It was our first Christmas away from family. Joan and I had moved from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, on the far north end of B.C.’s coast. We didn’t have many decorations — we had usually celebrated Christmas with my parents – so we had to improvise.
The kids and I cut a tree that we found in a muskeg bog. It was small, dense, and had probably struggled for 100 years or more to grow in that inhospitable environment. But in those pre-Green days, we didn’t know any better.
We split walnuts, slipped loops of string between the half shells, glued them together again, and painted them gold. We made bells from the papier maché cups of egg cartons, carefully covered with aluminum foil.
I wanted a crèche, a nativity scene. A cardboard carton thatched with stalks of grass served as a stable. For the figures, I fastened a hazelnut onto the point of a paper cone; Joan wrapped scraps of cloth from her sewing supplies around their “shoulders” – fancy fabric for the Wise Men, plainer fabric for the shepherds, blues and browns for Mary and Joseph…
We made decorations for our windows. Tissue paper, folded, and folded, and folded again, then carefully cut into patterns with scissors. Unfolded, the tissue paper opened up into lacy snowflakes, each one as different as real snowflakes. We stuck them to our windows with Saran wrap.
We had one pathetic string of lights. We splurged and bought a second string. And some tinsel.
The night before Christmas, the four of us decorated our tree. Lights. Tinsel. Gold walnuts. Silver bells.
We plugged the lights in. The tree lit up. So did our children’s eyes.
Almost 50 years have passed since then. Memories get mushy over 50 years. And when Joan and I die – which we will, someday – the memories in our minds will vanish with us.
But fortunately, I took some pictures. And I kept a journal. So the story need not die when we do. Our grandchildren will be able to pull out those pictures and read the story, if they want.
When the “keepers of the memories” in your family die, don’t just throw out their photographs, their diaries, their notebooks, their letters — just because you don’t know what to do with them. They are the keys to our collective past. Consider passing those irreplaceable records to the museum’s archives. Even when actual participants have long gone, the memories can still enrich others’ lives.