When You Stop Repeating Yourself.
Today I put black and white ornaments on a small, artificial tree with my mother. We twisted paperclips into ornament hangers and hung up a couple of discount plastic cylinders’ worth of black ornaments, interspersed with white glittery ones.
We put cedar, juniper, and pine oils into an essential oil diffuser so it would smell like the Christmas I knew, and we toasted with a small glass of cheap red wine. We listened to Christmas oldies—the kind featured in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Picturesque? Traditional? Try miraculous.
It is the first time a Christmas tree has been put up in my mom’s new house. Frequently, I felt my eyes stinging. I felt my mother’s absence from the room when she was elsewhere and wondered if I was hurting her. I felt my mother’s presence intensely when she was with me and wondered if it was hurting me.
Nothing is easy about Christmas after you’ve buried half of your family.
My mother explains the absence of Christmas in her life gently, perhaps apologetically as I avoid her eyes. I pick up a shiny, black globe. I don’t want her to see the flinch. The way my lips draw tight.
“Your sister died. You’d gone to college.”
But I didn’t die, I think. And I know it’s unfair, so I push it deep. I know it’s a hurt she never meant to cause and, moreover, didn’t know how to spare me. It’s a hurt she was sparing herself—and she deserved that.
I put another glittery black ornament on the tree—this one a hollow sphere of glittery black filigree. I hang it in front of an LED light, to bring out its delicacy. I complain we have no tree topper, after we complete the decorating.
The song changes to “Silent Night.”
Mom volunteers to go search for The Star.
I sit in wonder.
It topped the Christmas tree through my entire childhood. My mother made it by hand for my first Christmas. My parents were poor that winter—as poor as they ever were, poor as church mice—and full of love and hope. A lifetime of hope and hurts still ahead of them. And a tiny blonde girl-child in need of a Christmas tree she would never remember.
The story was a legend my parents told me every year as I was growing up, as we decorated each tree—usually a cedar tree that Dad would go cut down with a chainsaw in his coveralls in bitter conditions.
It was coming up on Christmas and we had a tree, just like this one, but no ornaments. So your Mom made clay from flour and salt and water. She shaped them into these little stockings and snowmen and painted them for you. She gathered up these walnut shells and glued them together on wire. She painted these little empty gourds with wreaths and candles. And then we realized we needed a star for the top. And then… With a flourish, out of the storage box rose The Star. She made this!
And Dad would laugh a proud half laugh, and I would smile in admiration. It was a five-pointed star cut out of cardboard and covered in tinfoil, a layer or two of star decorations of some unknown origin with a single red-glass ball ornament dangling from the center. Their solitary store bought ornament—that and a string of lights.
Every Christmas it went on the top of our cedar. Even after my Dad’s sister, whose husband worked his career nights at Hallmark got us one of his company’s collectible animatronic angels for our tree-topper in 1989, Dad and I protested that The Star continued to go on our tree, much to Mom’s embarrassment. Every year, she swore it got more “pitiful,” and I could never see a difference.
It always looked beautiful to me.
Decorating the tree was an anchor in my year. A set of stories I could live by.
So when I came home for Christmas after my sister died my freshman year at college, and there was no cedar, no Star, I felt lost.
So watching my mother pick up black and white ornaments—even just a few—and place them around an artificial tree after toasting me gently brought up tears. I just tried to shed them alone.
My mother comes from the shed with hair full of dust and boxes full of our ornaments—the gourds and the walnuts. The nice Hallmark collectibles from his sister and her husband. And The Star. They’re all still in great shape.
She looks baffled as I wire it to the top of my stylish tuxedo tree with a bread tie.
I feel warmth inside that is more than cheap Cabernet Sauvignon. My mother mutters that my affinity for The Star still confuses her. She notes that we do own more tinfoil and could at least patch it up. I refuse and put it on the tree exactly as it is.
The Star looks something like a bull’s eye and something like my mother’s heart—worn ragged, a little tattered, a lot of the shine worn off, but miraculously intact and built entirely of love.
Mom asks if I want to hang up the stockings we find in one of the boxes. The precious stockings she sewed for my sister, her, my father, and me.
I look at the stockings, and I say, “Sure.” I let her decide which stockings to hang up: all four, or just hers and mine.
I don’t know what she’s ready for. It was a tender gesture to ask it at all. And I wonder what family Mom will hang up stocking for now: the one we lost or the one we live in? I can’t fault her. I don’t know who I cry for either.
She selects my stocking and hers, and we pin them over her fireplace.
I smile. I smile like the cast has come off of my arm, and I’ve flexed it. The lack of a burden feels like floating. I’ve been given permission to use my arm again, but I’ll be protecting it tenderly for a while. But somehow, within a hard shell of time, healing happened.
The ornaments waited until we were ready.