We put up our Christmas tree on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I pulled the stand and the branches out of the box and Alyssa helped me put it together. Olivia watched, being too short to actually help.
Then I checked light strands and began the painstaking process of placing those strands on the tree.
We managed to get a few ornaments on the tree before it was time to take Alyssa to my mom’s for an over-nighter. Olivia and I put a few more on the tree when we got home but we wanted Alyssa to be part of the process so we stopped for the evening and watched her My Little Pony movie for the seven hundred and fifty-fourth time.
Olivia got up often to go gaze at the lit tree, coming back to tell me how pretty it was. She also told me several times that she couldn’t wait for Lyssie to come home the next day and see how pretty it was and that they were going to put more ornaments on the tree.
Alyssa was less excited than Olivia was the next day but she went about her duties as the big sister and bossed Olivia around as they put more ornaments on the tree.
In the process of this second round of decorating, Alyssa asked me about the year she put horses and puzzle pieces on the tree. She’s heard the story before but wanted more details this time around.
I explained that the year Olivia was born, Alyssa, who was no quite four, wanted desperately to put up the Christmas tree just days after Olivia was born. Being torn between the hospital where O was in the NICU and home where Alyssa was craving my attention, I managed, barely, to put up the tree and string a few lights on it. But then, my enthusiasm fizzled. Either that or it was time to pump or go see Olivia, or make dinner or, I don’t know, sleep for an hour.
This telling, though, she paid closer attention as I explained, “You didn’t want to wait for me to get the ornaments out of the garage, so while I was with Liv at the hospital on day, you just dug into your toy bin and found puzzle pieces, stuffed horses, tiny dolls and hair bows and set all those things on the branches of the tree.”
I hugged my girl and said, “You were so proud of yourself and I was proud of you.”
She hugged me back and then pulled away, asking, “Are you about to cry?”
I smiled around my nostalgic tears and nodded, “I felt awful that my little girl, my tiny little three year old had to decorate the Christmas tree that year all by herself. I was so torn between you and Livie and trying to get everything done and wanting Olivia to come home and wanting to take better care of you that I don’t think I did anything well during that time.”
She rolled her eyes. “I just remember thinking it was awesome that you let me leave my stuff on the tree.”
Wow. With a few little words, my girl managed to assuage years of guilt I’d been harboring. Three year old Alyssa didn’t think I was shirking my duties as her mother by not putting ornaments on the tree that year. She thought I was being a great mother for letting her do it her way. She didn’t feel neglected, she felt encouraged to be creative as she made the best of a sucky situation.
After that conversation, I went out and bought a box of Little Debbie Christmas Tree cakes. The very ones that have triggered my guilt every year for the past six years. This year? I just saw some snack cakes that I knew my girls would devour with pleasure.
We’ve come a long way, babies.