Christmas begins early at our house. The tree goes up right after Thanksgiving, a faux pine but a beautiful one, with artificial snow sprinkled about its branches. It’s always a full weekend of hauling boxes, unpacking ornaments, putting out the whimsical Santa that stands in our front hallway, and climbing up on the ladder to put the spindly glass ornament on the top of the tree. But for me, there’s really no Christmas tree without one special ornament, a reindeer with a red nose: Rudolph, of course.
This particular ornament takes me back to my childhood in Wisconsin. I don’t remember not having it. As far in the past as my memory travels, it hung on my parents’ Christmas tree. To see it, I imagine most folks would wonder why it’s so special. It’s made of plastic not gems or even blown glass. It doesn’t sparkle. It has no value. But to me, it’s irreplaceable.
My mother kept it in a green box, in amongst her collection of ornaments. There were many. Some my maternal grandmother crocheted, others my father’s sister and mother made of wax paper and sparkles during the Great Depression. As a small girl, I heard the stories of how my father sold the tiny creations door-to-door, desperate for money to buy food and wood for the stove. I think of the trials many are enduring today, with a rocky economy and so much trouble in the world, and those small tattered stars remind me that there have been tough times before, and always we’ve persevered.
Of all the ornaments, however, for me the reindeer was exceptional. I don’t know why except
that my mother must have known that I liked it, and she’d always entrusted it to me to hang on the tree. When I was small, the ornament hung just a few feet off the floor, because that was as far as I could reach. As I grew older, it claimed a higher place. As a teenager, I remember standing on a stool and hanging it nearly at the top.
The years passed. After I married and moved to Texas, I visited often, but I rarely traveled home for Christmas. Yet every December, my mother called to tell me the house was decorated and that my reindeer had a place of honor on their tree. I loved hearing that. Although I was far away, somehow knowing that little reindeer hung on my parents' tree made me feel closer to them.
The decades skated past without notice, and we all grew older. In the late nineties, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She changed in small ways at first. I returned home one fall and found that after she’d dress to go out with me, she’d forgotten where we were going. She couldn’t remember how to make her favorite cream cheese and chip beef appetizer spread, and she repeated stories, time and again. The disease progressed, until one terrible visit when I realized that she didn't know my name. When my father couldn’t care for her any longer, I returned home to help him find a nursing home. Those were dark days, ones I’m glad I will never have to relive.
Four years ago, my mother died. Afterward we moved my father out of the house he’d shared with my mother, the one where I grew up. I helped pack, and the third day into the task, I found myself in the basement standing over an aging ping-pong table, surveying a hodgepodge of boxes and Christmas decorations.
My mother had always been a precise woman. After the holidays ended, when we took the tree down, she’d carefully wrapped and packed each ornament, protecting them for the following year. But what I found were ornaments strewn about, nothing wrapped, many as broken as her mind had been by the unabated onslaught of the disease. I spent hours weeding through, saving what I could. Eventually, I found my reindeer not in the box where my mother had kept it but discarded in a sack of artificial pine boughs ringed with lights. Perhaps that’s where she’d hung it the last year she’d used it? I’ll never know.
When I left for Texas at the end of that week, the reindeer ornament was carefully wrapped in tissue paper inside my purse. That Christmas, after the rest of the tree was decorated, I unwrapped it and held it in my hands. Then I anchored it front and center. For a long time, I stood and looked at it, remembering. Sad at first, I soon found myself smiling, realizing how happy my mother would have been to see it there.
When the holidays ended and the tree came down, I didn’t want to put it away. Instead, I found a place for Rudolph on a shelf in a cabinet in my office, where I can glance at it while I write. It’s on display year round, and whenever I notice it I think of days long past. I picture my mother holding it out to me, and remember how I stretched my arms so high to hang my reindeer on our Christmas tree.