Boxes, Bins & Goodbyes

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The day after Labor Day, as I swaddled Uncle Sam in bubble wrap and folded the red-white and blue buntings from the porch posts, stuffing them into the blue bin along with the patriotic wreath from the front door, I began to dread Christmas. I am in the blank period, one of the rare months of the year when my mantles are bare with no holiday decorations popping with color against white and cream walls.

Only January and September really, is when my house feels void of celebration, more so perhaps now, as my sons’ boxes and bins fill his room where once there was a train table. He is ready to go back to college after the longest Spring Break ever. Last year he came home in March and never left. For a time, that was literal. Our family of four never stepped beyond the white fence that separates the rose bushes from the sidewalk and there, in the front yard, we played corn hole nightly, waving at neighbors who crossed to the other side of the street in their masks, less the potential COVID-filled spittle from our cheerful hellos drift on the spring breeze through their K-95s. Weeks drifted into months and I couldn’t believe we were still holed up in the house when I took out the box of patriotic holiday decorations in May of 2020, then put it back in September, still waving at masked neighbors from 30 feet away. I bought a Halloween-themed facemask. Then I got a Christmas one of pinecones dotted with glitter.

Ours has long been a Christmas house. I have a dozen bins of decorations that I’ve treasured for decades. We’ve hosted an annual Christmas Eve party for as many as 80 people over the years. More recently it has been more like 30-40, as friends have moved to new cities or on to new traditions within their clans. But last year it was just us four. I decorated as usual, trying to bring some semblance of magic to the 28 walls that enclosed us for 9 months, a gestation period that gave birth to nothing but fear in my mind, and, perhaps an ulcer housed somewhere near my womb. And there we all sat on the couch, eating cookies, listening to Christmas music and watching Rudolph. It was lovely in a way. It was just about us, and the love for my most treasured people in the world. It was easier, less stressful, at least if you didn’t think about overflowing ICUs or the coming election. But it was also lonely. Hosting has long inspired me: a reason to cook, to shop, to wrap, to sprinkle my pixie dust on every surface. An excuse not to dust those garland-covered shelves and nooks of books. But as I boxed up those 12 bins of Santas and stockings and lighted branches of plastic pine and holly, I felt so unseen. Suddenly the three other people who were always underfoot weren’t. My efforts to create magic must indeed be magical to them because they are rarely around when what goes up comes down.

Last week, as I put away my blatant patriotism, wondering all the while if I even feel patriotic in this era of acerbic division, I am dreading finding my glittery pinecone facemask atop the boxes of gold and red ornaments. I dread wearing it to the grocery store along with my festive “Merry and Bright” sweater, knowing we may not have our party this year either. My sister and her family have moved to Montana. My husband’s siblings have refused to get vaccinated. Perhaps we’ll never have the party again now that our friends and family have learned that they can make alternate plans.

My son moves out next week. He’s taking with him the surfboards and guitars, the lamp and the desk chair along with the collages of photos of his friends that color his room like a ceaseless celebration. The boxes and bins of his life will be stored in another place as I say goodbye not just to him, but to his things.

Surely his homecomings for Thanksgiving and Christmas will inspire me to decorate. Surely the boxes of pumpkins and leaves and pinecone strands entwined with ribbon still have a place in my nest without birds? Please tell me I am not too old and tired to keep making magic. Please tell me that one of the losses from this pandemic is not the loss of my holiday spirit. Tell me that the love expressed through all our traditions and the memories of a childhood of celebrations are so expansive they can’t fit into any box.