“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”
January 3, 2012
As I child I seem to have had an over-developed desire to observe ceremony and preserve mementos. It was a family joke that, as the Christmas ornaments were packed away one January for another eleven and a half months or so, I had written on a box “These Are the Holiest.” What I was sanctifying were the Christmas tree ornaments that my young parents had used on the first tree they had set up after their marriage. Despite special care, the number of these baubles had decreased over the years in a household full of children and even lesser animals. After my reverential labeling of that box, these most venerable of our household collection of ornaments, presided over by an increasingly frowsy angel, went into that same box. (The celestial being floated on something called “angel hair,” which I should tell younger readers had nothing at all to do with pasta but was a spun-glass confection that we were constantly warned would cut us if we let it. In these enlightened times, of course, it has been taken off the market, presumably because parents’ warnings can no longer be counted on or because other children were more disobedient than we were and got maimed by the stuff.)
By the time my parents’ establishment was broken up towards the end of their lives, I was offered those ornaments, presumably because of my remembered piety towards them that was still testified to by the writing on the box. The number of the original balls was by now down to two, which isn’t so bad for ultra-fragile items that had seen more than a half-century of Christmas trees of all species and sizes and had been packed and moved into other houses than that first red-brick one of a neat kind that citizens of a grateful nation had built for “returning heros” from the Second World War, of which my father was one.
Today, through no carelessness of my own, a heedless object fell on one of the two remaining ornaments. Now only one remains. I’m surprised at how little disturbed I am by this accident. After all, many people lose every material object they have in our race’s bent for such things as genocide, ethnic cleansing, and “collateral damage” — if not through earthquake, fire, and flood. I, on the other hand, have many a relic to serve as remembrance of times past. My friends who think that I hold on to too many things are probably right. But the continual decay or loss — as today — of old things from days that are gone serve to remind me of the things that we can’t lose.
Nadia Boulanger, greatly advanced in years, reflected on how fortunate it was that she had memorized so much music. That she could still play the entire two volumes of the Well-Tempered Clavier despite her blindness was better to her than palaces or laurels or ancient bloodlines. Memories of kind hearts, happy times, and even profitable painful ones, are far more valuable than any number of revered Christmas decorations. And, after all, I still have one left. Soon it will go back, all alone, into the box where it resides most of the year.