The ornament edition

The Authenticity Experiment, the ornament edition.  It’s funny what hurts you, what makes you start to cry like a little kid.  Tonight, it was that I couldn’t remember—actually never asked how—my mom made this chandelier decoration of velvet ribbon and red, green, and gold ball ornaments.  It hung every year in our dining room in the house I grew up in.  I decided it would look good in my house, over the table that belonged to my parents.

I’m decorating this year—for solstice—getting out all the boxes.  The lights, the yule log, the decorative hand towels.  You know, because what’s the darkest night of the year without some decorative red and green hand towels that you aren’t really allowed to use because they are decorative?

Last year, I didn’t do a thing.  Possibly I put out a red plaid runner that I just found in my buffet, but that’s it.  Oh, yeah, and my ex-girlfriend, the Tines, bought me this crazy adorable reindeer from the Sundance catalog because I loved hers so much, and it made me laugh, and I played with it each time I’d come over and sit on her couch and weep.  So, I guess that was displayed, too, “decorating” my house.  But otherwise, I can’t say I felt like celebrating.  My mom had just died three months earlier.

This year, though, I put lights on the balcony and this crazy big wreath on the balcony door.  I bought the wreath two years ago from Hammacher Schlemer.  Yes, I really ordered from the most expensive, materialistic catalog in America after seeing this wreath in an in-flight catalog.  I thought the giant lighted circle full of realistic-looking fir, and green, gold, and red balls, would orchestrate away the fact that my mom was losing her mind and was incontinent and lived in an apartment that she only left when forced.

I won’t lie to you: the wreath cost something like $175.  My sister Sue told me I was crazy.  She laughed when she said it.  I explained that I thought it would make mom feel normal.  Of course, she’d have to leave her apartment to see it—which she rarely did—and actually, when she did see it, she was dissatisfied with the number of lights on the wreath.  My mom believed in a thousand points of light quite literally.

But the crying. I wanted this chandelier thingy.  I am not that crafty.  I mean, I can be, when I have good directions.  I called Sue and I could barely get out, “Do you remember that chandelier thing mom used to make?”

Sue said she makes one every year for her own chandelier.  I said I had no idea how to do it.  She said, “Katie, if our mother could make it, anybody can make it. I’ll do mine tomorrow and take a picture.  It’s simple. You don’t even have to go to Michael’s.  You can use the ribbon you have.”

Our mother eschewed crafts like they were the devil. She hated things involving ribbon or scrap books or trips to the Ben Franklin or Michael’s Crap and Floral (sic). She didn’t like decoupage or pressed flowers. She decorated, but only if it was with pre-made things she bought.  Our mother never sewed a throw pillow cover in her life, or knitted an afghan, although one year she did glue plastic fruits on the top of these purses that looked like picnic baskets.  I don’t know if she used a glue gun, I was too young to remember.

But every year she hung these ornaments woven with velvet ribbon from our chandelier.  She could tie a crazy huge bow like nobody’s business, multiple loops in red velvet.  She put these bows on our wreaths (front and back doors), both wreaths lighted (naturally) with approximately 150 twinkle lights each.  She did the chandelier thing. She put a giant bow on the front of a sleigh that held all the Christmas cards she and my dad received.

When we were moving her, when we knew she had dementia but nobody had yet said the word “Alzheimer’s”—even though her neurologist placed her on all the Alzheimer’s drugs—I realize now, in hindsight, I could see evidence of the decline right there in the tubs of holiday decorations.  My mother had been meticulous about the holiday decorations.  And dear God, there were a lot: New Year’s Day, Valentine’s day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

But Christmas was her favorite.  There was the green sleigh centerpiece with Santa, and tiny wrapped gifts, and silk holly—my mother being raised in the Midwest, after all—for the dining room table.  A brass tray sat on the kitchen table the base of a centerpiece of plaid candles (yes, plaid) of differing heights that we were never allowed to burn because, like the solstice hand towels, they were decorative.  On the door to the kids’ bathroom she hung a stocking my grandmother made the Christmas before I was born.  It has—naturally, a hand sequined Santa—and in lieu of the name, an embroidered question mark.  I could go on and on, but literally every room had decorations.  Every. Room.

