The Modern-Day Elves

On Christmas Day, four burly firemen ring my doorbell. Precisely four hours later, they pay another visit. Twice in one day – not even Santa’s elves could have dreamed up such a gift.

The house isn’t burning down, and unfortunately, I am not on the casting set of the next Bachelorette. The reality is much more humbling: My 95-year-old grandfather can no longer make it up our two flights of stairs.

But apparently, taxpayers’ dollars don’t exclusively cover fighting fires. Some of that money is siphoned off for annual pancake breakfasts, rescuing cats out of trees, and helping loved ones attend their Christmas dinners.


I haven’t been home for the past four Christmases. While I was living in Spain, my grandfather conquered the steps, slowly but surely, year after year. I Skyped home for Thanksgivings, Christmas Eve dinners, and the present unwrapping on Christmas morning. After a flight to Italy to spend Christmas with my roommate, I Facetimed to see the tree all lit up. Post-Friendsgiving potluck, I rang home to hear about Grandma’s age-old stuffing.

There was always a pang that I missed holidays at home, but truthfully, not a very lasting one. After all, basting a whole turkey in front of 20 foreign friends holds a certain cachet, as does being the token American at a remote Tuscan country cottage for Boxing day lunch.      

To be fair, too, gatherings in my house aren’t always the liveliest. There’s no drunk Uncle Benny outing my dad for smoking weed in high school. There aren’t 25 cousins swapping Secret Santa gifts and vying for the seat at the grown-ups table. I try to get my parents nice and liquored up, but they assume anything more than a thimble-full of wine will make them black out, so they swat away my attempts to pour.  

Our holidays are perhaps more in line with the stereotypes. There’s the guaranteed tension over dinner conversation, as half the family seems to think roast turkey is best enjoyed over an apocalyptic discussion of ISIS. There’s the inevitable fighting over the guest list, the menu, and who has to sit on the crappy stepstool. (Over a decade hosting Christmas dinner and we can’t invest in enough chairs). There’s the fact that we must now remove all trace of onion from the stuffing to accommodate my sister’s food sensitivities, and all trace of good from the mashed potatoes, to accommodate my mother’s Weight Watchers sadism.

But this year is different. This year, the firefighters come.

I watch (and photograph, and video) as four towering men with biceps the size of post-Thanksgiving thighs strap my withering grandfather into a portable wheelchair, then glide him up the staircase in a single coordinated effort. My grandpa, a proud World War II conscientious objector and an esteemed Stanford University political science professor, is now being cradled in the arms of men a third his age – and looking like he has never enjoyed anything quite so much. 

Grandpa xmas

I cheer and laugh and covertly apply more lip gloss before offering the men a tin of baked goods. But mostly, I soak it in. What if I had been abroad for this. What if my next and his last holiday at home didn’t coincide. What if I had missed That Christmas When Four Firemen Hoisted Grandpa Up The Stairs.

If there is ever a time to be back home, this is it. The energy is palpable, even after the four testosterone-charged firemen leave the premises. 

It is the celebration that we are all together for the holidays for the first time in half a decade.

It is the gratitude towards the firemen – instead of Christmas dinner with their own families, they’re lifting a 95-year-old man up two flights of stairs. 

And it is the gentle acknowledgment that this will be the last time my grandpa sets foot in our house. All subsequent visits will be kept to single-story buildings, undoubtedly of the Chinese restaurant variety.

Xmas dinner

This is what I moved back for. I’m on my third slice of cake, and thanking Santa for the yoga pants he brought me earlier. My grandpa’s recounting tales of the Great Depression as a bit of chocolate dribbles down the corner of his mouth. My grandma’s brought her $2 chardonnay and enjoying it like its fine Champagne.

The conversation inevitably veers towards ISIS, but I cut off the doomsday parade with a quick, “How about that tall brunette one?!?” and we’re back on track.

So really, the firemen saved Christmas in more ways than one.