Monday, December 8, 2008

Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

I don't know. I'm just ambivalent about the whole thing.

I haul the stuff out of the musty storage area in the basement and pry open the familiar storage cartons. The biggest one, packed with the most cherished decorations and stockings, was Peter's old black summer camp trunk. When its brass colored hinges click open, I immediately smell Christmases past: cloves from some preschool ornament, artificial pine scented candles, dusty tissue paper that cradles each treasure.

The kids oooh and ahhh over each one. Unwrapping the ornaments, waking them from their year-long slumber, is as ritualistic and anticipatory as Christmas morning itself. My beautiful babies are all smiles and wonder. "Remember this one? Where did it come from, Mommy?" For some reason, I always pretend to have to think about it for a while. I rub my hands over it as if I need to feel it in order to help me remember. "This one was from Moanie. She gave it to you when you were just two." But I hadn't really needed to hesitate. The truth is that I'm like a savant with the ornaments: I know immediately and exactly where each one came from. And many of them make me nostalgic at best, deeply deeply sad at worst. I can't help it.

I have a very hard time living in the present when it comes to Christmas. I begin each year with the naivete of a child, but then I open the boxes of lights and bells and dishtowels decorated with wreaths and snowmen. I unwrap nutcrackers and snow globes and jingle bells and what feels like hundreds of Santas. I hear the music of my childhood and I begin to smell and taste the essence of yesteryear. Uninvited, the past rises out of those boxes and assaults me. It actually mocks me as I try to stay in Today. "Those years are gone," I remind myself. "Look at the children. Stay Now."

I'm gone.

I'm a child in our family's log cabin in Vermont, sitting by the too leggy pine tree we cut down in our woods. The colored lights reflect in the candlelight and the streams of tinsel. There is music, and the snowflakes flying outside are absolutely enormous. The deer head mounted above the staircase has a single shiny red Christmas ball hanging from its antlers. There's a fire in the fireplace and my dad is making popcorn the old fashioned way.

I reach for another ornament.

Then I'm in our first house as a married woman. We had our own tree with a few choice ornaments. It wasn't complicated. There was anticipation and delightful simplicity.

I unwrap a clear glass pinecone.

Without warning, I'm in Baltimore. It's Christmas Eve and the EMT's have knocked over our tree in their clumsy efforts to revive her. I'm on the staircase watching my beloved mother-in-law turn blue for lack of oxygen. She's still seizing. One of the men puts his boot on the doll bed that Moanie, now intubated, had carefully laid out so that it would be the first thing to be discovered in the morning. I'm scanning the area, looking for something to vomit into. My husband is holding her hand, rubbing her hair, telling her to please, just try to breathe. Several hours later, my sister, having made the trip from Virginia, is rotating shifts between watching my daughter sleep and straightening up the mess in the living room. There's urine on the floor of the guest room. There are shattered ornaments strewn about. Distress has spilled all over the house. My sweet sister is cleaning while I'm retrieving my husband from the hospital.

I want to stay Now, but these ornaments take me from place to place with breathtaking speed and force. Maybe resisting the travels makes them want me even more, but I can't surrender. I don't want to go back, even to the happiest of times. I just want to be Now.


Vodka Mom said...

wow. that was incredible. I know what you mean. With each ornament I unwrap I am transported to many times, places and memories that are so very precious.

DCD said...

Oh, FM. You make me cry.

I love Christmas, but I admit I don't know if I could hold onto all the good things if I had an experience like that. I will appreciate my memories more. Thank you for sharing this.

Zip n Tizzy said...

Christmas would make me nostalgic as a child, before I really had anything to be nostalgic about. With two busy boys, I find that practicality takes precedence these days.

You are an amazing writer. I'm always right there with you – in every post.

Ms Picket To You said...

this year i let the kids put up every ornament, even the really fragile ones. i decided it was best to stand back and see it from a distance: kind of helped to keep the memories at bay and maybe replaced some with this new one?

MilesPerHour said...

For nearly two decades I ignored Christmas so I wouldn't have to deal with feelings from the past. Two years ago 2 women came into my life and changed all that - my girlfriend and her daughter. I now look forward to the holidays. I am grateful.

Carolyn...Online said...

That was lovely. And sad. But lovely. I feel sory of "eh" about Christmas most of the time so this year I'm doing everything different. I'm opposite Carolyn. It's going nicely. Maybe you can try it out next year.

Jen W said...

That was such an amazing description of Christmas. It is my favorite holiday *because* it makes me feel all those emotions that are held at bay most of the time. I don't know why but it is during Christmas, when I'm able to feel grateful more, love my kids and husband more (if that's possible) and miss my mother more. I'm grateful that I feel it. Even if it is hard.

Thank you for sharing that.

Lilly's Life said...

That was an amazing post and I am so the same. All those decorations representing many different times and places and people. Truly lovely reading. Thank you.

anymommy said...

An astonishing post. Your writing takes my breath away. I have a box high up in a closet that's like this. Every once in a while, something compels me to pull it down and I'm lost for hours.

VT Mom said...

Wow, yet again a fabulous post. The smell of the Christmas trunk opening up is like magic every year. I am so torn between living for the now and pining for the past Christmases (pun intended). I can't imagine having such a huge event cloud the holiday. Like Jen W said, it's perhaps because it brings up all the emotions so much more. Great writing!

TwoBusy said...


heartatpreschool said...

That was powerful.

Christmas ornaments have the same effect on me. I've collected them over the years purposely to attach a certain memory of a trip, a person, a time.

jen said...

it's amazing how powerful the little things are.
and how much can be stirred up by opening a box.
this is when it is best to buy new ornaments ... and create the now.