Holiday ornaments stalled my progress with the fir tree in the living room. My husband, Bruce, had died nearly seven years ago, and I wanted to combine the task of going through the ornaments to either throw out or donate, while hanging a few on the tree. So much of my life had turned into a mission of clearing out. Bruce’s possessions had taken me years to sort and clear and, yet, I wasn’t finished. What belonged to both of us also needed attention, hence the ornament project, but the task overwhelmed me and took several days to complete. I barely managed to hang a few ornaments on the tree.
Bruce had an oddball assortment of holiday ornaments, many of them handmade His other ornaments were cookie cutters, metal tea holders, and bits of macramé small enough to hang on a tree. I found these hard to throw away or donate. Just when I thought my hide was tough, I’d locate a tender spot.
When he walked in the world, Bruce always looked for natural things, some living, some dying. From sidewalks, he’d collect fall-colored leaves and arrange them prettily on the dining room table. We collected mushrooms; he’d place them on white paper to collect spore prints to help identify them, and decide whether they were safe to eat. Feathers, especially from large birds, were something he couldn’t resist, as were pinecones, but the ones he wanted were far too big for our holiday trees. I missed being in the woods with him, walking slowly so that we didn’t miss a thing.
I was in one of those garage sale, estate sale, thrift and antique store habitués. This year, when I attended estate sales, the holiday décor hurtled to my attention. The items were usually piled chock-a-block on a too-small table. Glittery, you could identify them from afar. I nosed around in the large collections of holiday ornaments and more: small fake trees, fake wreaths and garlands, holiday-themed candle holders, fat ceramic Santas and gold-painted angels, midcentury era strings of lights with large opaque colored bulbs. The ornaments were usually glass and fragile, and I wondered how many might survive in the jam-packed arrangement. It made me terribly sad, and I couldn’t help but think of my mother who died recently.
When my elderly mother wanted to give away her ornaments, I was happy to take them. Among them, I found the dyed capiz-shell ornaments I bought for her in the Philippines: a pink bell, a blue stocking. When she and my father traveled through Europe, she bought Christmas ornaments wherever they went. I did not keep all of her ornaments, but I did keep those that made me smile. When my mother died, she had pared down to a tiny pre-lit fake tree and a few appropriately tiny ornaments.
When I saw the holiday detritus from other people’s families at estate sales, questions came to mind. What had the families of the loved one who died been thinking? That someone might be willing to pay 25 cents an ornament? That no one in the family really cared? Was it that the holiday bits and pieces reminded them of parents who had hurt them in some way? Was the family estranged? Did the adult children have no interest in old, vintage goods, preferring instead to buy new things every year from the multitude of big box stores? Was it the collection of a person who had no children? I was a woman without children and the holiday ornaments I decided to keep would likely end up in the trash. That thought took my breath away. Still, paring down was also meant to prevent me from becoming a hoarder or one of those people who beds down wherever she can find an empty bit of floor.
I continued to donate, throw out, and purge what remained of our lives together. As I persisted in freeing myself of these things, I understood that I wasn’t undertaking these acts because my death was imminent. It was life, instead, that loomed.
Amanda Noble has a Ph.D. in sociology. Frustrated by the constraints of social science writing, she turned her attention to creative non-fiction writing, especially personal essay and memoir. Her work has appeared in Seven Hills Review, Indiana Voice, and Eastern Iowa Review, among others. She lives in Davis, California, with her cat, Lucy, where she is revising a memoir of her Peace Corps experience in the Philippines during the tumultuous 1970s.