Speaking of tradition and trying something new – we have never had a Christmas tree in our kitchen. We’ve hung garland in virtually every room in our past apartments and home, but we’ve never decorated a full-on Christmas tree in any room besides the living room.
Last year, I grabbed a homely, inexpensive, not-realistic-looking tree from my Thrift Giant for $14 and to the hour, as I type this blog post, has been the best, most charming Christmas decoration purchase to date. In part, due to its size – modest and petite, coming in only about four feet tall. But mostly, for the purpose she has come to serve.
Josh’s mom, Patty Stewart, was the OG Martha. (I love you, Martha – and so did Patty, but Patty was your pioneer.) She was the hostess-with-the-mostest, the decorator, floral arranger, stick and branch forager, menu designer, event planner, inventive meal plater and food stylist before it was on-trend, baker, homemaker, mood-maker, thrifter, big idea daydreamer planner, creative and creator. She would make ornaments out of thin air at Christmas and when the season came to a close, haul them outside with the tree to the burn pile. “Why save them?” She’d surely come up with another idea – maybe better, maybe not – the next year.
When we moved to New York City, we didn’t have any room to take certain things with us – especially seasonal items like Christmas ornaments. We’d need the real estate for our then family of three for things like – toys, books, and cooking and entertaining items because Josh, like his mother, is a consummate host and entertainer. “We may not have room for Christmas ornaments, but we’d better make space for a dozen brass candleholders with golden, beaded lampshades and some pewter serving trays, in the event we get company.” I will not argue.
As we emptied closets and sold off our belongings out of the garage before moving to New York, there were some things that grabbed our hearts and pitted our stomachs at the thought of selling. So we handed off two flimsy, shallow, cardboard trays of ornaments Patty had made, to my sister-in-law’s mom, Carrie. We knew she’d take good care of them and probably – hopefully! – use them. This felt better than just selling them for a buck or flipping them into the garbage bin – but she also knew the special place these ornaments held in our hearts and she said she’d store them. ‘Til later.
During Josh’s middle school and early high school years, he and his family lived in a bonafide log cabin. The carcass of a covered wagon rested in the imperfect, organically kept flower beds in the front yard. Three jeeps parked in the carport. Pine, wide plank, hardwood floors, river rock chimney and wood burning fireplace… bearskin rugs, taxidermy, crocks on the kitchen counter overflowing with wooden spoons, antiques, built-in book shelves and stacks of books on the floor, and the coziest loft family room with two adjoining bedrooms. Patty decorated with wool, wood, cashmere and candles.
One year, Patty’s Christmas tree theme was gifts and snowshoes. She didn’t love giving gifts. But she did love to snowshoe. Go figure. She individually wrapped dozens of tiny, lidded gift boxes – probably from their jewelry store and branded with their logo. I don’t have the heart to tear open a single one to check. She tied each one with a twine bow and added a rustic ornament hook. She also made several adorable, miniature snowshoes. Using the craft paper shopping bags from the local grocer, she traced and cut out the crossed snowshoes, overlaid them with a white, cotton, thatched material, and markered in the details. She added hooks to these, too, and the tree would be complete.
Patty died suddenly in 2005, at 56. We were all very close. I’d been around Josh’s family since I was 13. I never knew I could be so lucky. I love my own mother so much. Often you hear of daughters-in-law who have amazing, connected relationships with their mothers-in-law because they weren’t close with their own mothers, or because of some strain on that relationship. But I have an amazing relationship with my mom. I love her. How could I be so lucky to have another woman in my life – Josh’s mom – to love so much, and be loved so much by her? Pinch me. For sure.
Thirteen years after we offloaded the trays of ornaments to Carrie, we moved to North Texas. When she came to visit, she surprised us. She hand-delivered the two flimsy, shallow cardboard trays of ornaments Patty had made. We had cracked open a time capsule. A shock to the system. A reintroduction to such creative talents and vision – revisiting us now, at a time when we could store these, use these, celebrate these and remember Patty.
I don’t know how or why these trays of Patty’s handmade ornaments didn’t hit the burn pile with the Christmas tree – we think it was 1994. I’ll also never understand why she left us all of a sudden in June of 2005. And even then – how these trays of ornaments didn’t hit the dump after she died, is beyond me. But when we were moving to New York and answered some strange, prophetic call to stall on tossing these ornaments – to enjoy later in a succeeding chapter we never ever imagined (a home in Texas-post-Manhattan? Not in my wildest dreams) – and placed them in a holding pattern with Carrie, it was the wildest postcard to future Josh and Lindsay we’ve ever penned, to date.
It seemed perfectly fit to place my thrifted Christmas tree in our kitchen this year. Where Patty loved to be. (Well, and aboard their boat, “The Gallant Lady” – weaving in between the San Juan islands amongst the orcas. Basically, a Nancy Meyers movie on the Sound… ) We used her handmade ornaments the year she matched Christmas to her log cabin, as well as some of her impressive cookie cutter collection. Some vintage, some stainless, some brass, some elaborate – the snowflake, handpress-handle cutter is our star – and some so comforting and eerily a Heavenly wink: the orca.
This is a tricky story to tell because I don’t believe in hanging onto everything. But I do believe in seasons and I’ve seen how life can cycle us through them with or without consent. I believe in letting go, holding on, cherishing and setting free. Perhaps this is a complex story of all of the above, but one I’m so happy to be sitting on this side of the kitchen counter, looking up at this tree full of craft paper wrapped gift boxes, with God-knows-what on the inside… snowshoes and cookie cutters – sharing with you.
After Patty died, Josh and I hugged each other down in the galley of the Gallant Lady and looked up at the beams overhead – poked with hooks holding antique coffee mugs with faded blue anchors fired into their porcelain… cups from skippers, captains and fishermen some 70 years before. Patty painted above these “When you think about it, everything is a miracle.”
If you can’t store something. Don’t. If you’ve got a friend willing to store something for you “til-later-not-sure-when” – maybe go with that. Just in case. Heavenly wink.