Reprinted from the November / December 2013 issue of “Christian Woman” Magazine.
Joann carefully removed the glass bell from the tree and gently wrapped it in tissue paper before placing it in the box. Ever since she could remember, her mom had told her that this bell was from the first Christmas she and Dad celebrated together as husband and wife.
Joann had already packed away all the ornaments depicting birds or birdhouses, bird watching being her dad’s favorite pastime, and the occasional Hallmark ornament – New House, Favorite Grandma and Grandpa, Snoopy on top of his doghouse.
And last but not least, the two stars made out of construction paper and yarn that Joann and her sister, Zelma, had made. Their ages were written on the back of the now-faded green stars – Joann, age 32, and Zelma, age 28. That one made Joann smile. She and Zee had made them as a joke for their mom, and she faithfully hung them on her tree every year.
Joann placed them on top of the glass bell and closed the box.
“Do you want the snoring Santa?” Zee asked as she carried yet another box up the basement stairs.
“No thanks. It’s all yours,” Joann smiled. “Your kids will enjoy it. Take the singing Santa too.”
“Thanks a lot,” Zee said sarcastically.
“How about the giant candles on the front porch?” Joann asked.
“Nah, you take those,” Zee answered.
“I don’t want them either. Let’s just put them in the Goodwill box.”
“But they were Grandma’s before they were Mom’s,” Zee whined and then, “Okay, I’ll take them.”
Joann smiled. Zee was so sentimental about everything. When they were cleaning out their mother’s dresser, Zee didn’t even want to get rid of the old blue Lady Schick electric razor they had found.
“Are you going to use it?” Joann asked.
“No, but I remember the year Dad gave it to her for Christmas. I just can’t get rid of it yet,” Zee sighed as she added it to her pile.
“Your husband is going to kill you for bringing all this junk home,” Joann laughed.
“I know. I know.”
Joann turned on the radio as she and Zee continued to work in comfortable silence. Their mom had died two years ago, and now this year, their dad had passed away just 15 days after Christmas.
Joann had arrived a week before Christmas to help her dad put up a tree and set out a few decorations so the grandkids would feel like it was Christmas. Zee and her family had arrived on Christmas Eve, their arms laden with gifts to pile under the tree.
“Where’s my ornament?” Zee’s daughter, Penny, had asked as she searched the tree for the Hallmark ornament that held her baby picture. Zee’s son, Jed, too, had searched for the one that said “Grandson, 1998.”
On Christmas morning they had been awakened bright and early as Penny and Jed squealed with delight at the gifts Santa had brought. Zee and Joann had put their heads together to make chocolate gravy and biscuits for breakfast, another family tradition. It didn’t taste exactly like their mom’s, but it was close.
Zee had roasted a turkey along with all the trimmings, and Joann had baked two pumpkin pies and their mom’s famous “Fresh Apple Cake.” At the last minute, their dad had asked for some sweet potatoes.
“And don’t forget to burn them a little like your mom did,” he said.
They had set the table with poinsettia-covered, plastic place mats and the good dishes – Grandma’s Blue Willow handed down to their mom and now going home with Joann. Everything was just like it always had been, almost.
“You girls did a good job,” Dad had said. He had asked 4-year-old Jed to say the blessing for the food. “Dear God, thank You for this food and for all our presents. God bless Papaw and Mommy and Daddy and Penny and Aunt Joann, and, oh yeah, tell Granny we said Merry Christmas. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Joann swiped away the tears as she looked at the Blue Willow dishes now stacked neatly on top of the dining room table. She could hardly believe all that had taken place a little more than two weeks ago.
She and Zee had decided just to deal with the Christmas decorations right now. They would come back in a few months to sort through the rest of the items in the house. One more sweeping glance before leaving, and she spotted it – the manger. How could they have forgotten the manger? Mom and Dad had also acquired it during their first year of marriage. It was a giveaway at Glick’s Furniture Store on 2nd Street – buy a bedroom suite, get a manger.
“Imagine a furniture store doing that today,” Joann thought.
She looked around for the box the manger was kept in, although you could barely call it a box anymore with all the tape on the corners and the ribbon that held it together. Joann unplugged the blue light affixed to the back of the manger and gently placed the entire thing in the box.
Only one sheep remained from the original set. Long ago Joann had broken the head off a shepherd, and Zee had knocked a camel off the mantel several years later. Her mom had been so excited when she found some replacements at the local five and dime.
Joann took a closer look at the original sheep, now 52 years old, before wrapping it in tissue paper. Most of the black nose had been rubbed off. There were small gashes here and there on the sheep’s body, and a hunk of grass was missing below the sheep’s feet. She smiled and finished wrapping the sheep, gently laying it inside the manger along with the other pieces. Placing the lid on top of the box, she tied the well-worn blue ribbon around it to keep everything safe.
“Well, that’s it,” Joann said with a tremor in her voice as she looked around the room, now devoid of its holiday decor.
“Come on,” Zee nudged. “Don’t go getting all misty on me. We made it almost the whole day without crying.”
“That was our last Christmas,” Joann sighed.
“No it wasn’t. This year you’ll come to my house, and we’ll hang up our paper stars and have chocolate gravy and biscuits for breakfast,” Zee said as she hugged Joann.
“And don’t forget the burnt sweet potatoes for dinner,” Joann said as she closed the door behind them. o