Opening Up for the Holidays


December 27, 2015 by Paula Reed Nancarrow


Christmas was cold and dry this year, with icy sidewalks.

But the day after we woke to several inches of beautiful snow. My housemate’s back yard is full of what I used to call, when I had my own small garden, “winter interest.” Mare’s cat Chester immediately wanted to go and check out the white stuff.

It is a joke between us, to see how quickly a cat let out the side door can appear with his face pressed again the storm door, framed by one of the French window panes. I think this time he set a record. About fifteen seconds.

Like Thanksgiving, my family Christmas was a joint mother-daughter project.

Maggie did the hosting in her small apartment. Not small for her; a bit small for here-we-come-Nancarrowing. But pleasant. I brought pots and pans and utensils, plus my share of the food, and we cooked there.

Her grandparents stopped in for appetizers. Aidan and his girlfriend Renee arrived shortly after. Then Renee left to spend the rest of Christmas day with her dad. My kids called their dad in Virginia; then we called my parents; then the three of us had dinner. It was a quiet, gracious holiday. With one difference.

This year Maggie decided she wanted a real tree.

The modular artificial tree had ended up mine in the divorce; I think we must have had it since after we moved back to Minnesota from Tennessee in 1999. We kept it in a big white plastic rectangular tub with a red lid. I took to referring to it as The Christmas Coffin.

Before I lost the house, as I’ve mentioned before, we had a garage sale, also Maggie-motivated. While I remember dragging the Christmas Coffin out to be sold, I can’t now remember whether it had any takers, or whether it was among the things that got left in the house for the foreclosure cleanup crew. No matter. Assembling an artificial tree is just not a tradition one looks forward to. Fetching a tree is a different matter.

I went over the Thursday before Christmas Eve day to help her pick out and decorate the tree.

She wanted to keep Advent; none of this Christmas-since-Thanksgiving stuff. On her father’s side Maggie is the daughter – and granddaughter – and great-granddaughter – of Episcopal priests. Now she is herself is pursuing ordination, and so such traditions have taken on deep meaning for her.

Prior to that event, however, I did something I have not done for more than three years. I opened my storage unit. Ostensibly this was to retrieve the Christmas ornaments. But emotionally, it meant much more.

I had intended to empty the storage unit when I moved in with Mare.

The original idea was that I would sort through things in her basement before transitioning to my own apartment. I wasn’t even entirely sure what all was in there anymore. I just remembered it was packed from top to bottom.

But even moving from the condo to Mare’s house put a lot of things in that basement: things I had squirreled away in Katherine’s storage unit; kitchenware that wasn’t needed in Mare’s well-equipped kitchen; papers to sort and scan. That really seemed like enough of an imposition. It’s a nice, furnished basement. Some stuff you just need to deal with in your own space.

On top of that, there was the lock.

lock-583878_1920I knew I had a padlock on the storage bin, but I could not find the combination for the lock anywhere. For all these reasons, as well as some emotional ones I could only vaguely identify, the storage unit had remained unopened.

But I had to contact the guy who ran the facility anyway, to update my credit card. I told him my dilemma. “Aw, that happens all the time,” he said affably. “Just bring your ID and sign a form, and we’ll snip the lock for you.”

So I took the trek out to Hopkins.

It’s not much of a trek, really. Hopkins is only a first ring suburb, maybe twenty minutes away. Hardly a long arduous journey. Except when you factor in those emotions. One of which, when I finally got there, was that all-purpose astringent, chagrin.

It seems I could not find the combination for the lock because it didn’t have one. The door into the facility had a keycode, and to get in you punch that plus your locker number. My padlock, however, had a key. I had no idea where that was either, so the lock was snipped anyway. I peered inside.

I think I was afraid it would look like the mummified remains of my home. But it just looked like things, really. Familiar things. One or two that pulled at my heart. Some I shook my head at. More than a few mouse droppings. But the door was open at last.

In the end there were only three ornaments Maggie wanted.

The nativity ornament, which I have spoken of before. A miniature knit glove with her name on it, given the year she was born. A blue rowboat, hanging by a spun gold thread. The reason behind that last attachment isn’t clear. But it doesn’t need to be.

For me, it was enough to have a reason to break the lock, and break the spell. I have looked upon the past, and lived. The present, as they say, is a gift. Now to imagine the future.

The final product...

The final product…


14 thoughts on “Opening Up for the Holidays

  1. jan says:

    The older we get the more melancholy the season brings. Happy New Year! Hope it’s a good one.


  2. Diana says:

    so much unsaid. May the sorting be swift and pain free (and finished!), and may your memories be good ones — especially the ones you make in 2016.
    I love the photos you chose to accompany this post. Each one is lovely!


  3. 😄 It’s like The Christmas Carol of ornaments. Past, present, & future. A lovely post and final product. 🎄 Happy New Year!


  4. Norah says:

    Memories and thoughts of Christmases past, present and future. May the future bring much joy. Happy new year!


  5. Judith Post says:

    When my friend was in the first throes of divorcing, she had a small fire in her garage with lots of attending smoke damage to all of her belongings. She wouldn’t toss them, insisted on putting them in a storage unit when she moved out of her almost ex-husband’s house. It took her a long time to sort through them. Too many memories and emotions. She has another house now and she’s met someone new, and she’s finally sorting through a garage filled with boxes. A healthy transition. Best of luck with yours.


  6. elainemansfield says:

    So good to break the spell, Paula. My old house holds my life plus boxes of “I-can’t-deal-with-this” stuff shoved into a room I don’t need. Harder, my husband’s many years of culled photo negatives and slides are neatly housed in notebooks on a wide shelf in the office which was once his and is now mine. He was an excellent photographer. For years I’ve vowed to sort through them for digitalization. They’re loaded with memories, especially ones from the mid 1980s to around 2005 when he (and all of us) went digital. They are a goldmine for me as a writer and a land mine for me as a woman who gets tired of looking back. One day I’ll dive in.


    • Gold mine, land mine. Such is the world of memory. ;-) I have a similar problem with the VHS tapes of our children growing up, in a family innocent of the divisions to come. I need to get them transferred to CD, but I need to look through them first to make sure they are still viable after storage. I am afraid i may have waited too long.


  7. Mary Rowen says:

    As always, your post is full of honesty and authenticity, Paula. Thank you for sharing. Because my kids are teens now, I feel unable to to write much about the joys and pain that we experience during the holidays. Their trust is too important, and they’d feel violated (rightfully so) if I shared very much, but perhaps, when they’re a bit older, they’ll give me their blessing.In the meantime, please know that I’m with you. The holidays are such a mix of emotions. Happy 2016.


    • Yes, that’s a difficult issue. Everyone needs to negotiate it as best they can, with as much respect and empathy as they can muster. You are so right about those holidays, and I appreciate the support. A happy new year to you too.


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