Before I got married, I never thought much about celebrating Christmas in a major way. Having lived life as a bachelorette until the ripe age of 51, I threw a few ornaments in a vaguely festive basket and called it a day. I didn’t realize that I was really in a “resting mode” –waiting for the time I would inherit Christmas from Sheila.
Sheila was my husband’s first wife. She was married to Wilson for 40 years and she had a definite thing for the holidays. She spent hours scouring specialty shops for the perfect ornaments and other Christmas decorations, and she bought them with gusto. Sheila lived and traveled the world with Wilson and found a way to appreciate each culture with a keepsake ornament—or ten. By the time she died of a brain tumor in 2003, she had amassed so many ornaments that several industrial-sized boxes were filled to the brim with her holiday haul.
Enter the former 50+ bachelorette, now the brand new wife. Faced with duplicating Sheila’s full-out celebration of the season, I panicked. Sheila didn’t just have one tree, she had four. There was a “cooking tree” that depicted her expertise in the kitchen and Wilson’s love of wine and food. There were two outside trees to be simply decorated with shiny silver balls, then the breath-taking living room tree that she spent three days decorating, and another three taking down. Add to that countless holiday-themed stuffed animals, angel statues and other accessories.
During my first Christmas as the second wife, I began opening the boxes that Wilson let languish for the first year of his new life as a widower. It was like entering a world I would never know. Wrapped carefully in tissues, the ornaments were an archeological dig into a life filled with celebrations and adventures. There were delicate paper fish from Japan, about 15 Celtic crosses from Ireland and wafer-thin brass disks or stars with commemorative messages to celebrate a certain Christmas event.
And of course, there was her family. A female child figure celebrated her daughter, Kate. Kate, who I have seen twice, is now an adult, living in Manchester, Connecticut. A little boy figure featured the name “Jamie” on the side. James, their son, died tragically in 2002.
Perhaps, the most poignant to me were the Christmas decorations that she hadn’t had the chance to use. I found two unopened boxes tucked away in a drawer in the hallway chest. One contained an ornament of a flying woman with the word “chef” on her side. The figure carries all of her tools (pots, pans, and cookbook and a basket of eggs) on her arm. The other box held an ornament of a male who was labeled “wine expert.” He holds a wine bottle, cork and glass and a book for his wine notes. It was obviously an affectionate nod to her relationship with her husband.
During my first Christmas with Wilson, I was intimidated and it showed. A gigantic green olive ornament from Saks purchased in the 50’s (and cherished) slipped through my hands and made a sickeningly tinny sound as it crashed into a thousand pieces on our wooden floor and the fragile paper fish crumpled under my clumsy grasp. I began to hear Sheila chiding me about my lack of artistry and her concern about the safety of her beloved holiday treasures. Somehow, I muddled through, slightly resentful that nothing of me was in the celebration. It felt strange to hang someone else’s memories on the tree—and I felt sad that these ornaments were so loved by someone no longer able to enjoy and reminisce over them. I wanted my own style and my own imprint in my new role as Christmas tree caretaker.
However, as the years have gone on—something changed for me. Opening the boxes this year, I felt an odd stirring. The tiny crosses, meant to be placed on the upper branches, evoked memories of the Christmas before when Wilson and I played Bing Crosby and drank egg nog as we decorated. Out came the ornament that celebrated the memory of Wilson and Sheila’s beloved cat, Bathsheba, who, I was told, could shimmy up a tree like a squirrel and who caught her fair share of prey. Here was the animated squirrel ornament with the flashing lights that Sheila couldn’t live without. Underneath that was the tiny replica of the Seattle ferry boat they discovered on a rainy day near Pikes market. Also unwrapped: a Santa-clad alligator that my husband and I found in New Orleans, some whimsical fairy dolls we bought at a winery in Paso Robles and a brand new Santa Claus festooned with ribbons and bells purchased this year in Shenandoah Valley. Somehow, I began to learn that Christmas and our memories held enough room for all of us.
And, although I still feel Sheila’s presence at Christmas, she no longer chides me. In fact, I count on her to remind me to enjoy the season—to take my time and not rush the holiday. To rejoice in loved ones and not to forget what we left behind. Call me weird, but sometimes, the Ghost of Christmas Past is a friendly one—and I give her a lot of credit for this wonderful inheritance of celebration.
Ann Schmidt-Fogarty lives in Vacaville with her husband, Wilson, numerous pets and countless ways to celebrate Christmas.