I stare at the artificial tree. Without the lights and ornaments, it looks so. sad. So dark and gloomy and dead. "Let's just get this over with," I say, tired after a full day at school. Mom sighs, also tired. "Let's just rest a minute." I shrug and lean up against the wall. "A minute" later, as in, when the next commercial break interrupts Trading Spaces, Mom stands up and groans. "Come on, Amanda." I walk over to the tree and reach in to the center pole.

Unplug the wires.

All my life, my family has gone to one church, and, every Christmas Eve, we've invited the family to dinner, then gone to church. For the past eight or nine years, my mom has worked for our church. Over time, she became a central figure in the church's organization, taking on more and more responsibilities. When the pastors who'd been there since she began left and the church called new pastors, things began to change. I didn't see any of the changes, probably because she's my mother, but an uneasiness began to fill the church. Two months before Christmas, the pastors and church council notified my mother that they were cutting her hours to decrease expenses and help the church get out of its monstrous debt. My mother's hours were the only cut they made, and she doesn't make that much money. A month later, they told her they would no longer be funding her position. They asked her to stay until the end of the year, because the holidays are a busy time for churches, and they needed the help. Mom quit.

Dismantle the center pole.

When the congregation head that Mom had lost her job, they had mixed reactions. The mothers of the church erupted in the most impressive combination of menopause and outright fury I think I've ever seen. Mom received several phone calls from raging mothers, who had grown to love my mom, the former Christian Education Director, and trust her with their children. They young adults of the church, most of whom had been in senior high when my mom started working there, were also quite angry that their "Aunt Kären" had lost her job. The older folks of the church weren't pleased, either, particularly because they'd known my mom since she joined the church when she married my dad and had watched my sister and I grow from birth. The council members and pastors seemed relieved, like they'd neutralized a threat, probably because my mom had worked there so long and knew too much. When the time came for the congregational meeting to discuss further plans for getting out of debt, Mom took my sister and me home. She said she didn't want to be around for it. My gut agreed with her. I heard, later, that the meeting was sheer chaos.

Put pieces back into box.

Within the next couple of weeks, my mom got about a dozen job offers, one in particular from a church one of her friends attends. Mom talked to the pastors and went to a few interviews and other meetings. My family started worshipping there occasionally and, after our annual Christmas Eve dinner, went to their evening service, putting an end to the comforting constant that had been Christmas Eve.

I examine, for a minute, the empty corner where the Christmas tree had been standing, and I go to vacuum up the plastic needles littering the floor.