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Nothing draws the battlelines in a stepfamily quicker than rival Christmas traditions. 

Alani and I had an angel we put on top of our Christmas trees during my single father days. Shimmering lace wings.  Blonde hair.  Satin gown.

Rachel and her boys had a five-pointed star that lit up.

Our first Christmas together, in 2007, was a month after Rachel, Michael, and Jack had moved in.  It was a tense and stressful time, but the Christmas tree decorating was amicable until the moment arrived to affix the tree topper.  We immediately separated into enemy camps.

Rachel and I pretended to be above the fray, but the idea of demoting our angel was painful to me, and I think Rachel felt the same about their star.  My recollection is that I solved the problem by sawing off the central lead, and fastening the star and the angel at equal heights on the butchered tree.

Now, two Christmases later, it seems obvious to me that the star should shine above  the angel.  She’s descending from heaven, right? So the star should be above her shoulder, on top of the tree.  I climb on a chair and fasten them that way.  Not a peep from the kids.  This year, they seem oblivious to the great ornament controversy.

Sometimes, after a few years, this stepfamily business gets a little easier. 

In fact, for the first time, this year, we risk taking all the kids out to select a Christmas tree.  I’d avoided this in the past, fearing the kids would disagree over rival tree candidates. 

And that’s exactly what they do.

Alani picks a Scotch Pine, Michael an elegant Frasier Fir.  (In my family, we drove Fords and decorated Scotch Pines on Christmas.  Rachel prefers  Buicks and Frasier Firs.)

As Rachel and I walk through the tree lot, I casually mention that I’d always had Scotch Pines growing up.  Rachel just as casually mentions that the problem with Scotch Pines is that they’re messy.  They drop a lot of needles, she says.  Michael expresses his concern that the long-needled Scotch Pine might prick someone and draw blood, and that the Fir was a safer choice.

Alani attempts a lobbying campaign, touching the tip of a Scotch Pine needle to show Michael that her finger is unscathed.  Michael, not interested in debate, puts his hands in his pockets and walks away.

After a brief stand-off, Alani rescues the night by agreeing to the Frasier Fir.  We announce our choice to the tree-lot guy.  Michael beams. 

Alani comes up to my side and quietly asks if I want to see the tree she liked.  I do, and walk with her through the dark rows of trees while the tree-lot guy drags the Fir to the baling machine. 

“There,” she said, pointing.  It’s a fat, round, long-needled pine.

“That’s a beautiful tree,” I say.  I put my arm around her shoulders and give her a squeeze.

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mayaleft 001Tuesday morning I woke Alani twenty minutes early.  I’d decided to re-instate our custom of walking Max, her German Shepherd mix, every morning.  Stepfamily and Alani’s burgeoning extracurricular activities had shoved the morning walk tradition aside.

Alani now bristles with electronic devices – cellphone, I-touch, digital camera, and that little hand-held electronic game kids play.  It’s hard to get face time with her.  Even before those distractions, our morning walk was the best time for talking. 

I ironed my pants and shirt the night before – instead of the usual frantic morning ironing – so I’d have time for the walk.  I warned Alani that she’d be rising early.  She didn’t complain.  

Tuesday morning I showered, made Alani’s lunch, and woke her.  At seven am I slipped the choke collar and heavy blue leash around Max’s head.  His eyes bulged with excitement. 

I led him to the door.  Maya, the black puppy I got for Rachel six months ago, trotted after us. 

“Are you taking Maya?” Rachel asked.

Uh-oh. 

It’s hard to avoid the notion that Max, who I brought home as a tiny puppy for Alani in a cardboard box, before I met Rachel, is “our” dog – Alani’s and mine – and that  Maya  is “their” dog – Rachel’s and by extension Michael and Jack’s.  And vice versa.

“Not this time,” I said.

Even though Max is in theory Alani’s dog, Rachel has walked him, fed him, applied his monthly flea medication, and picked up countless piles of steaming Max-poop.  She cleaned up after Max entertained himself with the contents of our pantry.  He’s occasionally dragged her into oncoming traffic after spotting a dog on the other side of the street. 

I know what Rachel’s thinking: After all she’s done for Max, I won’t take Maya, “their” dog, for one measley walk? 

But I don’t want to bring Maya.  What I’d pictured was the resurrection of a pre-stepfamily tradition – Alani and I, strolling down the sidewalk, talking, Max trotting obediently at our side.  If instead Alani walked Max and I walked Maya, we would not be able to walk side by side. It would be tangled leashes and “Maya, NO!” instead of easy father-daughter conversation.  

“I’ll walk her tonight,” I called out to Rachel as I opened the front door for Max.

“You won’t be able to,” Rachel said.  “I’m taking her to the vet.”

I’d forgotten the vet appointment. Still, I proceeded with my Max-only plan.

I opened the door for Max and Alani.  Maya tried to dart through.  I pressed my leg against her, pinning her against the door frame.  She wriggled past, onto the front porch.  I grabbed her collar, pulled her back, and shoved the storm door shut.

Maya whimpered, staring through the glass at us.  Then she wailed.  It grew in volume and pitifulness the further down the front walk we got.  I kept going.  Several houses away, we could still hear her.

Alani and I walked around the block.  She told me her favorite Led Zeppellin albums. She demonstrated some dance steps from her summer camp revue, pretending to hold a hat on her head at a rakish angle, singing, and throwing down some Bob Fosse jazz steps on the sidewalk. 

When we rounded the corner on the way back, Rachel’s  grey Mariner backed out of the driveway, lurched into drive, and headed down the street.  Away  from us.  I was surprised that Rachel left without saying goodbye.  Was she mad that we left Maya behind?  I called her cell. No answer. 

I called later in the morning, after dropping Alani off at summer camp. 

She answered: “Hi babe!”  She didn’t sound mad, but she has a cheerful telephone affect that doesn’t always reflect her actual mood.

“You didn’t say goodbye this morning,” I said.

 “Oh,” she said cheerily,  “I had to get Maya to the vet.”

 Still, I think. 

 “Hmm,” I said.

 “And I was mad because you didn’t take Maya on the walk,” she said.

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