One of the absolute unexpected joys of becoming a father is watching my daughter absorb experiences for the first time. Now I finally understand the notion that being around kids makes you feel younger.
As the holidays approached this year, Ellie decided she wanted a Christmas tree of her own, in her bedroom. The idea sounds odd to me, and I wondered briefly whether saying yes would be over-indulging our only child. But, hell, a Christmas tree in my own bedroom as a kid would have been awesome! My wife and I said yes. Ellie didn’t want a real Christmas tree that would be thrown away after the holiday, so we picked out a little 24-inch artificial tree.
Last night, Ellie and Kim sat down on the floor in the living room (near an outlet) to decorate it. Since the tree is technically designed for a tabletop, it already includes built-in LED lights. Of course that wasn’t enough. The girls had already gone shopping and brought home new lights and ornaments, so while I made dinner, they worked on the mini tree. Ellie practically bounded when it was done, calling me over for inspection and pointing out the star—a cascading gold fabric bow—on top.
After dinner I bathed the girl while Kim brought the tree to Ellie’s room and plugged in. The girl walked in wearing a towel (dry on her torso but wet from the thighs down) and exclaimed, “My tree!” as if she hadn’t heard Kim mention not 20 minutes before that it would be waiting for her.
We usually spend a few quiet minutes in Ellie’s room after tucking her in, and tonight I had the pleasure of watching her fall asleep entranced by the tree. She stared at it, lying on her side with blankets tucked under her chin. She did her best to keep her tired eyes open to gaze at the colored lights, not looking anywhere else in the room. And in that gaze I recognized a sort of satisfied wonderment. This tree, which she’d no doubt envisioned dozens of times since the idea first emerged, was real and there in her own room.
Perhaps she just admired the colors, the new ornaments deliberately bought, the small stuffed penguin now destined to hang from branches instead of get buried at the back of a shelf. Maybe she couldn’t believe that it was really there in the foggy transition just before sleep.
Sitting near her, watching her eyelids droop and slowly open, I was filled with my own wonder. Will this be a memory that stuck with her for years? Will she someday relate the story of when she was five years old and got her very first bedroom Christmas tree? Or would this moment be absorbed by all the other experiences rushing through her young developing self and forgotten, save for a glimmer of recognition each year when she pulls the tree out of its skinny box?
I want to encourage those memories and shape her personality as best I can, while also acknowledging that my contribution may be only a faint sense memory—bright hued starbursts in a dark room with a vignette of sleep encroaching at the edges. I know realistically that’s the best I can expect (especially given the general poor state of my own memory from when I was that age).
Maybe that’s enough. I was there to see her eyes as the lids eventually gave up trying to hold themselves open. I saw that wonder and felt my own glimmer of recognition.