A tear shaped bauble

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My older brother untangles my hair with a comb circa 1962.

And then there was the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree. He was drunk as usual and in a fit of rage had ripped the tree out of its pot and threw it to the ground.

A tear shaped bauble, with its silver sprinkles encased in a gold centre, shattered on the carpet. Three other baubles broke in the fall that day, but it was this tear shaped beauty that mattered most to me.

My parents had brought it with them all the way from Holland. My mother had wrapped it in newspaper and cushioned it in a cardboard box alongside half a dozen other baubles, decorations that went back to the early days of their marriage.

These baubles had lasted at least another twenty years until now. I took care not to let the splinters catch on my skin.

This was the Christmas I remember when I could no longer hold to the idea that Christmas was special.

I suspect it happens for most of us in one way or another. There comes a time when our childhood pleasure at the excitement of events such as Christmas, and it need not be Christmas – it could be a birthday or some other celebration – somehow loses its lustre.

I read about Christopher Hitchen’s death on line yesterday and watched an interview conducted in 2010, some time after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer.

Hitchen’s hair was wispy thin across an otherwise bald head and his face had the puffy look of too much medication. But his eyes were sharp and his voice focussed. He talked about the fact of his dying and debated the notion of an after life. The notion of uncertainty.

I often rehearse my own death. What will it be like? assuming I get to know before hand that I am dying. Will I be like Christopher Hitchens, thoughtful and resigned, or will I panic?

These days I think more and more about the limitations of time, and the struggle I have to make the most of it. Make the most of it, I tell myself. Do not waste it.

I have this thing about waste at the moment. I cannot bear to waste anything, food, money, opportunities.

The other day I noticed a hat in the spare room, a short rimmed panama hat. The type that was fashionable for men and woman a couple of years ago. One of my daughters had desperately wanted this hat for Christmas and although it was expensive I had conceded in buying it for her, as it was Christmas.

I cringe when I realise I have not seen her wear this hat, not once. This is not to say she has never worn it. She may have worn it at times outside of my viewing, but it could not have been often. A brand new scarcely worn hat that now sits unused in the spare room and I ache all over again.

I hate to become one of those dreadful whingers but in recent weeks I have become just that.

My husband went off to the country this morning to buy the special Christmas hams he so enjoys at this time of year and I urged him not to buy too much. Last year we threw out left over ham because we had ordered too much and could not eat it all before it went off.

Christmas tends to be a time of excess in so many ways and for some reason this year I want to draw a line on the excess.

A cranky old woman, my daughters say, and perhaps they are right. A cranky old woman who suddenly recognises the passage of time, the finite nature of resources and she wants to scream, let’s slow down.

Before the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree I thought of this time as a time of plenty. Every year since I have needed to balance the tension between my desire to celebrate and my need to hold back, to slow down, to resist the consumerist demands and at the same time, to join in the fun.

I am especially glad for my grandchildren, this year. They remind me of how simply delightful it can be to celebrate life, in generosity and good will. But behind the scenes for me there is still the spectre of the smashed and shattered bauble of my experience.

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45 Comments on A tear shaped bauble

  1. Snowbrush
    December 16, 2011 at 11:50 pm (6 years ago)

    For people who hate waste, Christmas is not an unreservedly happy occasion because it's only purpose appears to be eating and buying in excess.

    I too wonder how I will die. Unlike when I was a child, I now know for sure that I will indeed die, yet the thought is still unimaginable.

    Reply
  2. Ms. Moon
    December 17, 2011 at 12:42 am (6 years ago)

    I think I probably have sunken memories of my own father at Christmas which stab me. I know I have memories of him not being there and they cause a dull ache.
    I am giving it up this year, saying NO to it all. I am going away. I am sliding out the back door. I am slipping under the radar, I am setting sail to the blue-green waters of beyond.
    And still- it creeps in, this Christmas crap, to wrap its sticky tendrils around my heart.
    Christopher Hitchens was probably right- Religion Poisons Everything.

