Diane is standing in the middle of the great room, turning in a slow circle when Kurt enters through the front door, their dog Callie close on his heels. The young lab bounds past her master, set on reaching her mistress as quickly as possible, but her feet, wet from the early snowfall skid out from under her on the hardwood floor before she’s even halfway there.
“Oh, my poor baby,” Diane croons, crouching down to her level, but after a quick whine of surprise, Callie is back on her feet, excited to find Diane’s face within easy licking distance. Diane allows the bounty of kisses for a short time, then gently eases the excited dog back and stands up.
“Where have you two been?” she asks her husband who is in the process of removing his snow boots at the front door.
“Just out for a walk,” he says. “Trying to burn off some of her energy before the snow starts up again.”
Diane looks doubtfully at the dog who is now tossing a stuffed monkey around the room. “I don’t think it worked.”
Kurt’s lip quirks under his silver moustache. “Guess it’s your turn then.”
Diane rolls her eyes. “Would you like some tea? I was just going to make a cup.”
He nods as he hangs his heavy plaid coat in the closet. “Yeah, thanks. What have you been doing while we were gone?”
“Well, I was supposed to be going over the file for one of the cases we’re hearing in January, but I got distracted thinking about the holidays. When are Debbie and Joey coming up?”
“Deb says the 24th, then back on the 26th. Joe won’t want to be away from Shelly for any longer than he has to be, and Deb will want to be back in her own space.”
“Shelly could have come too,” Diane points out, but honestly two days is plenty long enough in her mind anyway. She and her sister-in-law get along reasonably well these days, but there’s no point in pushing their luck.
“I told him that,” Kurt says with a shrug, crossing the room and taking a seat on the couch in front of the fire. He then pats the couch beside him and Callie jumps up beside him and circles three times before she lays beside him, head on his lap. “She has her own family. We’re probably lucky Joe’s coming at all.”
Diane nods, leaving the subject at that, not really wanting to consider how Debbie will handle the inevitable future splitting of holidays. She crosses to the kitchen and flicks on the kettle, already full of water.
“I’m going to try to get the decorator out this week,” she volunteers to change the subject. “It’s already December; we need to get going.”
Kurt looks over at her, laughing in incredulity. “A decorator? For what, our living room? Are you serious?”
“What?” she asks, not sure why he’s laughing at her. “I do every year. I did last year for this very room.”
“Last year,” he explains patiently, “We were having a wedding here. This year it’s just family. We don’t need a decorator.”
She senses that explaining how she had one for the condo every year, even when she lived alone, would not serve to remove the lopsided grin from his face. It’s just lucky for him that grin does such lovely things to her, even when it’s at her expense.
“Well how do suggest we get a tree in here without having the decorator deliver one?” she asks instead.
He laughs. “Diane, we live in the middle of the woods. We’re surrounded by Christmas trees!”
She pauses in preparing their tea, aghast at what he seems to be suggesting. “You want to go out into the woods, slog through all that snow, and cut down a tree yourself?”
“Yep. The weather is supposed to clear tonight. We’ll go in the morning.”
“We?” she mouths to herself, unseen as he picks up a book from the coffee table.
As predicted, the next morning is clear and crisp, with sunlight glinting off the undisturbed snow as Kurt and Diane emerge from the back door of their beloved house in the woods and start off through the backyard toward the woods with Callie bounding off ahead of them.
“Maybe we should have left her in the house,” Diane says, watching the excited dog doubtfully.
“Ah, she’ll be fine,” Kurt says. “I had her out here most days while you were in session. She sticks pretty close to me.” He holds out his gloved hand, and Diane takes it. Their fingers are so thick from their gloves, they can’t even lace them together.
“Where should we go?” she asks as they approach the edge of the woods.
Kurt pauses, considering, then points to the west. “The clearing between the edge of the property and the embankment by the road – pretty sure there are some balsam firs about the right size.”
She thinks she knows the area he’s talking about. It’s a short walk in the summer. Ankle deep in snow, carrying a tree, might be an entirely different story, but look of anticipation on Kurt’s face is enough to convince her to keep her uncertainty to herself.
“Did you do this as a kid?” she asks on a hunch. “Cut down your own Christmas tree?”
