Cultures differ around the world. However, in my experience, one of the common characteristics is that girls are born with the ability to wrap a father tightly around their little finger. One Christmas, I found out that ability extends to the host father of a foreign exchange student. And yes, I was that tightly curled host father.
Years ago, Linda and I hosted a young girl from Austria named Sarah. She was a bright young lady, an excellent student and a typical teenage girl. She came to live with us in August of that year. As she made her way through the late summer and fall we all worked to fit her neatly into our family. Then came Christmas.
I remember well the day it started. It was the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving and Sarah was standing in our living room looking out the bay window while she watched one of our neighbors put up the Christmas lights on his house. He took great pride in his work and the complexity of his display was impressive. Sarah was enthralled with the intricate detail he wove into the light’s path.
After a bit, she noticed that I had come into the room. When she did she turned and asked, “When will we put up our lights?”
“Oh, we don’t put up lights,” I answered. “It’s too much work to put them up in December just to take them down a month later. Besides, they use much too much electricity.”
That’s when it happened. She dropped into the overstuffed chair next to the window, adjusted her gaze to me and gave me ‘The Look.’ The fathers in the audience know what I’m talking about. If the rest of you want a visual, pop over to The Verbal Spew Review, click on ‘About V’, and take a peek at her ‘Judgey-face.’ That’s ‘The Look.’ Then Sarah said, “How can I experience a traditional American Christmas if we don’t have lights on the house?”
I started to make an argument, but she countered by tilting her head ever so slightly to the side and scrunching her brow. No father, or host father, has ever won that battle. Out I went to Lowes to buy Christmas lights.
That wasn’t the end of the project though. Our house was older and it didn’t have many exterior electrical receptacles. There were none near the front of the house. So, in addition to hanging the lights, I had to install an electrical circuit with a ground fault interrupt. Between the two projects, It was six in the evening before I was finished. Linda was working at the store that day until early evening
I was watching out the window when she pulled the car into the driveway at about seven. She stopped just as the car was completely off of the street and sat looking at the lights through the windshield. Slowly the door opened and she stepped onto the driveway. She walked, following the trail of lights, from one end of the house to the other, carefully examining each strand. Where the strings were low enough, she would reach out to touch them as if to see if they were simply an illusion. Then, she walked out to the street and checked the number on the mailbox to make sure that she was at the right house. I think she even checked the street sign to ensure that she hadn’t turned on the wrong street. Finally she came in.
“Why are there lights on our house?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I guess that I just felt festive this year,” I replied defensively.
“We’ve NEVER had lights before. I’ve pleaded many times for them. The children offered to pay for them one year. You always said no. Now we have lights because you feel ‘festive’?”
“It’s my idea,” Sarah interjected. “I thought we should have lights.”
Linda stared at me with her own wifey version of The Look. After a few seconds of resistance I crumbled and explained, “Sarah said that she couldn’t have a real American Christmas if we didn’t have lights. It’s her only Christmas here. We had to have lights.”
The silence from Linda was deafening, but eventually she removed her coat and retreated to the family room to recover from the shock. It should have ended there, really, it should have.
“When will we put up our tree?” Sarah asked as I walked into the room.
“Well, the tradition in our family is that we put up the tree on Christmas Eve,” I answered innocently.
“Oh, that will be fun. When will we go get it?”
“It’s already here. It’s in the attic.”
“In the attic? How can a tree live in the attic?”
“It’s not a live tree,” I answered. “It’s an artificial tree. They’re much more convenient and using the same artificial tree year after year is much more ecologically sound than cutting down a live tree every year. Besides, real trees can be dangerous.”
Sarah sat down in the chair again, gave me The Look and said, “How can I have a traditional American Christmas if we don’t have a live tree?”
When Linda came home that night she walked into a house filled with the smell of a freshly cut fir tree. I had already strung the lights and Sarah was carefully completing the trim with brightly colored glass balls, tinsel and garland.
“Is that a real tree?” Linda asked.
“Yes,” was my simple reply.
“We haven’t had a real tree since that unfortunate experience you had when Brian was three. The children have begged for a real tree for years and you always said no. Why do we have one now?”
I started to answer, but Sarah, sensing that there was a potential for another long explanation, looked at Linda and replied, “I said that I couldn’t have a traditional American Christmas if we didn’t have a real Christmas tree. It’s very pretty; don’t you think?”
Linda looked at me, looked at Sarah and then walked over to the couch and sat down. She thought for a minute or two and then said, “Sarah dear, could you come over and sit by me for a minute?”
“Certainly!” Sarah answered.
Sarah walked to the sofa, sat down and waited. After a few seconds, Linda cleared her throat, looked directly at Sarah and took her hand as she said, “Sarah, you have a talent that will be very valuable for you in life, cherish it. But for now, I have one request.”
“Certainly,” Sarah responded.
Linda took one last deep breath and said, “Will you please tell Jerry that you can’t have a traditional American Christmas if I don’t get a new dishwasher?”
I’d like to say that Sarah was one of a kind, but my experience says that’s not true. I have two of the cutest granddaughters on the face of the planet. What do you think the odds are that I’m going to have to hang lights and cut down another live tree some Christmas in the future? Yeah, that’s what I think too.