Christmas wasn't on on the calendar that year. It seemed like needless stress to organize a major move and also fit in the traditional trappings of the season. Usually by the second week of December our apartment is perfumed with the scent of pine. Green-needled branches, newly sprung from their netting, are “relaxing” as my husband and I lug in boxes of ornaments from the storage room.
But this year would be different. After nine months of renovation, our apartment was empty. We were packing up to leave our temporary digs and return home.
I called our upstairs neighbor to say we wouldn’t be back in time for the Annual Christmas Tree Trip, our urban version of the journey to chop down pine trees in a snowy field. The excursion has been going on for more than a decade. It usually would occur on a Saturday morning in early December.
With rope and blankets in hand, the four of us – looking, I sometimes thought, like a group of kidnappers – would meet in front of our downtown co-op. We would then drive to the Union Square Greenmarket, where my three companions would forage for two trees, two wreaths, a couple of potted poinsettias, and a dozen applecider doughnuts. My job would be to safeguard our illegally parked car. Happy traditions are worth preserving. In the year of the move, I asked my neighbors if they could go tree shopping a bit later than usual.
Even though we wouldn’t be buying anything except for doughnuts, I felt that I could still be part of the holiday ritual by watching the car. They declined. I tried not to take it personally. After all, we were the ones breaking with tradition. Or, perhaps, after enduring most of the year with the hammering and drilling and sawing going on in our apartment, they had grown tired of us. That’s when I began to worry that we would find more changed when we returned home than just the interior of our apartment.
We pulled up to our building with the moving van on the Friday before Christmas. We spent the day organizing old stuff and putting it into new places, stepping around power tools and construction workers, using blue painting tape to alert them to scratches, bruises, and blemishes on new surfaces. We awoke Saturday morning on a bare mattress on our bedroom floor and got back to work. But the more boxes I opened, the more pessimistic I became that this new space would ever feel like home again.
By late afternoon, I needed a break. When I opened the new front door and a large, fragrant wreath fell across the threshold, I didn’t have to read the note to know it was a homecoming gift from our upstairs neighbors. That night, after we unwrapped the sofa and collapsed in front of a blank television that wasn’t yet hooked up to cable, our new doorbell rang. It was another neighbor holding the Christmas tree we had thought we hadn’t wanted. “Welcome home!” she said.
By Christmas Day, the electrician hadn’t figured out why the new refrigerator kept shutting off when the living room lights were on. The plumber hadn’t discovered why the new bathroom sink wouldn’t drain into the new pipes below. And the grooves between the new oak floor planks were awfully wide. But a Christmas tree was standing against a new living room wall, decorated with ornaments from the places we had stayed during our months of renovation. The refinished old radiators still clanked when the heat came on – and our neighbors still stepped up to help even when we didn’t think we needed them.
We were home.