PREPARATIONS have been gathering pace this week for the Homecoming of the Eldest - which, I think, sounds suitably biblical in a sort of 'isolated compound in Nebraska where everyone is named Ezekiel' sort-of-way.
Truth be told, the occasion is shaping up to be bigger than Christmas. He's the first of our children to be living abroad for any length of time and he's been gone three months.
On one hand, three months doesn't seem like very long at all. On the other, it's the longest any of us have been apart and in just a couple short weeks he'll be gone off back to America for even longer.
Looking around the house I wonder how much has changed in that short time. I try to see the place through his eyes, as he might when he finally trundles in the door with his huge haversack in a few days.
For the rest of us left to get on with our lives while he's been discovering his independence 13,000 kilometers away, the changes here have been quite gradual, organic even. For him, however, some of these changes might seem quite bewildering.
His bedroom, for instance, has been well and truly taken over by his younger brother, in the sort of moved-around, rewired and completely-covered-in-posters, kind of taken over.
The space that had been previously occupied by said brother, which in turn was once the playroom, is now the family office, relocated from upstairs, where there is now a new guest room.
And so our house seems to have rotated on its axis like a giant Rubik's cube and I wonder what the eldest will make of it all. We may even have to draw the poor fellah a map, I grin to myself.
The back garden, meanwhile, which everything looks out onto, had been in the throes of late summer when the eldest left, in an actually leafy, barbecue-still-intact sort of way, as opposed the skeletal-looking crime scene of neglect the place has since become; dissembled and disseminated by dogs then buried under a mulch of last month's fallen leaves.
In short, in the time that the eldest has been gone, the house has been picked up, shuffled and put back on an abandoned rubbish tip, complete with a considerably lankier and more boisterous Doppelganger of the little puppy that he left behind.
He may notice or mind all of these changes, or just a few of them, or none at all. In all likelihood, he'll be so buzzing with experiences to relate to us before beating a hasty exit to meet friends he hasn't seen since summer, that he'll barely take it in, only to ask where to dump his gear before legging it.
I might even be disappointed if this turns out to be the case.
One room's the same as another, far as he's concerned, he might say.
In the words of The Pretenders, 'Some things change…'
"Why are there drops of water trailed all down the hall," pipes up the youngest from the kitchen suddenly.
"Someone has been drinking out of the toilet again," says my wife, looking at the dog disapprovingly.
"Oh yeah, that was me," grins the second eldest, pretending to wipe his mouth.
"You're disgusting," says his sister, throwing her half-eaten toast onto the table before thumping him hard.
'…and some things stay the same.'
Yup. He'll still hear the same time-worn arguments over whose turn it is to do the dishes or walk the dog. There'll be the same high-decibel tribunals in the morning from the foot of the stairs over who left the lights on in the kitchen all night or the back door unlocked and is anyone getting out of bed today anyway or will their mother have to fetch a wet facecloth?
Question is, after a quarter of the year spent on the other side of the world, will he listen to this familiar family drama from beneath his pillow over Christmas week and smile nostalgically, wriggling a little deeper into his duvet perhaps, blissfully content in the knowledge that, despite a few superficial scene changes, the essential script of this soap opera of family life remains intact.
Or will he roll his eyes, plant his fingers in his ears and rue the number of long days still to get through before he leaves again?
Not for the first time, I visualise the short couple weeks to come as being a little like one of those 'Home for the Holidays' sort of American Christmas movies, in which the expectation is all long walks in the cold air, board games around the kitchen table, big family meals and the like.
Yet even in those films, beneath the veneer of seasonal shmaltz, the reality of how families work is never altogether perfect - and, of course, it's not supposed to be.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him again," chirrups the youngest, quite unexpectedly, of her brother.
How some things change.
"I'm looking forward to him sleeping in the guest room," grins her brother, erstwhile usurper.
And some things stay the same.
"Um, where is the guest room?" says the youngest.