For the most part, my divorce from Frank was a “conscious uncoupling” years before the term was popularized, with a minimum of blaming and arguing. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t devastating.
The worst moment for me was the hour or two I spent going through the boxes of Christmas ornaments we’d collected in our thirteen years as a couple. Christmas, especially for families with kids, carries a huge symbolic and emotional weight, and dividing up those ornaments was like amputating bits of myself, one at a time. Some decisions were easy: any ornament that was a gift or hand-me-down from family obviously had to go to the person whose family it was. Some were painless: one red glass ball looks pretty much like another. And some, like the ornaments we’d acquired because they reflected our tastes and would please our kids, were agonizing.
The ones the kids had made had to be divided 50/50, which is how I wound up with a little pillow with a jack-o-lantern on the front: Miles had gone to a birthday party that involved making ornaments, and he made an ornament for infant Ben, who was only allowed yellow vegetables at the time. How can a six-year-old draw a convincing pumpkin without putting a carved grin on it?
But I eventually got the dividing done, gave Frank his boxes, and kept my own. There weren’t enough to fill a decent-sized, family-with-kids type tree, though, so shopping was in order.
That was when I had an inspiration for which I’ve thanked the gods of creativity many times over.
The first time the kids and I went ornament shopping together, one of us found a really weird-looking ornament; it might have been this one, an angel riding on the back of a fish. And at that moment was born a ritual that we’ve now been performing for upward of twenty years: the Weird Ornament Hunt.
When we were young and broke, we found most of our darlings in dollar stores and thrift stores; they were clearly made overseas, by people who had little or no understanding of how Christmas plays out in the US. Even with careful shopping, we could only afford two or three that year – but then the deities of single parenting handed us a freebie.
I’d thought it would be a nice family bonding activity to make, decorate and hang a batch of gingerbread men, which we’d done a few times before. However, that was the year I forgot to grease the pan, so almost none of our gingerbread folk survived intact: they were all missing arms and legs.
The Dudes, undaunted, decorated all our gingerbread people as accident victims. White frosting became bandages and slings, red food coloring was blood, and raisins stood in for bruises.
They were perfect.
We also diverted a few found objects into the Christmas project. The day we walked by the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile, we accepted one of their free Weinermobile whistles. I stuffed a pipe cleaner up its ass and fashioned the pipe cleaner into a makeshift hook, and the Weinermobile is hanging on my tree as I write this.
Some were gifted to us. There’s a Sculpey figurine that my mom gave us; it’s nominally of me, carrying a little sign saying “COPYWRITER,” my job description at the time. It didn’t interest any of us much, until the year that one of her little Sculpey legs fell off and we had an amputee copywriter on our tree. (Amputation seems to be a theme.)
The late great Raelynn Gallina, the Bay Area’s premier whipmaker, brought a lovely little rawhide star, bound with waxed thread, to a holiday gathering at our house.
As we all grew older and my financial situation became less precarious, we found that natural-history museum gift shops were a trove. A bat made of wheat straw had pride of place near the top of the tree for many years, before it finally fell apart. Less fragile are the bobblehead black widow spider, the hippo with hinged arms and legs, the small terracotta frog with wings, and the rubber dragonfly, and they’re all hanging on my tree.
Now that I’m retired and relatively affluent, a couple of our ornaments actually cost more than normal-people ornaments. This tin cowboy struck us all funny for reasons we couldn’t begin to articulate, and we make a point of hanging him near a cow made of metal scraps so he doesn’t get lonely.
Miles and Ben are both older now than I was that first Christmas after the separation, and Miles is expecting his own child in a couple of weeks. This quarantine-afflicted year will be the first one in which we haven’t bought weird ornaments together.
Fortunately, we have enough of a collection that it comfortably fills my eight-foot tree (although there’s certainly room for more, and as soon as I’m allowed to go out shopping, I will start acquiring them again).
Family traditions start in the oddest ways, and the Weird Ornament Hunt is one of the best. Don’t tell Miles, but I’m already planning to start sending weird ornaments down to his place so that he and his new child can begin a ritual of their own.