Mama was singing, her lovely soprano voice reciting the lyrics to "Silent Night" as if she were an award-winning soloist. Ella sat on the couch, her little legs tucked under her as she watched the most beautiful woman in the world reach out to hang yet another bulb on the Christmas tree.
"We still need more, Mama?" The tree seemed so full to her already. Red, gold, and green bulbs hung from every branch. Santa, shiny gold reindeer, big and small bells, and other ornaments were tucked alongside them. White lights that blinked like starbursts and gold ribbon had been wrapped around the tree too. It was beautiful, just like every year, and Ella was tired, just like every year, after they'd been decorating the tree for what felt like hours and hours.
Mama paused her singing and looked lovingly at her child. "Yes, baby. The more the merrier."
Her smile was as bright as those lights on the tree, and it made Ella smile too. With a burst of energy, she got off the couch and took another bulb from one of the many boxes scattered around the living room. Going over to the tree, she found the tiniest available spot and placed the bulb there.
Mama continued to sing until the song was over, and Ella found a few more places to add a bulb or ornament. "It's all done now, Mama."
"Not quite, baby," Mama said. "You know what's the last very special part of decorating the tree?"
Ella did know and she hurried over to the bin that held a red velvet box. Ella knew to handle the box with care and she lifted it out of the bin, moving as slowly as she possibly could. She took a deep breath, then let it out in a whoosh as she eased the top from the box. The gold star inside glittered and glistened as if it were brand new. Her fingers moved over it, going from one pointed peak to the next.
"Do you know why the Christmas star is so important, Ella?"
Mama had come up behind her, touching a hand lightly to her shoulder as Ella nodded. "Yup. It's where all the wishes come from."
"That's right." Mama smiled down as Ella turned to look up at her. When she grew up, Ella hoped she'd be as pretty as her mother, and as nice too. "And when we put this star on the very top of our tree, we can make a wish."
Ella eased the star out of the box, still being careful not to hold it so tight that it broke or so loose that it dropped to the floor. Mama clasped her hand and walked her over to the tree.
"And when we make that wish, it'll come true in the next year," Ella said, reciting what Mama had been telling her every year since she was two years old.
"Right again. You're such a brilliant girl, Ella."
Mama had used a stool to get the bulbs up high on the tree because she wasn't very tall, like Mr. Randolph next door.
"Okay, let's get this star up there so we can make our wishes." Mama eased the star out of Ella's hand and gingerly stepped onto the ladder again. She reached her arm up to place the star on the tallest part of the tree. "There," she said. "Isn't it lovely?"
"Yes, Mama." Ella stared up at that gold star as if it were the most perfect thing she'd ever seen. And Mama stepped down off the ladder and stood beside her.
"Okay, now close your eyes and make a wish."
Ella did as Mama instructed, clamping her lips down tight, too, because if anyone else heard the wish, it wouldn't come true.
I wish for a pony so I can ride like the wind the way we did in summer camp.
She opened her eyes.
Mama still had hers closed. She was still wishing. For what seemed like a long time, Ella stared at Mama, at the way her black hair was styled in big, fat glossy curls that bounced on her shoulders when she walked. She marveled at the smooth skin of her mother's cheeks, the color of Ella's favorite caramel candies. And her scent. Mama always smelled like roses and rain, but no matter how much soap Ella used, she'd never been able to get that same scent on her skin.