    Reply
  3. The Unknowngnome
    December 17, 2011 at 3:59 am (6 years ago)

    Don't let the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come cloud the Ghost of Christmas Present.

    Don't let the Ghost of A Christmas Past hold you back, slow you down, or cause you to resist. Join in the fun. Be a child with your grandchildren. Wear the hat for Chritmas!

    Merry Christmas Elisabeth!

    Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry, Merry Christmas!
    (to excessive?) 🙂

    Reply
  4. Windsmoke.
    December 17, 2011 at 4:27 am (6 years ago)

    When the time comes to push up the daisies i don't want to know about it, just slip away without fuss or fanfare leaving my mortal shell behind on this planet so my soul can roam free in heaven :-).

    Reply
  5. River
    December 17, 2011 at 8:26 am (6 years ago)

    Drawing the line on Christmas excess is a wise move. I did it myself 5 years ago. I still buy and cook, but just enough for the one meal, the same as any other meal throughout the year. It's the little touches that make it special. Ham instead of chicken. Potato salad intead of mashed potato. Christmas themed tablecloth and napkins. Tinsel on the chairs. A platter of home made mince pies, where normally there would be no dessert.
    And getting together with the family.
    That's Christmas.

    Reply
  6. Frances
    December 17, 2011 at 8:26 am (6 years ago)

    Elisabeth: some cyberslip, moderation was on my blog: I missed your comment at an appropriate time.
    But have now responded.

    Reply
  7. Jim Murdoch
    December 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm (6 years ago)

    Before Carrie went to the States she cooked me a ham and left instructions not to eat it too quickly and so I’ve faithfully let a couple of days go between each serving noting each time I open the tub how the colour is fading. She assures me that it will stay fresh but not in my mind. I’ve run out of hot cross buns and so bought some fruit scones from the corner shop—along with the Scotch pies and the haggis—but I froze them and have been taking one out at a time so they stay fresh. I am also not into waste. We’re flush this year—came into a little money—but I haven’t gone mad with it. Since Carrie’s not going to be here and Xmas is basically a non-starter I bought a tablet PC to add to my two laptops, netbook and desktop PC. I was never that happy with the Kindle and wish Carrie hadn’t wasted the money on it; the tablet is far better for reading PDFs and now she’s taking about getting one and leaving her netbook in the States.

    I’ve never bought my daughter a hat—don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear one—but there is a long list of jewellery items that I have never seen her wear. To be fair the gold bangle I bought her for her eighteenth birthday she wore for ten years and never took it off but even that’s vanished now which makes me feel more than a little sad. This year I ordered a pendant in the style of a bookcase that I never expect to see her wear.

    Before a couple of days ago I couldn’t have told you who Christopher Hitchens was. I’m still not especially sure. I watched the two-minute excerpt from his interview with Paxman last year and that was it. It reminded me of the last interview Dennis Potter gave which I have seen at least three times and I even bought a copy when they released it as a book under the title Seeing the Blossom. It really is a great interview. If you’ve never seen it the whole thing is on YouTube and here’s the link to part one. Whether you love or loathe his work you have to admire his guts.

    I have never rehearsed my own death. I have been in situations where there was every possibility that I might die and all I can say about them is how calm I was. Death is not something I’m afraid of. I was brought up to believe that death = non-existence and although I’ve lost interest in most of the other things I was told I still cling on to that one because it suits me. I have no control over what happens after I die and so there is no point worrying about it. Like Hitchens I am a little concerned about the manner of my death—it would be nice to shuffle off this mortal coil with a little dignity and I really would rather it didn’t hurt—but I think everyone feels much the same in that regard. I don’t have any last words prepared. That would drive me mad, trying to time everything so that my last words were the last thing I said. Knowing me I’d get it wrong, misread the signs, and end up lying there keeping schtum for six or seven hours so my final words were what I’d planned. To hell with all that.