So, you can imagine how carefully you’d have to put those boxes away each year, wrapping up my great grandmother’s hand-blown glass ornaments; wrapping the wooden Santa with a bell in his hand that hung from the end of the kitchen counter and you brushed each time you passed by, hearing his brass bell ring out; carefully rolling and then wrapping in tissue the damn Noel banner that I can’t find (which is for another blog post).

But when we went to move her, the store room where she kept all the decorations was a shitshow.  Boxes everywhere, not stacked on the floor to ceiling shelves my father paid someone to install.  And in the middle of the store room, on our old redwood picnic table—which my mother could not bear to leave behind when they left California—sat these clear 50 quart Rubbermaid containers with blue lids.  The containers were stuffed pell mell with Christmas decorations.

My mom labelled them, in her deteriorating handwriting, “Christmas 2006” and “Christmas 2007,” et cetera (as if she could really remember what she’d hung and placed the year before).  Christmas 2009 was the last tub.  My father died earlier in 2010, and after that she didn’t want to decorate at all.  So like the good adult children of an alcoholic, my sisters and I assumed the task, my mother sitting on the couch directing us—more lights on the tree, no don’t put that wreath on the front door, that’s the backdoor wreath, please tie some plaid ribbon around the grapevine wreath to make it festive (hanging 14 feet high on the great room wall), you don’t have to take it down (as if I was going to do either).

Her final Christmas in that house, the Ironman and I came up on Christmas eve and found—I can’t even tell you what we found it was such a disaster.  Those of you with a parent with dementia can imagine.  In the living room was her four-foot tall “tabletop” tree sitting on the floor next to the table because a torn rotator cuff meant she couldn’t lift it up to the tabletop, ten bundles of white twinkle lights sat on one chair, and she’d manage to drag down boxes of decorations (placing them on the seat of her walker as she moved between the storeroom and the house).  She set the boxes in practically every room, lids off, nothing more done.  I said, “I thought your friends were going to decorate, I thought you had a party so you could have help.”  And she said, I just couldn’t ask them to do that.

Meanwhile, the “friends” had shown up with four pizzas and salad and soda—who knows how many days earlier—and the detritus from this party was on the kitchen counter and the center island.  The “friends” either didn’t know or didn’t care how impaired my mother was and so it never occurred to them that when I walked in—three, four, five days later—with a new girlfriend, the mess would still be there.

I didn’t find the chandelier balls that final Christmas in the house.  If I had, I’d have taken them as my own.  As it is, I went to Grocery Outlet the other day and bought some big ornaments. Sue texted step-by-step pictures, but when I tried to replicate it, the decoration looked like a sixth grader had put it together.  She knew how important this had become to me—maybe she didn’t understand why, I’m not sure I do—but at any rate, she texted, very sweetly and kindly, “Oh, look at that lovely red and silver ornament you chose.”  That’s when I knew I need to call my Emergency Backup Wife to come help me with the craft.  Which is what I’m going to do today.  Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year and god damn, we should have a chandelier decoration to celebrate, don’t you think?

#DarkAndLight #AuthenticityExperiment #KateCarrolldeGutes


  1. Thank you for this open-eyed reflection on Christmas (or any holiday) as one journeys with a parent with dementia and the memories that resurface after their death when the holidays cycle back around. I am in the midst of the Alzheimer’s journey with my mother, plus, as a hospice chaplain, witness the trek of others. My daughter wants me to make Yorkshire Pudding this year (an English staple at the holiday–my mother is English) and I was resisting. This gave me a glimmer of insight as to why. Keep sharing your wisdom. We all receive light in the midst of dark when wisdom is shared.

    December 16, 2016
  2. Steve said:

    Another beautiful painting from Kate. I had to look up only two words in this one. ;^> . As all, this one is a must read, and for “The Solstice”. Thank you, Kate.

    December 16, 2016
  3. Cathy Adams said:

    I read this holding my breath a little, afraid that it would push too close to what my husband and I (and his family) went through with his mother. It pinched. Before she died she didn’t even remember that it was Christmas.
    Your description of your crafting skills was funny and sad. Your admiration for your mother’s love of decoration was poignant.
    This is a story that connects to those tender places in readers that we’d rather cover over, but your words inject themselves into the pain ever so lightly. Beautifully done.

    December 16, 2017

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