Cherished Ornaments

From grandmother to me, a family tradition

On my very first Christmas out of my parents' house, I decided to have my own, live, Christmas tree. I had been collecting ornaments over the years, mainly on trips, so I actually had a small box of them set aside for the small spruce I eventually lugged home.

My grandmother, who lived on Shelter Island, believed in tradition. She didn't like Christmas trees with nothing but new ornaments, like the ones I had bought in Las Vegas and Toronto.

Back then, without any washing machine of my own, I would take my laundry to her house and have dinner. One evening, while my laundry was cycling, we sifted through her boxes of carefully wrapped ornaments, and she explained what each meant to her.

She picked out a miniature harp because she always wished she had played one. The little red French horn was a Christmas tree staple. (I feel like this is where we should cue, “O Come All Ye Faithful.") A pretty red and gold fan would be spread out wide to be placed in the middle of her tree because she thought it was elegant. A sitting deer, whom she called Bambi, wore a Santa’s hat and a red scarf.

A ceramic basketball with a red ribbon was one of her favorites because she loved basketball. But she hated the New York Knicks so much that there was no sign of orange and blue. Drawings of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Magic Johnson hung on her den’s walls. Come to think of it, she didn’t have any Los Angeles Lakers ornaments either. She said that was not because she wasn’t a diehard fan, but because she believed the objects on a tree should match each other and be appropriate for Christmas.

Even her Shelter Island ferry ornaments were dressedup for Christmas. These small, ceramic ornaments were hand-painted replicas of the old North Ferry. They have wreaths, and one of the cars is bringing a large tree over to the island.

A mailbox has "Shelter Island" scrawled across it as well as beach sand and a seagull painted on it. Of course, this reminded her of how much fun she had at Louis Beach. She’d been visiting the island since she was 11, and by the time she gave me the ornaments, when she was well into her 70s, the beach had been renamed Sunset Beach, though I know that bay beach, where I spent many summer days with my grandmother, as Crescent Beach.

She also had many cat ornaments, which needed no explanation. She loved cats — cats sitting in stockings, cats with pretty red and green bows, cats curled up in baskets. There were several black and white cats, and I can't remember exactly which one reminded her of her old cat Bonckers, whom I played with as a kid.

My favorite among the ornaments my grandmother gave me is a jolly ice-skating snowman wearing a top hat with a red ribbon and green and red skates. He’s in mid axel and has a big grin. This ornament reminded my grandmother of my grandfather, who took up ice-skating as an adult and was quite good. She bought me a similar one a year after she gave me her old one, with strict instructions to hang it near the original. The new ice-skating snowman, wearing a red and white striped sweater, a hat, gloves, and a green scarf, hangs upside down, as if in mid backflip. Individually, and together, they make me smile.

I never considered, when she gave the ornaments to me, that five Christmases later she would be gone. I just thought there always would be another holiday to spend with her, another time to hear her complain about the Knicks and to ask how I had arranged the ornaments on my tree.

Truth is, I cherish them. As I’ve grown older and the years since she died have added up, I wish I had learned more of the stories behind the ornaments that are now mine, and exactly how old they are.

When I get a new ornament now, I find a way to write the year on it so I won’t forget, and so whoever eventually gets the ones I have collected will know something about them. My grandmother's belief in tradition is mine now.