Snow packed hard grey along the neighborhood sidewalks. I slid to our house over frozen footprints blurred together into lumps.

Fresh snow had painted the steps to our front porch. Dotted with the outlines of two soles that didn’t match, the steps showed me that one person was home.

I followed the tracks up to the porch, then stopped again at a skid line in a drift, made by the thinner shoe. Glossy ice winked from the slash where Grandma had slipped. The artificial leg that she strapped to her left thigh ended in a false foot. She wore a wider shoe on her right foot, since the shoes were new, but not the legs. No other marks in the snow. Grandma was okay.

Inside, wet spots on our blue carpet led to the cellar where her voice boomed: "Who's there?"

"It's me, Grandma." I shouted with my eyes shut tight, hoping she hadn't started early.

"Come down here."

Something thick inside me moved, like I had swallowed fruit cake I didn't chew too well.

Downstairs, Grandma shone in all her glory beneath the pipes and rafters. Surrounded by boxes, she wore a garland boa and tinsel in her hair. She hummed carols while parting a sea of knobbie wires.

One string glowed. "Ah-ha. That one's good." She unplugged the bright strand from an extention chord. Her tinseled head sparkled in the light of the cellar’s bare bulb dangling above the foot of the stairs as she nodded towards something behind me. "Grab that box and take it upstairs."

I grabbed an oily, wax-coated box that originally encased produce. It held decorations collected before and since I was born. Moisture from winter dampness and gooey summer heat had made the cardboard flimsy without sunlight to keep it healthy. The arthritic flaps folded over breakable and broken ornaments. I pulled on the funky fingers. They flopped over the sides of the box in a freaky fray.


"Close that up," Grandma demanded. Christmas was serious business. "Just take it upstairs."


The dreaded decorating had begun.

At the top of the stairs I turned, entered the living room, and spotted my brother coming through the front door. He saw me and the box, and turned to run.

"Who came in?" beat the subterranean voice.

"It's Benny," I yelled back, then smirked at my brother.

"Benny Boy! Come down here."

Boy, did Benny shoot me a look of juvenile hate. As he dillydallied with his school bag, I clomped downstairs before Grandma yelled my name again.

On my next trip up the cellar stairs with a box marked "Manger" I heard my sister hiss. "I hate you, Benny."

He ran past me hollering, "Vera's home, Grandma."


Vera dropped her schoolbag like a rock, stamping past me as I put down my box in the living room.

Crosses between Munchkins, Oopaloompas and elves, we moved in synch, propelled by anticipated orders.

A box marked "Platform" passed me on my third trip to the cellar. It walked in Benny's Sears sneakers and trumpet-belled pants that swayed about his ankles.

Vera nudged past me with a sawhorse. The other one stood ready for me in the cellar. Did a miniature village really need that much support? 

The second wooden horse rode me up the stairs behind Grandma. I wobbled into the living room, halting as Grandma turned with a breathless order. "Put it down over there and help your sister with the windows."

Vera and I slapped dusty cardboard figures on each window. The fading animation slid between the tape and glass panes before the jolly characters hung by themselves, framed in smudges of grey finger prints. We rested our arms, letting them hang by our sides as we awaited the next leg of our Advent journey.

Grandma sat on the couch squinting into the dining room. Benny, Vera and I turned to spy a piece of plywood sticking out from behind the hutch. We had forgotten that that was as far as it travelled after last year’s un-decorating.

We three shuffled towards it as Grandma said, "Slide it out from behind there." Her unnecessary direction made me pull my own hair. I needed to do something without being told to do it.

While helping Vera lift the wood onto the horses, I rejoiced that I didn’t get a splinter. But then yanked again at a stray lock when Grandma needlessly ordered, “Center it”; we were already peeking under the board readjusting it.

On his back, Benny shimmied, between the sawhorses. He pushed green sockets, one at a time, through the holes our dead dad had drilled. Benny supported the sockets so the wire connecting them stayed taped to the underside of the platform while Grandma screwed bulbs into them. Then she capped each bulb with a bottomless house or store. 

Grandma set the scene with perfect little people, and we made a getaway. Benny followed Vera and I upstairs to our bedrooms. We set up corrugated cardboard trees Grandma had made for us. 

Throughout the season, Grandma presided over her frozen village as holiday visitors admired the plastic cottages, farm animals, and pond mirror with teeny, tiny ducks. I never understood how Benny could realign the train that ran on its rusty track. Every few laps it derailed, and his chubby fingers never disturbed the miniature miles of streets and landscaping that Grandma had poured out in different color sand.

Beyond that, the town was invisible, except when I bumped my hip on its corner moving through our bedecked rowhouse. Only Benny was allowed to retape the red brick waffle paper to the corner of the plywood, since Vera and I had used up a whole roll of tape on the windows.

Santa decorated the tree himself that year when we were sleeping. Thank God for this miracle. The year before, Grandma said, "Don't put it there" each time I targeted a tree limb dangling an ornament between my fingers. Frustrated with figuring out which spot she meant made me tired and want to go to bed early anyway. 

The fake brick wall below Grandma's village hid those moldy boxes with their weepy newsprint that stored all the Christmas treasures.

Until Grandma needed our sure-footed bodies to retrieve the tree's trimmings, and carry down the repacked decorations, we watched holiday cartoons wearing chocolate mustaches and crocheted booties. We tripped over new and old toys. And teased each other, giggling behind Grandma's wide, strong back. 

I threw away the booties after skidding down the stairs wearing them. The boxes and village were gone by then, and so was my bruised hip. But smudged fingerprints dotted the windows' glass the rest of the year. 






  1. And you thought the elf on the shelf was scary !

    1. It is. Thank you for your comment. See you tonight.


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