When I was seven, in 1987, we moved to Washington DC. We had lived in California as long as I could remember before that, though I was born in Nevada and lived in Oregon for a while as well. We had lived in San Jose till I was about two (no memories from SJ either) and then moved to Visalia, where all of my earliest memories were made. Shortly before we moved to DC, my grandfather (Dad’s dad) had passed away, my father’s fax machine distribution/network company had closed, and it seemed like it was time to move on. We put a little bit of stuff in storage, packed the rest into the family’s light blue Saab, and started eastward across the country.
By Christmas, it was apparent that things were not necessarily going so well. After years of relative affluence in the heyday of my Dad’s business, it was clear even to 7-year-old me that the family was struggling financially. We didn’t have a television, though we would later pick up a small black and white one. Our apartment floor had a giant field of splinters in the living room that I one late night jumped into when trying to cross it barefoot to get water from the kitchen. (Yes, this was expressly against the often-discussed admonitions of my parents to always wear shoes in that part of the house no matter what. This is why I tried to leap over it instead of just walking gingerly across it. Which led to pretty disastrous results which involved my foot in a bowl of warm water for hours after I stopped screaming and my parents came down to investigate who was kidnapping me. I actually always wore shoes after that. Sometimes, we can only learn lessons from pain.)
It was clearly important to my parents that, even with our new circumstances, Christmas would still be special. Indeed, arguably some of the scrimping and minimalism in the fall and early winter was directly enacted so that we could have enough money for Christmas to still involve some nice gifts. I was in the choir at the beautiful Christ Church in Georgetown and this involved some Christmas performing as well as a great night of caroling shortly before Christmas itself. My main gifts would consist of some nice tin soldiers that would be tied for my favorite toys until I became a pacifist and remain, despite my pacifism, among the things that I really treasure from my childhood. In part, perhaps, because of the incredible upheaval of that one year we lived in DC, how precarious some of our circumstances were (there were also conflicts with the landlord that ultimately led to our departure – for another post, perhaps, or maybe not), and how vibrant everything seemed in that new and very different place. I forget if I had left the second school of three that I would attend that one second-grade year yet or if I was still enrolled – I would spend a couple months being homeschooled between schools #2 and #3. The reasons for this and the whole situation are probably the subject for another post as well, but it added to the sense that every day in DC was worth a couple weeks in my prior life in terms of daily change and uncertainty.
But the primary gift for the family, the items that were clearly selected with me in mind as a primary appreciator/recipient, but were beloved by all three of us, were the dinosaur ornaments. We got these decently before Christmas to go on the modest tree we’d gotten for the season. I had never been through a cold winter before (Visalia is often in the 110s in the summer and only gets to about 55 in the winter, with abundant fog as the main winter weather) and there was a massive snowstorm (my first in memory) on Veteran’s Day that shut the city for a day or so afterwards. I have a vivid visual of the bitterly chilly air, frost visible before our exhaling mouths, as we ducked in a little shop off the street and discovered these brightly colored ceramic decorations. My dinosaur obsession was still in full bloom, though patriotism/history was coming up to fill the void left by outer space after how watching the Challenger disaster had impacted my astronomical aspirations. Each dinosaur was the perfect mix of whimsy and seriousness, personality and color, delicate fragility and solid presence. We were in love, but I was especially. I think my parents were leaning toward getting them anyway, though they were a bit of a stretch for our budget, but I’m sure I wheedled quite a bit as well.
When we brought them home, I couldn’t wait to get them on the tree. My parents, as always, urged patience, but such is rarely a trait of those under 10. The ornaments were remarkably heavy and I was neither a tall nor a strong child. I asked if I could hang a couple of them up. My parents looked at each other and then at me and failed to reject my brimming enthusiasm. I was exhorted to hang them gently, to hang them cautiously, to take my time and hold my hand under them. To make sure they were firmly attached to the given branch.
I took this task seriously, despite my exuberance. I cradled each dino as it went up, hanging it by its golden fabric loop, gently resting it on a branch. Now the green triceratops, now the yellow T-rex. And then I set the orange pterodactyl on the highest branch I could reach. After all, they could fly. I was on my tiptoes and set it on the branch and stepped back to admire its perch.
You probably knew where this was going. It wasn’t deep enough on the branch and the branch probably wasn’t substantial enough for the weighty ceramic object in the first place. I had become complacent after the success of the first couple of hangings, gaining confidence after successfully attaching gleaming dinosaurs to the well-lit tree. The pterodactyl’s loop slid quickly down the branch, it briefly took to the air like its depicted inspiration, then clattered to the hardwood floor, smashing in two.
I cried. I wept. I was inconsolable. My parents were in a frequent position for them in my childhood, where any critique they might leverage of my behavior was already dwarfed by the extreme guilt I felt. I was good at being able to discipline myself, to make myself feel far worse than any typical parental punishment. I think one of the first things my Mom asked me to do was to stop beating myself up about it, a request that was destined to echo down the long halls of subsequent decades of our parent-child relationship. But I refused. I didn’t know how.
I knew what those ornaments meant to us, what sacrifice my parents had made to get them (several exchanged looks and hushed discussion in the store before we gleefully stepped out with the dinos in tow), how many years I had already planned to make them the centerpiece of tree-decorating to come. And here it was, one of my favorite dinosaurs of all-time, wing rent from wing and little bits of ceramic powder spilling out from the cracks. These were the days before SuperGlue was a household item and I’m not sure we even had glue of any sort. It was irreparable. The pieces of pterodactyl spent the night in the trashcan and I spent the night softly sobbing to myself.
In those anticipated subsequent years, I would feel a washing mix of emotion every time we hauled out the ornaments for tree-decorating. Nothing would bring me more joy than seeing the beautiful dinosaurs in their polished splendor, but this would instantaneously be punctuated by the pangs of guilt at the missing pterodactyl. For some reason, I would feel compelled to apologize to my parents, sometimes repeatedly, every year. I cannot sufficiently emphasize that my parents never did anything to make me feel bad about the broken dino and certainly never raised the issue themselves after that DC Christmas. But, like my perverse annual desire to read “The Little Fir Tree” aloud, Hans Christen Andersen’s Kafkaesque and heartbreaking tale of an anthropomorphized evergreen, the dinosaur-ornament guilt would become an unfortunate hallmark of most every Christmas to come. My hands would tremble every time I grabbed for one of the beloved surviving dinosaurs, making overly sure to hang it furthest back on the most substantial branch every time. There was at least one year, when I was 10 or 11, when I refused to hang any of the dinos myself for fear of a repeat and could barely watch, one eye half-closed, as my parents attempted the feat themselves.
To this day, 27 years after the first fateful Christmas of the lost pterodactyl, I have been unable to look at the dinos without seeing a vision of the shattered ornament, without feeling the same regretful reverberations I feel in my heart when I contemplate other transgressions of my youth. The day in first grade when I punched David A. in the arm for cutting in line. The time I was held in from recess that same year for saying a test was too easy, loudly, when we were supposed to be working silently. The shameful things a classmate convinced me to say on a dare. For whatever reason, whatever part of my conscience controls these memories, I simply cannot let these things go.
Suffice it to say that when we first got the ornaments out yesterday and Noir the cat started batting at the triceratops pictured above, I almost lost it. But maybe I should learn a lesson from the cat’s relaxed attitude toward possessions that are, after all, just things. But then, Christmas is a time for traditions, for memories, for family fables of both joy and pathos. They all are time-honored and all, perhaps, tell us more about ourselves than we normally know.