Kyliegh Palmer's wish to Santa Claus was for Mommy to come home at Christmas, so when Air Force Staff Sgt. Patricia Ryder stepped through the kitchen door at Foursquare Christian School on Tuesday, the 6-year-old couldn't believe her eyes.
Until that moment, Kyliegh thought her mom was still in Afghanistan, where she was deployed six months ago. The first-grader sat still for a second, then leaped into Ryder's arms.
Cheers erupted from the students, parents and teachers who had gathered for the school's Thanksgiving feast. Kyliegh's grandparents and great-grandparents wiped away tears. Mother and daughter simply held each other.
"I was thinking she changed her hair color. I didn't think it was my mom," Kyliegh said. "I feel good."
Ryder, who is stationed at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, was deployed in June to Bagram Airfield, where she did human resources work. Kyliegh came to Crescent City with her grandparents, Kathy and Joe Daignault, who live here.
Ryder said her daughter has experienced the deployment of a parent before. Her father, who is also in the Air Force, has been deployed multiple times and is still overseas. Having both parents deployed at the same time was hard on Kyliegh, but that didn't stop the little girl from earning A's and B's at school.
"I had to explain to her that Mommy also wears the uniform and that I'm proud to go," said Ryder, who during the feast presented Kyliegh with a "Homefront Hero" citation. "She understood it. We make sure as a community that our children are also taken care of. They learn that it's OK to be upset that Mommy or Daddy has gone and they learn how to express it to adults and other kids."
During her mom's deployment, Kyliegh crossed off the days on a calendar and visited with Ryder via Skype. Ryder's bespectacled eyes smiled at Kyliegh from a photograph on her bedroom walls. And when she wanted to hear her mother's voice, Kyliegh squeezed a specially made stuffed orange tabby cat.
When Ryder felt the need to hear her little girl's voice she squeezed a stuffed monkey, also specially made, that Kyliegh had dubbed "Super Monkey."
Super Monkey shared the duo's embrace Tuesday.
Kyliegh also has a special teddy bear with a recording of her father's voice. When she returns to Colorado Springs, another teddy bear will keep her connected to her grandmother. Kyliegh will remember her grandfather, a burly commercial fisherman, with help from a stuffed Popeye doll.
"All in all she's been a really good girl," said Kathy Daignault. "There's been no behavior problems, but there are incidents where she misses her mom and acts out."
To keep her homecoming a surprise, Ryder and Daignault initiated a cover-up. They enlisted the help of Daignault's parents, William and Linda Butler, and Foursquare's principal, Maria Guy.
Even though she had returned to the United States on Nov. 7, Ryder pretended she was calling from Afghanistan when she talked to Kyliegh.
"As far as she knows I'm actually still in Afghanistan," Ryder said Tuesday morning before the reunion, adding that she was careful to still be in uniform when visiting with Kyliegh on Skype. "There was one time when I slipped and said something, but she was distracted by something else and I was able to catch what I said."
Guy said she told her staff and some of the school's parents about the surprise, but made sure none of her 58 students knew.
"It's been the hardest on Grandma, but we've had a lot of fun planning it," Guy said.
Even though her mom is back home, it will be another few weeks before Kyliegh can return to Colorado Springs, Ryder said. She will have a solo in the school's Christmas pageant.
Ryder said she is on leave for the Thanksgiving holiday, but will then return to the Air Force Academy. She and Kyliegh are spending today with family, including her husband and Kyliegh's stepfather, William, and his children Romeo and Cynthia. But mother and daughter kept Tuesday for themselves.
"Mommy wants to play board games," Kyliegh said. "We'll play the Wii and Sorry."
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org.