November was a crazy month at our house. A lot going on in general, and then we received the unexpected news that Mark’s Aunt Barbara had passed away. Aunt Barbara was one of Mark’s closest relatives, and a constant presence of love and support in his childhood and adolescence. She lived alone, and we’ve tried to make an effort to go to Cleveland see her every two months or so.
Every time we visited, she sent us home with something from the house (and a bag of chocolates from Malley’s). She was trying to slowly downsize her possessions, and one year she wanted to give us her Christmas tree and asked if we’d put it up. She had downsized to a smaller fiberoptic tree and her beloved Nativity set, but she really loved Christmas and wanted the tree that her family had for years to go somewhere to be enjoyed. And we agreed.
Sunday night, Mark was out of town. So I put up Aunt Barbara’s tree.
The house was quiet and the lights were low (conveniently, our dining room overhead light is broken). I sorted all of the branches and attached them. Aunt Barbara was nothing if not meticulous, so each branch still had its original labels and the tree remains in perfect condition. I added some lights – a combination of her lights and some that we had. Cheap tree lights don’t stand the test of time very well – though the first year we unboxed her lights, we found strands carefully wrapped up in tissue paper marked “broken.” Which is so Aunt Barbara, it’s not even funny.
With the lights on, I pulled out the ornaments. Just the plastic ones this year, since we don’t know how Stormy and Vader are going to do with a Christmas tree, and I have a sneaking suspicion that this tree is going to be on its side at least once during the season. There are some great vintage glass ornaments, but I didn’t want to take the chance.
Aunt Barbara’s ornaments date back many years, in particular to times when people didn’t buy a lot of individual ornaments like we do now. No Disney characters or sports teams or hobbies. Classic Christmas ornaments, 12 identical ones in a box. Probably purchased from the Five & Dime.
Aunt Barbara’s mom, Mark’s grandmother, Eleanor, loved elephants. So there are some of those.
There’s something beautifully simple about her ornaments. Nothing in particular distracting – all of them adding a bit of color and sparkle to the tree. Her tree isn’t Pinterest-worthy and isn’t themed or color coordinated. Some people would probably call her ornaments vintage. Because they are older than me and none of them light up or sing or play movie scenes.
I got to thinking about how much this tree is a reflection of who Aunt Barbara was. Simple and utilitarian, but not lacking in happiness or brightness or celebration. I’ve never met anyone who took such joy in such simple things. In a season when we all fall prey to the lure of sales and discounts and gifts upon gifts, Aunt Barbara was more happy with a box of my homemade vanilla macaroons than she ever would have been with a gift we bought at Target.
I met Aunt Barbara for the first time about five and a half years ago. I was charmed by her immediately, her sense of humor and the fact that she was both smart as a whip and stubborn as a mule made us get along well. I like to think we had a special connection – especially because she left Cleveland to come to our wedding in 2010 – an event described by other family members as a coup of epic proportions. (On the two conditions that she return to Cleveland that evening and also not be forced to eat fish at the wedding reception. We complied.) She wasn’t effusive, but I know she loved me as her niece and not just someone her nephew married.
This season will be hard and there will be no Christmas trip to Cleveland, with her worries about us driving in the snow. She loved Christmas, and we loved visiting her at Christmas especially.
Aunt Barbara’s life was a reflection of her priorities – her faith being chief among them. If she had all of her needs met and could worship every day, she was truly happy. She exalted in the Christmas season in the best way – by not going after more and more, but by putting up her Nativity to remind her of why we celebrate in the first place. Even when this full-size tree stood in her house, it wasn’t about which fancy LED lights she could get on clearance at an after-Christmas sale or which Hallmark collection ornaments she had. She had the same ornaments year after year, and that’s part of the beauty of this tree.
Finally, I secured the sparkly, light up star at the top of the tree. I like that it’s a star and that it shines so brightly, because it makes me think of her – now in a better place. I hope that I let her example lead me this holiday season. And when I make a batch of vanilla macaroons – now officially named Aunt Barbara’s Favorite Macaroons from now until eternity – I will feel her joyful spirit.