Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Archeology

This December, my memories have run riot, in part because the Saskatchewan weather has been much more like the Michigan winters I grew up with and in part because this is the first Christmas I'm spending "orphaned into my mortality" as my good friend Deb put it.  I've been finding since my mother's death last February that memories of my parents are rich, warm presences that seem to rise out of nowhere in my daily life.  Veronica thinks this is because I don't have to worry about them any more--I don't have to worry whether my dad will eat or wonder how my mother's angry despair at losing her mind feels to her or how it will effect the people around her--and I suspect my daughter is right.   In any case, getting our Christmas tree up last Friday started a flood of memories.

When I was in junior high school and had a long walk to school in the morning, I had to get up before anyone else.  Do you remember those fifties burnished, coloured metal glasses with their curving rims?  Perhaps you still have a set at the cottage because they're indestructible?  I learned that I could make very good eggnog by putting my milk, egg, honey, and nutmeg in the metal glass, and using a single beater on my mother's mix master to make it frothy in less than a minute.  Once the Christmas tree was up, I'd have my eggnog in the dark in front of the tree, which my mother had decorated with nothing but blue lights--the large heavy kind you had to attach to each branch, getting sap all over your fingers.  She'd copied the idea from my childless, creative Aunt Hazel, giving us the most stylish tree in our neighbourhood.  Bringing a tree indoors has always seemed to me a magical accident:  our admission of the way the natural world gives its beauty to our daily lives.  Sitting alone in the dark with only the blue lights tinting the grey walls gave me time to simply be with this odd beauty that was half nature, half ritual, and half longing for something I couldn't name.  If I had time or was bored, I'd run my fingers around the edges of the smaller parcels to see which were books.  In a time when only hardcover books were printed, you could always tell a book by the dip between the covers, which you could feel through the wrapping paper.

Christmas also marks my first Academy Award performance.  One Christmas Eve, my father decided to polish his shoes before he and I went to see his Aunt Nell.  Polish then came in bottles, and was spread on shoes with a fuzzy round applicator at the end of a twisted wire.  We'd just had new carpet put in--a very taupe-y grey which my mother was proud of because of its elegance.  Of course the bottle tipped and made a large stain on the new carpet.  Argument ensued, in spite of the fact that my mother thought that Christmas Eve was "the most magical night of the year."  Perhaps because my mother thought it was the most magical night.  Noisy arguments were rare in my childhood, and perhaps all the more terrifying because they were rare.  Or perhaps it was terrifying because conflict is always terrifying for a child.  I knew my father would never give in and admit he'd been foolish because he was never wrong (men weren't in those days), and I could see that Mother was not going to let this go.  It was an affront to her every effort to give us a beautiful home.  So I very calculatingly burst into tears.  I remember, oddly, deciding that this was the only way to change the subject.  And of course it worked.

But beyond these memories that come flooding back, there's the archeology of the box of Christmas decorations.  I still have a few glass ornaments my first husband, Dan, and I bought in Boston for our first Christmas tree, and they still bring back the mood of shopping in tony Cambridge, feeling both free to create my own traditions and student-poor.  There are the ornaments we bought the Christmas I was pregnant--a small wooden train car, a wooden rocking horse, and a fuzzy teddy bear.  Then the ornaments that marked Veronica's first Christmas--a blue satin giraffe that comes from another land altogether, and a little girl in an oversize rocking chair.  These memories spin out of control, bringing with them glimpses of Veronica's Christmases as a little girl.  There is the flock of sheep bought over the years of Christmastime visits to Atlanta and the hand-carved wooden Santa Clauses my sister sent me.  There are the ornaments Bill and I bought together the first year his family's Christmas decorations mingled with mine.  There are the hand carved wooden Santas that Bill put in my stocking one Christmas, and the Santas that Veronica buys each year.  She still remembers where she got them, and we tell the stories as we put them on the tree.  There are the decorations that are not there, particularly a large glass ball my mother bought me; several years back the fully-decorated Christmas tree fell over, breaking some of the glass ornaments.  I wasn't there when it happened, so Bill and Veronica still talk about the slow motion shock of seeing the Christmas tree beginning to topple and their sense that, slo-mo as it was, there was nothing they could do to stop it.

Stories.  That's the archeology of Christmas.  Some of the stories we don't tell one another but simply fondle in our minds as we find the right space for a heavy ball or a long hand-blown glass icicle.  Some memories are too brief and fleeting to even call stories:  it's so hard to explain the aura of memory surrounding a bell or a bird.  It's a memory that has fragments of weather or a loved-one's gesture or even the mood of a particular phase of our lives clinging to it stubbornly.  The Santa Clause who has a night-time village painted around the edge of his long robe has a whole story, and we tell it over again, perhaps as a kind of protection for or an affirmation of the stories we can't tell.   It's what we do to comfort ourselves and re-create family and community at this dark time of the year:  tell stories.


  1. Your stories are often lanterns with so much light. Your diving into the fray with your parents is so simple yet profound. Much like the birth of a child so many years ago. Your ornaments stay with me each day. always, OXXO

  2. Oh, the feeling of wrapped books! Now, the dip (or their 'bendiness') differentiates them from dvds. I love the picture you've created of stories as the light in dark wintertime. I think I might write a Christmas post too!

  3. Somehow I think telling stories is always a good idea, especially in dark or difficult circumstances. Thanks for your response.