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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

Christmas Ornaments Are Like Books

The most unusual Christmas ornament anyone ever gave me was a little wreath carved from coal. The giver was June, a cousin of my mother's. Her much-older sister Helen had died, leaving everything to her, and one of the things that turned up was a large stash of Christmas ornaments neatly stored in the attic, ready for the next year's tree. Most of the ornaments June gave to a local volunteer group that decorated trees for shut-ins, but she sent me the coal wreath because all of us had connections of one kind or another to coal mining and mining towns.

I hang the wreath on what I think of as our Arts & Crafts tree because everything on it was made by hand. When my eye falls on Helen's wreath, I remember her fondly even though we never met and I know her only from a couple of brief phone calls close to the end of her life, as well as from June's stories and family albums. The photographs show a beautiful girl who matured into a beautiful woman with fair, curly hair and intelligent eyes, always well groomed and stylishly dressed, always smiling.

Helen was born in an Alabama coal-mining town where her father managed the big company store. Denied college by economic circumstances - the Great Depression of the 1930s was at its peak when she was supposed to go - she started to work as a teenager, and within a few years her adventurous spirit took her far from home at a time when most females rarely ventured outside the family circle.

It was when she was in the Women's Air Corps during World War II that she met the young man who became her fiancé, a pilot whose plane went down in the Pacific. When he was declared dead, about the time the war ended, Helen dried her tears, took a deep breath, and got on with life, which for her after this early loss did not include romance but rather a series of administrative jobs, each of about ten years duration in one interesting city or another around the U.S. - Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Washington, D.C. After her retirement at the age of seventy, she moved back to Alabama to be close to family and lived for another eighteen years, energetic and opinionated, the delight of those who loved and agreed with her and the bane of those who did not (especially the agreement part).

The memory of all that beauty, all that energy and exuberance, is contained in Helen's little coal wreath as surely as if the dark circle were a book with proper pages and appropriate typography.

All of the ornaments on the Arts & Crafts tree are like that - some new, some antiques when they were bought, gifts from friends, family, and clients or souvenirs of trips to galleries, arts fairs, and vacation destinations. Each brings back associations that range far beyond the specific item itself, a prompt of personalities and places, not only of those who gave the ornaments but also those who created them.

I've always thought it would be interesting if the ornaments themselves could tell us about the start of their stories. If the embroidered heart could speak and say, "I came to life in 1955 when my maker, Suzy Kendall of Acworth, Ohio, inherited a crazy quilt from her grandmother that was so torn in places that she decided to cut it apart and use it as the covering for a series of the Christmas ornaments she made to supplement her husband's income. Jerry worked hard - he was a salesman in a grain store - but Suzy was building up a college fund for her son and daughter and that's where she put the money she earned from the sale of the ornaments. Suzy was well known as a craftsperson, and galleries all across the U.S. sold her ornaments. I went to a gallery in Columbus, where I was bought by a collector who hung me on her Christmas tree and whose heirs ultimately sold me in a box with other ornaments to an antique dealer."

That'd be pretty cool. Of course, that would also mean quite a cacophony as each ornament began to speak up, especially if they didn't confine their comments to their past but began to express opinions about their present use. Would the elegant, hand-blown glass bead from the Berea College gallery sniff at being hung next to the calico dog from the "all our own work" church yard sale in Anniston? Would the miniature calligraphic scroll find the felt gingerbread man too primitive? Would our tree turn out to be not as tolerant of diversity as we assume?

Robert and I wish you the happiest of holidays and hope that you are having as much fun with your ornaments as we are with ours.

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