Rebuilding the Season
Discoveries from a dusty box
I am a hand-wringer. A worrier. A notorious borrower of trouble.
One of the things I had been fretting, characteristically, about this past year was how to incorporate my late sister into my holiday traditions, how to honor her memory even though we had never really spent the holidays together. I said in one blog that I planned to teach Ruby how to make Ashley’s favorite stuffing for Thanksgiving, and one commenter suggested that I re-examine that idea. “The dysfunction of your sister’s life and the pain it caused you is something to be kept within. Don’t let your children see it, at the stove, at the Thanksgiving table, in your downer month of November – or ever. Sharing it won’t help you, and a downer November is a very poor ‘tradition’ to pass on,” wrote Traveler.
I can see that perspective, but I think maybe Traveler misunderstood what I was saying. I hadn’t planned on weeping into the stuffing while Ruby watched, explaining to her that the salt of my tears was adequate flavoring. I hadn’t planned to lay my head on Ruby’s shoulder and wail, “Oh, Ru, why are there so damn many alcoholics in this family?” I do share many things with Ruby, but never because I think it will help me. She is my big helper, my best buddy and my little girl – but she isn’t my confidante or my counselor. I never meant to imply that I wanted to share my sadness with Ruby; she has had and will continue to have her own sorrows, and my fervent hope as a mom is to help her navigate them, not add to them.
All I had wanted to do, honestly, was incorporate Ruby into a tradition/memory I had shared with my sister. I was trying to find a way to give her the connection without the pain, to put a happy spin on a bittersweet situation, to link the past with the future. “Aunt Ashley loved this stuffing,” I would say cheerfully. “We can think of her while we make it!” I would be upbeat and positive, and Ruby and I would share a secret smile over a pan of sage and onions.
But as it happened, Ruby had a last-minute itinerary change and went to Oklahoma with her dad for Thanksgiving, and I made stuffing alone. It wasn’t really a big deal – she had fun in Oklahoma, and when she got back we made and then devoured a chocolate-pecan pie and all was well. I hadn’t made any new traditions with her or figured out exactly how to honor my sister’s memory, but at least I hadn’t warped her in any irreparable way, and that’s always a success.
So Thanksgiving was over, and now it was time for the next two hurdles: Ruby’s birthday and Christmas.
The birthday was its own ordeal, but Christmas was a challenge, too.
The first step was getting a tree, something I haven’t done in years. I always mean to, but I always end up stressed at work and stressed planning Ruby’s birthday and stressed trying to shop for everybody, so I keep putting the tree on the back burner until suddenly it’s Christmas Eve, and I don’t have a tree, and I get depressed about it. Two years ago, I was pregnant with Georgia and got very emotional about the whole lack-of-a-tree thing, and my husband had to stop me from dragging a ficus in from the porch and putting lights on it. (Actually, we didn’t even have lights, so I would’ve had to drive to Target in holiday traffic to get lights for the ficus.)
This year, I decided I wouldn’t let that happen, and I didn’t. Ruby’s school was selling trees as a fundraiser, and so it was actually embarrassingly easy. I wrote a check, and then a few weeks later, I drove to her school and some PTA dads tied the tree to my car. My mom helped me untie it and lug it onto the porch. Boom. Done.
I forgot, though, that trees require all this stuff. Tree stands and tree skirts and ornaments and garland and … stuff. Stuff that any normal 33-year-old would have, I guess, but I didn’t because my divorce from my first husband was in April and I didn’t think to take any of the Christmas decorations, and so here I was.
“Well, let’s go get it,” my husband said. (He lost all of his Christmas stuff in his divorce, too.) “Kmart might not be too bad, or I guess we could try Target.”
“OK,” I agreed, and then stopped. “Wait. I have that box I took from my sister’s house when I was cleaning it out after she died. I have no idea what’s in it, but it says ‘XMAS,’ and I think it’s just shoved on one of the shelves in the laundry room.”
“Well, look before we go,” he said. “It may not have anything, but let’s see.”
And in fact, it had everything. There was a tree stand, a tree skirt, lights carefully wrapped and rubber-banded, ornaments (most of them made of durable plastic, a necessity with a toddler in the house), and even an awesome vintage 1970s angel for the top of the tree. Literally everything I needed for a Christmas tree, from top to bottom, was in the box.
I almost cried. Actually, I did cry, just a little, when I shook out the tree skirt and the cigarettes-and-Chanel scent of my sister’s house wafted up around me. But overall, I wasn’t sad, not even a little bit. I was so thankful and joyful I couldn’t even put it into words. I had been facing these two daunting tasks – to procure decorations and decorate the tree and find a way to pull happier memories of my sister into my family’s holiday traditions – and I had solved them both just by opening a dusty box in a back room.
Ruby was thrilled to see all of Aunt Ashley’s things, touching them reverently, lovingly. She knows they’re special, but they don’t make either of us sad.
When Epiphany came around and it was time to take down the tree, I must admit I was a little sad. Having all of Ashley’s Christmas things in my living room had made me feel very close to her, and I sort of hated to pack it all away again.
But I look forward to unpacking it again next year, and more than that, I hope I don’t forget the lesson it taught me: There is a solution to every problem, and very often, it’s just tucked away in a back room, waiting to be found.