Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Christmas Tree of Memories

EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently I attended the 2017 NERGC (New England Regional Consortium) genealogy conference in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was my first genealogy conference and during the four-day conference I stayed at a wonderful Bed & Breakfast (pictured above) in the Forest Park section of Springfield run by Carol Kerr and her husband Neville .

One morning before returning to the conference center for another day of genealogy immersion, Carol asked me and Nancy -- another guest who was also attending the NERGC conference -- how the conference was going. As part of my answer I mentioned attending a session titled, "Planning a Future for Your Family's Past: Where Will Your Research and Collectibles Go?" by New England blogger Marian Wood. Carol then shared with Nancy and me the touching and wonderfully creative solution she came up with when faced last year with her mother's passing and the need to collect and deal with her mother's possessions. Upon hearing Carol's story I immediately asked her if she would be willing to write up her story for a guest post here on Filiopietism Prism. She agreed. 

I am thrilled and honored to be able to share Carol's story and photos with all of you on this most appropriate day .  .  . Mother's Day. I suspect that -- like Carol and Neville's house last Christmas Eve -- there will be many a moist eye in the blogosphere after reading . . .    

The Christmas Tree of Memories
Carol Kerr

My parents didn't have much when they came to America by boat from Germany in the mid fifties. They had a few suitcases, two children, a violin.  There was never much in the way of possessions or heirlooms to pass down.

Mom lived with me for almost 20 years. When she died in August, there was really no inheritance to pass on to her children. She owned no car, no home,  no insurance money. She had a small amount of savings, but even that was not in her name.

What Mom did have was stuff. Lots of it. Old photos, items she had knitted (she was a prodigious knitter), mementos, dishes, stemware, books, tchotchkes, things that her children had given her over the years, paintings she had painted, travel souvenirs. In short, the story of her life in ephemera, trinkets, glass, and costume jewelry.

For the last couple years of Mom's life, my husband and I turned our dining room into a large bedroom/sitting room for her and provided her with a storage room upstairs and parts of several other rooms as well. Mom had lots of stuff, and we had a home large enough to accommodate all of it. After she died, it was time to repurpose the downstairs to a dining room again, and create a guest room upstairs from the storage room.

Then, I had a dilemma. I had all of it . . . everything my mother possessed. I didn't want to keep everything, yet I couldn't bring myself to just get rid of so much. Her possessions represented so much of her life . . . and so many memories. Plus, in my mind was the thought that the other children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren she left behind had nothing of her.

At some point in my mind I made a decision to give stuff to my three siblings. But then the question was what to give and to whom. And what was a fair division? Should the brother with three daughters and a new grandbaby get more than the sister with one son? Or, should the other sister who already had a son, granddaughter, and three great grandchildren receive a larger share? Would they even want any of it? There was nothing of value beyond sentimental.  

In the end, I decided to give something to everyone, and let them decide what (if anything) they wanted to keep. And with Christmas just a few months away, I had an idea to give them this stuff when we were all together for the holiday. And from there, Mom's Last Christmas came to me.

I bought 10 moving boxes (3 siblings, 4 grandchildren, 3 great-grandchildren = 10 boxes) and set them all up in a side room. Then, I started going through all Mom's things while at the same time converting rooms. As I came across her things, I would put them in the boxes. I tried to evenly distribute as much as possible. Everyone got some old photos, everyone got something she knitted, everyone got something from her china cabinets, everyone got one of her cookbooks and some jewelry. I distributed evenly and randomly, so that even I wouldn't know what was in each box.

Then I found a series of cassette recordings. Mom married for a second time in her early sixties. For their honeymoon, they went on a tour of Germany to travel and to introduce Richard to all the family. Each night they would turn on the recorder and just discuss the day they had. It was wonderful to hear their voices. My husband, Neville, transferred all the cassettes to disk and I put a disk into each box.

Filling these boxes took about three months. Seems like every room I cleaned, there was more and more. Every room had bits of Mom in it. I think that going through it all helped me with the grieving process too. At some point it occurred to me that if I stacked the boxes 4, 3, 2, 1 it made a large pyramid which could easily look like a Christmas tree if decorated. 

When the boxes were filled, I wrapped each in festive holiday paper, added lights, garland, large balls, and a few ornaments. It turned out to be, by all accounts, a beautiful Christmas tree.

On Christmas Eve, after dinner and after all the other presents were distributed, it was time to open the gifts from Mom. Box by box we dismantled that Christmas tree as each person took one.

Opening each box was full of joy, surprise, and memories. People kept holding things up to show what they got in their box. Mom's signed photo of astronauts from her visit to Houston, her framed wedding invitation, her paintings, her knitted and crocheted hats, sweaters, and throws, her special wine glasses, her old family photos from Germany, her handwritten recipe books, the small bibles that she saved, photos of all of us, little statues, all things Egyptian, dishes, servers, cups, her favorite books, letters, cards, everything and anything. I encouraged everyone to feel free to trade amongst themselves.

In the end, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. We cried together, we laughed, and we all felt very close to Mom and to each other. Everyone agreed it was an amazing Christmas and a fabulous way to remember Mom.  As we headed up to bed, in place of the tree was just a heap of lights, garland, balls, and ornaments left for Christmas Day. It was beautiful!

I like to think that years from now as the grandchildren become adults, this will be the Christmas that will be remembered and they will tell their children about the Christmas Tree of Memories.

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All photos by, and courtesy of, Carol Kerr.

Copyright 2017, Carol Kerr.
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  1. Beautiful story! What a great idea and perfect solution. Thank you Carol and John for sharing!!

  2. Thank you for commenting Laura! Carol's story is a wonderful one and I am honored to be able to publish it here. So glad you enjoyed Carol's guest post.

  3. Thank you for sharing Carol's story and her photos. What a fun Christmas that was. I really loved seeing where you stayed, did you know your picture looks like a post card to me? You found a gem of a B&B.

    1. I agree Barbara, Carol and Neville's B&B is a gem and I would stay there any time I was in the Springfield area -- and recommend it to others.

      One correction on the photo of Carol and Neville's home is that the photo is by Carol (or perhaps Neville) not me. I was there in the spring and it looked just like the photo with flowering plants and trees.

      I am glad you enjoyed Carol's story. I am honored to have been able to publish it here. I hope Carol takes up blogging herself. I think she would be good at it.

  4. John, Carol's story is so heart warming. She did an incredible job of sharing her mother's history and heritage with the entire family, in a unique holiday setting. Surely that Christmas will be remembered by everyone as a very special time spent honoring their mother and grandmother. Thank you for sharing, Carol!