Hang A Shining Star - Chapter 3"Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all 30 feet tall." *Larry Wilde
I can tell I am going to have to keep on top of things, or I will forget to keep the ball rolling. I run on a pretty tight schedule now, since it’s just me and Grandma. And she’s a little more detail oriented than I am.
I jump up from the couch, where I have been sitting next to Gail, and head to the back of the house. I can see her take in the whole thing as we trot through it, and I can see she likes it. Grandma’s house is beautiful. When her and Grandpa were finally able to have a house of their own, they took great care in making it perfect for them. You can see touches of them everywhere.
As we duck through the dining room, the giant oak table and its carved chairs peer back at us, reflections of my grandfather’s understated, but excellent taste. Passing in to the kitchen, my Grandmother’s country childhood is reflected in the rooster theme, which she has taken pleasure in decorating with. Glass roosters sit on the shelf that runs the top of the room, next to antique milk bottles and old cutting boards with funny sayings on them.
I barely have time to register Gail’s look, one somewhere between amazement and amusement, before we head through the mud room into the garage.
Flipping on the light and reaching up on to the wooden pegs that have hung there as long as I can remember, I grab two pairs of work gloves and toss her one.
She pulls them up over her sweatshirt sleeves as I cross to the far side of the room and tug on an old cord hanging from the ceiling.
I always, always forget to cover my eyes and nose, and I sneeze for the first time today as the shower of dust and plaster flakes flutter down in to my eyes and nose at the attic ladder drops down from the ceiling. I unfold it carefully, making sure to set in down to where the climb will be relatively even, and turn to signal to Gail its time to go upstairs.
"You’ll love the attic. We’ll come back some time when we have more time and spend an afternoon playing up here. This is a real attic, not the kind they build in those fancy houses now days."
"Okay, old woman," Gail jokes as she mounts the stairs behind me.
I somehow forget every year how much I love the climb in to the attic. Its smells of old clothes, Christmas trees and insulation. The plastic from three generations of women’s dolls permeates the atmosphere, and there is a strange lingering scent of perfume mingled with the dust. I breathe deeply, and enjoy the sound of the light bulb coming of when I yank on the pull cord over my head.
I survey the attic with a soft smile. I can remember years of pulling the Christmas tree down and scurrying down the stairs trying not to fall. I remember the sound of boxes sliding down the stairs and my Aunt Carmen telling my mom and Aunt Susanne to be careful or they would break every ornament and we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. Then she’s set them to making paper ornaments and how would they like that?
I remember laying in the floor of the attic, getting dusty and my mom yelling at me. I can still see Moriah dancing around, wrapped up in tinsel she had found laying about.
In the dim light of the attic, I can see myself as a child, full of wonder at the treasure trove of games, dolls and things to explore.
I am brought sharply to by the feeling of Gail’s head smacking into my rear end.
"Hey Why’d you stop?"
"Sorry," I feel a little sheepish. "I got lost in memories. I’ll keep going up."
"Sure," I can hear her grinning at me. "Why don’t you share with me while we wander around up here? Like why we have to come up here?"
"Sure." I forget how many people have real trees. I crouch over low, stepping over the toys and boxes as I move to the rear of the attic.
"Most people have real trees, but we got a fake one. There were a lot of good reasons for it. Grandma has a pine allergy. Its mild, but its better to have the fake tree, because she doesn’t sneeze as much, you know?
Gran also has a bit of a black thumb with Christmas trees, from what I hear. They had them when mom and all of the aunts were younger, but I guess she kept killing them. Grandpa had to sneak off a few years and get a new tree on Christmas Eve because they would find it half dead and wilting and brown.
Plus there’s the cat. One ear they had a real tree, and I guess their old cat ate some of the needles and got really sick. I don’t remember it, I was too young, but Grandpa used to go on and on about how nasty green cat vomit can be. When they got the new one they figured they had better not risk this one having the pine appetite as well. I don’t think it matter though.
This one likes to get up inside the tree. He usually leaves the ornaments alone, but he thinks he needs to lay up inside the branches. We have to work pretty hard to keep him out of the tree, and to keep him from knocking it over. A real one would be even more of a nightmare, I am sure.
I am sure you saw the fireplace. That was another one of Grandpa’s worries. All those dead trees were combustible. I always put it in the corner away from the fireplace anyway. But I guess Gran likes the look of the tree and the fire for a long time. I just don’t think its practical. Especially not with all of the kids running around. Recipe for disaster if you ask me.
Ah, here we are."
Back in the corner is where we always keep the box with the Christmas tree and all the ornament boxes. I don’t know what possesses us to put them in the back. I walk past some boxes every year, some that have never moved, but I think habit makes us put it where we always know we can find it.
I can see Gail surveying the boxes, taking stock of everything in the corner.
