Our 12th family move, this time from North Carolina to Europe, posed some logistical problems with the transferring of our holiday traditions. Lots of people love to say it's not about money, things, or decor – as long as everyone is together it's a grand old time. Bah humbug. The citizens of Who-ville wouldn't have been joyful and triumphant had they awoken without their things and suddenly living in a different country.
My Marine husband left for Iraq in January and came home in June. We had a four-day weekend together as a family before he had to be back at work. Less than ninety days later we were en route to Marine Forces Europe in Stuttgart, Germany. That may not seem like much time to pull off an overseas move, but time is long or short relative to what you're doing. We lived for the next 90 days on the fourth floor of a hotel with no elevator. By "we" I mean my husband, myself, and our three children.
The older two were not happy about having left in the middle of their senior year in high school. Our youngest was still too young to realize the gravity of this move. In her mind, going from country to country was the same as going from one house to another in the same town. It was a luxury of ignorant bliss our two older children no longer enjoyed. We celebrated Thanksgiving with five microwavable turkey dinners and a walk around our new community. Without even a few of our traditional trimmings, the older two felt very far from home for the first time.
We'd checked in with the housing office, put ourselves on the waiting list, and spent a lot of time looking for off-base housing to no avail. What didn't cost too much was too small and what wasn't too small was too far away. The homes we were willing to take were taken off the market at the last minute for various reasons. Christmas loomed ever nearer. My husband had to check in to his new command so the children and I were on our own, save for a few days he was able to get out of work.
Our household goods (to include several hundred dollars worth of gifts bought while my husband was deployed) had arrived, but could not be transferred over to us until we had "secured a residence." No, a hotel room full of middle-age anxiety and teenage angst is not considered "a residence" according to the military's Traffic Management Office.
In the meantime, our youngest lost a tooth. I remember it vividly because she coughed, spit, and bled on the desk of the housing lady who was none too keen on my older children. They had decorated the entrance to her office with a stack of multi-colored post-it notes she'd given them. "Here," she said "Play with this." I thought at the time, "Does she think they're younger than they are?"
We put thoughts of the Tooth Fairy on the back burner while browsing binders for available homes and then dismantling what turned out to be one of the most physics-defying feats of construction I'd ever seen. Once done with the woman's door, the older two went on to the waiting room where they'd created a 3d replica of the Eiffel Tower. It was unbelievably accurate and quite colorful. It was also so stable that when anyone opened the door and let in the windy day, it barely moved. Even my normally stoic husband said, "I, uh, I hate to tear it down." The five of us stood there and exchanged heartfelt glances. It was a rare moment of family unity given the close and irritable quarters of what was day 88 at that point. The housing lady stepped in with a trashcan and all was lost in less than a minute.
I ask you, have you forgotten about my youngest child’s tooth? We did. She woke up the next morning and found no coin beneath her pillow. The tooth had fallen to the floor in the night. She came alongside our bed in quiet shock, eking out that what her friends in North Carolina had told her must be true: there was no Tooth Fairy in Europe. She collapsed in tears with the realization that there must also be (doom, doom, doom) No Santa!
The letterhead of the International Council of Legendary Figures (ICLF) didn't exist until I created it on the base library computer. For the benefit of anyone reading this who is under the age of 10, I'm kidding. The next morning, our daughter rose from her cot to show us the letter she'd received along with a crisp five Euro bill. It explained how her trans-Atlantic relocation packet had been held up in France. When push comes to shove, blame the French – that's my motto. The jump in compensation from a coin to a bill was because of the currency conversion. Apparently the Euro was doing badly against the dollar in ICLF-land. (What. Don't look at me that way.) When the problem with her relocation was discovered, the ICLF expedited her transfer and faxed a copy of it straight to the North Pole. Santa not only existed, he knew where she was.
With no homestead on the horizon came the need to decide whether we would postpone Christmas until we had a doorstep upon which our household goods could arrive, or pull the whole thing out of thin air with what little time we had. A great parent is nothing if not good at pulling on thin air. Okay, not great; maybe just so fed up and tired that giving in to the flow of the avalanche was the best option.
All seemed lost the following evening when we got to the only Christmas tree lot said to have any trees left, and of course they had no trees left. Remember Tom Hanks' laugh in Money Pit when the bathtub fell through the floor? That was my husband. The children, whose visions of sugarplums were fast becoming blips of bran, had never left the car. They were spared his outburst and any ensuing psychological damage he might have caused them.
Once back at the room, the older two made hot chocolate with marshmallows. We turned on the TV and watched their favorite holiday movie, The Christmas Story, dubbed in German.
We signed for a second-floor apartment on base the next day, just four days before Christmas, but the housing office had had nothing to do with it. Unbeknownst to me, my ingenious husband had been stalking the housing area on base instead of going to work. He was looking for anyone who was moving but who hadn't told the housing office about it; and he found them. We waited a day for mandatory cleaning and took the apartment without repairs. The moving truck rolled into the parking lot the day before Christmas Eve.
While I stocked and arranged and the kids set up their rooms, my husband pulled off two very important tasks without missing a beat. As if on a reconnaissance mission, he found our Christmas stockings and secreted away every gift the movers in North Carolina had somehow managed to pack into 16 separate boxes along with kitchen stuff and the electronics. He hadn't found the DVD player and was sure it'd been lost in the move or mistakenly packed into storage. He carried on, getting everything up and running from the computer to the coffee maker. This was no small accomplishment on his part because our apartment has but a few 110 outlets. The rest are 220.
He took one last and fateful trip to the PX (base exchange store) before they closed for Christmas Eve. He bought out the rest of their converters, transformers, and 220 light bulbs. He didn't find a DVD player, but he did find a tree. It was artificial, about 3 feet (one meter) tall, and pre-lit. It was outside the store's door covered in snow, a little bent, and on clearance. What everyone else had taken for an ugly shrub was seen by him for what it was: an ugly shrub with no roots and a cord coming off of it.
The children left milk and cookies in the kitchen, surprisingly okay with our having no tree. My son said, "At least we're home now." The girls agreed. They placed their gifts to us, and each other, on the dining room table. They'd set the table earlier with green and red paper plates and plastic cups. They were asleep by the time my husband brought the tree upstairs. Under any other circumstances I'd have sent him back out into the cold, dark night with a thermos and an axe. In light of what we'd endured together without benefit of pharmaceuticals or the need for professional intervention, it was magical.
We decorated the tree with as much as we could and called it good. To save time and help get us into bed before dawn, we used Christmas bags instead of wrapping paper for the gifts. I wrote the note from Santa while he ate the cookies and drank the milk. He reached into the box that had held our stockings to get the vial of silver glitter. This was used every year to mark Santa's trail from the tree to every child's bedroom. He murmured, "Oh!" I turned to see him holding the glitter in one hand and our DVD player in the other.
We woke up Christmas morning to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, the sight of our beloved Christmas shrub, and the sound of The Christmas Story, playing in English.