25 Dec

treeA week ago, my brother and I divided up the remainder of our mother’s estate. Of utmost concern to her in her waning life was the legacy of our greatest family treasure: her collection of Christmas ornaments. Together, we amassed this pageant of emblems, building on the Scandinavian pieces from our parents’ early years, adding glass and painted baubles we created as toddlers on a sunny day in our kitchen. The post-divorce years of our triumvirate holidays saw the accumulation of still more items of significance, each with a back story that my brother and I cherished. We developed voices and gestures for certain pieces and imbued them with our crafty wit. Some characters on the tree were purely comical, some were beautiful. All were part of our Christmas legend.

Every year that my mother was alive, she lamented the Christmas we weren’t having. Gathered around the tree, presents unwrapped, she would apologize for not giving us more. And every year, my brother and I begged her not to apologize. We were there for her, for us. We didn’t need a pile of presents to feel loved.

In the end, our mother knew that the ornaments were the most important collection she could leave to us, and she asked often about their whereabouts. My brother was the one who shipped them home to New York, and until we sat down with his girlfriend and pondered our bounty of colorful memories, I have to confess I was not really that bothered with whether or not I kept any of the trinkets.

I have long been the bah-humbug of the family. Not a Scrooge, exactly, but definitely a non-believer. I was sure that following my mother’s passing I could abandon any obligation to celebrate this busy-body, materialistic holiday. But then my brother unfolded and unwound the bits of red and green tissue paper in which she had last wrapped the ornaments, and my tiny Grinch heart flinched awake.

My mother loved Christmas. She covered every surface with decorations. Ridiculous snowmen, tacky Santas, red and green hand towels, even special kitchen towels and an entire set of Christmas dishes. Most of which we trashed before she passed. I am glad I wasn’t there to see where they ended up… but I remember my mother was a bit sad, if not surprised, to learn that we didn’t want her prized Christmas dish set.

With the ornaments sorted into collections of similar traits in front of us, my brother and I did what our mother taught us to do. We quietly, and peacefully, talked about how we each felt about every piece. We shared memories, we gauged our levels of attachment to certain bits of our heritage, and we generously gave each other more than we knew we could give. I know that my mother, observing this exchange, would be so proud that my brother and I are still the devoted friends and caretakers of all that she cherished about our family. We were in it together, and we are in it still. We love each other with an understanding and the gentle perception and encouragement that she constantly offered to us.

Packing up my new objects near the tree that my brother and his girlfriend had set up in their apartment, I promised to get my own small tree this year. I have never had a tree in any of my homes in the past 20 years. But I was going to use these decorations so as not to disappoint my mother.

This Christmas is such a strange and significant one for me, in a million ways. I quit the job I’ve held for 16 years, finishing on the last Friday before the holiday break. I listed my apartment on a vacation rental service and accepted a reservation from two guests who would occupy my home from December 21 until January 6, the day before my birthday, January 7—the day on which my mother would take down the tree. January 7 is the Feast of the Epiphany in my mother’s Catholic tradition, and it’s Christmas Day for the Eastern Orthodox Church.

There was so much significance in all these dates… but still I dragged my feet on buying a tree, not knowing where I would be staying for Christmas while I had paying guests in my home. Then, in a miracle worthy of the Hallmark movies that my mother and I loved to watch, I discovered that the friend for whom I would be house-sitting had a little, living Christmas tree, decorated only with lights in his apartment. It needed ornaments. And I had ornaments.

The plot thickened when in the last few days before the holiday, a Hallmark Movie Man appeared in my life, and in direct accordance with a plot my mother and I would have written had we ever actually created the Hallmark scripts we wanted to develop, the Hallmark Movie Man melted my heart with stories of the gifts he was buying for friends and family. He was running all over town, thinking about them with so much joy, going to the post office before the rush each day to send more parcels, wrapping presents each night before going to sleep. So, inspired by his generosity, I started procuring gifts for friends and family, too. I went into shops with a smile and saw pieces and ideas that would bring holiday cheer to those around me. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in my heart.

Then came the best part, and I know it was sponsored by my mother. I had no expectations for opening any gifts on Christmas Day this year, and I was fine with that. I didn’t really like Christmas, remember? But Hallmark Movie Man, seeing my grief over my mother and knowing that I’d opted to be alone on Christmas morning, surprised me with three separate packages filled with wrapped gifts for me to put under my tiny tree.

And so it came to be that I have presents to unwrap, from a Hallmark Movie Man, on Christmas Day.

Behold dear reader! Right now, right this very second, as I sit the sunlit kitchen of my temporary holiday accommodations in Brooklyn, as I type about my unfrozen holiday heart, I am hearing the notes of “Silver Bells” drifting up from the sidewalk outside. As the sound grows closer, the crooner sings, “It’s Christmastime in the city,” and instantly I am crying. As the music grows louder, and I realize that it’s someone passing by, delivering a recorded version of caroling. A glimpse out the window shows a man pushing a dolly festooned with a portable CD player and speakers, head down and serious.

Seeing him, I have to say out loud to my mother in the ongoing conversation I keep with her, “Thank you, mom. Thank you. I saw him. I heard it. I’m glad I’m back in New York, and I know you would have loved what just happened.”

Writing about her now, with that amazing coincidence rolling by, I will tell you most assuredly that I believe in the connection wrought by Christmas. Whether or not you celebrate the holiday, this time after the Winter Solstice is a time to pause, take a break from work, and hang out with the family. And whether or not that family looks like the one you expected to have, or if the celebration falls short of what you see on TV, remember, what you’re going to take away are the silly, little incidental bits of tradition that bind you together. What you’re overlooking is what you’ll treasure later. I assure you.

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