When my first husband and I split up 30 years ago, we didn’t have much trouble divvying up our stuff, except—to our astonishment, given the fraught nature of our five-year union—for the Christmas tree ornaments. Those hurt. My second husband (18 years today!) reports the same. He and his first wife fell apart when it came to the ornaments.
Later this week, we’ll take down this year’s tree and, as I did three weeks ago, when we put the thing up, I’ll finger its decorations and remember their provenance. Increasingly, it’s a gallery of the dead and lost: gifts from long-vanished mentors and friends; hand-blown eggs painted by my late mother (and even earlier, by her sister, who died in 1977 at the unimaginable age of 54). Presents from colleagues and friends, from a former sister-in-law and a never-to-be sister-in-law; souvenirs from travels; more than a dozen felt birds painstakingly assembled and embroidered by my grandmother, gone since 1994. A pair of hearts stitched from fabric left over from a skirt I wore onstage during my first appearance at the Fulton Theatre in the early 1970s.
African Americans build bottle trees to trap evil spirits. The Christmas tree, it seems, corners good ones (mostly)—the absent loved ones invoked in the daily blessing we said over dinner in my childhood. It courts the grown living, as well. There’s the star I colored for the top of my parents’ tree when I was five years old, still in use, and the painted discs that my stepchildren emblazoned with their names maybe 15 years ago.
I imagine my mother fondling the ornaments as tenderly as I now do. Each one a voice, a year, a friend, a child. Maybe that’s why she shed the whole business in the last, awful years of her life, and put the ornaments away in boxes that sat on the top shelf of the bedroom closet in the condo she loathed, unopened until after her death.
Meanwhile, we continue to haul out the decorations and display them on a dying tree, that emblem of marital harmony and family connection, that time bomb ticking with significance.