Tag Archives: ornaments

Saint Christopher Was Lost

If you follow me on Instagram (baddestmotherever), you already know that I’ve got a precious collection of Christmas ornaments and for the last few weeks, they’re the only thing I seem to be able to write about. This time, every year, when I unwrap and unbox them and hang each on the tree, every one whispers a memory about some other day, some other adventure, some memory sweet enough that I made the choice to commemorate it with a bauble. Decorating the tree is like reading myself a story that I’ve been writing one line at a time for the last 25 years.

This year, I lost a small part of that story and fear of losing it forever paralyzed me for days. Here’s what happened…

I bought this dark green glass St. Christopher medal on the island of Santorini, in the Greek Cyclades:

St. Christopher of Lycia, or ο Άγιος Χριστόφορος to his people.

St. Christopher of Lycia, or ο Άγιος Χριστόφορος to his people.

Richard and I had just survived a harrowing taxi cab ride along some 500-foot cliffs. The driver was a fisherman on his off days, and he was telling us about a giant fish he had speared recently. As he leaned across the passenger seat to retrieve a photo of the fish from the glove compartment, the taxi slewed hard to the right. Tires crunched onto the gravel shoulder, RIGHT ABOVE THE DROP of the cliff because there are no guard rails. The driver jerked the wheel back to the left just in time to save us all. And he went on talking about his fish.

The adrenaline hit my guts and limbs at the same moment and while I fought to keep from barfing, I nodded politely to admire the photo of the speared fish that was thrust into the back seat. That’s when I noticed a St. Christopher medal swaying drunkenly from the cab driver’s rear view mirror.

Cab drivers in Greece are a rare breed (maybe because they don’t always live long enough to breed?). They drive modern cars filled with modern tourists on roads that were carved out long before modern times. Most roads can accommodate 1.5 car widths, which makes passing on a cliff a lot like accidentally joining Cirque de Soleil. There is a superstition that if you have seen the image of St. Christopher, you cannot die on that day. While the Greek Orthodox church has not validated this idea, Greek cab drivers are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Every cab has a St. Christopher medal to honor the patron saint of travelers.

As soon as we were dropped off at the hotel in Oia, and as soon thereafter as my legs stopped shaking, I went into a gift shop and secured this St. Christopher medal because I never wanted to forget that I had survived that cab ride.

This medal is small, so I hang it near the top of the tree. And, because 2016 just can’t let us have anything nice, I dropped it. I dropped a 1-inch dark green ornament made of glass into a 9-foot dark green tree.

There was no THUNK to indicate that it had reached the floor. I climbed down from the ladder and started searching the branches below it–no medal. I couldn’t shake the tree to dislodge the ornament because I might break everything else in the quest for this one lost item. And it’s glass, so shaking didn’t seem like the best plan. I tried to focus on the red of the ribbon but saw nothing. I searched and searched. I looked on the other side of the tree, as if St. Christopher might have bounced off a limb and taken a detour. I turned the lights off for a different perspective. I turned on every light in the room in hopes of making a glint in all that dark green.

I gave up. I reassured myself that I would come back later with fresh eyes.

But what if I forgot to look for St. Christopher? What if I got used to it being lost and forgot to be sad and whatever snag had snagged him held him all the way to the chipper in the New Year? For two days, I kept returning to the tree in search of St. Christopher. I even set a reminder in my calendar to look for the lost green medal.

I was overtaken by a deep sadness. I had lost my patron saint of travelers at the same time I was losing my story-telling voice. Sick for three weeks straight, overwhelmed with holiday tasks, busy at work, aghast at every cabinet pick and tweet.

Christopher of Lycia was a giant who was known for carrying others safely across a raging river. He was a sure-footed and strong ferry. One day, he agreed to carry a small child across the river. Out in the depths, Christopher felt pulled down for the first time, crushed by a weight that didn’t seem to match the size of the child. He feared that they weren’t going to make it. Legend tells it that on the other bank, after Christopher had found a way across, the child revealed that he was the Christ and the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the world that the child carried.

After all the other ornaments had been placed on the tree, I gave it one more shot. Sometimes the best way to look for something is the opposite way. Read an essay backwards to find typos. Look in the freezer for your car keys. Do the opposite of what makes sense. So I lay down on the floor and I slid myself up under the lowest branches of the tree. Instead of looking down in the path that the ornament would have fallen, I looked up.

And that’s when I saw a little flash of red ribbon, tangled around a branch high above my head. I slid back out and with great joy, snaked my hand into the depths of the tree. There lay Saint Christopher, gold side down and ribbon tangled in the branch, utterly invisible from the outside. I hung him right up on a safe branch, on the other side of the river and out of trouble. I gave him a tap so that the medal swung like a pendulum, counting out the even arc of time.

In my own heart, I put down the burden and the weight of the world and I remembered that I can tell stories. I remembered that sometimes there are raging rivers and stories help us cross them. That’s what I can do.

And I will.

The Memory Keeper

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.

Fred and Ginger, Innsbruck Austria

Fred and Ginger, Innsbruck Austria

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.

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Jumping Johannes, Salzburg Austria

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.

 

A pilot from Munich, a bell from Salzburg, Pere Noel from Paris

A pilot from Munich, a bell from Salzburg, Pere Noel from Paris

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!

The Queen of the Ball, Munich Germany. The Frog Prince, New Orleans. The Cat King, Luxembourg.

The Queen of the Ball, Munich Germany. The Frog Prince, New Orleans. The Cat King, Luxembourg.

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.

Grandmama Eunice's bell. Pink sand from Bermuda. A Star of David from Prague.

Grandmama Eunice’s bell. Pink sand from Bermuda. A Star of David from Prague. Scots Presbyterian from Charleston SC.

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.