The first Christmas we lived in our house we had cats. Well, we had cats for lots of Christmases, but the first year, they were new, rambunctious kittens. So we got a live, potted tree instead of a dead, cut one. That was in 1993; a guy would drive around in his big pick-up delivering the trees with copious instruction on how to care for them. Then he’d pick them up again a week or so later—any longer and it would hurt the tree to stay indoors. Then he’d sell the tree, along with a hundred others, so some tree farm out in the country. His customers were basically renting the trees from him on their way to being delivered to their permanent home. In 1993 this rental cost about $35, back then the same price as a medium-gorgeous noble fir. After transitioning, once our cats simmered down, back to traditional trees, I looked the guy up a few years ago and he was still doing his thing, but asking $150. I continue to opt for a cut, dead tree.
We bought our cats Christmas presents every year: catnip toys or special treats. One year, I got them these ornaments that we hung each year at the bottom of the tree for them to bat around. We still hang them there even now that the cats have both been gone for several years.
Before we became parents, we had friends over for dinner and we spent the evening talking about our cats the way others talk about their children. A year or two later we had all had kids, and our cats were demoted from being family members to pets. As they got older, I realized I really wasn’t that kind of a cat person. I liked them young or middle-aged, didn’t mind if they were cuddly or indifferent, but wasn’t going to be a good care-for-them-by-any-means-necessary cat owner. I was grateful when they both passed on, and am grateful for the past few years of being pet-free. These little guys hanging from the tree are all the cats we need.
This bug is one of a collection of bug ornaments given to us by my mother one year. I think everyone got bugs from her that year. We have a grasshopper, a ladybug, this fellow, and a multitude of beetles. (Because, as we know from J.B.S. Haldane, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”)
This ornament reminds me, every time I see it, of my mother’s far-reaching creativity and aesthetic. She is a woman of many talents, and brings an artistic flair to everything: sewing, cooking, home decor, gift-wrapping, horticulture. I have none of these talents but I like to think that what I have gotten for her is an equally wide-ranging aesthetic appreciation. Only with my mother can I laugh and giggle about the collection of bugs she gave us for Christmas. Only with her can I drive through Portland’s Northwest Industrial area and say: Isn’t this gorgeous? For that, as for so many things, I give thanks.
Every year I think I’m going to have a smaller, simpler tree. Or a themed tree; do you ever do that? Restrict the tree to ornaments that are white, or hand-made or given to us as gifts, or angels, or birds? Each year, no matter what, my handful of Margaret Furlong ornaments, which I miraculously store in their original boxes year after year, are always the first ornaments on the tree.
Each year when I re-encounter these white porcelain ornaments with their satisfying weight my mind goes to phenomenon of collecting things. Some people do, and some don’t. I’m in the “some don’t” category, but I always want to jump ship into the sea of collectors.
I get oddly envious when I encounter others’ collections: pie birds, vintage bottles, conch shells, antique tape measures, or anything else that it would never occur to me to collect until I see it on someone else’s shelves. Years ago I worked with someone who had a snow-globe collection. She was being interviewed by someone from the New York Times and she didn’t want to have the person come to her apartment, so she brought all her snow-globes into the office. They lined all the shelves on three walls; probably about 300 snow-globes (she really didn’t want that photographer in her apartment!). They chronicled every trip she’d ever taken, as well as every friendship with anyone who cared enough about her or her collection to contribute.
What make some people collectors?
To a non-collector, it looks like it’s about loyalty and discipline. These are not qualities I lack, so there must be something else. It’s not like I have trouble holding onto things. But my things are more accumulations than collections. Yarn. Greeting cards. Knick-knacks. Perhaps the loyalty and discipline that sets collecting apart from accumulating is wed to particularity, a singularity of focus that sets collections apart from accumulation.
I’m left with more questions than answers. If I’m lucky, you who are collectors will comment: what do you collect? Why? What does it mean to you? What are your plans?
Behold, a train. One of far too many Christmas ornaments in our family’s collection. Every year I try to cull through them; the past few years I’ve been somewhat successful. One of these years I will remember to get the box of cast-offs to someone who will appreciate them at just the right time of year. December, not February.
We got several train ornaments when my son was of the age when trains provided infinite excitement and collectibility. I realize that some for some people, this could be any age. For our boy, it was about three to six.
But this train ornament, today, is symbolic not of our family’s train era so much as of that train that we all have running through our heads, that train that is at times fascinating, at times tedious.
Train of thought.
My husband and I are particularly fond of writer Nicholson Baker, who manages to make great writing out of even the most tedious train of thought. Long ago we incorporated the phrase “Nicholson Bakerian” into our domestic lexicon as a way of introducing a meandering yet—one hopes—followable explanation of the mental journey one took to arrive at what one is about to say. With the right level of consciousness and detail, there are no non sequiturs, ever.
What strikes me every Christmas when I put the ornaments on the tree are the associations I have with each ornament. Because I obviously have a little more time on my hands these days than I am used to (and you can read all about it here), my offering, for these twelve days of Christmas—in addition to the reminder to myself and my secular friends that there are, in fact, twelve days of Christmas—are brief meditations, meanderings, on these associations.