Mom always let me open one present on Christmas Eve. I was never excited about it, though, because I knew what it was: an ornament for the tree.
As a kid, I didn’t appreciate this gesture. Toys! Candy! More, more, more! No matter how loudly I complained, year after year, mom continued the tradition by simply stating “You’ll appreciate it someday.” I grumbled and hung the ornament haphazardly and stomped off to find more interesting things to do. Six-year-old me played with blocks; 16-year-old me hid in the basement wishing I was anywhere but home.
I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. I knew it all and I wasn’t afraid to let everyone know it. I traveled across the country on my own adventure of first jobs, first loves, and first apartments. I pretended that I didn’t need my family anymore when I settled 2000 miles away.
The first winter on my own, I put up my mini-Christmas tree and unpacked every ornament until the branches bent with the weight of my memories.
As I sat back and admired the beautiful lights and decorations I noticed a pattern: adventure might as well have been our family name. Most of the ornaments were reminders of travel and exploration. There was a goofy moose from the time we sat in our van for two hours waiting for a herd of the giant lumbering animals to cross the road in Yellowstone National Park. There was a Mickey Mouse figurine from a trip to Florida where I found $20 and a free ticket to Disney World on the ground.
There was a Japanese good luck doll, a Rasta man with dreadlocks from Jamaica, a Kokopelli from our trip to the Grand Canyon.
I don’t know if my mom knew that I brought my box of ornaments with me; I never told her and we never talked about it. But, she was right. I did appreciate those ornaments, especially when I sat alone, thousands of miles away from my childhood.
I planted roots in southern California, otherwise known as the land of fruits and nuts (as my dad liked to say). I found a job and worked my way up to manager in between bonfires on the beach and camping trips in the mountains. My friends became my surrogate family; I was safe, loved. I was happy.
Seven years later, when mom got sick, I set my motley collection of used furniture out on the curb with a “free” sign and wished I could find a way to bottle up the ocean air. I wasn’t ready to leave the life I had created in California, but there was no doubt in my heart that I needed to be home again.
With my car packed to the brim with clothes and plants and a hula hoop, I trekked across the desert, the mountains, and the Great Plains and pulled into my childhood driveway in the middle of Midwestern suburbia.
I was grateful to be near my mom in her final days, but it was not the kind of adventure I wanted to remember her by. I wanted to keep my memories of her vibrant and exciting and so for two years, I ignored the cancer, the fear, and the grief by stuffing my feelings down my throat and washing them down with another beer.
The year mom died, I put up my Christmas tree with a heavy heart. I unpacked the ornaments, but I barely looked at them. Rather than reveling in the tradition, I became angry that my mom and I would never share another adventure again.
Lost in my own grief, I almost missed the message she left for me. There, nestled between Japan and Jamaica, was a simple crochet angel. A note, scrawled matter-of-factly in her choppy cursive handwriting, said “Here’s an angel to look over you.” That’s it. No signature. No lovey-dovey closing. Just the facts, ma’am.
Years of buried tears finally fell from my cheeks. I don’t know when she decided I needed a final ornament or how she slipped the guardian angel into the box without me knowing, but I do know that it was her way of telling me that the adventure hadn’t stopped. It was up to me to keep it alive.
The year my son was born, I purchased his first ornament and placed it on the tree next to the rocking horse my mom bought for me on my first Christmas. Every year, I’ve tortured him with a Christmas Eve gift of an ornament. I channel my mom when I tell him “You’ll appreciate it someday.”
My mom never got to meet her grandson, but he will know her stories, her adventures, her traditions, if only by looking at our Christmas tree.