The Christmas Box

Its fragile globes tell the ­stories of our lives

      Every year we bring them out. The boxes come up from the basement or down from the attic; in from the garage or just out of the hall closet. Among them, there it is, brimming with memories, the Christmas box brought out once a year that tells the stories of our lives in the ornaments collected over the years. 
      In the top of our box, because they are so fragile, is a small box of red and gold glass balls. There are not many left now, and on those remaining are spots where the paint has disappeared. But once those glass balls were the Christmas box, and the way we came to have them was a small Christmas miracle.
      It was our first Christmas as a couple, and we had just a little bit less than nothing. We had left Washington state and managed to rent a small house at 5251⁄2 South O’Leary Street in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the 1970s, South O’Leary Street was very literally on the wrong side of the tracks: The railroad tracks were the dividing line between the more and the less affluent sections of the small university town.
      We had both been hired for jobs, but neither of us would receive a paycheck until after Christmas. We had used the last bit of our cash to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent on the house.
      Still, we were not unhappy. We had a house, we had jobs and two cats in the yard.
      We set off for work very early that Christmas Eve morning. I had found work as a breakfast waitress in a small diner attached to a Ramada Inn. He was the new handyman at the hotel just down the road.
      The interesting thing about Flagstaff is that while it is in Arizona, it is part of the largest pine forest in the world and also 7,000 feet high — much higher than the mile-high city of Denver. That kind of altitude means winters are cold and often snowy. 
      At the hotel where I had found work, many of the customers were travelers dressed in shorts, suddenly finding themselves sliding into a snow embankment. They spent the night and in the morning got on the road back to the Arizona they expected. Tips were small and inconsistent.
      After my shift ended, I returned home. Reaching into the mailbox, I pulled out a long, thin envelope from the U.S. Forest Service. The last paycheck from my summer job as a tree thinner in Washington state had made its way to our home just in time for Christmas.
      I hurried to the bank, cashed the check and with my largesse, bought a small Christmas tree.
      It had two pieces of wood nailed to the bottom to keep it stable, and that was all it was going to get. I wasn’t squandering money on a Christmas tree stand, too. I mean, a Christmas tree is one thing, loaded with symbolism and hope for the new year. But the stand? That I could do without.
       Still, it was a bare tree, just a tree with nothing on it. But the house smelled like the pine forest, and that was enough.
      I also bought some food for a Christmas dinner, nothing like the goose that was being served at his parents’ home in Virginia, because we were vegetarians and this was the 1970s. The organic movement was new and the food — rustic? — a more atmospheric word for not very good. I don’t remember what we had, but I do know that bulgur must have been part of it because we had a 100-pound sack of it, and bulgur was featured in every dinner. There might also have been pumpkin because we had grown 17 pumpkins in Washington that I refused to part with when we left. I had grown up in the city, and that garden had been my first.
      When he came home from work later that afternoon, he brought with him a large box. Inside the box were red and gold glass Christmas balls. The hotel had decided on a new color scheme for the Christmas tree and was jettisoning the old ornaments. Riches! We had a tree with ornaments and a Christmas dinner.
       There was one more small miracle that night. Our house at 5251⁄2 was behind the house that stood on the street. Unless you knew it was there, you would miss it. Still, that night after dark, voices raised in song were outside of our window. Carolers had spotted our house, and their faces bathed in the glow, not of candles but of flashlights, serenaded us with Christmas songs outside our house.
      That Christmas was 42 years ago, and most of those balls are gone, either broken or jettisoned because of too much stuff. But there is still a box of red and gold balls and every Christmas, except two, some have been hung on the tree … and for a moment, as I hang them, I return to that skinny young couple just starting out.