Feeling very nostalgic lately. Always, after Christmas, the ritual of taking the tree down is bitter sweet. Since the kids are grown that job is left for me to do all alone and stirs up the memories quite strongly. I take the ornaments off one at a time and by categories. The home made ones always the most precious come off first. The little clothespin angel my daughter made in kindergarten out of a clothespin and a paper doily for angel wings, colored with crayon in art class is always the first on and first off. The little woolen teddy bear my son dragged home from school one day is next and this ritual continues till all of the homemade decorations are down and counted. The routine goes on til the tree is naked. But with each one that the tree sheds, there is a story attached and as I hold it in my hand and look down on it the memories come flashing back. There is no one there with me to share it with so it often brings a smile to my face or a tear to my eye. Each ornament has a significance. It might be one of our beloved pets, something from my parents, car replicas, a souvenir from a place we visited, anything that was a piece of our lives throughout the years. And when viewed in these moments of undecorating they actually tell the story of our life together as a family. Nothing else chronologically tells this story the way the dismantling of the Christmas tree does every year. No doubt an arduous task but one that causes moments of pleasant reflection and nostalgia, laughs and tears, only to be boxed and put away til the following Christmas season. This was what I wanted to write my piece about this time but while in this process something else came to the forefront.
Those memories are precious and tender and I value them tremendously but there are other profound memories that come to mind that have much deeper impact. Perhaps those impactful memories might best be described as traditions. Memories that do more than just call to mind pleasant times from the past. This year one of those traditions occupied my mind for pretty much the entire season bringing me back to my childhood. The 1950’s and early 60’s were perhaps a gentler time personally for me. Christmas didn’t even enter the psyche until the second week of December when stores would begin to be decorated. The expectation of its arrival made it special and exciting, unlike today when right after Back to School displays are often replaced with hints of Christmas to come, elongating the Christmas season from the beginning of October taking away the mystery and special nature of the season. Stores were open week days til 6 and on Friday til 9pm. Nothing was open on Sunday. Life was kind of slower. I think I have mentioned before that the only thing my brother, father and I did together was centered around our model railroad. I guess it started when my brother, who was 8 years older than I was born and my dad bought him a pre war Lionel train set. My dad went away to war and I was born about 9 months after he returned and about 4 years later I got my Lionel train set. Due to our age difference, my brother and I had very little in common and by the time I could run around the house and talk he was already in intermediate school and I was just a pesky little brother. It wasn’t until one Christmas that my dad decided to build a platform for our trains on the living room floor that we began to work together on anything.
The platform took up half the living room floor 8 ft deep and about 12 feet long. It stretched from one end of the living room to the other. The tree never went up til the last minute. My dad would go out just before Christmas Eve and buy 2 trees for 50 cents each, cut all the branches off one and drill holes in the trunk of the other where branches were needed and plugged in the cut branches. My brother painted roadways on the platform and he and dad laid and secured the two sets of tracks on the community. I was too inexperienced to be much help but that changed pretty quickly in subsequent years. The wondrous thing about this memory/tradition is that it was more than just a function of the brain. I remember the smell of the electric engine running around the track, the puffs of smoke pouring out of the engine as it came around the bend. I can hear the sound of the wheels on the track and the sound of the whistle when one of us engineers would make it blow. The little neighborhoods came to life for me as the structures became real and the little plastic figurines became families. I could almost smell the exhaust from the small metal 1950’s Oldsmobiles and Fords traveling through on the painted streets my brother invented. It was a thrill and there we were, my dad, my teenage brother and this little skinny 6 year old lying down on the floor watching for the engine headlight to come out of the tunnel in the pretend mountain in the corner. For brief moments we were locked together in that little community imagining living in that little cottage or visiting a friend in the Plasticville Hospital. lt allowed the three of us to escape reality for a brief moment and be imaginary citizens of this little make believe town.
Of course, as brothers, as the years passed we would fight and as a little kid at a disadvantage I would say to my brother, “Well I think this year I will put the church over in this corner and the 5 and dime can go across town and he would get pissed off! But every year as the season approached Lionel and Plasticville would have a whole new line of structures and railroad cars for us to add to our village. The local Woolworths was a treasure chest of trains and model buildings and it was always a big deal. We did this every year til I went away to college and my brother no longer lived at home.