“Oh yeah,” he confirms. “Every year me and Deb and Dad would go and get one. We’d trudge out into the woods with our toboggan and pick the biggest one we could find. Then Dad would talk us down to something more reasonable and we’d sit on the toboggan a safe distance away while he chopped it down. Then we’d strap it to the sled and pull it back to the house. Mom always had hot cocoa and homemade cookies waiting for us, mostly I think to keep us out of dad’s way while he wrestled it into the stand and put the lights on. Then mom would put Bing Crosby on the record player and we’d all help decorate.”
Diane is entranced by the story, so different from her childhood in Highland Park. “That sounds lovely,” she says.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Those are good memories. It was always my job to put the star on top. You know, I bet Deb has pictures. Maybe I’ll ask her to bring up some old albums with her when she comes. What about you? What did your family do?”
Diane smiles wryly. “We had a decorator.”
They tramp along in silence for another ten minutes until they come to the edge of the clearing where Kurt thought he remembered seeing suitable trees.
“These are all pretty big,” Diane says doubtfully, craning her neck to look to the top of the nearest evergreen.
“The one we had last year must have been a ten-footer,” he reminds her. “With the two-story ceiling, we need something tall or it won’t look right.”
“Last year we didn’t have to carry it back to the house,” she observes, but he does have a point. A shorter tree would look ridiculously out of scale in their great room. “And did you say something about having a toboggan to get the tree back the house when you were young?”
He waves a hand. “That’s just because Dad couldn’t carry it by himself; us kids were no help. And it was a longer walk. We’ll be fine.”
Warnings about famous last words slide through Diane’s mind, but she keeps them to herself. How heavy could a tree be? Certainly it would be awkward, but they only have to carry it for fifteen minutes or so.
An hour later, they exit the woods, Callie bounding ahead of them. “Stop, stop,” Diane says, letting her end of the tree drop to the ground and shaking out her arms. They discovered early on that their thick winter gloves were too thick to get a good grip on the tree trunk and now her bare hands are scraped raw from bark and pine needles.
Kurt sets his end down as well. “That’s far enough anyway. I’ll go get some work gloves and then drag it the rest of the way. You can go on in the house and get your hands cleaned up.”
She’s more than a little tempted to not argue for once, but she can’t just leave him to wrestle this beast of a tree up the house by himself. She shakes her head. “No. I have gardening gloves in the garage. I’ll help.”
He shakes his head at the stubborn tilt of her chin, but he’s smiling as he does it. “Fine, Paul Bunyan, come on. The garage is open.”
It takes them thirty minutes to drag the tree through the backyard, up onto the back deck and through the double French doors into the great room, and then another hour to get it into the stand Kurt picked up at the hardware store early that morning.
After giving the trunk one last yank to the left to get the best side facing out, Kurt steps back to admire their handiwork.
“Not bad,” he says to Diane, sliding his hands into his pockets and nodding his head.
“Still the master of the understatement,” she says, smiling indulgently at him. “It’s stunning. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” he says. “You worked as hard as I did.”
“Thank you for changing my mind,” she clarifies, stepping over to him and taking his face in her hands. “This tree is going to mean so much more than one a decorator brought in. Every time I look at it, or at pictures of it later, I’ll remember today. Look at what we can accomplish when we work together.”
Leaning down, he kisses her softly, pulling his hands from his pockets to wrap around her waist as her hands move from his cheeks to the back of his neck.
“We’re not done yet,” he reminds her. “Where are the decorations?”
“Decorations?” she asks blankly.
“Beautiful,” Kurt says, sprawled beside Diane on the sofa by the fire. On the coffee table in front of them, they have mugs of liqueur-spiked cocoa and a plate of Christmas sweets courtesy of their twice weekly housekeeper. Bing Crosby plays softly on the sound system, and Callie, finally worn out, snores quietly on the rug in front of the hearth
“It is, isn’t it?” It took the whole rest of the day and two trips into Springfield for decorations (“Kurt, we can’t leave it half bare like that!”) but the tree is finally lit and decorated in a style very much the same as the one at their wedding nearly one year earlier.
“I didn’t mean the tree,” he says, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. “But it’s not bad either.” He buries his head in the crook of her neck, then leaves a trail of kisses up to her jaw before falling back against the couch.
She looks over at him and smiles, then shuffles closer until she’s back under his arm, sighing contentedly.