— Emily Matthews
American poet and author
For the first 11 years of my life in Falkner, Miss., beginning in ’55, and then as a preteen in Collierville, Tenn., starting in ’66, decorating the Christmas tree was a precious family moment, and one often left to the creative minds and fumbling hands of my two older siblings and me.
This was especially true during those early years in the rural northern end of the Magnolia State when my parents would sit in the coziness of our modest living room near the fireplace watching as their three kids comically debated the placement of our few but colorful globe-shaped ornaments, and the chart-like, up-and-down flow of two long strands of garland, one bright green, the other just as enticingly red.
Untangling the string of lights from the prior Christmas was generally my brother’s chore and if it became too intense our dad chipped in. But for the most part, my father’s role was to find the live cedar tree in the bottomlands of Granddaddy Grady Norton’s farm — in the company of my brother and me — chop it down by ax and carry it back home for an evening of decorating.
More proper folks back then phrased it as “trimming the tree,” but we Norton kids just called it “decorating.” As I recall, it just about always took place after dark following one of Mom’s country suppers which never were elegant but always delicious — barring the occasional vegetable of choice that I didn’t like, such as lima beans and green beans.
Those two varieties of legumes caused more than a few showdowns between my parents and me at the table. Suffice to say, I lost most of those standoffs. In those days, growing boys my age had little say in the decisions of nutrition. What Mom put on the table, we ate ... by order of Dad, the president of our non-Democracy. For those choosing an ill-fated path of rebellion, the threat of dad’s leather belt often settled any remaining negotiations.
Our Christmas tree ornaments were always stored in the bottom cavity of an aging, dilapidated, fold-out couch, a variety from a day long ago that today’s furniture manufacturers would consider primitive at best, something better suited for the cave of Fred and Wilma Flintstone. It folded out into a bed which was often called into service when we had weekend company — mostly first cousins from Macedonia and Greenwood.
Each Christmas season when we carefully removed the quaint selection of ornaments from the couch’s musty belly, Mom would be there with rag — most of the time one of Dad’s old T-shirts whose age and stains had long-since shelved its usefulness — to gently wipe away the past year’s dust. With each tiny glass globe — faded red, green and gold ones — she always had a story.
To Mom, each ornament was a memory. It’s why she always cautioned us in a loving voice to handle them with care. Those old globes meant more to my mother than life itself.
One came at the birth of my sister Fay, five years my elder.
One came at the arrival of my older brother Jim, two years later.
One signified my appearance three years after that.
The two tired strands of garland, one red and one green, were bought by my parents years earlier — long before the kids came along. Once glitteringly new, they were still colorful but no longer vibrant. Yet, they lined our Christmas trees each season, bringing a delicate balance to the carefree decorating patterns chosen by us kids for the individual globes.
My mom’s most cherished ornament used each year was the red aluminum star that sat atop our family Christmas tree every December. Always. No debate. No replacements.
Even as the tender ornament aged, its status as the tree’s most sacred ornament held a sovereign reign. One December a point to the delicate star tore. The thin aluminum was becoming so old. Yet with her gentle touch and loving care, Mom bandaged it back together with clear Christmas tape, the same tape that she and dad would use later in the month to wrap our meager presents late one night after bedtime as the kids slept.
The star’s prominence in our family’s cozy collection of decorations came with good reason. It had been a wedding gift to my newlywed parents — in 1946, as I am told, after Dad’s return from World War II. It was given by Papaw and Mamaw Denson of Booneville, Miss. — my mom’s parents.
It was more than just a memory. It was a new life. And she nurtured it as such, just as she did in the telling of its story each December to us kids.
Now fast-forward to April 27, 2011 — Cleveland, Tenn. Hundreds of Bradley County families lost all or most of their possessions within 12 hours of those merciless tornadoes, including untold boxes of endearing memories.
Many of those beloved symbols from the past were Christmas ornaments — so many of which had a special story to tell, a heartfelt event in life to remember.
It is why four groups — United Way of Bradley County, The Salvation Army Cleveland Corps, the Cleveland/Bradley Disaster Relief Group and the Bradley County Long-Term Recovery Organization — have launched a Christmas ornament drive on behalf of families who lost their homes and possessions on that fateful date.
New ornaments can’t replace the old.
Bright sparkles won’t bring back that which is lost forever.
But they will do this. They will serve as beacons lighting a path toward new lives and fresh starts. And in years ahead, they will become the Christmas memories of Bradley County families who look back to April 27, 2011, as a day of judgment and a time of reckoning.
And years from now an aging storm survivor will tenderly cradle a donated ornament in a wrinkled and trembling hand before the innocent face of a smiling grandchild and retell its story ... of another day from a distant time.
Christmas ornament collection points include the downtown United Way office, the Salvation Army Coffeehouse on Inman Street, the Salvation Army’s Distribution Center on Barney’s Lane and the Cleveland Daily Banner.
Your gift of a Christmas ornament to a storm survivor might seem little.
But its message is big, one whose unspoken words will linger a lifetime.