"Which ones do we need to get?" The wariness in her voice makes me sure she knows what my answer will be.
"All of them." I follow her eyes again, this times, letting my gaze linger over the large pile of plastic tubs stacked haphazardly around the corner, and I counted them, while she took stock of the size, and amount of them.
"There’s only six outside the tree box." I try to sound nonchalant.
"Six Six, Barb. Six. How many are ornaments?" Her incredulity is almost too much. I can feel my shoulders start to shake with laughter.
"Those are the ornaments. The decorations are over there." I point to the other corner, and I can see she is almost faint with the surprise.
"Wow. You said you take Christmas seriously, but…" She trails off and I burst out laughing.
"Come on, we’ll get everything inside so you can inspect it." I lift one edge of the tree box and tug it over to the stairs. She follows me, still looking a bit surprised.
"Now, all you have to do is lower it down to me as I walk down the stairs. We have to go slow, though, okay? Because I’m-"
"A total klutz. I remember." Her pointed teeth are flashing at me from over the box.
Slowly, we lower the tree down. I try hard to remember how my grandpa used to tell me how to get down the stairs backwards. Thinking of how far apart each step is, I wobble a little all the way to the bottom. I can feel that I’ve made it, and then suddenly, I realize I missed one.
Falling off the bottom step of the attic, I am discovering, is humiliating. Gail is at the top of the stairs, laughing her funny-I-can’t-quit-laughing laugh, which sounds like a cross between a ‘tee hee’ and a ‘har har harp.’ I can’t help but laugh little too, as I lay here on the floor with a 7 foot
Christmas tree on my chest.
The box is bobbing up and down and I am almost sure I can’t quit laughing right now.
"Come down here and get this thing off me," I call up to her. "And stop that laughing. You sound like a seal that’s eaten a parakeet."
"Harp har har," She answers as she shimmies down the stairs. She lifts the box off of me and we head back up the stairs for the rest of the stuff.
* * *
"This is a lot of decoration. Where does it all go?"
We stand in the middle of the living room, looking at all the boxes, now spread out in front of us, with paper strewn everywhere.
"That’s the fun part, putting it somewhere different each year. I used to go looking for my favorite decorations every year. Especially the ornaments. Because Grandma would theme the tree, and we would have to look for our old favorites among the new theme.
She did a lot of great themes. I liked the gingerbread theme the best. I have a few gingerbread people I look for each year. I try to remember which box we put them in, so I can lay them out. They go on last, so I can put them where I can seethem on the tree. I am sure you’ll find a favorite as well.
Here, take this end of the lights and put it in the socket, see if they work." I pass her a strand of lights, and turn to go back to the boxes, to hunt for more strands.
"Ahh " Gail’s exclamation takes me by surprise.
"Hey, what’s wrong?"
"Oh, the cat. I forgot about the cat. He just jumped out at me, and I wasn’t expecting it. Awww. He’s cute. Here, kitty, kitty."
"Be careful. He’s not that nice. I mean, fun to play with, but he doesn’t like to be pet."
"What’s his name? Aww, you’re a sweet thing aren’t you? Oww Little devil He bit me." I watch with my I-told-you-so look as she jerks her hand back, shaking off the bite.
"Aww. Did the widdle angel bite you?" I tease. "His name is Lucifer. Appropriate isn’t it. Grandma said he was too cute to be a sweet cat when we got him. She was right. He’s beautiful."
"But deadly, right?" Gail giggles at me.
"Well, he did bite you…" I trail off, reaching for another strand of lights. "I think we have enough if you want to start putting the lights on the tree.
The Christmas ornaments are all very special to me. Seeing each one brings back special memories. Sometimes, as I unwrap them from their newspaper, or remove them from their boxes, I feel a pull at the corners of my eyes.
Some of the ornaments have been gifts to grandma over the years. Some of them have been souvenirs brought home from trips. Some are the remnants of themes grandma had chosen that managed to make the cut some garage sale season.
I recount the stories as I pull them out. It seems a lot like a museum in here during this time, with me thinking of the past. Gail sits in the floor, on occasion offering up a comment or a question about a particular ornament.
I can see she is living my Christmases with me as I tell her. I can see sadness in her eyes, reflecting my own, sometimes; mirroring my wish that there would be the happy times that we had when these ornaments were first placed on the tree.
"What about these?" She asks as she hangs a hippopotamus and monkey side by
side on the tree.
"Those went to a set of Noah’s Ark animals. When I was 8 or so, Gran decided to have a Bible story themed tree. We found this set, it had Noah on the little boat, and a whole menagerie of animals. Peacocks, giraffes, elephants, zebras…it was actually very cool. When that tree theme crashed and burned, we kept the Noah’s Ark because we liked the animals on it. "
"Oh, is the rest of the set in here somewhere? Should I separate these two?" She dug around in
the box she had been pulling the ornaments out of.
