Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Boxed Up Memories

published in the South Shore Breaker - Dec 21, 2016
Life is bittersweet, and it can throw us some challenges. Some people have to tackle more than their share, and sometimes we want to throw our fists to the sky and ask "why me?". But often we can overcome and realize that the struggles we face can make us stronger. They make us who we are, and who we are helps determine our personal story.

A few years ago we spent two Christmases in a row without a Christmas tree. The following year, I wrote about it and published it on my blog. Like all writing, people will read between the lines and come up with their own interpretation. Reading it made some people feel quite sad, although my intent was quite the opposite.

I have turned my former blog post into a short story called Boxed Up Memories. I hope you will see the underlying joy, for that is something good to focus on.

It had been two years since she felt there was any reason to celebrate.

First, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was waiting for a second surgery to remove more breast tissue and obtain satisfactory margins. While she was nervously waiting for this to happen, her dog was shot and killed on a beautiful fall day while running in the woods next to their country home. It was hunting season, but she was born and raised in the city and didn
t think anyone would shoot a dog instead of a deer.

So that Christmas two years ago she was too busy coping with loss to deal with putting up a tree. Loss of part of her physical self. Loss of her dog. Too much loss and not enough faith. Too much worry about upcoming radiation treatments. Too much worry about life and what the future would hold. Overwhelmed with emotions, there was no strength left for coping with the most mundane chores.

The following year things were better, but not great. Another surgery, but this time only shoulder surgery which was relatively easy. Physiotherapy was tougher, but she handled it. Her husband had just had emergency knee surgery to replace a knee that had been replaced just a few months before, a bad job that had to be re-done. Not even doctors are perfect. She couldn
t justify complaining about her physio, knowing that her husband was facing a bigger challenge.

Their struggles were minor compared to some people, but it was just too overwhelming to cope with even the basics of a Christmas celebration. Another year went by without acknowledging the season with a tree.

But this year was different. It was time to say enough is enough, time to say she chooses to live. And hope. It was time to celebrate the Christmas season with a tree and bring out the decorations. Collected throughout her life, each one symbolized a memory. One by one, she pulled the ornaments out of the storage box and remembered.

She picked up two ornaments from her early married life, the small brass reindeer and wooden tree with red painted hearts. She received them in the mail in 1984. She was only 23 and it was the first Christmas she and her husband were away from home, living in Alberta far away from family and friends in Ontario. Two of her school friends sent her some Christmas cheer, small tokens to remind her of big friendships. She thought of those friends every time she saw those ornaments. One friendship had disappeared over time, but another still stayed in touch despite living far away in Australia.

When she was only 23, two of her school friends sent her some Christmas cheer in the mail. It was the first Christmas she and her husband were away from home, living in Alberta far away from family and friends in Ontario. She thought of those friends every time she saw those ornaments.
The next one she chose was a reindeer made from a pine cone. It brought her back to the first holiday season she spent on her own after separating from her husband. She didnt have her two year old son with her that Christmas, but she had lugged a four foot tree up three flights of stairs so he would see it when he came to open his presents. There wasnt much money, so she had made reindeer ornaments with pine cones and pipe cleaners and beads. The only other decorations on the tree that year were 12 red balls and the entire collection fit in a shoe box. It was a Christmas spent alone eating chocolates and watching old movies.

The next thing she pulled out was a small box filled with white feathered birds, her mother
s special decorations. She remembered when the two of them went out to buy them. It was the seventies, and her mom wanted a pink tinsel tree with white decorations. She didnt get her pink tree, and settled for the white birds.

White feathered birds, her mother's special ornaments, and a string angel given to her by her father, were special reminders of her parents that she treasured year after year.
She was only 21 when her mother died after a three year ordeal with breast cancer. But she wouldnt think about that. She wouldnt think about the cancer gene that seemed to run from generation to generation in her family. Best sometimes not to think too much. Instead she would remember the special memories she had of her siblings and their families gathered back in the family home for Christmas, her mom glowing with happiness to have her children and grandchildren with her. Now the birds were always placed in special spots on her own tree, the only part of her mother that she had spent holidays with for over thirty years.

But there was a whole box full of other memories. Good memories. Dozens of ceramic ornaments in all shapes and sizes, reminders of year after year spent at the kitchen table painting them with her son, his name and year inscribed on the bottom. The changing years reflected by improving signatures. Backwards letters became cursive writing with smiley faces, the passage of time displayed in a name.

Year after year, time was spent with her son at the kitchen table painting ceramic ornaments. Passing years were indicated by the changing signatures.
Funny how each ornament could bring back so many memories. She always enjoyed talking about them if someone was helping her to hang them on the tree. But she was okay doing the task alone as well, lost in her thoughts and reflections of her life.

The lovely clear glass ball with a teddy bear tucked inside was a gift from her new partner in 1994. It was their first Christmas together in their own home. Twenty years later and married now, it still brought a smile to her face. Twenty years of blended families and making memories. Lots of love and laughter, but trauma as well. A terrible car accident caused by a freak snowstorm and jack knifed transport truck. Ambulance rides to two different hospitals, and time spent in a trauma unit. Months and months of recuperation for her husband. But they survived and were determined to live life one day at a time and be thankful. She stroked the teddy bear. She really did have a lot to be thankful for.

A clear glass ball holding a teddy bear was a reminder of the first Christmas she spent with her new partner. Twenty years later and married now, it still brought a smile to her face.
A string angel was given to her by her father. He bought it from his stroke recovery group to help them raise funds. Her mind drifted back to 1982. It was just two weeks after she got married. Her mom had just been hospitalized, losing her battle with cancer, and her dad was admitted to the same hospital with pains in his chest, pains that turned into a major stroke. Her mom died two weeks later. That Christmas was when she finally had to grow up.

The doctors said her father would never walk again, but he proved them wrong. He spent a year in the hospital, and recovered enough to live on his own for seventeen years. He passed his driver
s test and drove again. He attended university classes. He was determined and strong. And she missed him.

It seemed ironic to her that the older she got herself, the more she missed her parents.

But she was the parent now, grandparent even. The next batch of ornaments reflected that. Photo ornaments. Painted flour cut outs. Paper and crayon. Lots of things made with love by three grandchildren, and hung on the tree every year. Time passed, and the children grew quickly. The ornaments got more refined as the years went on. The children often didn
t remember giving them, but she remembered. She treasured each ornament, and each child.

Someone once commented that she had a tragic life, but she didn
t agree. There was heartbreak and pain. Trials and tribulations. But she was determined, just like her father taught her to be. She treasured all her memories, the good and the bad. Because thats what she was made of, and thats who she was.

Now there were no large gatherings at their own home. Their children had their own families and traditions, their own lives in distant cities. Time marches on. She didn
t have a designer tree, but she had her tree of memories. Decorations that told the story of her life. Stories of challenges and determination. Of family and loss. But most of all, stories filled with family and love.
She would never again let a year go by without celebrating. Celebrating Christmas. And celebrating life.

1 comment:

  1. It is a story worth repeating.
    I agree, a tree filled with memories is so much better than a designer tree.


It's great to hear from you! I appreciate your comments.