The Christmas ornaments I faithfully unpack every December are fraught with enough emotional baggage to choke the holiday spirit out of the heartiest reveler (never me to begin with). That’s not all bad, of course – Feelings Are Good, or so the self-helpists say. But is it any wonder that, by December 27, I’ve shrouded them again in the same old tissue paper winding sheets and laid them back to rest in their Rubbermaid vault beneath the staircase in the cellar?
If Husband pre-deceases me, that’s doubtless where his ashes will end up. I will haul him out every year, stick a bow on his urn, and tuck him under the tree as yet another remembrance of things past: Merry Maudlin Christmas.
My Grammy Gould special edition ornaments are splendid. Blessed with boundless creativity, limited resources, great good humor, a needle and thread and some glue, she crafted all sorts of priceless seasonal treasures. Pride of place on my tree every year goes to three peanut-shell birds with yellow felt beaks, perched in a nest crocheted of bright green yarn and glued jauntily to a clothespin with a sprig of festive plastic greenery.
Then there’s the soft-sculpture Mrs. Santa portrait that looks a great deal like Grammy herself, a little worse for the wear after landing on a lit candle a few years ago. The wicker backing blackened and burned, but the front survived – nary a run in that pantyhose face, and I was able to artfully rearrange the fluffy cotton hair to cover some scorching (women do that sort of thing all the time, after all: Hey! If I wear bright lipstick, no-one will notice the big zit pulsing on my chin). Mrs. Santa hangs every year on the door of my refrigerator, right at eye level. I find myself wanting to smile and politely say hello to her whenever I need access.
Arguably my favorite, another cluster of birds is cunningly crafted from a bright yellow man’s work glove, the cuff cleverly turned up to create a nest for each fledgling finger. A few glued-on feathers, a felt-tip marker beak, another sprig of plastic greenery and the bulging slightly crazed wide-set googley eyes that were Grammy’s trademark – it’s a masterpiece that makes me laugh and cry at once.
It’s an ornament from my grandmother O’Brien that always triggers tears, though. Some years, I can’t even bring myself to unwrap it. The thing itself isn’t much – a flat cheap gold-tone wreath dated 1983, dating from my second Colorado Christmas (read, “still far away from home, where I would certainly have been had I cared about the loving family that raised me”). The wreath tucks into a pocket in a card that isn’t much, either. But Gramma wrote me a perfect careful little note in her perfect careful little script and slipped it into the fold behind that ornament. She must have used damned fine paper, since it hasn’t yellowed a bit in 31 years. The ink is a fresh as if it flowed yesterday, the words clarion clear. Just as creative, in her own way, as my Grammy Gould, my Gramma O’Brien crafted some subtle Irish melodrama to span the decades and haunt me forever (for my own good, and possibly hers):
This year, after a fortifying glass of wine (OK, maybe two or three – it takes a long time to get the tree up and decorated), I took that card out of its envelope (a big blue ribbon is taped for Husband’s benefit on the front, to cover the Missy & Boyfriend written there) and a dried-out old Happy Holidays sticker fell to the floor.
Gramma apparently did some covering up of her own – that sticker had blocked someone else’s signature on the card: Joy & Murray Hall. Who in hell are Joy and Murray Hall, and what place have they in this intense personal communion with my dead grandmother?
She re-gifted that ornament, the cagey old bird. And she did it so well that I was deceived for three decades. This year, my tears were tears of laughter.
So perhaps next season I can unpack all that angst-laden stuff with a happier heart (provided of course that Husband isn’t yet stored with it)– the tarnished personalized star from my own childhood, the popsicle stick Rudolf made by Son #1, the doily angel featuring the face of Son #2 at about age 4, the baby Jesus clothespin resting on some raffia in a toilet paper tube crib, the 1940’s set of weirdly-tinted plastic angels from my dad’s boyhood home, the hand-painted ceramics my mom ordered annually from an artist friend, and the little stuffed mouse in a Santa hat that my kids named Squeak, bestowed a speech impediment upon, and made part of the family.
But Squeak is a story unto himself — who am I kidding? He’s never been packed away. Son #1 got him in third grade as a door prize, and he’s been set on a pedestal in our house ever since. Quite literally. His is a tail for another time, though, one that reminds us that Christmas is essentially a whimsical season of the heart.