1. In a Carton
It’s a blustery Friday night, one week before Christmas. Outside, the wind whistles past the dining room windows while inside, cozy and warm, Steve and I sit across the table from one another, bellies full of delicious Lebanese take-out. It’s our first married Christmas, and after two years of whirlwind holiday traveling to Las Vegas (my family) and Oxford, England (his), it’s our first to be celebrated at home. Nearby, in the living room of our new house, a Christmas tree lies compressed in a large cardboard box, awaiting assembly and festive accoutrement. We pour second glasses of red wine, the Pinot catching the light from the chandelier above as I lift my glass. Steve smiles, offers a “Cheers” and a gentle clink. We sip and savor, share another smile.
And then each of us grabs one of the stacks of papers sitting in the middle of the table, and we begin the marathon push to complete end-of-semester grading. We’ll get to the tree tomorrow.
2. On a Stocking
Three days before Santa (or his local rep) is set to fill them, we hang our stockings by the chimney with care. Mine, hand-knit by my mother when I was child, recalls the creative places—a fake cardboard fireplace, a bookcase, finally the hearth behind our wood-stove—it hung throughout my childhood. I still love its bright green triangle Christmas tree, decorated with shiny beads and sequins, my name in bold block letters across the top.
My older brother’s stocking featured a Santa, and my mother’s plan was, when (if) either of us married or started our own families, she would knit coordinating stockings for the new spouse and children: brother Todd’s family would all have different Santa motifs; mine, trees. My mother knit a stocking once or twice for a serious girlfriend of my brother’s, and now his wife and their children all have various Santa stockings. I never asked my mom to knit a stocking for a beau. I was afraid of jinxing things; I wanted to be sure a man was genuinely stocking-worthy (a criterion not to be confused with Elaine of Seinfeld’s “sponge-worthy”). Still, I longed for the day when mine wouldn’t be the only stocking featuring a tree.
Steve and I met in February, so we’d been dating almost a year by the time we spent a Christmas together. I wondered if I might have reason at last to ask my mother to break out the knitting needles. Then, as we decorated the tree, Steve pulled out his and the boys’ stockings, which had all been cross-stitched by his mother. His pictured a man pulling a fresh-cut fir on a sled through the snow toward a little cottage. On Tucker’s, beneath a silhouette of Santa and his sleigh, a sweet deer investigated a big snow-covered spruce. Dusty’s stocking featured a Christmas morning scene, with a train, teddy bear, and other toys surrounding a candlelit, candy-cane covered Christmas tree.
3. In the Parlor
Having determined that, between the two of us, we’ve had 104 years to amass decorations, we decide to break out both our full-size artificial trees and place one in the parlor, one in the living room, mirroring each other across the open foyer. They don’t perfectly match: mine is tall, narrow, pre-lit; Steve’s wide and full, requiring an hour of light-stringing before decorations can be placed. By the time we set them up, spread skirts, string lights, and drape beaded garland, we’re done for the day.
Son Tucker comes over the next evening, and we divide our assortment of ornaments as evenly as possible between the two trees, making them “ours” in the decorating. I haven’t put up a tree in several years, and I’m eager to share the stories behind some of the ornaments: the little girl made of pink felt and yarn, the first Hallmark ornament my mother bought for me; the tiny wreaths my grandmother had initially crocheted for my Barbie house. Steve asks Tucker if he remembers the trip to Olympic National Park on which they bought a golden ornament with a mountain scene, and they show me the dated baby ornament that commemorated Tucker’s first Christmas. Witnessing their reminiscences, I’m overcome with loneliness. Even if I could tell Steve the story of every bauble I hung on the tree, the memories they recall, the memories that give them meaning, remain mine alone.
I fear my stories, my traditions—my self—will be lost, especially if there’s no one else there to say, “Hey, remember when?” Part of me wants to shed the nostalgia and let the past go, as Steve and I begin to craft our new life together. But we humans are made of our memories, and so another part is bereft at the realization that after so many years of our lives spent apart, we can never be fully known to one another.
Much later, sitting in the living room, I’m near tears and staring too hard at an ornament when Steve sits down beside me. He, too, is surfing a wave of melancholy. He tells me about the first Christmas together ornament he’d found from his first marriage; I tell him about how the mother-daughter mice in my hand make me miss baking cookies with my mom. We hold on to each other for a long moment. Then I find a hook and look for an open spot on the tree.
4. In the Morning
A newly engaged Facebook friend ten years my junior shares a picture of her Christmas tree, aglow with white lights, red ornaments and plaid ribbon garland, topped with a bright star. The post accompanying the picture reads: “The shopping is done, the presents are wrapped, Christmas music is playing, the cookies are in the oven, and my man is did the dishes. Now it’s time to turn all the lights off except the tree and enjoy this feeling! Did I mention Luther Vandross is playing softly in the background?”
I feel a stab of envy.
Get married at middle age, and you skip right past the romantic couples’ Christmas to the insta-family, complete with kids, cats, dog, seven boxes of wildly assorted decorations, a tin of non-working light-strings you thought you tossed last year, and a killer new eggnog recipe.
Though what I’ve found is arguably an upgrade (it’s darn good eggnog), there’s still a sense of loss. Steve and I will never have those early days together, just the two of us dancing by the light of the tree and dreaming, the sweet delight of starting with almost nothing and filling our tree and building holiday traditions together over a lifetime. What I’ve found is a different kind of joy, a joy I can better appreciate if I allow myself to acknowledge and mourn what wasn’t, what won’t be. As I’ve said before, with gains come “strange mourning,” while loss brings gifts we cannot anticipate.
Gifts such as a quiet Christmas morning, sitting with my new husband side-by-side in mismatched pajamas on a well-worn couch. A cat purrs on Steve’s lap; a dog rests his chin on my knee. We gaze at the lights on our ornament-laden tree, bright and warm against the foggy hillside beyond the window that frames it. I sip tea, Steve coffee, and we snuggle closer, grateful, content.
5. At Home
The boys are awake, breakfast strata is baking, and we all sit down together to open our stockings. In mine I find dark chocolate, a gift card, and in the toe, a small wrapped box. Inside, a Hallmark Keepsake tree ornament marks “Our First Christmas.” The ornament is made to appear like a window looking into a house, a triangle of a decorated tree on one side, a hint of a fireplace with two stockings on the other. The center has space for a photo.
Steve has already selected one: a picture of us from the wedding, taken during our first dance together. In it we’ve just come out of a twirl. With arms wrapped loosely around each other and faces aglow with exertion and exuberance, our mouths are wide and happy, as we look upon one another and laugh for joy.