Upstairs, Downstairs

StairsOne of the advantages of living in a five-story house is that you don’t need a Fitbit to make sure you’re getting in your 10,000 steps a day. We’ve stayed pretty spry just taking out the trash, hauling in the groceries, and running up and downstairs retrieving little odds and ends we constantly forget like books, dirty dishes, and car keys.

The stairs are not so great for my father-in-law, though, who has reached the age where walking down the corridor to the dining hall at his assisted living facility is a big challenge. He’d hauled himself up 19 stairs from our garage to our dining room for Thanksgiving, but the prospect of a repeat performance for Christmas looked dubious. And at age 95, who knew how many Christmases he had left? Since this was the first time in five years both our daughters would be home for the holidays, it felt even more important to celebrate together in traditional style—tree, stockings, lights, decorations, and Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

“No problem,” I said to my husband. “Surely the four of us can carry him up the stairs.”

We decided to practice by hoisting Emma, our eldest, in the safety of our living room. Staggering, we dropped her onto the rug in about ten seconds, envisioning the domino effect of three generations meeting with disaster on the stairs into the garage. It was time for Plan B.

“The important thing is that we’re all together,” my mother-in-law and I said to one another, agreeing we’d eat instead at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

Which turned out to be closed on Christmas Day.

My husband made a reservation at a Thai restaurant instead.

In the meantime, my friend Eileen told me about a friend who’d had been carried into his house by firefighters after he was discharged from the hospital with a severely fractured leg.

“You should call the fire department,” Eileen urged.

“You’re kidding! They do that?” I replied, silently thinking, “What a waste of taxpayer money!”

And even if I didn’t think so, my in-laws surely would. I could not imagine them agreeing to such special treatment. We like to joke that they hate to impose on people so much that we won’t know that they’re dead until two weeks after the fact.

Still, I couldn’t let go of the idea, debating it back and forth in my mind, even putting “Call the fire department” on my to-do list. Like most things on my to-do list, there it stayed.

“Enlisting the firemen is a crazy idea, right?” I mused to my daughter. “We’ll be fine at the Thai restaurant, right? The important thing is for all of us to be together.”

Emma nodded.

The following day, my morning walk took me on a route I don’t usually take—one that ends a half a block from our fire station.

“What the hell—no harm in asking,” I said to myself, going in.

“I have a crazy question,” I said to the man at the desk, then explained our situation.

“It’s not crazy at all. We’re a full-service fire station, and that’s what your money supports. We do this all the time.”

My in-laws were surprisingly game.

“Some people might be too embarrassed to be carted up the stairs,” my father-in-law chortled over the phone. “But not me! I think it’s marvelous!”

On Christmas Day, four firefighters met us at the base of our stairs, strapped my father-in-law into a special chair, and deposited him safely in the living room. They arrived precisely at the appointed departure time, and reversed the procedure.Firemen and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

It was the best Christmas ever. Thanks, taxpayers!Jenny and Katie with Grandma and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

And yesterday, to celebrate my father-in-law’s 96th birthday, we all went to his favorite Chinese restaurant, this time without any assistance beyond his portable walker. It was the best birthday celebration ever.Hugh's 96th at Lily Kai


When my brothers and I were toddlers, at Christmastime my mother set out a fake table-top tree with unbreakable ornaments we could put on and take off to our hearts’ content. I’ve been imprinted on tree-trimming ever since, and have continued this tradition with my own children. Every year the day after Thanksgiving, we haul a little artificial tree and box of soft ornaments from the garage and set it up in the living room. My girls are in their 20s now, and can be trusted with fragile glass angels, but woven pandas and plush whales from Marine World still dangle from the table-top tree.

Even before our daughters were born, my husband and I started laying things away for them—not money for college or a home of their own, but Christmas tree ornaments. When I was pregnant with the baby we called Tadpole before she emerged as Emma, we hung a tiny red-and-green striped stocking on our spindly tree with enormous hope and excitement.

For Emma’s first Christmas extra utero, we chose a bristlecone-pine bear in a cradle. Ally’s arrival three years later brought a baby on a rocking horse to keep the bear company. Along with setting up the table-top tree every year right after Thanksgiving, our family goes ornament shopping. It’s our favorite tradition, and each girl is allowed to pick one special ornament. There have been some doozies along the way, like the pink-flocked hippopotamus, purple-glitter octopus, and plastic day-glo peace sign.

Since the girls have gone to college and beyond, some years they haven’t made it home, and I’ve substituted my better and more tasteful judgment. The year Emma was in St. Petersburg, and hard pressed to find her favorite food in Russia, we hung a glass-blown sushi roll in her honor. Ally’s junior year abroad was marked by a miniature French baguette dangling from the tree while she downed the real thing during Christmas travels to Paris.

This year Ally’s back in Europe, teaching English in Bilbao, where it rains 24/7. Since the rain in Spain falls mainly on my daughter, we found the perfect ornament for her in absentia—polka dot rain boots. And Emma, who moved to Brooklyn in February but is home for the holidays, picked out a pink-frosted glass doughnut to commemorate the first job she landed in New York at an upscale doughnut store.

As soon as Emma and Ally have Christmas trees of their own, I’ll present them with the numerous snowmen, Santas, dogs, cats, and pink-flocked hippopotami that have graced our trees through the years. It will be a good start as they set out to create their own homes, families, traditions. My husband’s and my tree will be a little sparser, but that’s OK. I’m going to keep Tadpole’s tiny red and green striped stocking for remembrance of Christmases past.


What’s your favorite ornament or holiday tradition and the story behind it?