Two more pictures flashed onto the screen much to the delight of the crowd. "As you can see," Aly continued, this Christmas wasn't exactly working out as anyone had planned…
Billy held the door open, lifting his arm higher so that Phyllis could drag the stroller inside. Aly was fast asleep, her head thrown over her shoulder, her face still rosy red from the chilly air and, in all probability, the tears. Phyllis eased her onto the couch, standing still and staring at her for a moment before whirling around and staring at him as she heard a stifled laugh.
"You can't be serious…"
"Oh, come on…" He stepped closer to her, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her back against him. Softly, he pressed his lips against her temple. "How can you be upset about this? Look at her—she's happy and healthy and we're here—we're together." He heard her sigh and he knew she agreed in theory. He also knew this conversation was far from over.
Phyllis turned to face him. "I know," she sighed, "and I am grateful. I'm grateful for all those things, but it just seems like this entire Christmas is falling apart again." She leaned down, grabbing the photo from the bag. "Look at this, Billy." She held the photo out to him, finding it hard to keep from smiling herself as she looked at it. "You'd think we were torturing her. Even the poor Santa looks traumatized."
"The girl definitely has some lungs on her," Billy smiled, "but you gotta admit, that's a great picture..and it'll be perfect on her senior yearbook page some day."
"I guess." She looked up, her eyes finding his-seeking the comfort she always found there. "I think I was just hoping this would be that perfect Christmas…the one that everyone wants…the one where she was happy and we got to experience everything together as a family."
"Who says we can't have that, huh? In fact, aren't we having that already? We did the Santa thing…and while it may not have been the most magical experience in the world for her, I'm betting it's an experience that neither one of us will ever forget."
"And we took her to see the lights."
"Correction—we saw the lights while she screamed because of that light up Santa. I think she thought we were going to hand her off again."
"She only screamed for a little while…then she fell asleep." He laughed softly as he pulled her into a gentle hug. "Listen—it's not about making the perfect memories…it's just about making the memories. The good news is she's sleeping so that gives us some time to get these gifts under the tree. Then, I seem to remember something about Christmas cookies."
Her eyes shot to attention. "Really? You want me to attempt cooking after this disaster of an evening…you really want to tempt fate like that?"
"I ain't scared," he smiled.
Billy grinned as he entered the kitchen. "Is this new?" he whispered, walking up behind her and toying with the strings of the apron.
"It is not new I'll have you know. I've had this for a few years…I've just never had the opportunity to wear it until now, right Aly?"
Aly's eyes sparkled with excitement as she stood on the stool beside her mother. She nodded happily as she held up her own apron that Phyllis had purchased for her earlier in the week.
"Look at you." Billy leaned down, picking her up and lifting her quickly for a kiss on the cheek before placing her back on the stool. "You look like the perfect little chef in training."
Phyllis laughed. "Let's keep our expectations realistic," she smiled. "Alright, Aly, you ready to make some cookies?"
Aly shook her head. "No."
"What do you mean, sweetie. You were so excited about helping Mommy make treats for Santa." He looked up at Phyllis, seeing the disappointment on her face.
"No cookies," Aly repeated.
"But Aly," Billy protested.
"Hey, it's okay." Phyllis leaned down beside her, gently stroking her hair. "It's been a long day, huh? You tired? Ready to go to bed?"
"No. Santa wants macaroni."
"Macaroni? You don't want to make cookies because you want to make macaroni?" Billy looked up at Phyllis, who was now barely containing her laughter.
"Yep," Aly chirped as if there was nothing strange about her request.
"Well, alright then." Phyllis turned around to face the cabinets. "Let's hope I have some macaroni in this house."
Phyllis barely lifted her head off the arm of the sofa as she heard his soft footsteps descending the stairs. "She out?"
"Like a light," he said softly, gently lifting her legs and taking a seat beside her before placing her legs back in his lap. "I took the liberty of disposing of the Santa snack," she grinned.
"I would have eaten it," he smiled. "It seriously wasn't that bad."
"It was disgusting, Billy. Who knew there was such a difference between evaporated and condensed milk?"
"If I didn't before, I do now." He grimaced, thinking back to the taste that still lingered slightly on his tongue.
She lifted her foot, letting it fall on his lap and giggling when he winced. "You said it wasn't that bad."
"Yeah, well…I might have been trying to stay in your good graces."
Phyllis smiled. "You better be glad you're cute."
"I hope you're getting pictures of this." Phyllis turned around, happy to see Billy snapping countless shots of their daughter as she threw strips of wrapping paper around from the magical world of her cardboard box.
She walked to stand beside him. "At least she's enjoying herself," she shrugged.
Billy nodded, putting his arms around her shoulder. "I'm sure she's gonna love all the gifts, babe. It's just all the excitement right now." He'd been a bit worried when Aly showed little interest in her presents, choosing instead to traipse through the discarded paper and bows like she was in a bouncy castle, but Phyllis had taken things surprisingly well.
He smiled down at her. Every day he found a new reason to be grateful for this life and this family and today was certainly no exception. Today he was grateful for the chaos, for the noise, for the mistakes, and the unexpected challenges. He was grateful for anything life threw his way because as long as he had his girls, he could face anything.
Aly cleared her throat before continuing. "It's funny because we've never been a traditional family. In fact that's something my parents always told me—'you never have to do things the way everyone else does them. Be yourself. Do things your way. Live your life on your terms.' They were really big on that, but for some reason , there were some traditions that were really, really important to us. That's why every year at Christmas, we'll always have our Festive Ficus, we'll always ride around to look at Christmas lights, and we'll always make macaroni and cheese on Christmas Eve."