    Reply
  8. susan t. landry
    December 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm (6 years ago)

    elisabeth, i too have memories of the smashed ornaments, the arguments about the correct amount of tinsel on the branches, whether the tree is straight yet or still crooked, goddamn it.
    it's like chewing on broken glass, over and over.
    this year: cooking, yes; it gives me pleasure, and those who receive enjoy it, too. gifts, a few–mostly books, because that's who we are. usually a film. and a deep sigh when it's over.
    love to you,
    susan

    Reply
  9. Kass
    December 17, 2011 at 1:51 pm (6 years ago)

    A complexity of thoughts and emotions are brought up for me by this post. It has a stark beauty in its perfect melancholy.

    Death, Christmas, waste, grandchildren….as Jim's latest post suggests….all ideas made real with how we skew our perceptions. Maybe that's the secret. We can pick up those bits of shattered thought baubles, skew them to our liking and make a thing of beauty to post on a blog. That's what you've done here.

    The closing lines of the movie American Beauty sum up some of what I'm trying to say. (Lester has been killed, but is still able to narrate the movie):

    "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but its hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. Then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

    Reply
  10. Kath Lockett
    December 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm (6 years ago)

    The 'spectre' of the loss of childish excitement over Christmas or any other big event is with us all, Elisabeth, even if it doesn't happen as traumatically or senselessly as yours did. Was your father ever the type to apologise afterwards or was the rage and fear part of his control strategy?

    I know it's a cliche but when kids arrive it does add that big dollop of fun into the celebrations again, but I too am increasingly wary about the excessive spending, food and pressure placed on us by (mostly) advertising and big shops. This is the first Christmas we're on our own as a little family and relying on a large hotel to make us something to eat – I'm really looking forward to it!

    Reply
  11. awyn
    December 17, 2011 at 7:35 pm (6 years ago)

    I didn't draw a connection between end-of-year thoughts and how much time one has left in life, but your post somehow brought that forth. Christmas is supposed to be a time of giving; so from where comes this thought that I should start giving away stuff I no longer need/use (including, gasp, certain books)?

    Best of holidays to you and yours, and keep writing!

    Reply
  12. awyn
    December 17, 2011 at 7:41 pm (6 years ago)

    This posting has me seeing a connection, somehow, between end-of-year thoughts and the realization of how much time one has left in life. Christmas is a time of giving; from where come these other strong urges to start giving away things I no longer need/use/deem necessary to "own", etc. (including, gasp, certain books)?

    Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season from across the pond.

    Reply
  13. Isabel Doyle
    December 18, 2011 at 9:25 am (6 years ago)

    Yes, Christmas is loaded with memories, emotions and … stuff. I am dreading this one, thinking 'will it be the last?' but I often think that, so maybe I am merely morbid.

    It is scary to think of crossing the line to meet you (although I'd like to, too). I wonder why? I'd almost like to meet you and not know, and after we had started breathing again, then find out casually, oh by the way …

    I arrive in Melbourne on Wednesday night (Inshallah, as they say here) and will get in touch thereafter. If you feel it best not to meet, are too busy or whatever, that is fine too.

    Best wishes Isabel x

    Reply
  14. aguja
    December 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm (6 years ago)

    With life, there are always episodes of dissilusionment; sad but true. Your teardrop pear is beautifully portayed and I felt so sad for that 'child'.
    To appreciate our time here is an important concept to consider; to realise just how important is each day and to treasure its content, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
    Wishing you and your family shared Christmas Joy in just being together.

    Reply
  15. Kirk
    December 18, 2011 at 9:38 pm (6 years ago)

    Dying is easy, it's living that scares me to death.

    –Annie Lennox.

    Reply
  16. Anthony Duce
    December 19, 2011 at 4:34 am (6 years ago)

    I enjoyed your writing very much. I have been reading your post long enough now, to remember what came before in so much of what you write about. The writing sparks memories of similar events, and my own families stories. Thank you

    Reply
  17. Laoch of Chicago
    December 19, 2011 at 5:02 am (6 years ago)

    I too feel the ambivalence you are experiencing. I see no way of resolving really so I hold it close and turn it over and over again in my mind.

