For the first ten years of my childhood, a vast treasure was stored in two boxes in the unfinished part of our basement.
Though they were only made of cardboard with pretty motifs in red and white, the boxes seemed immense and imposing. Even when I was in third grade, I remember them coming all the way up to my chest. Each year, as the holidays approached, my parents carefully removed these boxes from the basement and brought them to our living room.
Before our waiting eyes, the red-and-white lids were lifted, and there, in innumerable cardboard compartments, were glittering pieces of glass, gaily painted wooden forms, globes and spheres that had been brought to life when a man breathed into them in a faraway land. Frozen elves gestured smiling to the princess or fairy in the next compartment; glitter gleamed like fresh snow on the ruby-red hat of Santa Claus. And just when you thought your eyes wouldn’t ever be satiated, fingers pinched the walls of the middle compartments and the whole complex was lifted up, revealing another layer of gleaming gorgeousness below, and when you’d feasted your eyes on all that layer held, there was another below that. And another. I don’t remember exactly how many layers there were, but they seemed to go on forever.
Those boxes held my mother’s impressive collection of Christmas ornaments.
I’ve never thought to ask her when she started collecting them, or why. In the photos I’ve seen of her as a child at Christmas, posing proudly with my grandparents and my aunts and uncle, the Christmas tree always looked rather normal. But somewhere along the line, my mom developed a strange and beautiful addiction. Even in the summer she couldn’t resist looking for ornaments.
They were rarely what you could call “kitsch;” instead, they were very refined, like an exclusive club of aristocrats. Versailles, if you will. Few of the ornaments my sister and I had made at school were permitted among the delicately colored birds and Venetian glass.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to know my mother better. In a lot of ways, we’re the same person. I think with her ornaments, my mother was trying to create her own faery world, a magical place that could exist in our reality once a year, like a special enchantment. While she was buying more ornaments, I was writing stories. I wrote about mermaids who were in love with unicorns, princesses who were also witches, girls who could talk to whales, and once-handsome princes changed into other forms. I didn’t think of it at the time, but that tree was a part of me. Only, I was lucky enough to get to experience magic all year.
For some reason, my mother’s always kept her fanciful nature hidden away, like those boxes in the dark part of our basement. As she’s getting older, though, I see her letting it through more and more. I love visiting the house she lives in today, where figurines of fairies peek out from strange places, and cats fish from window sills. It’s as though the ornament box has been open wide.
Unfortunately, those ornaments themselves will never again be on one of my mother’s Christmas trees.
When I was eleven years old, we moved to a town near Atlanta, Georgia. Though the moving company my parents had hired must have had a good reputation, and though the rest of our belongings arrived safe and sound in our empty new house, the ornament boxes didn’t make it. My mother realized they were missing pretty quickly, I remember. With a dread in her voice that’s the same sound of dread in me, she said “Uh-oh, where are the ornaments?”
Questions were asked, other boxes were frantically searched. But those two magical containers never resurfaced. Our family took it as a soft kind of grief, a bit as if a long-ill grandparent you weren’t very close to had finally passed away. I think my mother cried a little.
In the years that followed, she began a new collection of ornaments, and some of these were so breathtaking they’ll stay in my mind’s eye forever, like the small, fragile cascade of clear glass bells, each one smaller than the last, their bottoms covered in a sparkling white imitation of frost. When you brushed them lightly with your hand, they made a sound like the quiet shattering of icicles.
Soon after our move, my parents got divorced. Money was now tight in our house, and my mother couldn’t afford such spectacular luxuries. She started to collect cats instead, you could say — much easier, since she was a vet tech at the time and could get free or inexpensive medical care and food for them. Living with eight cats meant a lot of broken ornaments. Every year we’d hold our breaths and wait to see which ones would survive.
Now and then I look back on the first ornament collection and wonder what really happened to it. Were the boxes actually lost, or were their contents broken en route?
Sometimes I think maybe one of the movers happened to open one of the lids and fall under the spell of those beautiful baubles, and he kept the boxes for himself and never said a word.
Other times, I wonder if the boxes were somehow thrown out. It breaks my heart to think of them buried under refuse, falling to a splintery, glass-riddled ruin. But then I think that maybe somehow, on their way to the dump, or even as they sat there on a pile of junk like you see in the movies, the boxes were spotted by a poor family. The mother curiously came over to them and lifted one of the lids. She and her wide-eyed children gasped, then started smiling with delight as they lifted layers upon layers of carefully padded cardboard compartments full of glittering wonders.
I think that maybe somewhere, maybe not so far from my childhood home, there is a house tonight with a tree whose branches hold those same ornaments I used to know and marvel at.
And maybe that’s how it should be.
Happy Holidays to you all, and may you find wonder, even in the most unexpected places.