Unpacking Christmas stuff this week, I came across a large green bell with lots of curly red ribbon attached to it. Originally designed as a topper for a gift package, ours came into our home attached (sort of) to Toby. Two years ago.
A lot of our Christmas decorations carry specific memories, which are all the more vivid for being hidden eleven months of the year. This year as I jingled Toby's baby bell and played with the coiled curls of shiny red, I felt the passing of time in a new way.
Two years ago we brought a puppy into our home who turned our lives and expectations upside down and inside out. Even knowing how fast puppies become dogs, we weren't at all sure we could make it that long with our sanity intact, and without really talking about it, both considered whether we could keep him. Today he is the golden light that makes us laugh and softens our hearts, and whose smiling writhing greeting every time he sees us after an absence, no matter how short, makes us feel so loved.
A lifetime ago I was an abused, emotionally abandoned child being raised by parents who were both abused and emotionally abandoned children. I didn't know that then, and it would not have mattered. I did what was necessary to survive, and have spent the last couple of decades undoing those knots, and learning that there's more to life than survival.
Buried deep in one of the tubs and tubs of snowmen and Santas and silk poinsettias and angels and snowglobes and Santa and Mrs. ornaments, I find a small box that makes my heart quicken even before I've opened it. When I came into possession of the contents of this box just a few years ago, it was like I claimed a small happy part of the mostly sad life I fled as soon as I was big enough.
My mom loved Christmas and she became a different person during the holidays. Happier. Softer. More open. We had very little money, but she tried really hard to provide at least one gift for each of the four of us that would make us light up on Christmas morning. Usually Santa got the credit. I have a clear memory of the thrill of getting my Shirley Temple doll, her ringlets bouncing, white teeth showing through a red bow of a mouth, dimples permanently dented on either side.
Never a great cook, or very comfortable in the kitchen, my mom spent hours creating abundant traditional meals. Eggs, bacon, fresh-squeezed orange juice and Grandma's stollen for breakfast after presents had been opened. Turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cauliflower with cheese sauce, pumpkin pies for a dinner that started in the early afternoon and didn't really end until bedtime much later in the day. Although I did much of the cooking for our family from the age of seven on, I wasn't allowed, or required, to help with the holiday meals.
She did the decorating herself, too. We were allowed to help put ornaments on the tree, and as I got older was given the privilege of arranging certain figurines under her supervision. Again, there wasn't much, but she loved what was there. Tinsel and candy canes, saved from year to year, were added to the tree one painstaking piece at a time. Small porcelain bells were carefully strung in a window on red ribbon. She handled them with such love and care I was sure they were priceless and irreplaceable. I have the bells now, in their original box, which has their price of 85 cents written on the back. Handmade stockings for the children only, ours from the time we were babies, were hung above the fireplace which was our only source of heat and a big source of worry for me about how Santa was going to get down without being burned.
Her favorite decoration was a set of four little angels holding red candles, spelling out "NOEL" in bright red letters. The red of the letters kept peeling off, so every year she'd color them back in with her bright red fingernail polish. I loved watching her beautiful work-worn hands applying polish to the angels.
A few years ago when we were closing down my mom's house, after she could no longer care for herself, I found boxes and boxes of Christmas stuff in the loft of her barn. Most of it was mouse-gnawed or broken or mildewed beyond redemption. Among the few things I was able to rescue was the set of Noel angels. The angels that thrill me anew every year now when I unpack them.
Their place is by my kitchen sink. They sit at the feet of a newer angel I bought a couple of years ago who represents the spirit of the little girl who not only survived her childhood, but now thrives as a part of my whole.
Love is what weaves time into the blankets that keep us warm and safe and whole. The blankets might be newer and stronger - our two years with Toby. Or much older and full of holes - a broken childhood that ended forty years ago. It's interesting that Christmas, the time of year when new life promises the end of darkness, is the time when I become most aware of the strength, resilience, and gentle persistence of love.