* This was written in 2017, as the Christmas decorations emerged from random closets and tattered boxes, bringing with them Christmases past. A lot has changed since then and Mom has lost a lot of ground, so I hesitated to publish this now. Somehow it never made it onto the blog, but it's a story that deserves to be shared. So while wringing my hands a bit, I'm pushing the "publish" button...
It started in 1994, when Mom gave my new husband, John, and me a silver bell. My 47-year-old eyes can barely read it now, but engraved in the teeniest of print is “Our First Christmas, 1994.” It was pretty and sweet, and we hung it on the tree. The next year, she gave us another. The 1995 bell had a handle, and so we set it on…something. In 1996, she gave us a bell, along with some random ones she found at sales with miscellaneous dates. She decided to gift them retroactively back until the year we met in 1991. This is what I was remembering, while hanging them this year. “Wow, a 1998 one. That is weird and random,” thinking that was way out of the timeline. And then I realized we’d been married 4 years at that point, had a one-year-old, and had moved to another state. The entire year is a blur.
Eventually we had a dozen or so bells, all a bit different, rougher quality at first and finer as the years progressed. The ones that wouldn’t hang on the tree were lined up on the mantle, and then eventually also a side table or two. It became a bit of a problem, until I finally bought a tree and dedicated it to bells. It was beautiful, and we finally had a way to display my Mom’s sweet little odd tradition of the annual foisting of the bell…And then it stopped. We were surprised a bit. In twenty-something years, we could always count on dozens of Mom’s Russian Teacakes and one silver bell, engraved with the year. It wasn’t the lack of a bell that bothered us, it was the forgetting. The next year, it was apparent that bells would never be on Mom’s agenda again. The woman who finished her Christmas shopping in January, then waited all year for them to release the latest bell, no longer remembered to shop in January. And she no longer remembered the bells.
She still thinks they’re beautiful, but has no recollection of giving them. Once my Dad realized the lapse, he picked up the tradition. But there’s a gap in the years where the diagnosis was made. That’s okay; it’s part of the story. This year, Dad informed us he still intends to get us a silver cup. It’s tough remembering everything for mom and him, too. I don’t think I’ll pick up the tradition of bells for John and me. Twenty-three or so is enough. But when our daughters marry, I think we’ll start the tradition anew. And one day, they can divide up the ones their grandmother gave to honor her daughter’s new family.
Families don’t always know the stories of the things they pass down, but our girls know this. They remember the years of unwrapping and displaying them, the awkward thank you’s during the years of trying to figure out what to do with yet another bell, the time we moved into a new house and their mom bought a tree just for the bells…the way they mocked their mom’s rather thin little tree and the way you could see the bells on all sides at once. They’ll remember the years the bells stopped and the way their sweet Papa tried to fill in the gaps for his bride. And when we hand these bells down to them, they’ll see the dates etched on the sides and remember where we were in our history together.
My mom and I were always different from each other, abrasive against each other, and we’ve each spent my lifetime straining to understand the other. Her tradition with the bells was really no different: It was someone who showed their love through gifts, giving something beautiful to honor someone she valued. And the recipient was someone who appreciated the idea, but would rather have a hug and a word of encouragement. The irony now is that, as dementia has robbed her mind, it has also toppled some walls. The mom I have today, in mid-December, has not started her Christmas shopping, nor will she. She has no to-do list featuring silver bells. But she clearly loves me, and when she sees me again on any day, she will tell me that, hug me, and encourage me. The beauty that she notices now – and speaks – is in people and not things.
And through her tradition with the silver bells, she demonstrated a lasting way we can honor the families that our daughters will one day have. Every Christmas, we have a tangible reminder of how she strived to do that for 23 years, etched in silver and hanging on our tree.