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Ornament Brigade

My nephew Brian greeted us just inside the door to my mother’s house. On his head was a fuzzy Santa hat, and in his hands he held a black plastic camera. “Say, ‘Cheese,’” he said through an adorable smile. I flashed my teeth and leaned in close, thinking to bring him in for a hug after he played picture-time or whatever, but once my face was a few inches from the “camera,” a cold stream of water gushed from the fake lens and onto my face.

“Oh, come on,” I said, trying not to smear my lipstick as I patted my nose and lips dry. “Okay, fine. You got me. But I’m going to get you back.” And I did — about an hour later, when I lifted him under my arm like a handbag, carried him to the kitchen sink, and turned the faucet on his head as he laughed and squirmed. But for now, revenge could wait, as I had other matters to attend to; namely, the delivery of gifts.

The gifts David and I came bearing were not Christmas gifts. I assumed that, by now, my sisters had come up with some kind of story to explain why Aunt Barb and Uncle David were never seen on Christmas day. The actual reason is boring — my man and I prefer to do our own thing: we start with champagne and then move on to whatever we feel like doing for a day while the rest of the world is busy. We also have a “no gift” rule. No religion, no obligation, no stress, no email or phone calls to contend with; it’s a wonderful day.

And, anyway, it was only the first of December. The reason for the gifts was we’d just gotten home from visiting with David’s parents on Martha’s Vineyard, and every time we’re on the island we hit up two stores known for their fun gifts (Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven and Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury) and select a few things to bring back to our niephlings. I like to give the kids presents outside the traditional gift-giving occasions — mostly because I don’t want to compete with other gift-givers for the recipient’s acknowledgement and appreciation.

It just so happened that the day we were able to deliver our bag of goodies, the family was gathered at Mom’s to decorate her Christmas tree. Each year, my sister Heather and her husband Sean help Mom pick out a tree, and then they haul it home and make it vertical in her living room. Once the pine is in place, my mother chooses a seat on the sofa that gives her the best full-tree vantage point, and it is from there that she directs the decorating like a New York Italian Tarantino.

When David and I arrived, the tree was already standing, but the evidence showed it had just gone up — pine needles littered the carpet and the boxes of ornaments had yet to be opened. Sean took care of the lights — all white, to match the white lace bows (which go on last) that my crafty mother made the year she decided to forego the red-and-white checked bows and colored lights of my early childhood for a more “Victorian” look.

My brother-in-law Simon was there with Bella and Olivia. Before the kids broke into the boxes, I had them gather ’round so I could explain each bestowal. “These rocks are actually geodes — you use a sock to bash them open to find the crystals inside. But wait for your dad to help. When you put together the puzzle pieces from this ‘floating bottle,’ it’ll form a treasure map. This…I don’t know what this is, some kind of pirate game. Liam, you’re the oldest, figure it out and explain it to the others, will you? Brian, you and Bella are in charge of the fake tattoos.”

Brian, all tangled in lights

Brian, all tangled in lights

Heather ensured that each child thanked us properly, and I reveled in the gratitude, but only for a few minutes, because now it was tree time. An eight-foot-tall tree has never been dressed so quickly. The children formed an ornament brigade, advancing on the tree with the determination of Patton’s Army.

I sat on the couch beside Heather and Mom. “It’s so much more fun when we don’t have to be the ones taking direction,” I said to Heather. She smiled and nodded. I wondered if my niephlings would ever reach the same point of irritation we did with the whole tree-decorating thing; if they would ever snap at their Nana, You think it needs to be a little higher and to the right? Then put it on yourself. I cringed at the memory of what petulant little bitches my sisters and I had been at times.

My niephlings descending on the tree

My niephlings descending on the tree

Ornaments flashed by like memories. The weird nylon granny heads Mom sewed had long since lost their little wire glasses. There were the driftwood pieces painted to look like freakish elves — Mom bought a new one (or two) every year from the holiday craft fair in Coronado. The nutcracker soldier made of construction paper that Jenny created in kindergarten — how had that survived?

“You got me this one,” Mom said, holding up a Patience Brewster “Six Geese a-Laying” sculpture, complete with white, downy feathers. “And this.” Mom handed me a glass hummingbird.

“I have damn good taste in ornaments,” I said. “That reminds me, I have something for you, too.” I returned to the bag of gifts and retrieved a blob of bubble wrap, from which I unearthed a glass dome containing a red glittery cardinal and little balls of snow.

“It’s not a chicken,” Mom said, showing her disappointment.

“You have enough chickens,” I snapped. “It’s time to branch out into other birds.”

“I’m just kidding,” Mom said unconvincingly.

“Hey, Brian,” I said. “Where did you put that camera? I think your Nana wants you to take her picture.”

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