    Reply
  18. Mary LA
    December 19, 2011 at 6:42 am (6 years ago)

    I'd say Xmas more than 'lost its lustre' — smashed, shattered, the lovely bauble destroyed. I have this dread of latent violence breaking out at this time of year, memories of my father hitting my mother, the chaos and breakages, the unpredictability of it all.

    And the loss of innocence you mention, that too — when I was small I was preoccupied with the Grimm fairytale in which the little princess drops her golden ball into the dark pond in the forest and a part of herself, her shining wholeness, rolls away out of sight. And then the toad appears.

    Incest transposed.

    Reply
  19. Anonymous
    December 19, 2011 at 10:33 am (6 years ago)

    My death? I am quite convinced it will be sudden. Either from the heart disease that I have inherited from both sides of my family or from a car coming at me through the passenger door as my husband makes another of his edge-of-sanity U-turns! I swear there will come a day. . . .

    I don't mind Christmas. Most memories are OK. It was the rest of the year that seemed to suck.

    Since being married, I love Christmas. Yes, I am guilty of excess but I love the feeling of being surrounded by friends and family and the hosting and sharing that goes with it. In fact I really dislike not being the host on Christmas day because there are no delicious left-overs either to relieve me of preparing more meals or to offer drop-in guests.
    During our children's growing up we did not always have close family nearby, but over the years we discovered many others in the same boat and before long had begun a tradition of spending Christmas with friends. Many of our other friends who did have family obligations would often say how they envied us that we did not have to go through the family politics they had to endure.

    Of interest, I noticed a clear demarcation in my husband's family after his parents died. While it was clear they all loved their parents, who were wonderful people, when there was no longer the pressure to 'gather' we very soon found other ways of spending Christmas. Sad but true, and sometimes I wonder that my family may follow suit.
    Karen C

    Reply
  20. Eryl
    December 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm (6 years ago)

    What an image, that shattered tear shaped bauble. So significant and sad.

    This post reminds me of the quote from E B White: "I rise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savour) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." This resonated with me pretty deeply when I read it, but now I think it is a false dichotomy. We can do a little of both with a little consideration.

    For me Christmas is a time to savour the cosiness of home and family in the depths of winter. It's a kind of winter appreciation festival, and reminds me that although it's miserable out there it's not that bad. So I decorate the house with greenery from the garden and a few ancient baubles; buy one or two inexpensive gifts for those close to me, and cook. I do cook much too much for one day's eating, but we live off cold cuts and pickles until it's all gone. I often don't have to cook for a week! Thus we are able to savour without wasting, which I hope goes some way to improving the world. Sounds like you aim for something similar, Elisabeth.

    Have a lovely Christmas, and may the new year see you continue to flourish.

    Reply
  21. Mairi
    December 19, 2011 at 2:57 pm (6 years ago)

    Hi Elizabeth. Thank you for stopping by my blog, and for the resulting introduction to yours, and to all the interesting voices commenting on it. This is my daughter's first Christmas away from home and my husband and I hit a bad patch early this year that ended in me moving away to look after my father, who is nearing the end of his life. The question of how death arrives is always with me these days, but preparations for Christmas with him and two of my siblings have been fun. Some of the old magic. As I wrote in the poem you so kindly commented on, sometimes how we see things depends on how close we are to our own vanishing point.

    Reply
  22. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:21 am (6 years ago)

    I'm slow to respond Snow, because I haven't been able to waste a minute, and every spare moment has been consumed by Christmas preparations.

    As for death, unthinkable as it may be , it's one of those certainties that will not leave us alone.

    Thanks, Snow.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:23 am (6 years ago)

    You're one of the lucky ones, Ms Moon, able to escape all the hoopla or Christmas.

