Writers Abroad II
I once created a heavenly angel. No, not one of my children. They were already born.
It was a time in my life when I thought I would be a subsistence farmer, or at least a subsistence gardener. “Das Leben auf dem Land” was my Bible and I made a serious attempt to follow its commandments. I made my own jams and canned fruit and beans, – which I’d grown in my own garden and saved from the deer and slugs. I sewed the children’s clothes, often from the family’s hand-me-downs. And, of course, made my own Christmas decorations in true Austrian fashion – straw stars and gold-sprayed nuts which I adorned with little red ribbons.
In Austria, the tree is decorated by the Christkind secretly during the 24th of December. It is always a challenge for the Christkind to do this without being seen, especially if you have an open-plan house or have lost the keys to strategic doors. Perhaps for this reason, the 24th is the one day in the year when you see fathers out walking their children for hours in the afternoon, waiting for darkness and the miraculous transformation of the Christmas tree. That Christmas Eve my husband was out with the children and all the other fathers so that I could play Christkind.
Having decorated the tree with all my stars and nuts, I realized that I had nothing for the top except a totally inappropriate shiny pointy thing that pre-dated my back-to-nature persona. I certainly couldn’t leave the top bare so there was no other alternative but to quickly make a suitable crowning glory for the tree myself. I decided on an angel.
I started out by making a body of straw bands wrapped around a liter bottle of natural apple juice. Her head was the toe of a stocking, stuffed with cotton; onto her face I glued innocent bright blue felt eyes and a red rosebud mouth. Hair of white cotton balls haloed her head and her crown of royal blue felt was fastened onto her white hair with a bead necklace. She dominated our small tree that year with her rather matronly sized body and large straw wings. The children were suitably impressed.
Over the years the decorations multiplied. Every year the children and I made more straw ornaments; one year we added a crèche (bits of board nailed together in Kindergarten – similar to those perennial favourites: toilet paper rolls and toothpaste boxes glued together). The girls and I made our own holy family figures using Fimo – 3 Mary’s and 3 Joseph’s in varying degrees of recognizability, a whole herd of sheep and other easier-to-make creatures, like snakes, all adoring the sausage-shaped Baby Jesus encased in swaddling clothes. The Angel continued to look innocently amazed from her perch at the top of the tree. She fit right in.
The girls grew out of childhood and I grew out of the modest, do-it-yourself phase to enter the glittery, showy phase. The nuts, now looking far too small on the ceiling size tree, were left in the box. The straw stars had begun to fall apart. In their place, shiny colourful glass balls and hundreds of thousands (or so) burning candles. I wanted dazzle. The Angel looked slightly out of place with so much glitz. The girls, now becoming critical pre-teens, thought the angel looked stupid and they rolled their eyeballs – but she stayed, the candles illuminating her fragile straw body. That year she went into her box slightly singed.
The next year the pyromania candles were replaced with no-fuss electric lights The girls were teenagers. Rebellious ones. One sat at my table with tattooed arms – one forearm with a peace sign and the other declaring her undying love for “Kevin”. Kevin sat next to her gripping his knife and fork in his fists, “H A T E” tattooed across his knuckles. The spiky hair of these punk anti-commercialists was reflected in the cool blue and hard silver of that year’s Christmas decorations. The kids cast their words like barbs across the table until the youngest burst into tears. The Angel had turned slightly off center and despite repeated efforts to get her to look at the room, she continued to stare at the wall. Nobody looked at her either. After that Christmas she went on vacation.
For several years the Angel stayed hidden away. Along with all the other ornaments. In fact there was no tree and no Christmas dinner until the spiky teenager reappeared, unspiked, but with several dogs. The bottom of the tree had to be left bare so as to avoid wagging tails from knocking down the ornaments. The Angel was safe at the top of the tree but looking cautious and slightly flattened from her seasons packed away in the storage box.
In time, to the three dogs were added three children. The girls, now young women, had begun talking to each other again. With so many Christmas trees sparring for attention, the new mothers decided that their children would have to look at their own Christmas trees in their own homes on Christmas Eve. The Angel and I have learned patience. We wait until the babies are brought on another day.
But they do come and stare, amazed, at my tree awash in electric lights and dazzling with color. Looking somewhat the worse for wear, the angel is still on top. The girls, now mothers with an interest in family tradition, insist on it. From their distance far below, the babies peer up at the Angel and I can tell from their eyes that they think she is wonderful. They’re too far away to see her singed straw body, her flattened stocking head, her mouse nibbled hair. We’re old friends, she and I, and I’m glad I didn’t throw her away or rejuvenate her flattened face. My Angel has weathered heat, scorn, interior decoration schemes. She’s still as she was when I made her, bravely hanging in there from year to year, reminding me that hope springs eternal at Christmas.