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What to keep?

by Elizabeth Rau


My mother-in-law was not a sentimental woman, but she kept everything that came from someone or somewhere: a painted rock from Maine, her brother’s ball of twine, Uncle Harry’s stick matches.

After she died my husband and I emptied out her house and found boxes filled with her things, and soon we began the process of trying to decide what to keep and what to discard.  In the end, nothing much was thrown out except maybe a fountain pen and, even then, we were tempted to keep it.

Carol’s belongings were too precious to give away. No one else would understand - or care about - their history. They wouldn’t know that the walnut transformed into a thimble-sized flower basket was carved by her grandfather on a sun-dappled day in June or that the rusty, hand-operated egg beater was owned by her mother, Sophie, who made everything from scratch, including her famous mince pies.

One box in particular piqued my interest. The top flap said in big orange and blue letters: Electronic Jet Fighter. There were illustrations of planes and bombs, and one side had a sketch of a radar scope that promised to “fire 1-2-3 rocket guns at moving targets’’.

My husband noticed the box immediately. His paternal grandmother, Ruth, gave him the jet fighter as a Christmas present when he was 9 years old, and he spent many Sunday afternoons on his living room floor flying at supersonic speed. While the toy disappeared long ago, Carol kept the box to store her Christmas ornaments.

I peeked inside.

No Christmas is complete without ornaments. They doll up a sad-sack tree or make a grand tree look even more majestic. Unfortunately, most ornaments today are mass produced to satisfy our consumerist culture and bear no resemblance to their unique forebears. Now you’re more likely to find a dull red ball (probably made of plastic), than a hand-made gold pear with a curled green stem.

Carol’s ornaments were relics of bygone days. Half a century old, maybe older, they were all made of glass and wrapped in white tissue paper, faded and brittle. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call these wondrous decorations works of art.

I have no idea who made them, but I imagine he must have been a heck of a craftsman, maybe a shy old man with bad posture who owned a trinket shop on Broadway and displayed his creations on a wilted evergreen in a dimly-lit window he never bothered to clean. Did Eddie, the neighborhood dreamer, press his freckled nose against the pane every holiday season and calculate how much penny candy he’d have to forgo to buy the toy soldier with the red drum?

Par-rum-pa-pum-pum, Eddie hummed. A week with no licorice.

Nothing is truly yours until you use it, until you roll it around in your hands and smell it. You can inherit all sorts of things from a doting aunt, but if they remain in a box, untouched, they are museum pieces tucked away in storage for an exhibit that, in all likelihood, will never happen.

If you have children, as I do, you worry that these heirlooms could break. I am the mother of two spirited boys. The latest mishap around our house involved an antique cabinet whose glass door was shattered by a football tossed by my 10-year-old son, Peder, who was aiming for the sofa and missed.

I suppose I could have made a case for keeping Carol’s ornaments in the jet fighter box, at least until my sons go off to college, but I decided to risk it. The decorations were too charming not to share with family and friends and, anyway, what misfortune could befall an ornament dangling from a top branch, out of reach of small hands.

I took the box downstairs and we trimmed the tree with Carol’s stuff: a reindeer in snow-capped mountains; a gold vase with arched handles; a bell that went ting-ting with the slightest tap; a sky-blue genie lamp that looked like it belonged to Alladin; a pinecone so delicate I was tempted to offer it to a squirrel; a gold trumpet fit for a little person, maybe a troll; a bluebird with a tail of yellow feathers.

In all, there were 56 ornaments, some still in their original boxes, including one that contained 12 hexagons in various shades of blue and, according to a sticker on the box, went for a mere 49 cents at McLellan’s, a five and dime at the corner of Medway and Wayland that shuttered its doors decades ago.

Other Christmas decorations were in the box too. I found a package of Christmas tree bulbs, gold, blue, and green, and although they no longer worked, I kept them anyway and put them in a fruit bowl where they looked like polished gemstones.

I found a candle holder carved from a birch tree and a foot-high cutout of Santa from a shop called The Tin Woodsman. I found a Santa piggy bank from the now-defunct Old Stone Bank and a string of Norwegian flags that Carol hung across her tree in honor of her heritage: God jul.

We celebrated our tree trimming with eggnog and sugar cookies. Later that night, after my sons went to sleep, I crept downstairs and plugged in the lights.

Christmas is a hectic holiday, what with all the pressure to spend and please. I have always found solace, at night, next to a Christmas tree lit up. In the darkness, the ornaments come alive. The drummer drums, the bell rings.

 I searched the thick branches for my favorite ornament, the bluebird.

There she was perched high, just below the star, shining bright. I noticed that she was crooked, so I decided to straighten her. I reached up and touched her lightly, and she came crashing down.

Shards of colored glass littered the floor. I knew a repair job was out of the question and that she was gone forever.

To this day, no one but me knows what happened. Clumsy mom will keep it that way. If my sons ever ask about our bluebird, I’ll tell them the truth.

She flew away, and I couldn’t catch her.

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