The week has been a long one. Tending to the busy things. But by the end of it, I find myself at tables with fine companions and this brings comfort. Meals where we can linger – just a bit – over coffee and talk about our plans for the holidays.
I will admit that this season does not find me at my best. The pace of it, the crush of holiday crowds – impatient, tightly-wound. The relentless nostalgia for Christmases past, which were themselves, a kind of longing for some other thing just out of reach. The press to create a kind of magic: To fashion an island – of juniper and pine, of cinnamon and nutmeg and peppermint; of tiny white lights and velvet ribbons – in the middle of a vast ocean of indifference.
My mother’s mother brought glass Christmas tree ornaments from the island of San Miguel. How they traveled – from San Miguel to New Bedford to Mt. Vernon – remains something of a mystery, but as the story goes, these six particular ornaments – simple blown glass – had been passed down to my mother with a certain solemnity. Each year, in January, she would carefully wrap these in white tissue paper, then newspaper, then rest them in their own small box which was placed on top of the other storage boxes that held the holiday decorations. And each year, after Thanksgiving, these were the first to be unwrapped and looped – by their frayed and faded ribbons – over the fullest, most prominent branches of the tree.
One year before they separate for the last time, my parents are arguing in front of the tree. They are in the process of decorating. I have a toy camera that I wear on a strap around my neck, and as they work – hanging an ornament, then stepping back to assess – I pretend to capture the moments on film. I am too young to understand the nature of their conflict, but I remember that their voices suddenly become raised and instead of the back and forth between the tree and the boxes of ornaments that lay open on the couch, they stand a few feet away from each other, seemingly frozen to the spot.
Either it escalates very quickly, or I am watching for longer than I remember because the next thing I remember is my father, reaching out and plucking one of these Portuguese glass baubles from the tree, and holding it up by its ribbon – pinched between two fingers – to my mother’s face. She shakes her head slowly at him and takes a step back. In my memory, she is still shaking her head, her eyes fixed on his face, when he lifts his hand up higher, opens his fingers and lets the ball fall to the floor, where it shatters, a sickening, heart-stopping sound. The next five follow fast: grabbed and thrown down so forcefully that little bits of glass fly up in all directions. I don’t know when my mother leaves the room, but I know that by the time my father is done, and as he shuffles through the shards and past me to the kitchen, she is gone.
After my father left, I took on more of the holiday decorating myself, eschewing the blinking multicolored bulb lights in favor of white ones, leaving many of the storage boxes of my childhood untouched. I developed themes for the tree – one year, only pink and gold ribbons, the next only unpainted wooden ornaments. I took a certain satisfaction in the rather generic, showroom appeal of these trees – stripped then, as they were, of any particular family history. Each year, a blank canvas. Each year, a narrative wiped clean of the past.
My favorite Christmas tradition of childhood was this: On Christmas Eve, after dinner, my mother would set out dozens of glass bowls filled with candies on the low round coffee table in the living room. Foil-wrapped chocolates, candy canes, jellied fruit slices, caramels. Chocolate-covered marshmallows. Licorice whips. Truffles. On this one night, there were no rules, no limits. We could eat whatever we wanted, how ever much we wanted. So, for the first half-hour after this dazzling display appeared, we would walk the perimeter of the table, my sister and me, hardly stopping, reaching for everything our sweaty little hands could grab, eating as we went. Wrappers lay on the floor where they were dropped, marking the circular path we took, around and around until finally, we’d begin to slow. We’d grab handfuls of what we could carry to take with us, to sit down on the rug, lean back against the couch, with our legs stretched out in front of us. If ever we were happier, giddier than in those hours – with little piles of candies in our laps, our mouths sugar-coated, our hearts racing – I certainly can’t recall.