"Don’t bother. Lucifer has been eating the animals one by one for years. You should have seen the look on mom’s face when she found the boat with Noah’s head chewed off in the floor."
"Har, har, har." Gail laughed. "I bet that was hilarious. What did she do?"
"She called the cat the devil. It was fantastic. She was going on about the sacrilege and all that. Uncle Jeff stepping in and was like ‘He’s just a cat, Charlotte. He doesn’t know any better.’ She really went off then. Poor Jeff. You’ll like him. Anyway. I saved it, and thought I might put it in her stocking this year.
What do you think?"
"That’s great She’s going to make a scene, though." Gail looked worried.
"Don’t worry," I could feel the gloom creping over me. "She’ll make a scene long before we get to the stockings. This will be a little comic relief. I promise. We’ll need it by the end of the night. I have to tell you, things have been a bit depressing the last few years. Its not like it used to be."
"Its okay." Gail answers cheerfully. "We’ll make it better. It’s a good joke. How about this one?"
Gal passes me what looks like a little pair of gold knitting scissors on a red ribbon and smiles. I can tell she is trying to change the subject. I let her.
"These are from the lady across the street. Her name is Sunshine. She gave Gran these because they do needlework and all that together. I think she has a pair on her tree as well. Only hers are silver. I don’t like them, but Gran thinks they’re cute. But I appreciate what they mean to the both of them."
"Wait, wait. Her name is Sunshine? Really, her name is Sunshine." Gail goggled at the scissors, as if they were named Sunshine as well.
"Yes, her name was Sunshine. I heard all of her family names were funny. Gran says she had a sister names Rainbow. I dunno. Maybe their parents were hippies. But she is really nice. I likeher a lot. And she makes a mean gooseberry pie."
"Right." She draws out the word, as if she thinks I am pulling her leg. But when I don’t answer, she goes back to the box in front of her, sifting through the paper to find ornaments to hang.
"Have you spotted all Twelve Days of Christmas yet?" I ask.
"No, are they all here? No gease-a-layin’ been eaten yet?" She teases, scanning the tree for the ornaments I’ve just mentioned.
"No, apparently his ornament proclivity only stretches as far as biblical characters. Do you think it’s the name?"
"Anyway, Gran did the Twelve Days of Christmas thing really hot and heavy. See those pears over there? They go in the spaces in between the branches. Gran loved how they looked like they were frosted. Oh, and for the sake of continuity with the song, and someone making a remark about it, put the partridge next to one of the pears."
"Sure. What does a partridge look like anyway?"
"Um, it is a small bird with a long tail and a short beak. Its usually brown and white. I think Gran’s has a "pear tree’ bit in its mouth. "
"Got it. I will duly hang it up near a pear for you."
"Thanks for that," I mock. "The whole set is in there somewhere. Twelve drummers, eleven pipers, ten lords, all that jazz. Actually, the maids a milking are a little freaky. I don’t like them. I’ve tried to get rid of them a few times, feed them to Lucifer. No luck."
I reach behind me, to the coffee table and pull out a set of ornaments I had brought with me last night, and set them next to me. Pulling out another set from the pile, I smile as I begin to lay them out.
"Come over here, and look at these, Gail. You’ll like these a lot. We have picture frame ornaments with all of the family members in them. See the blonde with the poufy hair? That’s Aunt Carmen in the ‘80’s. We tease her about that picture every year. You have to put it on the front of the tree, right at eye level so everyone can get a good look at it, because she’ll
move it to the back of the tree before the end of the night. I swear, she only makes it worse for
I watch as Gail shifts through the ornaments, taking a minute to pause and examine each one. She flips them over, tongue between her teeth, looking as though she is guessing who each person is before she flips it over to look at where the name has been engraved on the back. I can feel the moment she reaches mine, because her pointed teeth begin to show a little more and her nose starts to wrinkle up the way it always does when she is laughing.
"This is you, isn’t it?" she giggles at me, holding up a pewter snowflake ornament.
"Yes, that’s me. Put it away. I know I look awful in that picture. They took it when I was in high school I was going trough my ‘I need to be gothic because no one understands my angst’ phase."
"Oh, I see. And you’ve left that phase now," she says with a very serious look on her face.
"Yes," I retort defensively. "I have as a matter of fact. Or at least I started bathing and washing my hair."
"Hygiene is a good thing, sis."
"So I’ve heard." I roll my eyes and turn back to the pile that is in front of me. "But, something is missing. I think you might like to look at these as well. I hand her the pile I had brought from the evening before.
