By Ginny Auer
“I don’t want to go to Nan and Pop’s for Christmas,” Tess said as I sat at the computer making plane reservations. She said it with conviction, her arms crossed and her eyes peering directly into mine.
I tried to put my arm around my daughter to bring her closer. Tess pulled away and plopped down on a chair out of my reach. “I don’t want us to be alone on Christmas day,” I whispered.
“We won’t be alone!” Tess snapped. “You and I will be together! Paul can come too.”
“Paul will be with his family.” Paul was my husband Troy’s best friend and Tess’s godfather. This would be our first Christmas without Troy, who had died of appendix cancer eight months earlier. Four months after Troy died I had had hip surgery. Only 45, I felt 85. I knew I was completely incapable of managing the holiday alone.
Tess ran to her room crying. I followed and sat on the bed beside her. I stroked her hair; she jerked away.
“How about a compromise?”
“What’s a compromise?” Tess said looking up at me from underneath her bangs, her eyes wet.
“We’ll have two Christmases. We can have our regular gingerbread party and winter party at the Science museum and then open presents from Dad’s side of the family before we get on the plane to go to Nan and Pop’s house. Dealio?”
“Dealio,” Tess said quietly. “But I still don’t want to go,” she called as I walked out of the room. Only seven, Tess always had the last word.
The first week of December, Tess and I drove our 12-year-old orange Ford Explorer Sport up the winding road to the Christmas tree farm we always went to. I heard Troy’s voice in my head. “You’re a great mom. You can do this.” I argued with him. “I know I CAN, but I don’t want to! Not without you.” His voice was soothing as he answered, “I know you don’t want to, but Tess needs you. Be there for her.”
High school boys wearing torn jeans and flannel shirts rode around the property on ATVs. A young woman in stylish jeans and impeccable make-up strapped two small children into the back seat of a Suburban while her husband paid.
“Honey, get me a hot chocolate?” she called to him.
“I found one!” Tess danced around a 15-foot Noble Fir. “This is the one we’re getting! This is the one we’re getting!”
“Seriously Tess?” I rolled my eyes at her. “Where do you think we are going to put a tree that big?”
“We’ll just cut the top off,” she said.
We walked through the muddy ruts made by the ATVs. I found a blue spruce tree that was just the right height with a nice shape and good spacing for ornaments. “How about this one?”
“Oooo, no!” She said. “I don’t like that one. It’s ugly!”
We spent another hour tromping through every row of trees on the 10-acre lot, only to go back to the first row. We settled on a 6-foot noble fir. Tess was happy because it wasn’t too “bushy.” Even though I didn’t like it, I was ready to compromise. Troy always cut the tree down himself. Last year Tess “helped.” Now here I was, waving to a strapping teen with acne and blond shaggy hair. He cut the tree down, wrestled it onto the back of the ATV and said he would meet us at the car.
When we got home, I untied the tree and dragged it inside. The pine needles clung to my clothes and made my arms itch. My insides felt like Jell-O as I thought of spiders crawling out of the tree and onto my neck as I lugged it inside. “Damn it, Troy,” I screamed silently. “I need you.”
While Tess settled herself on the couch with cookies and a book, I unearthed the tubs of holiday ornaments in the storage shed. I brought the box full of tinsel, garlands and stockings over to Tess so she could go through it while I looked through the ornaments in the dining room.
I unwrapped a red glass ball with a Santa Claus on one side and 1991 on the other. And then I couldn’t breathe. Troy and I had bought it to commemorate our first Christmas together. Next I found the dozens of purple glass ornaments Troy and I had bought when we first moved to Oregon. We felt so hip back then, decorating an old aluminum tree we got from my parents with purple balls and purple garland.
Troy always sat back and told me where ornaments were needed while I hung them on the tree. We were a team. He had the long view and I was up close. I heard Tess laughing in the other room as she wound herself up in garland dancing to Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas is You. I pulled out the construction paper ornament Tess had made in kindergarten and took it to show to her. She followed me back into the dining room.
“Where’s the tree topper? I want to put the tree topper on like Dad and I used to do.”
The tree topper: a simple glass ornament with a red ball shape at the bottom and a silver spire at the top. It probably cost all of $5, but each year Troy would pick Tess up in his arms, hold her up to the top of the tree and help her put the topper on. Afterward, he would give her a big hug and a kiss. I would always take a picture of them putting this finishing touch on the tree.
But in my haste to clean up during Troy’s last Christmas, I had not paid attention to how I had packed it away. I could already see the damage. The tree topper was crushed to pieces. My heart sunk into my stomach. I pushed back tears.
Before I could gather my thoughts, Tess bounded over to me. “Look what I fou…” Then she saw the tree topper and stopped in her tracks. She looked at me with a hurt I hadn’t seen in her eyes since I had told her of Troy’s death. We hugged each other and tears streamed down both our faces.
Tess ran to her room and huddled in the corner of the bed clutching her favorite stuffed dog. I stood in the dining room stunned, berating myself for having been so careless. Troy would’ve taken the time to pack the ornaments carefully. But Troy had been dying of appendix cancer. I was undone.
Maybe Paul could do something. I pulled out a sheet of construction paper from Tess’s art cabinet and lay out the pieces of the broken tree topper. The spire and the bottom round half were fairly intact. It was the middle of the ball that was in shattered bits.
I took a picture with my phone and sent it to Paul.
Paul makes props for a prominent regional theater company and can fix almost anything. He texted me back that he would be off work in an hour.
That hour seemed interminable. Finally Paul, 5′ 5″ tall, with a round face, short hair, and wearing shorts and a T-shirt in the middle of winter, arrived with a ball from the prop shop. He had painted it red to match the color of the original ornament. He held it out to Tess.
“I don’t like the red,” she said.
“We can change the color. I just painted it red because that’s the color it was.”
“I don’t want it to be any color,” Tess retorted.
“Go get the container of gesso in your dad’s studio and we can put that on the ball instead,” Paul said. Troy used gesso to prepare and prime his paintings, and Tess and Paul would use it to glue the pieces from the broken ornament onto the new ball.
Paul set Tess to work painting gesso onto the ball. I watched as they huddled together at the kitchen table, a team. Tess was laughing as she painted.
“Put that piece there!” Tess ordered Paul. “And that one needs to go there!” She looked so confident. She knew exactly where each piece should go. They worked together for nearly an hour painting and gluing. Finally it was done. The topper had been recreated. The silver spire, still intact, was glued to the top with all of the red broken bits glued like a mosaic to a white ball in the center.
It wasn’t the same, but it was differently beautiful.
“Mom,” Tess surveyed her work. “This is a good compromise.”
My daughter spent the next afternoon making a paper angel to sit on top of the spire of the tree topper. That night, I lifted her up to the top of the Christmas tree so she could put the angel on the tree topper. I felt Troy’s presence in the room. He was smiling at me. Paul snapped a photo of just the two of us.
Ginny Auer is a widow and a mother. Following her husband’s death in 2012, she founded livehuge.org, an inspirational website designed to celebrate every day. She is also in the process of writing a memoir.
Photo: © Emilia Stasiak | Dreamstime.com