This is more than just a great memory, partly because all my senses were involved in the tradition and I can still bring them to mind and relive them! Years later we did an abridged version around our tree with my kids and turned a bedroom in my house into a train room. But even today, I go down to my basement and see all the boxes and accessories and the tradition comes rushing back and warms my heart. Half of the pleasure was doing it with my dad and brother and to do it now seems overwhelming but that is not out of the question!
As George talked about what he proposed to write – The Memory Tree – I had staked out a rejoinder based on our own Christmas tree. It brought to mind that the tree is a story of our life: saved ornaments from childhood and those added as our family grew, and finally from our departed parents. Our tree seems more like a legacy than a tradition. Linda has a cheap plastic reindeer that must go on the tree each year – a holdover from her toddler days. I have grown to love that ornament as well with its pure red luminescence. My favorite is a three dimensional, anodized gold star that was purchased at the Little Red House of Gifts for the first Christmas we spent in our new apartment; that always has a place of honor. Decorating the tree always brings back memories of my brother and I as kids laying under the tree looking up at the reflections from three large glass balls, each separately colored a beautiful deep green, blue and red. When I think of my favorite colors, these deep, true colors always come to mind.
But then George widened his aperture and described his train set and the wonderful exchange among his family when constructing the layout every year. That’s a special memory! However, it got me off-track (pun intended) in considering what to write.
When George, Hen, and I later discussed George’s piece, Hen said that the broader perspective was about tradition and perhaps that would cause him to think about – and possibly write about — the traditions he has enjoyed. Hen’s traditions did not include a Christmas tree, so that also widens the parameters we might use to generate a response to George.
Tradition isn’t something I fixate upon, although I have many repetitious behaviors! Sure, we have Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas Eve services and Merry meatballs, New Year’s Eve herring, and New Year’s Day pork roast – wait! – are all my traditions food-related? Maybe, but it’s really who you share the meal with that’s most important…. And that can be accomplished in non-traditional venues.
So, I don’t wish to catalogue traditions just now. But in thinking about George’s piece, I realized how ‘one-track’ my mind really is (okay, I’ll stop with the RR connections).
I once attended a seminar conducted by two professors from Bowling Green University. They declared that each written communication in the business world ought to have only one topic. If you have two subjects to bring up, then write two memos. Made sense to me… and I’ve tried to follow that dictum ever since.
However, I am no longer in the business world. And sharing a story is different than goal-oriented writing. Stories are rarely about one subject. They may have one title, but all kinds of details and sidebars attach themselves to the main narrative. Some may say that is the essence of a good story. I think George is a good story-teller. Me, not so much. But one thing George’s writing has taught me is that a widened aperture takes in a greater field of pleasure.
On Memories and Traditions
George writes about the “sentimental gallery” of ornaments (thanks to my friend and songwriter Leo for the phrase) that brings him to a yearly celebration of the symbols and gifts that came from a life well remembered. As we grow older, it seems we spend more time remembering than perhaps looking forward. The memories we place in the fond category, help us make sense of the life we’ve lived and maybe even guide us toward using our remaining days to fill any uncovered voids we discover during our many journeys down memory lane.
My mom was fond of traditions. Every Halloween, our house was more than a pit stop for costumed candy grabbers. It was the place most youngsters stopped to enjoy some hot cocoa and dunk for apples and get extended oohs and ahhs for the costumes they wore…especially if they were hand made!
In our neighborhood of some 60 families, only three of us celebrated Chanukah instead of Christmas, yet it was a yearly tradition for all of us children to go house-to-house singing Christmas carols, hand in hand, with a joyful sense of togetherness.
We lived with very little money and so vacations and going out to dinner, while common for our friends and neighbors, were not something we could afford. However, at the end of every school year, my mom would take us out to the Chinese restaurant in the neighboring town to celebrate our promotions to the next grade. I can remember climbing the steep stairs to the restaurant, the aroma of food as we passed by the kitchen on our way to our table, the waiters standing by ready to fill our water glasses every time we took a sip (it seemed), and the enjoyment of eating foods that were not served at home. Oh how we looked forward to that day each year.
There were other great memories that happened regularly. Every spring we planted and tended our vegetable garden. It seemed we always had a successful, ongoing harvest of tasty greens and too many tomatoes. One of my sisters and I continued this practice but it didn’t catch on with my children or my nieces. That’s the way it goes, I suspect. Some behaviors and practices are kept, some modified, and some seem to disappear. Perhaps they will resurface down the line, perhaps not. But for sure, there are new traditions established and new memories made.
“Every man’s memory is his private literature” – Aldous Huxley