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After the last pine needle has fallen

Cleanup after the holidays is like the aftermath of a natural disaster without aid from the Red Cross, sandbags or a hoard of volunteers.

We have washed sheets on every bed and laundered every towel. We have picked red and green sprinkles from sugar cookies out of the microwave and made a list of the missing Scrabble tiles. We have pitched fossilized fudge, stale chips and flat soda and are still picking stray pine needles and glitter off tablecloths and turtlenecks.

Slowly, very slowly, the house is returning to order one square foot at a time.

Much of the cleanup resembles a search and rescue mission. So far we have found one light green pacifier on a clip chain, a baby bottle on a dining room chair, infant Tylenol, one pair of unclaimed paisley rain boots and a plastic dinosaur hiding beneath the sofa.

The dryer has coughed up two bibs and an unfamiliar sock, and a burp cloth was found quivering behind a wingback chair. "It's OK to come out now, they're gone!"

Frosty has melted outside and all that's left of the kiddie snow slide is a clump of snow. Who needs photographs to preserve fun-in-the-snow memories when you have the entire family's boot sizes outlined on your kitchen floor?

And fingerprints. They're down low for the most part, on windows, doors, sometimes with food clinging to them, sometimes not. It seemed harsh to wipe them all away, so we left a few for old times' sake.

Basically, the house is recovering from an after-the-party look without the empty beer cans. But what a party it was.

Hard to believe that little more than a week ago the front hall resembled a hitching post to a saloon, only instead of horses lined up, there were car seats and strollers. "Scoot over there, Trigger, we've got a double stroller comin' through."

But now the car seats and strollers are gone. We've taken down the tree, gathered the decorations and packed them away until next year. The final plastic storage tub is hoisted onto a shelf in the garage as a stray snow globe is discovered in a bedroom. It's Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in a manger in a flurry of neon snow. It's coming back to me now. Someone was winding up "The First Noel" over and over in the middle of the night trying to get a baby to sleep.

You can sleep like a baby now. It is quiet. Very quiet.

They've all gone back to their respective corners. It's back to the grind, a new year, a new work week, a new start.

We'll haul the trash bags out to the curb, run the vacuum and sweep away the crumbs, but not the memories.

Is that a tear in my eye, the husband asks?

"A tear of joy," I say. "We now have a clean house to ourselves, full possession of the remote and a full 50 weeks to recoup and recover before we do it all again."

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