Ornaments of the Heart

December 31, 2010

It’s the first holiday in decades where we did not celebrate at home and the first year I have had to alternate the holiday, since my daughter has gotten married and has informed me that the rules have changed.  So I will be going out of state for it this year. Given this, I felt there was no point in putting up the tree. After the kids moved out, I had downsized (or “sold out”, as I kind of felt) from a live Christmas tree to a tabletop “fake” one (if it wasn’t live, it was fake, right?).   This occurred after the last live tree we had remained outside the back door for four months after the holiday, waiting for someone to drag it into the woods, rusty colored needles an invitation for an inopportune spark. So I had the fake tree, but it was a pretty pathetic one.  Also, nobody would ever help put the ornaments away after it was all over, a chore I find almost intolerable myself.  Little tree – less ornaments to put away.  And now, no Christmas at home, so I decided no tree this year.

Given this, it made no sense really, but during the pre-holiday madness I was breezing purposefully through K-Mart on a totally unrelated mission when I walked by the ornament display, saw an artificial tree with sparkling white lights on sale and made one of those split second whim purchases.  I knew nobody would be home for Christmas and that nobody would see it, but once I bought it, I decided to put up a tree for nobody – then politically corrected myself – I decided to put up the tree for me.  In an act of benevolence, the Significant Other, who detaches himself from almost any celebratory proceedings and only tolerates them with the most painful of expressions, did assemble the new, somewhat larger and more realistic looking fake tree before secluding himself in his man-cave.

Getting into my groove, I took the day off from work, lugged the ornaments out of the attic, lit an amazingly realistic pine scented candle (made by “Thymes”, highly recommended here), broke out some 70% dark chocolate and settled down to what I expected to be a chore.  I skipped the holiday music, opened the blinds, let the sunlight shine into my peaceful little living room and settled to task.

What I didn’t expect was an overwhelming smash in the heart.

I unwrapped a tiny brass French horn from the tissue paper and envisioned my father, a man who had loved the sound of the horn.   A little lady made of raffia that had been my mother’s – as I hung it up, I could almost hear her melodic laughter.  A wooden buoy with a lighthouse painted on it from Maine, bought on a trip where I had cajoled a somewhat reclusive friend to come with me after she had complained she never went anywhere.  I hung up a red phone booth from a visit to London.  Then a little ceramic heart from Vienna, a diminutive cowbell from Switzerland, a painted lady from Prague, all gathered during a European tour I had almost cancelled as it had immediately followed a devastating betrayal.  It was almost like watching an old, familiar movie.  A small wooden sled from a former coworker named Jane, who I had worked with in a group home thirty years ago.  A set of plastic baby keys that my children had cut their teeth on.   A bristle porcupine my youngest had proudly brought back from a school field trip.  A bronzed acorn and leaf my sister and I had gotten together on a trip through Yosemite.  An array of handmade projects the kids had done in school or scouts or camp – little felt horses, wooly lambs, paper lollipops, God’s eyes of yarn, clothes pin soldiers.  A Mexican Day of the Dead dancing figure from a local store owner who I bonded with when we discovered we had both gone through cancer treatment.  A cozy bird in a nest that one of my girls had coveted since she was a toddler.  One or two remaining 1950’s glass ornaments that had somehow survived.  I lingered long over a paper mache bird one of my younger sisters had made when she was a child herself.….. my mother had saved it and now it was in my possession, both mom and sister no longer earthside.

I smiled, I sighed to myself and I cried. Images and stories of the people that had passed through my life were attached to each ornament, and my history paraded before me.  The process was a meditation, a purging, a remembering and an honoring, which became a deeply personal ritual.  By the time I had placed the silver cardboard star on top of the tree – the one that my once-upon-a-time husband had made when we had needed a last minute tree topper many years ago – I was overwhelmed with emotion.

At that very moment, the doorbell rang.  Unexpectedly, it was my ex-husband, dropping something off, and it caught me off guard.  When he walked in, I was weeping. I didn’t know what to say, so I pointed to the tree and choked out, “Your star”.   I don’t know what I was expecting…that maybe he would be caught up in a moment of sweet nostalgia?  But he just laughed at me, said “You’re too emotional”, wished me a safe trip and then left me to contemplate my memories alone.

Today I took down the tree. I had to force myself to start the process.  I wrapped everything into paper as quickly as I could. I dropped and broke a miniature tea pot I had bought with an old friend on a girl’s shopping trip. I packed it up broken and will probably hang it up broken next year. There is a new stocking now tucked away in the box with the others as we have a new addition to the family.  Time keeps moving.

It’s all placed back into the attic now, this time capsule, and another year begins.  I still feel a little spacey from the experience.

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