The ornaments. It’s always the ornaments.
The truth is, we’ve been having transitional Christmases for a few years now. Kate’s been away for ten, Alex for five. Santa stopped coming long ago, though the stockings are still hung (and filled) and there are plenty of gifts. Two years ago Alex was in Amsterdam and I couldn’t bear celebrating at home without her. We had a small tree, no ornaments, but lots of tinsel and lights. We packed up and spent the holiday in Glen Ellen with Brendan’s family and all four grandparents. Last year was the first time we spent the holiday, home alone, as a family of five. Brendan joined us and we stayed in our pajamas all day, which was kind of fabulous. On the 26th we began a week-long 1,000 mile road trip to visit friends, family (grandparents who happen to live at opposite ends of the state) and Yosemite in the snow. It was also fabulous, except for those last 975 miles (though In-N-Out helped).
We keep trying to figure out how to do it this time. This way. With our changing family, different needs, new wishes. How to be together and celebrate what’s important to each of us, and make room for what’s new for all of us. Which traditions do we keep, which have passed their expiration date? Wait, do we even have any traditions (oh no, I forgot to create traditions the guilty mom in me gasps)?
This year Kate is spending Christmas with Brendan’s family in Oregon. We have her a week before (well, 4 1/3 days, but who’s counting?), until noon on Christmas Eve. My folks will be here for two weeks, as they’re planning on moving to Davis and we want them to spend more time here. Alex flies in a few days before Christmas and leaves on the 30th, crossing over with Kate for three days. We’ll see Steve’s folks before and after Christmas, as they’re also moving in January. Changes, easier to manage in May, than in December, that’s for sure.
This is what happened. Each December we move our living room furniture to accommodate a tree that is big enough for a lifetime collection of ornaments. It’s cozy, but awkward. Each girl has a box of ornaments, representing their years at home. Some are beautiful, some are gaudy, most have meaning (though sometimes we can’t remember what). My intention was that they would take their boxes with them when they moved away, for their own trees.
That never happened.
This year I said, “We are designers, we should have a designer tree.” Yes, I really said that. Please don’t judge me. I found lovely jewel-toned ornaments for a smaller, lovely tree (in my imagination). One that wouldn’t require furniture moving, but would shine bright and beautiful as we celebrated each other. I bought 5 boxes of 18 each. Because, subtle, you know?
Last weekend Steve and I took a festive trip to the dump, and then stopped by the politically incorrect but oh-so-handy Boy Scout Christmas Tree Lot and quickly picked out a smallish-skinnyish Noble Fir. I am a Douglas Fir gal, but I was ready to change it up. A well-mannered young man turned the tree for us, took it for the fresh cut, and politely put in in the back of the car.
I said, “Oh my God, do you remember what a pain the Christmas tree trek used to be? Hauling everyone up to the mountains, arguing about the tree choice, trying to get a photo for the card, crying, pouting, cutting the tree with the dull saw, carrying it to the car, driving home, someone throwing up….so glad we’re not doing that anymore!”
Steve said, “You know, that was actually really fun.”
So we put up our small tree, wrapping it in lights. I opened the boxes of lovely little ornaments, feeling all designery. I didn’t even pull out the girls’ boxes.
Three ornaments in, and it didn’t feel right. Seven in and the tree looked horrible.
“This is a mistake, isn’t it?” “Yeah, maybe we could just add some of our other family ornaments, to fill it out.”
So we did. A stuffed dog (oh Toby, we miss you, but not how you would pee on the tree), a paper globe, the straw angel we bought in 1979 at Cost Plus in San Francisco for $ .99, the tin stars we bought in Santa Fe the December I was pregnant with Kate and a few of the others, the nicer ones. I put leftover jewel-toned ornaments in a piece of pottery that belonged to Steve’s grandmother.
And it was better, but not exactly right. The tree isn’t a great tree to begin with, but something’s missing.
That’s the part about the ornaments. They help us remember. The year, the family, the life. Not just a few, carefully curated memories. But all the memories.
So this weekend I sent Steve up to the rafters to find the girls’ ornament boxes. Their collection of ornaments went into a basket, under the tree.
Because I am just not quite ready to be done with the remembering, and I hope they aren’t either.