Other family members joined in on the fun, and the collection became an explosion of holiday cheer. So many relatives, friends and ex-boyfriends (let's keep quiet about that) added pieces that came with their own sets of memories. I even added inherited dime-store trinkets that once hung on the tree of my great-grandmother, Myrtle (Wright) Bowley, priceless, at least to me.
The whole collection came along when I moved into the dorm and then into an apartment and, finally, into the house after my husband and I were married. Pieces accumulated with each move and with the births and the childhoods of our three daughters.
Today delicate ball ornaments with all of our names share space on our overly burdened tree with dated pieces going back 40 years. No decorator-showcase Christmas tree with matching ornaments for me. The crystal bell ornament my sister, Sabrina, bought me when I was about 13 hangs next to the angel with the pipe-cleaner halo that our daughter, Caterina, made in fourth grade.
I treat the pieces with care even when they're not on the tree. The commercial keepsake ornaments are stored in their original boxes. As I open them and slide on the hooks, I allow myself to remember long-ago Christmases and to relish tender memories from the loved ones who gave me those gifts. Of my stepbrother, Todd, who passed away when I was just 15. Of the family my husband and I have built together. Of friends who have come into and slipped out of my daily life but have left an imprint on my heart. Though I might regularly forget where I left my car keys, I always remember who gave me each piece and which ornament belongs in which box.
Our daughters have collections of their own now, and sometimes I'm a little sad that they haven't embraced my tradition nor will remember the source of each piece. But I do know that someday they will take out some of these same ornaments and smile, knowing how much I loved them.
I'm always a little blue when it comes time to take down all of the Christmas decorations and return the house to its dreary January self. But as I tuck each ornament back in its box, I know that Thanksgiving is already less than a year away. The day after that holiday, the boxes will come down again, and my favorite pieces and all the warm memories that come with them will fill my house and my heart once again.