05 December 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

As I work on the Christmas tree, assembling the parts and fluffing the branches, my daughters open the box containing the ornaments. I think it was last year that I deemed them responsible enough for this task: unwrapping each ornament from its tissue-paper protection and laying it on a tray. When all the ornaments are ready to hang, the tree will be ready for them, too.

I listen as my daughters talk, delighting in the memories they uncover.

“This is the ornament I made in first grade.”

“Look, on the back of this one I wrote my name backwards.”

“We’d better hang this one high – it’s so very fragile.”

“Another bell. Let’s hang those low so that when Lucie runs under the tree, she’ll make the bells jingle.”

The girls continue to talk as Lucie, our cat, darts under the tree branches and then back out, again and again. The tree renews her joy, too. The pile of tissue paper grows with each ornament unwrapped. More and more ornaments line up on the trays, waiting to be hung on the tree.

Dan comes over to help with the branches, and silently we work together. I’m not sure if he’s listening, too, or if he can sense the ghosts of Christmas past entering the house and my thoughts, layered like the discarded tissue paper on the floor.

I think, astonished, at how these girls have grown, and how we share these memories now and forever. At what point did they, too, become stewards of our memories?

I think of last December, when I was fretting through multiple mammograms and ultrasounds, and then a biopsy, until just days before Christmas, I received the news that I did not have breast cancer.

I think of the Christmas when Madeleine was nine months old and how I was determined, beyond reason, that everything be just perfect. I think of Arden’s first Christmas and how I’d completely forgotten that she’d be needing a stocking to hang, too, only remembering after hanging just three on the mantle. I think of the dichotomy of my expectations between those two years.

I think of the years before Dan and I had children, when we celebrated both in Prescott and in the Valley, having two Christmas meals in the same day with each of our extended families. I think of how both of my maternal grandparents, the only grandparents I ever knew, died in December. I think of the first Christmas when my brother Colin was away, and how my mother cried after talking with him on the phone and learning that he was spending the day alone. I think of the challenges of balancing extended family expectations with new traditions, and the joys of family gatherings from my childhood and now.

And always, always in December, I think of the baby I lost, a mere week before Christmas, and how through that loss I eventually gained the two gems of daughters I am now blessed with, and how, if things would have turned out differently with that pregnancy, Madeleine and Arden would not be. And I cannot imagine how my life could be without the two of them, and how they help to shape me as much as I help to shape them. The gratitude I feel to the forces that brought the four of us together and bound us as a family is without measure. And while there were moments when I wasn’t sure I would – or even wanted to – survive the sorrow I felt during that distant Christmas, I know now that it was a part of the journey, and if I hadn’t endured that, I wouldn’t be here, listening to these girls, now.

Another ornament is unwrapped, a silly reindeer with googly eyes and a sequin placed on the side of its red nose. Arden says she loves the “twinkle” on its nose, and Madeleine points out that Great Grandma Bair made that ornament. I think of all who aren’t here this Christmas, those we won’t see, but whose presence will be felt around this tree where we gather as a family.

And all the while, I am listening, watching. Watching, and trying not to worry about the ghosts of Christmas future even as I count silently on my fingers how many more years we’ll hopefully all be together in early December, before my girls leave home and create new traditions of their own. Watching, and feeling nostalgic – already – for this holiday season. Watching, and marveling at the comfort of these ghosts of Christmas past. With each new memory, these ghosts rise up, like a mist that conceals the ordinary as it reveals the constant unpredictability that is life. And I can see that these ghosts are not burdened with chains, but are light as snowflakes, and that they alight everywhere, especially on our hearts.


  1. Wow sis, you are getting better and better. We decorated our tree today too, and I felt very similar emotions. Crazy what being parents does to us.

  2. Absolutely my favorite part of Christmas, the unwrapping of the ornament. My mom bought me one each year growing up, so I have those and relate the stories of the years to my children. I have continued the tradition with them and love to listen their memories as they look at the years past.