The boxes, stacked in the garage, seem new to me, plastic with clip-lock lids, but we’ve had them for years. They’re dusty and drizzled by Floridian garage-fawna. They don’t look like the cardboard boxes I used to carry to the attic up north and store on parched pink clouds of insulation. They’re different, until I fill them again and see what’s inside.
One box holds all the ornaments I once gave to my daughter, a new horse for each new year. They’re now holding their breath in their static prance, waiting for her children, who may, or may never, arrive. I blink and for split second, see through my daughter’s future eyes. I see her hands reach for the tissue and wrap the papier-mâché horse, and, in that second, I am she, remembering me.
In another box go the holiday cookie tins, aprons, dish towels, and platters my aunt mailed to me, my aunt whose home we used to visit on Christmas day when I was a girl, whose home isn’t the home it was when it wasn’t what it once was, back then, before. Back then I once reached high to set her table. The fork goes here. The dessert spoon there. I polished her silver and finally got to sit with the grown-ups, photos of whom are now in plastic boxes, with clip-lock lids, forgotten, snowed under a blizzard of digital images.
The tree rains down needles of piney Christmases past. I lift off my new bird ornaments, years old now, cradle them, wrap them in tissue, tuck them into the box. Where dangled horses, now hang the birds my mother gave me. Birds because my family used to keep birds–racing pigeons four generations back, parakeets two generations back, parrots one, finches mine. Because bird-watching is my family heritage. Because my mother loves them. Because the tree was once alive with living birds. Because precious, fragile, fleeting, flown.
I reach around the tree, a stiff and respectful embrace, step back, reach again, the dance of the tree and me. I’m unwinding the lights. I remember winding them weeks before. I remember winding and unwinding a year before. And so on, alone. I remember the shortest days of the year, the fear and the fight against the dark, candlelight masses, candles in trees, bonfires, pyres, the controlled burn that is life.
Ever since my first marriage, I’ve made the holiday alone–the tree, the garland, the food, the presents–driven by a force I don’t understand. Create and destroy. I am Santa, I am keeper and transformer of tradition, I am Kali of time and change, I am of the Mōdraniht, the Night-mothers, commander of the credit card and the tape gun. When you’re not looking, I bring the cornucopia; when you’re not looking, I take it away. I am daughter of the goddess of the Yule.
Year after year, on one of the longest nights of the year, I sat alone but for the dogs that are gone. Christmas Eves, I would tuck my child into bed, wrap last presents, arrange them artfully below the tree, and leave crumbs on Santa’s plate. Today I crawl beneath the tree, suffering a hundred needle-pricks, and unscrew the stand, releasing the tree and remembering the faces bright with photo flashes reflected off torn wrapping paper. The dopamine-fix of acquisition. The dopamine-fix of giving. I remember my little girl happy to see a new rocking horse, my grown girl happy to see a new book. I watched the faces happy to see each other but everywhere seeing, remembering, the missing.
And me, watching the three young women–my daughter, his daughter, his son’s lover–and wondering who will be the first to give Santa new life.
My husband’s adult children opened gifts on which was written, “From Dad and Lisa.” Awkward, murky, but pleased, they thanked only me. They understood, as I understood back then, before, when I aimed my thanks toward my mother, stepmother, aunt. Santa is a woman. But they don’t know how much it really costs her. Not yet.
I carry the boxes back into the garage and stack them. Hours have passed. This is silly. It’s trivial. It’s a lot of garbage. It’s a big expense. My fingers are sticky with pine sap. “Whoa, the room looks empty,” my husband says, kissing the top of my head. “It’s a lot of work, eh? But you love Christmas. You made it special.” I get out the broom. He makes us tea. “Thanks for cleaning up after yourself,” he says over the edge of his cup, and ducks back into his office to get back to work making our living.
Am I cleaning up after myself? Is that what I”m doing?
Was all this Christmas just me?
We Santa-women take turns on the night watch, alone but not lonely, cleaning up, laying out, stringing up, taking down, thinking, “It’s not worth it,” knowing, “It’s all that matters,” dragging the tree and the last of its scent to the curb, breathing in, “We’re alive together,” breathing out, “Good-bye.”