Another monochromatic day in this perpetually grey January . . . I am lifting the tinsel from our Christmas tree, strand by silvery strand, when my husband looks up and asks what in the world I am doing. “It’s just tinsel,” he says, looking bewildered. “Cheapest thing on the tree. Pull it off and throw it away.” I smile at him, gather one more shiny filament, and fold it into the bag for next year.
As children, my brothers and I looked forward all year to the December day when we would decorate the Christmas tree. Passing boxes of ornaments hand-to-hand down the attic stairs, we unrolled each treasure from its protective nest of toilet paper and cotton batting and held it up to be admired: tiny glass birds from Germany to perch on the fragrant branches; candy-colored balls and twirling icicles; decades-worth of the embroidered curios our grandmother created every year; flame-shaped light bulbs, bright as new crayons; and – our favorite – the magical (and undoubtedly hazardous) glass candle-lights that bubbled enthusiastically after they warmed up. Then finally, when everything else was in place, shimmering strands of tinsel.
“One at a time,” my father instructed sternly. Bill, my tall brother, arranged the highest pieces as I worked below him, handing off single strands to three-year-old Bob, who preferred to cram all of his tinsel onto one branch. We’d back away, squint, add another sparkling wisp, and another, until my father declared the tree to be perfect.
We were a little less affable when it was time to remove the tinsel after our Christmas spirit had faded. Bill grumbled because his friends were outside shooting baskets. I grumbled because I wanted to get back to the book I was reading. Bob, heeding his own drummer, snatched up matted clusters of tinsel in his chubby fingers and handed them to me to separate. But we were obedient children, and that tree, like all the others, was slowly, slowly cleared, strand by silvery strand.
As I stand here today, undoing the last shiny tangle, I am carried back to those precious January days we used to grumble about. My dad is gone now, buried on the Maine island he loved so much. Our handsome Bill died in a highway accident during college. Little Bob has become a world-renowned naturalist, designing tools and techniques to rescue entangled whales. I spent 30 years in classrooms, trying to make the world better, one child at a time. . .as my son Chris, an exceptional teacher, is doing now.
This I believe: every task, however simple, has value and consequence. I bought the tinsel in my hands for my son David’s first Christmas tree, more than 40 years ago. These fragile threads form an unbroken chain of memories for me. Now, for an hour every January, I hold my family’s history in my hand, gathering it one more time, strand by silvery strand.
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