The vast majority of the last Christmas I spent with my mother was inside her hospital room at Mobile Infirmary. Friends and family had dropped in for a few minutes here and there, on their way to do merrier things, bringing food, cards and flowers by. Everyone knew it would probably be her last Christmas but pretended it wasn’t.
As I would drive to the hospital every day, I would often play the Counting Crows’ song “A Long December.” It really resonated with me at the time because there’s a line that goes, “The smell of hospitals in winter/And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters, but no pearls.”
I really don’t know if the smell is necessarily seasonal, but they do smell sterile and feel cold. Two things you don’t want at Christmas. And certainly not the way you want someone you love to spend their last Christmas on this Earth.
But we watched a “Law and Order” marathon and made the best of it. I still watch “Law and Order” to this day when it’s on. The sound of Jerry Orbach’s and Sam Waterston’s voices make me think of hospitals in winter. And my mother. And the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters and no pearls. You have no say in what attaches to your memories.
As expected, it was my mother’s last Christmas. She died the following March.
The next Christmas was the first one my now husband and I would spend together. We were living in a tiny house in Oakleigh, and since I knew the first Christmas without my mom was not going to be pleasant and since the previous Christmas had been spent in the most un-Christmas environment possible, I wanted to go all out with the decorations so it would feel more festive and (hopefully) lessen my grief.
We went to the Optimist Club lot on Virginia and Ann and bought a tree that was way too big for our living room. In fact, I think it took up more than half of it.
I bought some new ornaments for it, including little sleighs with snowmen on them, that had “Frank” and “Ashley” written at the top. I dropped mine and it broke in half. I put it back together with Scotch tape, and it looks pretty terrible. Every year, I say I am going to glue it back together before I put it back up in the attic, but it still has tape holding it together 12 years later. Maybe this year. But probably not.
But I also didn’t buy enough ornaments for that enormous tree, so I went to storage and got all of my mother’s Christmas decorations and ornaments.
And as I hung all of her ornaments on our tree, I didn’t smell hospitals in winter anymore but my house growing up, as she made pound cakes, fudge and divinity. And my grandmother’s house, who made a mean caramel cake. And it made me feel close to them.
Many of my mom’s ornaments had been my grandmother’s. Including the creepy drummer boy that my children still try to put on the back side of the tree because he has crazy “psycho killer” eyes. They are not wrong, but he isn’t going anywhere.
There are also wooden ones my grandmother, mom and aunt painted by number, sitting at the kitchen table at my grandmother’s house, probably gossiping about the neighbors or the misdeeds of other family members.
My mother was a cat person, so her friends and co-workers had given her a lot of cat ornaments over the years. I put them on my tree every year even though I am definitely not a feline aficionado. One of these ornaments looked exactly like her favorite cat, Simba, who hated me. And the feeling was mutual. She got this cat after I graduated from high school, and he would literally growl and attack me every time I came home from college. Every year when I put that ornament on the tree though, I think of how much she loved that little bastard. And how much I did not.
One year — probably in the late ’80s or early ’90s based on the color choice — she decided she was going to decorate the entire tree in mauve glass balls and ribbon. Many of those have shattered over the years, but there are still a few survivors. She thought that tree was so fancy. There was another year she did a theme tree with crocheted snowflakes. More of those have survived. And still another with “spun glass” angels. She always made sure to emphasize it was “spun,” although I have no idea what that even means for glass. Since there are only a couple left it must mean “it gonna break.”
And of course, there are ones documenting my first Christmas and dance and piano recitals and trips to Disney World. Gifts from school friends and the mothers of old boyfriends and kids I babysat. And ornaments made at school and church.
Basically, our life together was hanging from different branches of a tree, illuminated in warm white light. And it has been a pretty spectacular sight for me to see every year since that last year we spent together, when none of these ornaments were hanging on a tree.
As Frank and I have grown our family, I have added to our collection. We have “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments for our kids and have bought ornaments representing something they have been really into every year. This year my son, Anders, is getting a tennis ball and my daughter, Ellen, is getting the character she portrayed in a play she was in.
Anders made one last year that is a roll of toilet paper to represent the pandemic. When it catches my eye, I imagine it hanging on his own tree one day, with his kids rolling their eyes and asking him in disgust, “Dad, why would you make a toilet paper ornament?” And then he would tell them all about it. “See kids, the year was 2020 …”
My grandmother’s little drummer boy ornament still gets top honors as the creepiest. But we have one unique to our family now that is a close second.
The first year we spent Christmas in the house we live in now, we had room for a bigger tree but made the rookie mistake of not buying a bigger stand. So, of course, the inevitable happened. One night we heard a huge crash coming from the living room and sure enough, the entire tree had come down, breaking many of the ornaments.
One of which was one Frank’s mother had given us one of the first years we were married. She’s an Alabama graduate and huge fan, and it was a little boy wearing an Alabama jersey whispering into Santa’s ear. (Obviously, he’s probably asking for a national championship, because what else would he be asking for?)
But anyway, in the Great Christmas Tree Crash of 2011, the boy was decapitated. Everything else is perfectly intact but Santa is just sitting with a headless child, and really, could anything say happy holidays more than that? It’s now one of my favorite ornaments and memories.
And there is still room for more.
The word “ornament” means “for decorative use with no practical purpose.” But as I sit gazing at my tree each year, I would beg to differ.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
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