When we had our fire in October 2010, I counted the melted, somewhat charred plastic tubs of Christmas decorations among our greatest losses. Insurance was able to replace my wrenches and hammers, our yard implements, a few shelving units and my modest collection of fishing gear. Even my collectible old portable computer – an unwieldy sewing machine sized predecessor to today’s laptops, netbooks and notebooks – was replaced by a modern desktop running Windows 8 instead of MS-DOS.
But I still remember sitting down on our patio a few days after the fire and going through the tubs that held more than just holiday decorations – they stored some of our family’s fondest memories. Still in shock from the fire and reeling from the break-in the night after the fire, I probably should have waited to tackle the job. But I am stubborn.
Most of the decorations were toast. Some were charred, others gummed up with melted plastic and some of them soaked with the foam and/or water used by fire fighters to halt the advance of the inferno that gutted our garage and threatened our home. But as I picked through the mess, I found a few survivors, the most important of which might have been a few wooden ornaments that date back to 1974, the very first Christmas Margie and I shared as a married couple.
Despite our tight budget, we were determined that we would have a Christmas tree in our little apartment. We found a place where we could cut one down at a price we could afford, and the tree farmer even nailed on a simple stand for free and we hauled it home tied to the top of our VW Beetle. We spent maybe 50 cents for a couple of boxes of tinsel and I cut a star out of cardboard and wrapped it in aluminum foil before putting it atop our tree. Then we added our only ornaments, a few handed down by our parents and a collection of wooden decorations that came from a paint-by-number kit Margie had found a few months earlier at a rummage sale.
Those wooden ornaments have always held a special place in my heart, as do the memories of that first Christmas tree. Those were good times, even if they were lean. We had moved to Stevens Point so I could resume my college education. Margie was able to find a job essentially running the breakfast/lunch counter at a local hospital just a block off campus. There, she made some great friends, both with employees of the hospital and with a few folks from the school, including a college professor who would linger over coffee and talk with Margie about her memories and experiences over a colorful lifetime. I never really found a “real” job that fit my schedule, but I did wind up making a few bucks with a paid position at the campus newspaper, the Pointer. Somehow we learned not only how to “get by” but how to thrive in the face of lean times. We had good friends, we had good times and we were really enjoying life.
Those simple hand-painted ornaments that came out of the box once year after that were a reminder of the lessons learned in those early days of marriage.
This year, our tree – an artificial fir purchased with insurance proceeds – stands adorned with many different ornaments, including a good number of beautiful decorations Margie found at incredibly low prices after we spent Christmas 2010 in my mother’s duplex as workers tackled the reconstruction of our home. There is a trio of beautiful cut glass angels, an array of beautiful bulbs and even one that I bought for Margie the year of the fire because it spoke to me: “Home Is Where the Heart Is.”
Also adorning the tree are nearly a dozen hand-made ornaments our two wonderful daughters created in the wake of the fire, ornaments incorporating photos from the past, photos that evoke memories every bit as precious as those I have of Christmas 1974. Of course, there are also ornaments featuring our three grandchildren, some of my favorite people in the world.
As we were unpacking and hanging some of the beautiful store-bought ornaments, I was gripped by a small wave of sadness. I began to grieve the memories lost in that fire, the ornaments that meant so much to us that could not be salvaged. But when we reached the box with the ornaments from our girls and our grandchildren, the mood changed – and changed quickly.
Each new ornament was a reminder that what we lost in the fire were not our memories, but just things. We lost some beautiful little ornaments that Margie and her mother created by hand. We lost a pair of needlepoint ornaments crafted by my brother's wife Trish. There were a few from Margie's sister Barb, as well. (Those English girls were a crafty lot.) We lost Sunday school projects created by our daughters over the years. And we lost most of the little wooden figures that Margie had so fastidiously painted that first year of our marriage.
But we did not lose our sweet memories. As a matter of fact, we gained new memories, very wonderful memories. I still feel tears at the corners of my eyes when I remember Margie opening one of the best Christmas presents of all time two years ago. Our daughters had fond memories of Mr. and Mrs. Snowman, a pair of crocheted figures stretched over foam balls. The decorations had been created by Margie’s mother, Dolores English decades earlier and I never dreamed they could be replaced, at least not until my girls asked for a copy of a photo showing the two figures sitting on our mantle. Hannah and Jessica spent the better part of a weekend together recreating the gift that Margie had treasured from her mother. And I can find no words to describe the look of anticipation on their faces as their mother opened their heartfelt gift.
My bookshelves are overflowing with books that I hate to part with and books that I have yet to read. Our closets are stuffed with clothes, none of them fancy but all of them serviceable. Our pantry is full, and our garage is once again becoming cluttered with the “stuff” that seems to collect on all its own. But we learned a few years ago that we could get by without “stuff.” In the wake of the fire, we packed our bags as if for a long vacation and loaded up our computers so we could move in with Mom for a few months. We left most of our “stuff” behind to be cleaned and put into storage until we could move back into our home. We never lacked for anything that we really needed.
What I do need, however, are my memories – memories both new and old. This has been an eventful year for our small family. We added a new member when Jessica married Andrew Fields, giving us a second fine son-in-law to call our own (and to call when something heavy needs lifting). Their wedding was a festive time when we were able to not only celebrate their union, but to renew our connections with dozens of relatives who came to Longview to help us enjoy the occasion.
Memories such as that are what I treasure and always will. I am already looking forward to Christmas 2013 when we can once again pull down the tubs and unpack the memories of a rich and rewarding life together.