January 6, 2013

Un-Decorating the Tree


“It’s time we take down the tree.” I hollered downstairs to my husband who has had his eyes glued on the NFL playoffs all morning. Suddenly, like a comic book superhero, he ran up the stairs, zipped past me, and stood in front of the tree.

“Already?”

I sighed. My husband liked Christmas more than most children. It was one of the things I found endearing in him during our early stages of courtship. He would keep the tree up all year if I let him.

“Yes, honey.”

“But we just put it up.”

“Almost two months ago. It’s time.” I crossed my arms and he slipped back into his mancave. If I wanted to un-decorate the thing he wasn’t going to stop me, but he wasn’t going to help me either.

My step-daughter sat on the sidelines, half-watching, half-playing with her harem of new Barbie Dolls that Santa had somehow managed to load onto his sleigh.

“You okay with this?” I asked her. She nodded back, ponytail bobbing.

I sighed again, returning to my task. Dozens of lights, ornaments, bows, and candy canes donned our tree. Removing them was a daunting task. It was always more fun putting them on the tree then taking them off.

I reached for an ornament, stopped, and found another. My brain said ‘take them off’ but my hands weren’t cooperating.

“Okay,” I said out loud, feeling crazy because my husband and step-daughter had lost interest by now, “you can do this.”

As I reached for the purple ceramic teddy bear - painted long ago by my son when he was young and still thought I was amazing - I stopped. I couldn’t take it down. It was too much.

I wasn’t just stripping the tree, I was stripping away my life; Years of collected memories going into a box. How could I do this? It was almost cruel.

I surveyed the tree again. Every ornament had a story: the beautiful, expensive ornaments given to us as gifts, hanging alongside the dime store decorations accrued during  years I could barely afford a holiday. “Remember that one?” My inner voice asked. “Your dad gave you that one on his last Christmas…”

I choked.

"Stop being silly", I told myself. "This isn’t permanent. I will see all my treasures again next year."

But maybe I wouldn’t

I thought about people I knew - whose lives had suddenly ended. They hadn't gotten their 'one last Christmas'.  I thought about how fleeting life was and how you never knew for sure if things as simple as a holiday would come again. I choked again and the tears welled up.

“You okay?” My husband hollered up at me. He was good at ‘feeling’ me, even when it was the NFL playoffs. I gulped, swallowed, and nodded. He didn’t see me but he understood.

Somehow I collected myself and got the job done. I removed them all, carefully wrapping each one in soft newspaper. I placed them in boxes in long, thin rows, hoping they would make the journey through another year intact.

“You know the holidays are coming back,” my step-daughter said, marching her dolls around in a parade on the floor. “They are in a circle.” She is an incredible girl. She understands things on a level most people don’t get.

I nodded at her and smiled.

“Halloween first?” She asked. Her blue eyes widened as she tried to imagine what she was going to dress up as.

“Not Halloween. Not for a while.”

“Oh. First it’s Valentine’s Day, then Easter, then my birthday…” She counted down. “Then Halloween?”

“Yep. You’re getting good at that.”

“That’s why I go to Kindergarten.”

I saved her Hallmark Ornaments for last: Ariel, Cinderella, and Snow White. They had all mysteriously lost their arms during the festivities this year. She gave each a peck on the head and told them she would see them next year. Then I put them in the last bin, and closed the lid.

I smiled. She had faith in the circle. So could I.

The house looked starker, emptier as I removed the last trappings of Christmas from our house and piled them into the garage.

“All done,” I told her when the last bin was stacked.

“Maybe we can get some glue and glitter and red paper and start decorating for Valentine’s Day,” she said. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation.

“That sounds like a great idea. I think a trip to the craft store is in order.”

“I’ll get the keys,” my husband said. He must have heard us, even though his team was playing.

“No.” I looked around the house. My husband was cozy in his sweatpants, my step daughter was dressing one of her dolls. Pictures of my family – my sons, my siblings, my mother, my father - graced the shelves. Life was uncertain but life was good. “Let’s wait a few days. It’s good to remember things before moving on. Besides,” I added, looking at the bare window where the Santa Claus cling-ons had been only moments before, “It will give us something to look forward to next week.”