I’m a history major, I get that. Old Stuff is intriguing. I spent my childhood absolutely longing to search my grandparents’ attic. That secret half-door leading to mysteries under the rooftop was a forbidden zone. Filled, I was certain, with dolls and Christmas ornaments and treasures and photographs of my Great Aunt Marie, the flapper girl who cut her hair short and played the piano at the silent movies downtown. Mysteries and Secrets and Christmas! They were hidden away, just like Narnia in the old wardrobe.
As it turns out, I saw the attic and its contents when I grew up. The angled roof underbelly had exposed fiberglass insulation, and the floor had empty spots where a kid could fall through the plaster and into the living room below. I’m glad it was off limits, even though they stored the Christmas stuff there.
We decorated our Christmas tree this week, and it has lots of Olden Day Stuff on it. Some people have stylish trees, pretty trees, even decorator-themed trees.
We are not those people.
Our tree is a veritable cornucopia of memories. At the top, there are ancient breakable blown glass ornaments from my grandmother’s tree. They are out of reach of little ones. They are accompanied by all the candy canes that the older kids want to keep away from the little ones. Below the candy cane contraband are the sentimental wonders that only a mother would keep and cherish.
One of the ornaments was given to me by my oldest daughter, the very first Christmas that she could talk. “Look, Mama. A ‘ormament’ for you!” She had crumpled up a napkin from coffee and donuts time after church. Masking tape held on a coffee stirrer that she said were antlers, and she drew two magic marker spots for eyes. “It’s a reindeer!” My very first Mommy gift. It’s been on my Christmas tree for twenty years. Really. A crumpled brown napkin with a coffee stirrer taped to it. I can still see the sparkle in her eyes, all pleasure because she had made it for me.
The rest of the tree is covered with memories. Finger painted things and jingle bells strung with beads on yarn, and many tin-foil-covered-cardboard Stars of David. There is a pipe-cleaner assembly that used to say “Merry Christmas”. Now it is just tendrils, but I remember the nimble little hands that made it for me. Olden Day Stuff.
Probably inspired by all the old stuff on our tree, all this week my daughter has been asking me to make her an “Olden Day Lunch”.
“Please make me an Olden Day lunch, Mom?”
What she wants is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cut in half, with a tangerine, in a brown paper bag. Sound exciting?
Olden Day Lunch.
It got me thinking…
“Did you know, Small One, that when I was your age, there were no cell phones in my house?”
“Where were they?”
“They hadn’t been invented yet.”
Her eyes widen.
“Did you know, Small One, that Netflix hadn’t been invented, either? No Amazon, no Netflix, and no DVDs.”
She looks at me in wonderment. “Oh, you watched movies on the VCR thing?”
“No. Actually, when we got to watch a movie, we got into our footie pajamas, My mom and Dad made about 5 batches of buttery popcorn, packed it in a brown paper grocery bag (Ooooh, real Olden Day Stuff!) and we piled into the car to go to the drive in movie theater. We watched a screen the size of a house.”
Very impressed. I could see the wheels turning in her little mind.
“What else didn’t you have, Mom?”
Let me think…No microwave. No dishwasher. Wait, no. We were the dishwashers. We sang songs and harassed each other while we did the dishes. No remote control gas fireplace. No remote control at all. No carseats, no seatbelts in the back seat. No answering machine, no cell phones, no cordless phone, no pager. No computer…No credit cards…no carpool, no playdates, no daycare, and my goodness: no disposable diapers.
“Did you have food?”
“Yes, but we had to grow much of it in the backyard, Small One.”
“Did you have clothes?”
“Yes, Dear. Mostly hand-me-downs from my sister and the neighbors. One was a pretty pink dress, but I only got to wear it to church on Sundays.”
“What else did you have, Mom?”
“A sled dog. And a sled. And a big hill. And dirt. We played in the dirt a lot.”
Actually, this is not a lie. The neighbors on the next street over had loads of black dirt hauled in for some landscaping plan that was never implemented. They had a literal mountain of black dirt in their backyard. It grew wild with magnificent weeds that were taller than me, and we made trails and forts and wove great rooftops of blooming clover that swayed over our heads, populated by butterflies and bees. We lived on that hobbit-hill, summer after summer. Games of tag, scavenger hunts for pupae and caterpillars and ladybugs and beautiful garter snakes, basking in the sun. We were so filthy at the end of each summer day. Trudging home through the weeds, we’d pull the dandelion fluffs and prickers out of our tangled hair and compare scrapes on our knees. After a bath, we’d take a wet washcloth to bed, to keep ourselves cool while we listened to the crickets chirp through the screens. Because we didn’t have air conditioning.
But we did have a Christmas tree.
“And guess what, Small One. Our Christmas tree was covered in Olden Day Stuff, too. Your aunt once squirted out a blobby blue patch of glue, and stuck a bunch of sparkly beads in it and tied it with a golden ribbon. If you look closely, you’ll see it is on your grandmother’s tree again this year. Because that was my sister’s Christmas gift to my mom. And moms are sentimental about stuff like that. We can’t quite keep it, can’t quite throw it away…but we can decorate our Christmas trees with the Olden Day Stuff for forty years or more…
After I tucked everyone in bed tonight, I took another look at our frumpy old tree. I had to smile. Maybe it’s something about the lights twinkling in the darkness, winking at me, reminding me of the magic of Christmas and childhood. I see my grandmother’s ornaments, and my great aunt’s ornaments, and the decorations my own children have made through the years.
Some good years, some not so good years.
But you know what? We always had each other. Someone was always hiding the candy canes at the top of the tree, where the little ones couldn’t reach.
And even now, with all our modern conveniences and electronics, we are still harassing each other while we do the dishes. And we’re still singing the same “O Come O Come Emmanuel”, captivated by the same flickering Advent candles, lighting up the darkness. Waiting for Mysteries and Christmas and Secrets.
These are the Olden Days they’ll remember tomorrow.
And they are magical.