Here's my favorite Christmas decoration this year and here's the story behind it:
Christmas 1998. The Scientist and I were engaged and were excited to be spending our first Christmas together. With a great deal of trepidation, I agreed to spend Christmas with his family. It wasn't that I didn't want to. We had agreed that we would switch off years with our families for holidays and there was no reason not to start with his. I even liked his family well enough but really didn't know them that well since they lived two states away. I had only been in the same room with his mother a handful of times. I had also never spent a holiday away from my family.
The other rub was a big one. The Scientist's nephew (soon to be mine too) was three and in the winter of 1998 was fighting for his life. He had an extremely aggressive form of childhood cancer and had been given a 30% chance of surviving. All my interactions with the family up to this point had been (understandably) against the backdrop of The Cancer. Although it wasn't said aloud, we knew that we were being strongly encouraged to spend the holiday there because this might be the last one he'd have. I wish I could tell you that I was gracious enough and mature enough and big enough to waltz into this situation knowing exactly what to do, but I can't. I was 25 and I was scared to death.
A week before we were to depart for Virginia, another rub entered the mix. My seemingly very healthy and vibrant maternal grandmother had a stroke. My mother, father and sister had planned to spend the holiday with my other grandparents. My paternal grandfather had Alzheimers and my grandmother needed all the help she could get. I was putting on my big girl panties and dealing with the fact that everyone would be there but me. But, with her mother's stroke, my mother changed her Christmas plan and headed north to be with her ailing mother and her siblings for Christmas. She had no choice. My grandmother was hospitalized and her rehabilitation and housing after she was released had to be decided. If she made it out of the hospital at all.
I cried daily in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I have already admitted that I wasn't nearly as gracious or mature as I would have liked to be, so I might as well go ahead and admit that as much as I had already grown to love my nephew, I was just the tiniest little bit resentful of The Scientist's family for having a crisis that trumped my own personal crisis. I don't care how bad the stroke is or how severe the Alzheimers, chilhood cancer trumps it every time. Even I could see that. But I didn't have to like it. The Scientist understood how much this sucked for me. We were also united in our belief that we should never spend the holidays apart if there was any possible way around it. So, we headed north to Virginia.
After about 10000 hours and one icestorm later (we took turns using a screwdriver to chip the ice off the headlights) we arrived in Virginia. Knowing what I know now, there was nothing at all unusual about the room I was assigned to sleep in. But, up until this point in my life, I had never seen such hospitality or decadence in someone's house and all laid out for a guest. We would have given his mother heart failure if we had assumed to sleep in the same room (not officially married yet and all). My room was exactly what I would have dreamed of. Feather pillows (and zillions of them). Oodles of fine quality bedding, all piled up and waiting to be snuggled under. Soft lighting. A stack of magazines and books by the bed. A bench waiting for my suitcase. And... a little Christmas tree in the corner that was decorated completely with tigers and purple and orange glass balls.
She had me at the Clemson Tree. The base of the little tree was even tiger striped.
With her only grandson at death's door, my mother-in-law had taken the time to put that one little touch into my room that let me know that this room was especially for me and that it mattered that I was there. To say that she never had a good relationship with her own mother-in-law would be the understatement of the year. I "got" that she was really making an effort and was trying so, so hard and that she knew what awful, uncomfortable position I was in. Now, the Scientist did surely go to Clemson but he couldn't give a tiger's behind about having a Christmas tree decorated in tigers and purple. That was something just for me. I look back on that Christmas as the point at which I truly joined his family. It was wonderful and magical and a Christmas custom made for a three year old little boy. And that sort of fun is good for any soul.
A few years later, she asked me if I wanted her to save the Tiger Tree. Duh. I finally got The Tree when we were up there this summer. I think she was amused that I wanted it as much as I did. She would also be horrified if I got all weepy and emotional and huggy on her and told her all of this. So, I kept my mouth shut and just shoved it into the back of the van. It is in our dining room now and is heavy with every single Clemson ornament we own. The original tigers and purple and orange balls are still there too. The Scientist said he can't even tell it's a tree.
My grandmother recovered partially from her stroke. She moved into assisted living and lived there until 2000. She danced (with lots of assistance) at our wedding and laughed into the phone the morning I called her from my hospital bed and told her that her first great-grandchild had been born. She died two months after that. She never saw One Fish in person. But she knew. And that was what was important.
My paternal grandfather passed away in February of 1999. Christmas of 1998 was my sister's last visit with him. His passing gave my paternal grandmother the gift of being able to be at our wedding. Red Fish is named for him.
My nephew beat the odds and I can honestly say that he is the only 13 year old I know who is always a pleasure to be around. He was the ring bearer in our wedding and was so cute that Clemsongirl proposed to him on the spot. He refused by saying, "But, I'm only four!" Now, he drives his parents crazy and has no recollection of the two years that turned his family upside down. Praise God.
And that, as they say, is the rest of the story.