It’s pouring tonight and I can’t sleep, so I took my magical notebook and sat by the tree to listen to the rain.
This adorable pair smiled down from the top of the tree. Their names are Fred and Ginger (because they make such an elegant pair) and I bought them many years ago on a rainy night like tonight in Innsbruck, Austria. I chose them for their clumping big feet and his crooked smile. They are the hopelessly dorky and clumsy embodiment of how I felt when I went skiing in Austria. We were really there for Richard, who was a double black diamond, ski backwards down the mountain with no poles kind of athlete. I have been skiing exactly twice in my life: for the first time on a fraternity trip to Boone, NC and for the second time on the Stubaier Glacier 11,000 feet above Innsbruck….where they had the Olympics. Let’s just say it was inelegant. I prefer sports that include oxygen.
This is Johannes, also from Austria. One year, I got a stomach bug on our Christmas trip. I was sick as a dog from Griffin to Gay to Atlanta to DC to Berlin to Salzburg. I crashed into the clean white sheets of a hotel room. The white plaster walls glowed with Teutonic cleanliness and order. I slept for a few hours and when I woke, Richard had returned from his explorations with a dinner from a schnitzel cart owned by a Bosnian family. He brought me soft cheese, flatbread still warm from the oven and an ice cold Diet Coke. I ate a bite and came alive again. The next morning, we wandered into a church square just in time to hear the carillon play “Silent Night.” The whole square stopped and listened as the notes rang out across the cold, clear air. That carol was written in Salzburg. The joy that I felt in that moment, feeling alive again after all that sickness, comes back to me when I see Johannes. I bought him in that square.
On that same day in Salzburg, we were exploring a part of the city wall next to the cemetary where Mozart’s wife is buried. We rested in little turret and discovered a bell hanging there. I asked Richard to take my picture pretending to ring the bell. And you can guess what happened next. I tugged just a little too hard and the damn thing went CLANGALANGALANG across the city. Oops. So I bought that little beaded silver bell to remember that moment.
And yes, there’s a black velvet Elvis painting on the tree, too. I found him in Maine, on our last trip together. My family has a black velvet Elvis that makes the rounds every few years at Christmas. G got him last year!
This elephant? She’s my favorite on the whole tree, of the hundreds of stories I remember every year. I found her in a shop in Munich and it was love at first sight. She was part of a pair, with a bull elephant in white tie and tails. I couldn’t afford both–she was almost $50. Richard used to tease me about my ornament mania as I collected them on trips. I knew he would give me hell if he saw how much this one cost. I gave him hell about smoking–but on this cold night, I said, “Why don’t you go outside and have a cigarette while I finish up here?” The owner of the shop spoke beautiful English. As soon as he was out the door, we shared a good laugh at men and the excuses she had heard to get them outside. I treasure this belle of the ball because she is so happy to be herself, so sure of her beauty, not in spite of but BECAUSE she is an elephant.
Putting her with the Frog Prince and the Cat King is new this year. I like it. With my old fake tree, I bent limbs and made her a little stage of her own. With a real tree, I had to find a sturdy limb to hold her, up high and off to the side in case Carlos or the cats brought the tree crashing down.
That blue glass bell? Daddy was warned not to touch it when he was a boy because it was old then. The ceramic Santa is from Paris. He always hangs sideways and seems a little judgy. I bought the Star of David in Prague to remember how I was moved to tears in the empty synagogues of the Jewish Quarter. Not every memory on the tree is a happy time. I have an angel that I bought in the gift shop of Johns Hopkins, and a little nest of robin eggs that reminds me of a quilt that hung on the wall in the chemo room there. It had the line from Dickinson:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –That perches in the soul –And sings the tune without the words –And never stops – at all –
That tiny white church near the top? It’s another memory that needed to be remembered, not for joy, but for solemnity. It’s one of the first ornaments I collected–when Fartbuster and I went to Charleston, South Carolina for our honeymoon. The church is Scots Presbyterian. During the Civil War, the church donated its bells to be melted down and turned into ammunition. After the devastation of the war, they decided to leave the bell towers empty as a silent reminder of all that had been lost. A quiet memory.
Well. I could go on. But it’s after 1 a.m. and tomorrow is a busy day.
May the memories that visit you at this time be quiet ones, filled with reminders about how wide the world is, and how welcome you are to explore it.