Our tree is, as I like to call it, a mutt tree. It’s covered in the mishmash of our history, in every color under the sun, randomly hung with the love one can only give a beloved family mutt. Instead of a tree topper we have a star being clung to by the Abominable Snowman – Jeff & I found him our first year of marriage and he’s now an indispensible honored guest. Inside, near the trunk of the tree, is nestled a teensy bird’s nest inhabited by a sweet little red bird and her eggs, simply because in my mother’s family it is a tradition to have a nest in the tree. There’s a walnut shell painted like a strawberry and a cookie Santa head, made in my extreme youth. There are random plastic icicles, vestiges of my childhood tree that I am fiercely protective of. There’s a brass angel from the year of my birth, engraved with “Beth, 1977” because my parents were still convinced that I would be called Beth at that point in my young life.
My mother had a tradition of making (or, occasionally, buying) an ornament for each of us four kids each year. Then, when we grew up and flew the coop, we were presented with a box of all 18 ornaments, plus the ones we had made or been given over the years. I still get misty every year when I open that shoebox and relive the memories of each one – and I can still tell the stories.
Yet, despite all these beautiful relics of earlier versions of me the thing I think I treasure the most is something a little newer, a little less family oriented, a little more ordinary – or extraordinary, depending on how you look at them: a collection of hand sewn & starched snowflakes.
On September 11th, 2001, I boarded a plane in Baltimore and flew to Detroit for a quick stopover on my way home to San Diego. We reboarded, taxied to the runway, and sat. And sat. And returned to the terminal, where all the televisions were turned off. There were frightened phone conversations, and then we all crowded into the bar to watch, on the only TV available, planes crash into the Twin Towers.
23, unemployed, I was heading home from a visit to a dear old friend with nothing but change in my pocket. I had wisely left my credit cards at home so I couldn’t spend more than my budget – which I had, of course, spent in full. I had no cell phone, no computer, no way to contact my family who knew only that I was flying from the East coast to the West coast that morning. I was terrified. I sat down, alone and penniless, sobbing.
Two women were immediately at my side – two women who, when sitting next to me, looked like they could have been my mother and grandmother. Mary and Sadie. They stayed with me all day, as the airlines brought us lunch and offered us toiletry kits. They paid for my phone call to my mother to assure her I was alive. They rode with me to the hotel the airlines provided free that night and were my roomies, washing our underwear in the sinks and sleeping rolled up in sheets since they wouldn’t give us access to our luggage. They paid for my meals and the hotel the next night, and waited in endless lines with me as we attempted to get to San Diego. They watched endless CNN with me and we railed together against commentators who said impossibly offensive things. For three days, until we made it to Southern California, those two ladies were my family.
Mary, my pseudo mom, was from Buffalo and was headed to San Diego to see an ailing aunt. Sadie was a north county San Diegan. I talked to them both within hours of getting home – checking in, laughing over how good it felt to FINALLY have our luggage and clean clothes. I sent them both thank you cards and some money to cover what they had spent on me over the three day ordeal. And then there was silence.
That Christmas a card arrived from Mary, stuffed to the brim with gorgeous lace snowflakes she had made herself – because that was the only snow I would get that Christmas, she said. She wanted me to have a little white in my holiday.
For the next few years, I would get a card from Mary each September 11th with a pressed pansy inside – for remembrance, she said. But what brings her to mind the most – what reminds me of the whole thing, the planes and the fear and the community and the hope and the love – is the sight of those snowflakes on my tree, hanging in my window, pretending to fall.
I don’t know where Mary is now, or Sadie either. But I remember.