It was already late December before Ellie remembered the season.
She had been in her comfortable hiding place for so long, alone, that dates just didn’t seem to matter much anymore.
The sudden explosion of sound of the cicadas serenading loudly in the trees beyond her windows to the world jolted her.
It was Summer already, when had that happened? She hadn’t paid much attention to the heat that had been building as it does in Australia in December. Now it was launching its presence into her space with all the vengeance at its command.
Time to use the air conditioning she’d had installed a year or so earlier, she figured.
She shrugged and made a mental note to seek out some cooler clothing from the depths of her wardrobe.
Ellie looked around her, moving as she did to touch the nearby objects familiar and comforting to her. The framed photograph of the family, taken so very long ago. Their happy smiles fixed forever in place and frozen for all time in that moment.
It had been the same time of year, she recalled, as she wiped a smear from the glass.
Ellie smiled as the memory of it surfaced unbidden.
They had all been gathered under the pine tree in the front yard, it was a tradition every year for them to all come together to decorate that big old tree.
Every year since she’d been a small child that magic had happened, with tinsel and shiny baubles, and spheres of multi-colored glass, and at the very top of that great old tree had always been the angel and the star.
Mom had made the clothing for the angel. Oh, it was glorious, and neighbors would often stop by just to admire that angel and all the hand crafted decorations, and to absorb perhaps just a little of the love that had gone into creating it.
The sound of Carols and much laughter had filled the air every year at the same time. Some years not all of them could make it, time and other commitments changed all their lives, as it was want to do.
For the most part though they were all together;with more and more children being added to the mix as the younger ones married and had babies of their own.
The decades flew by on a whisper, and Mom and Pop passed within weeks of each other, neither being able to even contemplate the thought of the other being gone and leaving them empty.
Ellie placed the photo back on the mantle above the stone fireplace.
It didn’t do to remember too much. Memory could play tricks with the mind and damage the soul if you let it.
She walked into the master bedroom; the old bed was still her favorite. It was high off the ground and the mattress was lumpy with so many years of use. She recalled without meaning too, the nights she and her siblings had laid there with her mother. Mom would always read them that one story on that same night every year until Ellie declared herself too old to be hearing it read anymore.
She opened the robe, and stood for a long time, before she reached in and pulled out the huge carved wooden box that Pop had made.
She carried it across to the bed and sat propped on the multitude of cushions to open it. She lovingly ran her hands across the top of the box.
How could she have forgotten how clever Pop had been with his hands? She ran her fingers as if reading in braille across the carved name etched into the wood with such love and precision, ‘Allison’. Her mother’s name. She opened the lid and was clothed in the faint smell of Lavender still emanating from its contents. Lavender, mom’s favorite perfume of all. It carried with it the scents and sounds of a century long gone.
Ellie hesitated for a moment, then lured by an irresistible need, she removed the first layer of tissue paper, and then she caught her breath. The Angel lay there, in a gown that still shone gold. Ellie’s hands shook as she gently lifted it from the folds of protection around it. Snuggly tucked in behind it lay the star.
Each layer she lifted revealed more and still more of all those handmade decorations from her memories.
Ellie lay there for a long while, surrounded by yesterday.
When she returned to the sitting room she carried the box with her.
She felt a trembling excitement building in her blood.
What was the date? She had to know. Maybe it was already gone.
She hurried across the room and opened the front door, and looked at the old tree still standing tall and proud in the front yard.
The street had altered over the years. But she knew the neighbors on one side, and they had been there for a very long time.
She crossed the yard, and climbed the steps up to their front door.
She rang the bell and held her breath as the door opened.
“Michael, it’s just Ellie, from next door.” She was at a loss for what else to say.
“Well now, yes indeed it is, Just Ellie. What is it, Ellie, do you need help?” The sudden look of concern on his face caused her to smile.
“Oh, well no … that is, I’m doin’ just fine, Michael. Thank you for asking. I’m just wondering, could you tell me what the date is please?”
“Why, it’s December 24th I believe.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you so much. I still have time! Thank you.”