    I can't imagine how that might feel. In one way or another, I have never missed a family Christmas yet, in all my years.

    Thanks Ms Moon.

    Reply
  24. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:25 am (6 years ago)

    Thanks for all the excess 'merries', Unknowngnome. I'll try to keep those Christmas ghosts – past and future – from my door. Thanks.

    Reply
  25. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:27 am (6 years ago)

    I hope it happens that way for you Windsmoke, if that's how you'd like it to be, a quiet departure outside of your conscious awareness. For me, given half a chance, I think I'd rather be in the know.

    Thanks, Windsmoke.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:28 am (6 years ago)

    Five years of sensible Christmases, River, that sounds like quite an achievement.

    Maybe in time I'll get there too. In the meantime, we struggle on.

    Thanks, River.

    Reply
  27. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:30 am (6 years ago)

    Thanks for letting me know of your response, Frances. I've been back to your blog and hope you'll come back to mine. I value your comments and I'm not offended by their contrarian nature, especially now after you've explained.

    Reply
  28. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:49 am (6 years ago)

    Jim, I've only come to read about Hitchens since he started to die in public. It's amazing how death and dying can bring a person to the forefront. I think of all those folks who died young, the Sylvia Plaths and Eva Cassidys among many others.

    It seems their deaths have increased their fame, which is not to say they were not talented, but we tend to eulogise the dead and more so the young dead.

    As for the older folks who die, there's been more time for them on earth to stuff up but even then we're prone to eulogise.

    I'm glad you allowed yourself the pleasure of a 'tablet' – what we here call an ipad – and I hope your daughter enjoys her gift.

    I've been slow to respond to comments following this latest post because I am still snowed under preparing for christmas in between working.

    That's the way it goes, but soon it will be over for another year and I'll be relieved.

    As for Dennis Potter, I'm a fan of this man and thanks for the link. I've yet to see this interview but I'd heard of it long ago and look forward to seeing it.

    Thanks, Jim.

    Reply
  29. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:36 pm (6 years ago)

    Your Christmases of today sound a whole lot better than your Christmases of old, Susan. And that's a good thing. We can learn from the past, from our parents' mistakes, however unintentional.

    May this christmas be better than ever. All those books. It sounds wonderful.
    Thanks, Susan.

    Reply
  30. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm (6 years ago)

    Thanks for the fulsome quote from 'American Beauty', Kass. It sums things up well.

    There is plenty to be grateful for, especially in the beauty of things, however much we struggle and however bitter our experiences may be.

    I'm into the yin and yang of life, and tend to comfort myself with the thought that something good will happen soon. It helps offset all that feels bad.

    Thanks, Kass.

    Reply
  31. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:44 pm (6 years ago)

    My father was not a frequent apologiser, Kath, not in the thick of it when I was young, though he certainly apologised when I was an adult before he died.

    Your christmas sounds lovely. How strange it must be to enjoy a Christmas lunch so far from your family of origin and your extended family, perhaps a relief too as you suggest. So much less of the hype.

    This will probably be one of those Christmases your daughter remembers well, if only for the novelty of it.

    Thanks, Kath.

    Reply
  32. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:47 pm (6 years ago)

    Awyn, I've been trying to explain to my daughters that as people get older they have less of a need to acquire things. This might include your impulse to lighten your load, maybe even including getting rid of some of your books.

    I can understand this, though I'm not ready yet.

    These celebratory times tend to lead us to reevaluate our priorities and maybe that's what you're doing.

    Thanks, Awyn.

    Reply
  33. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:50 pm (6 years ago)

    Meeting is a scary thought, Isabel, but we shall see, and as you say, time permitting.

    I've scarcely had spare time to respond to these comments, so much packed into preparing for Christmas. I wonder why you imagine it will be your last.

    Hopefully you'll have many more to come.

    Thanks, Isabel.

