“All the Christmas ornaments are destroyed,” my husband Greg said one Saturday this fall.

“What?” I glared at him like he was crazy, because HELLO!?!? He was, obviously! It was October. He was in the process of helping the kids make Halloween costumes. It was nowhere near Christmas or even Christmas decorating. And, most importantly, there was absolutely no way in heck all our ornaments could be destroyed.

“I opened up the bin and something must have gotten damp during the move because they were all covered in disgusting mold.”

“Uh-huh, right,” I half nodded and went back to my Sunday grocery list and meal planning with my creamy cup of hot coffee, completely denying his words. Like a virus coming to wipe out all my computer documents, my brain screamed, “ALERT! ALERT! BLOCK INCOMING MESSAGES.”

I’m good at denial.

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I tossed out his comments in disbelief. I walked away from my kids every time they mentioned it. I denied it for dayseven after the garbage men came and collected the bin my husband wrapped in black garbage bags like it was toxic waste. Probably because it was.

I denied the loss with passion. But little by little, probably like the mold eating away at my ornaments, it broke me. I tried to blink away the images that pried through my vision.

The kids’ cheesy-but-super-cute ornaments with their school pictures inside them.

The teeny, white, paper snowflake my friend Meg made me. Elegant in its simple beauty.

The instruments my mother-in-law sent us when Greg and I used to play the violin and banjo together.

The animals and glittery stars family members sent my kids over the years so they could build their own foundation of ornaments. Foxy and whale and donkey. An entire flock of birds, some velvet, a few handcrafted like Fabergé eggs. One made out of balsa wood, plain, boring, almost always forgotten in the box.

A mini pair of handknit mittens. A mini pair of hockey skates. A mini pair of soft, red, figure skates. All these fun reminders of winter’s magic spell.

The beautiful, gold star my friend brought me from St. Petersburg, Russia.

The shiny apple with my name on it from my students in East L.A.

Santa’s jolly head made out of construction paper by someone in our lives.

An entire choir of angels, each one unique, but altogether with the rest of the ornaments, they sang their multitude on our trees’ branches, year after year.

Every handmade ornament my kids and I made together over the years. 

All the ornaments my mom left me when she died.

The tree-topping star Greg made as a child. 

And the tree-topping lace angel from my mom.

And how we swapped them out each year as the final tree-topping honor.

Once the dam was breached, the images flooded through. And with them, one grief after another. Because it wasn’t, it isn’t simply about things, about possessions, about ornaments being destroyed. It’s the striking loss of so many wonderful holiday memories. Not only memories attached to where each ornament came from, or who they came from, but also the unique memories we have of decorating our tree each year. Arguably, my kids’ favorite holiday activity.

Yes, I mourn the loss of the stuffed mice my great aunt made from felt, complete with their own tiny scarves and mittens. But I will miss the memory of my kids discovering those ornaments even more. Their smiles and squeals of delight when they first saw them the Christmas after my mom died. I will miss how we had to hang them on high branches because our dog Dizzy also fell in love with them, and he would gingerly sneak them off the tree to enjoy a good chew.

How quickly I did a 180.

I closed my eyes to the daily minutiae distracting me from these beloved old friends and tried to picture each carefully packed box of ornaments. I imagined myself opening them, no mold in sight. To see inside. To remember. Like looking inside someone’s heart, my heart. My heart of holiday memories now turned into ghosts. I can capture some like wisps on the wind, but so many scatter away from me. 

Now I turn to my kids and husband to hear what they recalled, knowing together we can paint a clearer collage. But I also know we will not open any boxes in excitement this year, to see what we packed away from previous years, to smile as we are met with our old friends from all the Christmases we’ve enjoyed. And I can only hope some hover like friendly ghost memories locked in our hearts forever.

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Sara Ohlin

Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher and Salvaging Love. You can find her essays at Anderbo.com, Feminine Collective, Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home, and in anthologies such as Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips, & Love from Women Caregivers. Find her at www.saraohlin.com