So we finally decorated the tree. Well, trees. Over the weekend we went to a tree farm and picked out a tree, something we all agreed on and got it into the house, put it up, got the lights on it and . . . ran out of time and couldn’t decorate it. It was as if I’d shot all four of them in the chest with a spear gun.
I’m not Ebeneezer here, I love Christmas, but we have a LOT of stuff. While the outside of our house may not show it, step inside and there’s garland, Santa figures, snow globes, stockings, manger scenes, all of it. When we were in Texas Andrea worked for Target so she’d waited until a week after Christmas and bought an artificial tree, lights already on it, for 70% off. It was important because we just didn’t have the money to buy a tree every year. Sure, there are those places that have the discount trees and low prices, but we did that one year. Apart from the tree falling – 3 times – on my head as we tried to get it stabilized in the rickety stand we had, the tree had been cut so many weeks before getting to us that it was already dry and the needles falling just a week or so after we bought it.
So artificial was the way to go. It was our second, actually. Years ago, when we were first married, my Dad got us an artificial tree. We didn’t even have Abbi, but we were both barely scraping by, living in an apartment, and my Dad felt pretty sorry for us, I think. At that time he owned his own Pharmacy and store in a small town in Nebraska. He had one tree left, one he was reserving for the store itself, to decorate, put up on the floor, but instead he showed up in Omaha and gave it to us, lights, tinsel, all of it. It wasn’t an amazing tree, but we loved it.
Last year we had a little money so we’d gone to get a real tree. This year, we don’t have a little money, but I got a tree anyway. We had to keep things as normal as possible, and as much as it hurts, we have to do the holiday. We picked it out, put it up, and after getting the lights on the outside of the house, the kids went to bed. I then went about the task of trying to decorate with the materials their Mom left behind. Leopard spotted bows, red velvet ribbons, garland with lights on it, all being put up wherever I could find a spot for it. It’s all been squished and wrinkled in the move so I spent an inordinate amount of time smoothing out the creases. Every time I’d try to say it was good enough I remembered the arguments and grumpy comments I’d made in past years, re-doing those same decorations because Andrea said it didn’t look right. I was so persnickety, offhand comments coming out of my mouth.
Last night I realized how right she’d always been. Every time I tried to leave one that wasn’t quite right I could see how awful it was. How right she was. By the time I’d finished some of the first night’s decorations it was already past Midnight and I still had to do the night’s routine.
So last night we moved onto the trees. That Target special we put at the top of the stairs, the tree visible when you walk in because you can see the upstairs landing. We put the real tree by the door. I’d made that awful, aching decision about their Mom’s stocking yesterday. I thought that would be the worst of it, now we’d just decorate the tree and it would be the first semblance of Christmas spirit and fun in our house. We put “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” soundtrack on the computer, which is near the tree, and listened to it while we decorated. (If you don’t have this, by the way, you’re a damn fool. It’s the greatest Christmas album ever)
What I hadn’t realized was how many memories were waiting for me in the tissue-wrapped treasures inside those red-and-green tote boxes. I’d forgotten just how we’d celebrated every year, it was so natural and we never really had to think about it. But as we started taking the ornaments out of the wrappings, the glass and delicate wiring exposing with each fold, I started to see them: the dates. The names. The dedications on all the old ornaments, one for every year. The hand-made star with Abbi’s picture in it, the back saying: “1997: To Dave, I love you, Andrea” . . . in her handwriting. The little kids sleeping in their chairs, a little black-haired boy on one side, a blonde little girl on the other, sparking memories of her telling me “I’d wait up with you every year.”
The kids don’t have these memories, they are part of them. Little picture frames with their photos in them. Andrea’ remembered the year we got married that I loved the classic “Winnie the Pooh” book because my Mom read it to me – not the Disneyfied version, the original, classic drawings. There were little ornaments, things she’d taken time to hunt down that had a frame with that classic character just because she remembered an offhand remark I’d made.
She was everywhere.
I did my best to give the kids the regular, nondescript ornaments so they didn’t have to go through deciphering the past, but I’m not sure if they would have had the same connection to the ornaments I did. I knew doing this would be awkward, but I just hadn’t thought about everything. There were Mikasa crystal ornaments – really expensive ones – that my Grandma had given us for our first Christmas. Another one from her that was for Abbi when she thought it would mean something to her. Snowmen with the year and her name on the back.
Christmas cards drawn at school that say: “I love you Mommy.”
I’ve said before it’s not the days themselves that worry me so much, it’s the stuff out in left field that just hit us between the eyes. I didn’t see this coming, though I should have. The cards pushed me over the edge. I’m not upset that they didn’t make “I love you Daddy” cards, it’s not that at all. I’m torn up because I know what she meant to them, the fact that all this stuff is here is proof. Each of them is like a little ghost, floating on the green needles of the tree, pulling a little bit of me away at a time. They loved her so much and now I’m all they have left.
There’s a tremendous amount of pressure right now. Pressure to make sure they have a good Christmas. Pressure to keep their spirits up when you know they’ll be down. Pressure to get everything decorated and put together right. Burning the Midnight Lamp.
Pressure to get it right, because like everything else when she was around, Christmas was always perfect. So how do you celebrate this amazing season when she’s not around . . . when you know it can’t be perfect by the mere fact of her absence?
I don’t. I let the kids put up the ornaments, wherever we could without bunching them all together. I hung up the stockings my Grandma made even when Andrea wouldn’t because they didn’t “match” her concepts.
I did the only thing I could. I took what I loved about her and her ideas and changed them. This is going to sound a little harsh, but I took what I loved of her from the season and did what I wanted. She probably wouldn’t be particularly happy with how I’ve decorated the house or where the ornaments are placed, but there’s part of me that cannot care about that.
The reality is, she is gone, she left us. We’re left to do this alone, without her. I hate it, as much as I hate going on without her. We’d have perfection if she’d been here, but she’s not. Instead, we’ll have everything I can muster. We’ll have a mishmash of ideas, a house splashed with memories.
It will be perfect . . . for us.