year. “Ooohs,” “what is its,” and “thank yous” filled the air. Knee-high socks that said “Can’t Keep Calm: Santa’s Coming.” Calendars for 2015. A Kindle Fire. Knock-off Beats headphones. Clothes. Minecraft Lego sets. More ornaments to add to our collection. A seashell Pandora charm. Boxes of candy shipped from halfway across the world.

After opening presents, we all sat in the living room in the middle of the aftermath. There was silence as we slowly realized that none of us received the thing that we had wanted the most.

As the afternoon passed, we all gathered together to eat Christmas dinner at the festively-decorated dining table, but no one sat at the head of the table this year. We always begged our dad to not smoke the ham every year, but that year it tasted as if something was missing. We ate potatoes as well, but the best part was splurging on all the Christmas sweets we had baked a week earlier: poorly decorated sugar cookies, melting peanut butter balls, out-of-this-world chocolate M&M cookies, the peanut butter blossom cookies.

We talked about how we wished we had snow, or at least weather that was colder than 61 degrees. We had just moved from Virginia; we weren’t used to Florida’s lack of seasons yet. We talked about the correct way to pronounce the word butter.  Mom yelled at my brothers for eating with poor manners; Daniel was holding his wine glass with a fist and swishing the punch around like mouthwash. Matthew had his Hawaiian bread roll balled up in his hand as he picked it apart and fed pieces of it to the dog.  

Once we all finished eating, our stomachs were full, but we still felt empty. My brothers and I helped Mom clear the table and wash the dishes. The sun set, but the normal, cozy feeling didn’t appear like it did every other year. No one talked about it, but there was an unbearable void we couldn’t ignore.

We all wished he was here.

One hundred and fifty-two days had already passed, but somehow this seemed like the most difficult one.

The only thing we had wanted for Christmas was for Dad to be home.

The only thing we had wanted was for him to build the traditional ski slope for the ceramic village.

The only thing we had wanted was for him to be wearing that stupid Santa hat he always insisted on wearing.

The only thing we had wanted was for him to force us to take picture after picture even though we always got annoyed with the amount of pictures he took.

The only thing we had wanted was smoked ham for Christmas dinner.

The only thing we had wanted was his quiet presence.

The only thing we had wanted was for him to be physically there instead of as a crackling video on Mom’s iPad.

The only thing we had wanted was to not have an eight hour time difference.

The only thing we had wanted was to erase the 7,636 miles between Florida and Qatar that separated our family.

But we still had thirty-eight more days.



Alyssa Harmon