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One ornament, a lifetime of memories
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One ornament, a lifetime of memories

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Editor’s Note: This column was previously published in December 2017. We are sharing it again here in honor of all the families getting back together this year after being apart for the holidays in 2020. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a beautiful continuation of those important family traditions.

Every parent will tell you one of the greatest joys of the Christmas season is watching your kids place ornaments on the tree. A child’s fascination with a Christmas tree begins almost at birth, and the magic of decorating a tree hopefully never goes away.

We have a system around here. After seven decades of enjoying the presence of a fresh cut tree in my house, my threats to go artificial fall on deaf ears around here. My kids know that despite my protests, I’ll make that trip to a local tree lot that’s becoming increasingly hard to find and pick out the first tree that fits in my trunk. Over the years, my desire for perfection has lessened regarding trees and a few dozen other things.

So, I performed my duty recently and placed the tree in the stand and secured it.

“Why do you turn the screws in so far, Dad?” one of my children asked.

That answer will become apparent as the story progresses.

Moving on, Emma and I put the lights on and all of my children placed the ornaments in less than strategic places on the tree. I’ve also learned that aged fathers who sit in a chair and point can’t expect superior results, another fact I’ve learned to live with.

As one of my children prepared to put a single red ball on the tree, I jumped from the chair and said, “I’ll put that one on the tree.”

They gave each other that familiar look that parents recognize— you know the one that clearly indicates their assurance that you are indeed crazy.

But, it’s amazing how one ornament can evoke a lifetime of memories of Christmases long ago…. all the way back to the first one I can remember.

We were jammed in a small apartment waiting for our first house to be built, my father working and my mother staying at home keeping my sister and me.

Even at that young age, I quickly learned the importance of Christmas and the meticulous measures surrounding our tree.

My father searched for the perfect tree at the perfect price, the second factor more of a necessity than a preference. He always found it and carefully placed it in a bucket full of water outside to ensure its longevity once it entered our small apartment.

The green tree was always adorned with large shiny red balls, all uniform and perfect in size and splendor. I didn’t appreciate it then, but I later learned the history of the red balls that were stored in green and cardboard colored boxes that had been taped so many times it was hard to distinguish where original corners were located.

The balls were about all that was left from my family’s restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama – the locally famous Pickwick Cafe. My grandfather operated the Montgomery landmark for over five decades.

Every Christmas, PaPa as we knew him, would put a large tree up in the center of the restaurant and decorate with those red balls, many dozens of them he had acquired while he visited relatives in Corsica, the place of his birth. He made many trips home and always returned with more balls for the famous yuletide tradition.

When the restaurant closed, the balls were divided among his sons and daughter, and each guarded the collection like a prized jewel, eventually passing some of the balls down to their children.

Back to that first Christmas in that small apartment and an excited 3-year-old who had just caught sight of probably the coolest peddle fire engine on earth sitting near our Christmas tree.

While my sister dove under the tree and retrieved dolls and other nonessentials, I immediately climbed in the driver’s seat of the fire engine truck.

My feet barely reached the firm pedals, but eventually I began to move across the small floor from one end to the other…. and then straight into my father’s most creative holiday achievement, our Christmas tree.

Some balls were saved as the tree slammed against the wooden floor, but many others suffered a fate I still can’t talk about six decades later.

I was too young to be really afraid, but I remember an anxiousness that overtook me as we all stood silent and stared up at my father as he stood by the downed icon.

Looking back on the episode, I realize now he must have been destroyed at the loss of those beloved ornaments, and any human would certainly be justified at being beyond annoyed with an overzealous son who just had to pedal as fast as the little truck would go without regard for destination.

“Let’s get this tree back up and open the rest of these presents,” he said after a long pause, his tone non indicative of any dismay or disgust. “Then we’ll eat a big breakfast.”

After I became a parent, I thought back to that episode many times when I thought my anger was getting the best of me, or when trying situations tried my very peace of mind and frayed nerves were the order of the day.

His patience on that Christmas morning still inspires me as a father. After the disaster, we spent the remainder of the day playing board games that Santa brought. He took my sister out for spin on her new bike and let me accompany in the new fire truck.

I ended the day in his lap, the most secure spot imaginable for a tired kid who has just had what had to be the best Christmas ever.

The tree looked beautiful even with its reduced number of ornaments in the dimmed light of the evening and the aroma of leftover turkey and dressing flowing through the small apartment.

As I grew up after that Christmas, I can remember my father stopping in the most unassuming places to search for replacements for those particular balls, and he found a few each Christmas until he died when I was nine years old…. ironically on Christmas Eve.

Over my decades as an adult my allotment of the remaining balls have disappeared, many the victims of a swinging Lab’s tail or a recently walking child’s pull, but one remains in our old box of ornaments.

It’s more than just a red ball to me. It’s the reminder of the wonderful Christmas holidays I spent with my family as a child.

And hanging that final red ball somehow assures me that my father is still here with me and my children, firmly planted in the hearts of his descendants.

I’ll pause for a moment this Christmas Eve, just like I’ve done for the past, and say a word of thanks for the many things my father gave me in such a short period of time, none of them more important that the value of patience he so poignantly displayed on that Christmas morning so many years ago.

And, hopefully, that one red ball will hang on a tree somewhere for many years to come.

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