My mother loved her Christmas ornaments, and like many mothers she kept certain ones for many years. Carefully wrapped and stored away after the holidays, they would reappear just after Thanksgiving. Our Christmas tree hosted the most unlikely combinations of sparkling shapes; simple childhood gifts and class projects from the ghosts of Christmas Past. Some were cute, some gaudy, and to teenage eyes, embarrassing reminders of the youth we were so impatient to leave behind.
If we are lucky, we will collect memories of many embarrassing moments, and enjoy years of youth and innocence to remember and comfort us later in life; years when the wonders of life are many and the responsibilities few, years when Christmas vacation lasts the entire winter and Santa Claus is as real as the cookies and milk carefully placed next to the tree on Christmas Eve.
In the country, there are certain rites of passage that often accompany the holiday season, and as a young lad I was convinced that the Christmas day after my 12th birthday would bring that long hoped-for present so often desired by boys and girls lucky enough to grow up in the rural South. I was certain that would be the year I received my first real firearm and be able to join the adults on a grownup deer hunt.
It must have taken someone a long time to wrap the long, beautifully decorated rectangular box I found under the tree that year, but I cannot for the life of me remember the color of the paper or the bow I so hastily tore away. I do remember every inch of the Harrington and Richardson single shot 20 gauge inside.
Soon to come was the excitement of waking up long before daylight on the morning of that first hunt and having a hunter’s breakfast, a cold bacon and egg sandwich, just me and my dad moving quietly in the kitchen trying not to wake up the house. I remember the way the stars sparkled in the crisp winter air; the ride in the old pickup from the farm to the hunting ground and the last minute advice on cover and concealment. I can still hear the crunch of dried twigs in the dark, and the whispered advice from Dad about how to balance my weight, placing my feet carefully to move silently.
I was well concealed before dawn, nested in pine straw and leaves with my back propped against a suitable tree with low hanging branches for cover. Time never passed more slowly or with greater anticipation as I listened, straining my ears for any telltale sounds that might signal the approach of my prey. When a deer finally did come near my location, well scouted by my dad in anticipation of this momentous event, the only sound I could hear was my heart pounding.
The flash was blinding and the blast deafening when I pulled the trigger. The gray shape of the deer disappeared into the mist and the pounding of my heart was replaced by a loud ringing in my ears as I struggled in vain to hear what direction my quarry might be headed. I had been warned that a spooked or wounded deer might run for quite a distance before settling down, and I was prepared to wait, quiet and watchful until I got my bearings again.
I waited with all the patience a 12-year old could muster, until I thought I heard a likely sound some distance from my vantage point. I headed as quietly as I could in that direction. A thickening mist was rising from the ground and I could barely make out the shape of the trees. After half an hour of carefully picking my way through branch and bramble, I stepped into a small clearing just as I thought I saw the shape of my prey on the other side. I took one more step into the clearing for a better look, but I never got the chance.
Just as I stepped forward, the ground beneath my feet collapsed and I went straight down about four feet into a hole, landing hard on the flat of my feet with a thud. I saw stars for a moment, and as I blinked them away, looking up, I noticed with some trepidation that the end of my nose was about a foot away from an old moss covered tombstone.
I don’t know what congregation lived and died on that forgotten ground, abandoned long enough to grow a mature stand of timber. I don’t think I was ever able to equal the feat of acrobatics I performed when I shot straight up out of that sunken grave like a fish jumping out of water. I think I may have actually levitated when I came up out of that hole. I’m not sure that I have ever run away from a place so fast in my life. I have no memory of how I found my way back to the truck.
What I do remember is the sound of my dad’s joyful laughter as we drove back home that morning. He told me something then that I have always cherished, that though I may have missed my buck, I bagged a good story that would be worth a lot more to me as the years went by.
Memories are a lot like those favorite Christmas ornaments my mother kept so carefully. The number and variety we keep, the way we display them or keep them wrapped up and stored away, this is how we decorate the story of our lives. If we are fortunate, when we consider them all, the ones that sparkle, the unlikely shapes, the ones we are proud of and even the embarrassments, we will enjoy a bit of the same sense of celebration we feel when we look at a Christmas tree.