I was a bit of an ungrateful teenager. I was annoyed by my parents, and I pushed back quite a bit throughout high school. I thought my family of origin was over-the-top, not normal, not like my friends’ families. I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. I was a stupid, naive, insecure kid. And now I really appreciate our family’s uniqueness. I was talking to my therapist recently, and a light bulb went off in my head: I had (and have) pretty amazing parents. My parents’ biggest offense — they wanted to spend time with me at a time when I just wanted to be free. I grew up with love, safety, security, and meaningful family traditions. I was lucky.
I was thinking about all of this as I was disassembling my Christmas tree. (Don’t ask when, friends. This is the year of Covid. I may have taken my tree down embarrassingly late. No judgment, please.) I was taking down the ornaments, one by one, and examining them. Many of these are new to me this year. I was gifted a lot of really special ornaments this year. Lori gave me a Harry Potter-style wand ornament; Andrea gave me a Noel ornament in honor of Ally. My family members made handmade ornaments to remember Ally, and my principal gave the whole staff a handmade ornament. I was looking at these and thinking about the amazing people I have in my life. Each of these ornaments are special and will hang on my tree for years to come. Then I remembered how ornaments had always been special in my family.
When I was a kid, my Gram and Gramp decided that they wanted to give the grand kids a special Jan Hummel Christmas ornament each year. I loved those ornaments. Although they were fragile and we had to be very careful with them, I loved adorning our family tree with the Hummel balls. Each year, we’d make a special night of putting up the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad liked for us to think of a memory from the year of each ornament. For example, 1976 was the year that my sister was born. 1990 was the year I graduated. We talked about the good things that had happened to our family. Afterwards, my Dad — the world’s biggest kid at Christmas-time — liked us to turn off the lights in the room and lie down under the tree. Together, we gazed up at our creation. The ornaments. The sparkly lights. The memories. My dad was probably tearing up, and my sister and I were probably anxious to get to the telephone and call our friends. But for a brief moment, time stood still and our family was together — still, content, and connected. My sister and I learned about love and gratitude from those nights of putting up our Christmas tree as a family. We learned that we are people of connection; we are meant to be together in good years and in bad.
Since I’ve had my own family, I’ve tried to make putting up the Christmas tree a special event as well. But as you all know, when you create your own family unit, traditions morph into what makes sense for your own family. In my own little family unit, we’d drink Coke out of bottles, listen to Christmas music and put up ornaments. Rich would usually assembly the tree and leave most of the hanging of ornaments to the kids and me. My kids loved Christmas. Ally especially loved Christmas. This year, the first year without Ally, was a tough one. And yet, I had hoped to make this Christmas meaningful, or at least bearable, if I could.
I decided that the best way forward was to let Joel and Rich do what felt right in their hearts regarding the Christmas tree. In fact, I waited a while to assemble it as I wasn’t sure I’d be in the right headspace to put up a tree after this horrible year. But I talked to Joel, and we decided to do it — late, but better than not at all. Joel agreed to help. I wasn’t sure if he’d want to participate. But he thought we should keep the tradition.
Joel and I put together our artificial tree with a few laughs as we had some assembly mishaps. We added lights. And then we brought out the ornaments. I bought us Cokes in bottles, which Joel and I enjoyed together, and then we talked as we took out each ornament and hung them. There were the ornaments that the kids made. Ornaments with pictures of Joel and Ally when they were younger. There were our favorite ornaments – the ornaments my Dad decorated for the kids, the goofy KU ornament that we put up every year even though we’re KSU fans. And then there’s THE ornament.
THE ornament is the one Ally hated the most. It’s the ornament with only three names — Rich, Crysta and Joel. This was the first ornament we bought in 2001 when we became a family of three. Ally HATED that ornament; she hated thinking of a time when she was not a part of our family. Every year she was alive, we had words about this ornament, and we always ended up keeping the ornament but hiding it on the back of the tree. There were years when Ally slyly threw the ornament away as she ranted about the injustice of having a time without her around. Joel and I would retrieve it from the trash can and hide it on the back of the tree. And yes, if you know my son Joel, you know that he teased her about this for years. “Hey Ally, look at this ornament. This is a good one!” I can hear the whole thing go down now.
But this year, when we got to this ornament, it brought us both tears and laughter. We both agreed to hang the ornament on the back of the tree. And in that way, Joel and I felt Ally’s lasting presence. We talked. We kept to tradition. We remembered to be grateful for all of our beautiful and imperfect ornaments, our family memories, our sweet Ally.
Though I miss Ally with all of my being, I am so glad we decided to put up our Christmas tree in her absence. The simple ritual of putting up the tree helped remind me that, even in my grief, I’ve been blessed with so much in my life. I’m glad we were able to continue a family tradition — even during this difficult season. Thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me the importance of family and tradition. And thank you, Joel, for giving me some mother-son time when I needed it the most. You’ll never know how special this small ritual was to me.
*Note: I mention my daughter Ally a lot in my blogs. She died in May 2020 of glioblastoma. She was 15. I will most likely write more about this when my mom heart feels the time is right. I wanted you to have a little backstory to better understand my journey.