I knew Christmas break 1990 was shaping up to be a good one when I found the stick-on earring on the floor of the basement-level girls' lavatory at Scranton, Pennsylvania's Frances Willard Elementary School on the last day of school.
The earring, a shining, silver star shape, caught my eye as I shifted my backpack from one shoulder to the other while trying to zip my puffy down jacket.
At just 7 years old, my mother would never consent to allowing my ears to be pierced — not that I wanted them pierced, anyway. Like many 7-year-olds, I had a certain predisposition against needles and unnecessary pain.
At just 7 years old, clip-on earrings, which were all the leftover rage from the '80s, were also out of the question.
There was no reason to be like one of those "fast girls," as my grandmother would say, after all.
This is why the stick-on earring was such a good compromise, or so I reasoned.
I covertly — and quite unhygienically — stuck the earring to my left ear and ran for the hills.
The final bell had rung, signaling the end of the last half-day of school. I felt a 7-year-old's sense of feverish urgency in leaving the school, as I had all sorts of important matters of which to attend since it was mere days until the biggest kid holiday of the year.
I left the school through the side door and walked home. My home was two yards away from the school's side entrance, so I didn't have too far to go, but the one-minute walk turned into at least four as it had begun snowing, and snowing quite heavily.
I entered the house and found the kitchen in a disarray. It was Christmas family photo day.
My mother was trying to stuff my sausage-like 1-year-old brother, Caleb, into his acid-washed jeans, fighting his chubby fists the whole way while she forced his arms into his scratchy wool sweater. He was not happy. Still wearing her quilted housecoat, my stay-at-home mom wasn't even dressed yet.
My father, a Vietnam veteran and career soldier in the U.S. Army, looked like something between a maître d' and a combat veteran, wearing his military fatigue pants and a white button-down oxford as he grappled with a wide red tie.
"Aren't you going to change your pants, dad?" I asked as he fought the tie — which appeared to be winning.
I got a wink and off he went to change into his own pair of jeans.
I settled myself onto the couch to watch my battered old copy of "A Wizard of Oz," which had been recorded on a VHS tape and included what felt like every last commercial made over the last six Christmas holidays.
When it was finally time to go, I — who was already dressed in my family photo clothes from earlier in the school day — made sure to fan my hair over my shoulder so as to conceal the illicit stick-on earring. Stick-on or no stick-on, my mother would have a fit if she saw I was trying to sneak a filthy, used earring into the sacred family photo.
I'd quietly hidden away my neon orange slap bracelet — the very one that my mother insisted was going to cut the tender skin on my 7-year-old wrist — under my own scratchy wool sweater, but that earring ... that was a different story altogether.
We rode in the car through the city streets, which were quickly accumulating snow, and I listened to Johnny Mathis singing about having a holly, jolly Christmas as the chains on the tires made crunching, unnerving sounds on the snow-packed roads.
Caleb babbled and squished his tacky fists up against the window and I grimaced in mock disgust. Babies were always so wet.
As my father drove and muttered about other drivers on the road, my mother flipped the sun visor's mirror open and applied the last of her lipstick. We hit a bump and I watched my mother shoot my father an exaggerated dirty look as the lipstick smudged across her lips and leapt over to the area above her lip, making what looked a comical Marilyn Monroe-style birthmark.
Twenty-seven years later and I still think he hit the bump on purpose. She didn't see the tiny smirk appear on his face when she began wiping frantically at the brick red stain in the corner of her mouth.
I knew all was quickly forgiven and forgotten when she reached over and patted his shifting hand affectionately.
When we finally arrived at the portrait studio — which seemed like hours later in my child's mind — we crawled carefully out of the car, ensuring we didn't slip.
In a time before it became the norm to sue McDonald's for spilled hot beverages, most businesses didn't seem to know what liability insurance was, and the slick parking lots were "traverse at your own risk."
We made it into the studio's overly warm lobby, stomping the snow from our boots and taking a seat among families with screaming toddlers and bored-looking teenagers shooting withering looks at their parents.
Gene Autry's Christmas songs blared loudly from a cassette player on the coffee bar, where a few women in full ski suits swirled powdered hazelnut CoffeeMate into their instant coffee.
At last, it was our turn.
As the photographer snapped away, prattling on about a holiday party she'd attended in New York City the night before, we posed for family photo after family photo until it was nearly my and my brother's time to shine.
Caleb and I were quickly ushered off the pedestals and shooed into a corner where dusty backdrops and Christmas props had been hastily stashed while my parents posed for their own portrait, gazing lovingly into one another's eyes.
All this time, I remained painfully, electrically aware of that single, forbidden, star-shaped earring stuck on my ear. I cackled quietly, knowing that I was about to get away with sneaking it into the picture.
When it was time for Caleb and I to climb into place, I ceremoniously whipped my hair away from my ear, uncovering the silvery earring as much as I dared as the photographer took our photos.
Yes, the mischievous look on my face was relatively customary for my constant disposition, but there was more: yes, it was a mere three days before Christmas, but mostly, it was that earring.
The Magi followed their own Christmas star home to Bethlehem, and to a Christmas miracle for the world at large.
As for me, anytime I want to go back to that very best family Christmas in 1990 — and visit a much simpler, easier time — all I have to do is look at this family photo and follow my own stick-on earring-fashioned Christmas star home.