when the decorations come down from the attic, time goes both ways at once

Every year when the decorations come down from the attic, time goes both ways at once…

All day long I’m surrounded by reminders of nearly a quarter-century in this house. Who I am and who I’ve been, and who everyone else I love has been…

Then the Christmas boxes come down from the attic, and time extends backward even further, beyond this house, and forward to a future in which the broadest outlines are already clear though the details are still unknown. Getting down the Christmas decorations is always a reminder of eternity, that unfamiliar space where past and present and future exist simultaneously — a space I can enter, even figuratively, only at Christmastime.

Here is the ornament in the shape of a baseball player from my husband’s boyhood years. Here is the little felt-covered drum my mother helped me make from a paper-towel roll. Here are the blown-egg ornaments my high school Secret Santa left in my locker and the gold-and-silver Benson & Hedges box a college friend hung on the tree in my first college apartment. Here are the metal lapel pins that proved I’d paid for admission at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the only “decorations” I could scrounge up when I was in graduate school. Here are the twisted-tin icicles my husband and I bought at a craft fair the year before we got married, already looking ahead to our own first tree. Here’s the little marionette Santa my mother-in-law won as a door prize at a Parkinson’s support group just before what turned out to be her last Christmas.

Most precious of all are the homemade ornaments from my children’s preschool years: messy, often unrecognizable figures — is that an archangel or Medusa? Rudolph or Popsicle-stick conceptual art? We hang them on the tree every year, ugly as some of them indisputably are. They remind my husband and me of that brief time in our family’s life when there was still someone at home small enough to jump up and down, clapping with glee, when the Christmas tree lights came on for the first time, even if it was only a test and the lights were spread out across the floor or still tangled together at the bottom of a cardboard box…

Last year when I packed up the Christmas decorations, I set aside our oldest son’s homemade ornaments in a separate box. He is on his own now, and I know the day is coming when he will have his own tree to decorate, his own holiday traditions to establish. He didn’t put up a tree this year, so his father and I are still keeping them safe, but we are also ready for whatever comes next.

For now those ornaments are back in their old familiar places, hanging alongside all the other reminders that the people who are gone from us are never truly gone, that the little boys hopping up and down with excitement are still somewhere inside the grown men who can set that homely angel in her place at the top of the tree without even straining to reach.

~ Margaret Renkl, from “The Christmas Time Capsule” (The New York Times, December 24, 2018)
 

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