After my grandmother died in 1994, my girlfriend-at-the-time and I went to my grandfather’s house to help him decorate his Christmas tree. We brought the boxes of ornaments up from the basement and unwrapped the wads of tissue paper. There were ornaments from my grandparents’ trips to Hawaii and Mexico. There was a white satin ball studded with pink beads that I had coveted as a girl. And there were ancient glass balls so fragile that one crumbled into red dust in my hand.
One ornament struck us as hilarious, but, not wanting to offend my grandfather, we waited until he was in the kitchen making us cocoa to laugh. In their later years, my grandparents hadn’t kept up the maintenance on their house, and rats had moved into the basement. The poor little plastic mouse, a couple of inches high with grey velvety flocking, had lost its nose, hands, feet, and ears to a rat’s nibbling.
I tucked the mouse into my pocket. Now, every year when I get out our own box of Christmas decorations, I find the mouse in my stocking and laugh again at the poor thing, its beady eyes staring pathetically from its ravaged face.
It’s easy to laugh at someone else’s deteriorated ornament; I don’t know how my grandmother obtained the little mouse or what it meant to her. Perhaps it was part of a gift from a member of the gardening club. Perhaps it was a remnant of my father’s childhood, although he doesn’t remember it. For whatever reason, she kept it. Many of us who celebrate Christmas have, in our ornament boxes, strings of beads flaking paint, burned out lights, felt Santas missing eyes, nativity sets with two kings.
My parents kept my “stained glass” windows, made of glue and food coloring and decorated with popcorn kernels, long after they had drooped and the kernels had fallen off. For their first Christmas together, my parents had painted rectangles of styrofoam red and green. Those rectangles decorated their tree for several decades, though the glitter had flaked away.
Arline and I were in the beach town of Mazunte, Mexico, when my grandfather died just before Christmas in 2002. We took a taxi into a nearby town, Pochutla, to read our email and that’s when we got the news. He was 93. That night, we lay together in a hammock, looking out at the moon-drenched sea, and talked about my grandfather, who had not been lucid for some time. I had recently sat with him in the hospital while he told me that he had brought the horses over the hill that morning. Those horses would have been cresting an Idaho hill in the 1920s.
While we were in Pochutla to check our email, we had bought a cheap plastic Christmas tree, about a foot high. We set it up in our hotel room and decorated it with tin angels. I will forever associate that trip with my grandfather’s death and the little tree made of wire and green plastic needles.
This year, when I got out the Christmas ornaments, Arline said maybe it was time to get rid of the little tree. We have a fancy full-sized artificial tree now that, with a touch of the remote, blinks white or multicolored or both. And the wooden stand of the Pochutla tree has broken, so that the tree lists backwards, if I can get it to stand up at all.
But I can’t bear to get rid of it. I unfold the wire branches and tuck the tin ornaments inside. I fiddle with the stand until the tree at least stays upright, if at an angle. My thoughts turn to my grandfather bringing the horses over the hill while his blood slowed and his muscles weakened. Deterioration means more to me at fifty than it did at thirty, when the gnawed mouse first made me laugh. I’m more fragile than I used to be, too, but I’m still here.