    Reply
  34. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:53 pm (6 years ago)

    Thanks for your christmas wishes, Aguja. I wish the same for you and yours.

    Christmas is a time of expectation and of disappointments, as you say. I couldn't imagine life without it, or some other such celebration. They have a ritualistic quality that I think we need, special days to put commas between the rest of life's events before the final full stop.

    Thanks, Aguja.

    Reply
  35. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:54 pm (6 years ago)

    I'm inclined to agree with Annie Lennox, Kirk. Death is easier and less frightening in many ways than the hardship of living.

    Thanks, Kirk.

    Reply
  36. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:56 pm (6 years ago)

    I'm pleased to be a source of remembering your own experiences, Anthony. I think that's what writers most want to do, get a spark of something going in their readers, as I suspect you do with your painting and drawings.

    Thanks, Anthony.

    Reply
  37. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 10:58 pm (6 years ago)

    It seems to me that your idea of holding your ambivalence close and turning it over and over in your mind is a good way of coping with this unsettled time of year, Laoch.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  38. Elisabeth
    December 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm (6 years ago)

    That fairy story, Mary, the golden orb into the toad, is a powerful illustration of the way things can shift about in our memories and experience. Thanks for bringing it in here. Certainly Christmas time brings out the best and worst in people. It calls for families to get together and that in itself tends to be dangerous even in the most settled and so-called happy of families.

    Thanks, Mary.

    Reply
  39. Elisabeth
    December 21, 2011 at 12:37 am (6 years ago)

    A sudden death for you, Eryl. Mine I always imagine as slow and prolonged, but hopefully not too painful. In a strange way I'd like to learn from it.

    Your Christmases sound lovely, too. Generosity abounds at Christmas, or at least ideally it does and whatever form it takes matters not to me. My gripe has more to do with the obligatory nature of some aspects of Christmas, the having to buy presents for people out of duty and not out of love. These days I do almost nothing of this. It helps.

    Thanks, Karen.

    Reply
  40. Elisabeth
    December 21, 2011 at 12:43 am (6 years ago)

    Sorry for the typo above, Karen and Eryl. I meant to address this response to Karen but I've sent it via you, Eryl.

    Thanks for your generous and inspirational comment, Eryl, and that wonderful quote from EB white.

    It sounds as though you manage to get the balance right over Christmas, Eryl, the generosity and the restfulness, the cosiness and the goodwill, a balance I'd like to achieve.

    Thanks again, Eryl.

    Reply
  41. Elisabeth
    December 21, 2011 at 12:46 am (6 years ago)

    I suppose we all have a 'vanishing point', Mairi and the loss of a parent takes us closer there. It's good to see you here on my blog. I hope your father manages to make it through Christmas -if that's his and your desire – and that you and your husband and family are able to enjoy some of the possible joys of the seasons at this more than difficult time.

    Thanks, Mairi

    Reply
  42. Theanne and Baron
    December 21, 2011 at 8:25 pm (6 years ago)

    There are 2 things I remember about Christmas past…my father loved it and my mother and father had more arguments at this time of year than at any other. Yours is a story well told and understood!

    Reply
  43. Elisabeth
    December 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm (6 years ago)

    Something about the tensions at this time of year that sets tempers flaring, especially in families and on the road. Thanks for your observations, Theanne and Baron. They are apt.

    Reply
  44. Syd
    December 27, 2011 at 11:31 pm (6 years ago)

    No matter how hard there are unfilled expectations of special occasions. It is not humanly possible to void myself of all those expectations. But I realize that I don't need to focus totally on the painful stuff. It is like a tongue to a sore tooth–the more I go to it, the pain just remains and doesn't lessen.

    Reply
  45. Elisabeth
    December 30, 2011 at 8:16 am (6 years ago)

    There's no need to ficus exclusively ion the painful stuff, Syd. I'm with you here, but I also think it's important to recognise our expectations and our disappointments on the way towards learning to live with them.

    Thanks, Syd.

    Reply

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