"You didn’t." Her smile betrays her pleasure, before she even looks at the ornaments I hand her. She knows what they are, I can see it written all over her face. I flush, unaccustomed to these moments where I feel like the sweet one of the two of us. "Do you want to add yours to the tree, or would you like me to hang them up?"
She is turning each one of them over and over in her hand, as if she can’t quite believe that she has them.
"This makes us officially part of the family, you know." she smiles.
"I know," I answer back, rubbing my hand up and down the side of her arm in affection. "I wouldn’t have it any other way. You know, Nathan gave me an awfully funny look when I asked him for photos of you guys that he didn’t want back. But after I explained myself he didn’t mind nearly as much. Now, I did have to go to a little more effort to get a picture of him. You’ll see
that is his high school yearbook photo. I went to his old high school and got a copy made. I am sure he’ll love it."
"He’ll love it. Thanks, Barb. You really are very sweet when you want to be," I can see her
tearing up again. The feeling it gives me is one I haven’t had in a long time, like I belong, like I am special. Like love.
"Now, don’t go getting all misty and cute on me now. We’ve got work to do."
"Hateful bitch." She smiles.
"That’s better." I reply with a grin. Reaching down to the box in front of me, I get a hold of a small package wrapped in Christmas paper. I smile as I unroll it, revealing bit by bit the little ornaments inside. "Come here and look at these, they are my favorite ornaments."
I pass the ornaments to her after examining each one with pleasure. They are from when we had a gingerbread themed tree, and I think I am the only one who really liked that theme other than James. We had saved these little ornaments from the yearly garage sale purge for several years before everyone gave up and let usput them out without a fight. Every year I wrap
them in Christmas paper so I can find them easily.
The first one is a snowman, who is also an ice cream cone. The sides of him are dripping over the waffle cone edges and he has a bit of a lopsided look I find oddly endearing. He sparkles a little from the sprinkles that decorate him, and he is slightly cross eyes because the person who "hand painted" him got the letters on his candy eyes just a little off center.
The next is a little gingerbread girl. She has her little feet and face outlined by "frosting" and her dress is decorated by little chocolate candies with the word "Noel" spelled out on the bottom. Her little gingerbread arms are loaded down with heart-shaped cookies and long, thin
peppermint striped candies. You can barely see her eyes from the cover of her red licorice hair, which actually falloff the back of her gingerbread head, a little lopsided, but very cute.
Last, and best for me, is a little gingerbread Santa. He is pathetically over-decorated. Peppermint swirls line his little gingerbread suit in intervals far too frequent. He has a cookie that is shaped as a star in the middle, a little to far down to be called a belt buckle, and looking far more like a cookie codpiece. His frosted beard is cure, but the person who made him designed a little licorice tongue to stick out from it, as if he is making fun of all the naughty children in the world.
"They’re a little pathetic aren’t they Barb?" Gail turns them over, bit by bit and looks a little astonished that these might be my favorites. "These certainly weren’t what I was expecting for favorite Christmas ornaments. You’re a softy inside aren’t you? You wanted to save these sad little ornaments from the trash bin, huh?"
"Don’t let it get out, okay?" I joke with her, slightly uneasy that she noticed my love for these sad little ornaments, which drew me to them because of how awful they were. "Mom thinks I keep them because she hates them."
"Alright, then." She grabs another ornament as I hang the Santa on the tree, well out of Lucifer’s reach. "Hey Is this a hobbit? I think it is Who put this in here Tell me it was you. You’re a closet nerd too "
Gail lifts up a tiny Frodo figure with a look of ecstasy on her face. She turns him over and over, examining the hair on his tiny hobbit feet.
"I am, but that wasn’t me that put that one on there. Maria did that. She’s one of Catherine’s twin girls. She is obsessed with Lord of the Rings. She said we needed to paytribute to all the little people, not just the elves."
Gail’s eyes bugged out a little. "Are you serious? How very, erm, politically correct of her."
"Very." I answer. "Well, we’re almost done. Do you want to put the star on top of the tree this year? I mean, I get to every year…" I trail off, hoping she can tell this is a big moment for me, and I want to include her in it. It’s actually my favorite part of the Christmas tree decoration. I loved to watch as a child putting it on.
"Sure. I mean, thank you. I would love to."
As I watch her wobble up the ladder and reach for the top of the tree with a feeling in my chest
that reminds me a lot of the feelings I got as a child. Not quite the same, because along side the wonder of how big and beautiful the Christmas tree is, I also feel a bit of pride that we made something so beautiful together.
Gail startles me by wiping a tear from the side of my cheek; one I hadn’t even noticed was falling. I try desperately to pull myself together.
"Well, that’s done. So now all we have to do is load up the squirt gun, and we’ll be all set."
Gail looks puzzled.
"Yeah. It keeps the cat out of the tree. And its fun to shoot him with it."
"Alright sis. Lock and load."