Now Devin and Colin are 18 and 17. Lights for them at Christmas time are no big deal. Really, they couldn’t care less. This was for Mom. So we got into the car and drove across the dam, turned right on Old Broad River Road and the traffic was backed up for at least a mile before the entrance to the park. The lights didn’t mean much to me either, frankly, but I was game since this was something Heidi really wanted to do. Before we were in that stop and go traffic for 5 minutes, the guys were complaining.
At first it was just a well-placed sigh as we inched along. Then it became, “Why exactly are we doing this?” Then, “Let’s go. This is going to take forever!” It took a complicated Y-turn to get out of there, but we did turn back and had a great evening – minus the lights at the park. Music, dinner, gifts, etc. Heidi and I dozed off as Colin played a new video game and Devin went out to hang with friends after the family festivities.
One of the things that makes our Christmas so fine is our Christmas tree. We almost always put it up the day after Thanksgiving and keep it up until the New Year. When the kids were little we always went out to a nearby Christmas tree farm and rode around in this little train/tractor/wagon thing listening to cheesy carols sung by the Chipmunks. Sometimes when they were young, we’d get out along the way around the farm and throw a football or just walk along and take pictures. Sometimes the boys would take a friend or two. Sometimes we’d stop and feed the goats, rabbits and deer they have in a kind of petting zoo. If it were just the boys and us, we’d ask strangers if they would take our family picture.
Those old pictures are priceless. They mark our growth and change. Colin goes from a chubby cheeked little one to a stylishly longhaired adolescent, never wearing quite the right amount of clothes to keep him comfortable. Devin’s pictures range from a game little guy in a ball cap to having his arm around his girlfriend, his poses from silly and carefree to more serious and mature. And Heidi’s pictures over those same dozen years are just more beautiful as she ages. Now there is a touch of beautiful gray but that smile still shines.
Then, after riding around that cool little farm, feeding and petting the animals, eating popcorn, drinking hot cider, watching the workers shake the loose needles from the trees they were selling and running them through the machine that twists them and ties them up with twine – we’d drive to Lowes and pick up a tree at about one half the cost. Picking the tree has also become a tradition of sorts. The boys and I would usually pick one out right away. But Heidi needs to take her time because it has to be just the right tree. So we would set our tree aside and keep pulling out others and turning them around for Heidi to preview. This one would have a bare spot in the branches, that one would have a weird top or wouldn’t come to a neat point the way a Christmas tree is supposed to. We would examine a LOT of trees before we found just the right one. Colin and Devin would fuss at Heidi for taking so long. The first one we picked out is just fine… Why do we have to look at so many?... Mom, you are such a perfectionist… Sometimes we would come back to the one we had picked out originally. But it is the process that is so important.
This is the first year we haven’t gone to the Christmas tree farm. And Devin wasn’t with us when we picked out the tree. He was out with some college friends and left it up to the three of us. There was still a little fussiness on Colin’s part about how long it took for Heidi to pick the tree. It is all part of the ritual.
This year Heidi and I were the ones to decorate the tree. When the boys were little they took great delight in that as well. They were always asking questions about the ornaments. Where did we get this one? Who gave us that? And Heidi always knew the answers. My mom and I got that one at an after Christmas sale. Our friend Janet gave us those the first year we moved to South Carolina. But this year we decorated it by ourselves, the boys being too busy and too grown to take part. And while decorating the tree doesn’t have the same magic it did when the boys were little, being with Heidi Mills for Christmas and performing the same rituals for all of these years feels so right.
When we were first young and in love (back in the 70’s) we had precious few ornaments. Most were hand-me-downs from family. I guess we bought a few but that wasn’t high on the priority list. Over the years we have acquired so many that even if we had a 15-foot tree we could never use them all. Many were gifts, and Heidi remembers something about most of them.
As I sit here and gaze at the tree I can see a little wooden guitar and a starfish painted red and green – both gifts from students from long ago. There is a yellow felt lion with a red yarn mane that was given to us by our first principal and very good friend back around 1979 or 80. There is a delicate clear glass orb filled with milkweed seeds with their fluffy parachutes still attached. It looks like magic. A good old teacher friend gave that one about 15 years ago. There are about a dozen clear, fragile twisted glass icicles Heidi got on her last trip to Minnesota to see her beloved grandparents before they passed away.
There are ornaments we have given each other over the years including some I made with the boys when they were really little. Cheesy cut out cardboard shapes they painted and glittered. Devin’s is signed but the e and n are backwards and Colin’s signature is letter-like marks. There is one that I cut out with a jigsaw and my mom painted to look like Pinocchio. I must have made that when I was about 10, over 40 years ago when my mom and brother Pat and I had an assembly line going for ornament making.
Baby’s First Christmas 1992 was given to us by Heidi’s parents for Dev’s first Christmas and the same with 1993 for Colin. Among my favorites are any with photographs of family members. My sister Ruthie made everyone very elaborate ornaments with pictures of my nieces and nephews – and plenty of my family. We also have some simple frame-type ornaments with pictures of the kids from the time they were little babies. Heidi just put together a couple with pictures of the boys from our time in Hawaii last summer. Years from now they will be treasures from “the old days” like the baby pictures are to us now.
My principal makes the faculty an ornament every year. She has for the last dozen years. Every year they are different. We have Santas and angels, fish and butterflies, musical instruments, a cross-stitched candle made by my mom. They are glass and wood, silver and gold, seashells and stone. Some look old fashioned and some are quite odd and would only be appreciated by us.
But as we mark the beginning of each Christmas season by pulling the box of ornaments out of the attic, I look so forward to decorating our special tree with this wonderful, beautiful woman. It is yet another way to mark our years together. From when we were not yet married, to our years childless, to the days when we had to place the delicate ornaments up high to keep them out of reach of our toddlers, to those priceless days when putting up the tree was a complete family affair, to these days when this particular tradition is ours alone again – the Christmas tree has been a tradition that celebrates our past and heralds the wonderful season ahead.
After returning home from our Christmas road trip to our respective families, taking the tree down and putting the ornaments back into the attic is sort of sad. But it also brings us one season closer to the day when we might share this tradition with grandkids. Don’t get me wrong. No rush. I’m just saying.