“Oh, I know it’s strange, but I’m going to decorate the pine tree in the front yard.”
" That’s marvelous. It has been such a long time since I have seen that old tree look happy.” He put his head on one side, “A long time indeed.”
Ellie grinned at him, feeling ridiculously pleased that he remembered.
She took her leave and found herself almost running back to the house; she could have sworn she could hear Michael Thomas laughing behind her. It had always been a good laugh.
It took a while to gather everything she needed together, and then she manipulated the ladder from the garage, and leaned it up against the solid comfort of that tree.
The lower branches were easy, they were done in a flash of time, but even Ellie was a little daunted as her gaze lifted higher.
The voice from behind her startled her, and she rocked a little uncertainly on her perch on the ladder.
“Ellie, Oh, I’ve given you a fright. I’m sorry.” Michael Thomas held the ladder firmly as she wobbled her way back down.
He looked very pleased with himself however, and the three smiling faces with him had that inescapable look of anticipation that young people wear so well.
Ellie didn’t ask, she just waited.
“We, that is, I, was wonderin’ if maybe we could help, with the tree?
These are my Grandson’s…The twins are Peter, and David, but don’t ask me which is which, cause after fifteen years I still can’t tell ‘em apart. The taller one of the boys, is Mitchell, he’s just got his first car, which no doubt you will hear over the next few days.”
The boys all stepped forward and shook her hand in turn.
Then they waited, trying to decipher the look on her face as they did.
It didn’t take long, Ellie clapped her hands in delight, “Oh, I would be so very happy to have the help and the company. Wonderful, just wonderful.”
The heat was rapidly building, and Michael headed back to his place, returning with a large stripped beach umbrella, and a cooler filled with soft drinks and ice.
Ellie added a folding table and some chairs to the collection, and she and Michael sat in the shade when they had decorated as high as they could manage. They just sat, in companionable silence, slurping down ice-cold Coca Cola and watching the healthy young men clambering like monkeys in the higher reaches of the tree.
The busy scene had created somewhat of a distraction for some of the children on the street, who now stood in every increasing numbers, clutching their bikes and watching on in fascination.
Some parents joined in the onlookers, and before too long they were asking if they could help as well.
Each of the family groups brought something with them, and the sound of Christmas Carols was soon added and sung along with, not in tune, but nobody cared.
Ellie looked around her in amazement. It was different, but the same. How could she have thought for so very long that it had ended. When, for so many of them, it was just the beginning.
One of the twins, she wasn’t sure which, called down from high in the branches, “Ellie? What goes on the top? The Angel or the star?”
“Both of them, sweetie. They’ll fit together, you’ll see.”
"Cool!" was the happy response.
“Hmm, yes, Michael.”
“Can we add some lights? I mean I remember all the other Christmases, and I know that lights weren’t part of it, but they would just add to the beauty of it, I’m thinkin’ … maybe?”
Ellie considered for a moment, then gave him her big smile, “Y’know, Michael, I guess it past time for something new to be added, do you have any?”
“Oh, brother, do I have any!”
When he and Mitchell returned it was with a huge box of outdoor fairy lights. “How’s this?”Mitchell asked with a silly grin on his face.
“You weren’t kidding. Wow. String ‘em up, boys.” Willing hands soon emptied the entire box.
“Thanks for this, Ellie. You have no idea, just how much I’ve missed this stuff. I mean, the kids come over and the Grandkids and all, and we eat ourselves stupid. But I haven’t felt much like Christmas for such a long time. This … well, thanks.”
Darkness takes a while to fall in the Australian summer, but when it does, it is absolute.
Everyone gathered back against the edge of the road, and Michael was given the honor of flipping the switch.
The place lit up. The younger children still watching on, squealed with delight.
It was glorious.
Mom and Pop would have loved this, Ellie knew with a certainty.
The sound of laughter echoed through the street.
Late that night, when everything was done, and Ellie had gratefully accepted the invitation to lunch tomorrow with Michael Thomas and his family, she lay curled up on that big old bed, the pine box was open and ready.
She extracted the one remaining item; and began to read aloud,
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…………………….