Every Christmas, I unwrap the tiny nutcracker on his tiny prancing horse from his paper cocoon. Every Christmas I’m reminded of the special lady I called Grandma.
Loving, warm, quick to hug, quick to smile with her sparkling eyes, she was one who touched the hearts of many around her. I was proud of her-and I was proud that out of all the grand kids, I was the one who had the honor of decorating Grandma’s Christmas tree, for a time.
For many years, she had lugged the tree and boxes of decorations up from the basement into the living room by herself. But as time has a way of doing, she became more feeble. With a stent in her heart, hip replacement surgery, and knees that desperately needed surgery themselves, she could no longer bring the Christmas treasures up the narrow stairs of the basement and stand on the ladder she used for placing ornaments at the top of the tree. Since we lived within walking distance, she naturally turned to me for help. I happily agreed.
The first Christmas that marked the beginning of our tree decorating tradition was fraught with meaning for me. I was used to going to her house each year and seeing aunts, uncles, cousins and second cousins, eating delicious food and noting the beautiful tree, but never had I experienced such a personal connection with Grandma and Christmas. There in the living room, she and I talked and laughed. As we pulled the Christmas tree out of the box, I noticed the branches with remnants of icicles from many Christmas’s before. As I attached a branch to the metal pole and spread it out, my thoughts took me to the previous Christmas’s in which Grandma had done the same. Carefully, I attached and spread each branch until there were no gaps in the tree and all was symmetrical and full. It had to be just as good as Grandma did it. I wrapped the strand of large colored bulbs, the kind that were hot to the touch, around and around the tree.
Next was the box of tree ornaments. I thought I knew her ornaments pretty well, but this Christmas showed me differently. As I picked each one up, unwrapped it, and hung it on the tree, Grandma shared stories of how she came to have that one, or how old another one was. There was the ornament made from olive wood that she had brought home from Israel and the little mouse with its fabric guitar that had been on the tree for as long as I could remember, and my favorite, the tiny little nutcracker on the tiny prancing horse. So many ornaments, so many memories.
I then pulled out the tree topper, a tall angel in a white dress that had aged to a cream color, her wings spread on each side of her. Gingerly, I placed her on top of the tree, ensuring that she stood straight and tall. Lastly, I draped the icicles evenly and carefully on every branch, making sure that all branches were covered appropriately. With pride, Grandma told me that it was beautiful; I had done a fine job. She plugged in the strand of lights and the angel. The beauty of the colored lights reflecting in the icicles and the dancing white lights surrounding the angel took my breath away. Now it wasn’t just a tree that I noticed at our Christmas gatherings; it was the expression of Grandma’s heart. I was humbled that I had had the privilege of being the vehicle for her expression that year.
The next three Christmas’s saw the two of us gathered in her living room, listening to Christmas music, relishing our time together. Then life happened. I moved and for whatever reason, our tradition ended just as quickly as it had started. She downsized to a ceramic tree sitting on a table since all of us grand kids were grown. It was never the same.
Many years later, in 2007, she passed away after a long, tiring battle with congestive heart failure. As my eldest aunt divided Grandma’s belongings between the siblings, she remembered our years of decorating the tree together. She wrapped an ornament, the one I loved most, in a square piece of paper and sent it, along with a Christmas cameo pin, to my parents to be given to me.
I don’t recall my initial reaction when I first received it but later that year, at Christmas time, I strategically placed Grandma’s ornament front-and-center on the tree. Tears spilled onto my cheeks as the memories of our four-year tradition filled my mind.
The tradition is still continuing, year-after-year, each time I unwrap the tiny nutcracker on his tiny prancing horse from his cocoon and place him on my tree; for it brings a flood of memories each season and, once more, I am back in my grandmother’s living room-talking, laughing and looking into her sparkling eyes.