One of my mom’s clients from her hair salon owned a trinket shop in our small town. During the holidays my mom and I would go there to look at the Christmas ornaments. We could afford to buy one new ornament for the tree each year, so we had to look at each one and carefully decide what to get.
There were so many ornaments to choose from: glass bulbs with painted Christmas scenes, tin animals and stars, delicate glass reindeer and snowmen, beautiful angel toppers with elaborate dresses, painted wooden houses and trees, crystal snowflakes covered in glitter. Everything was so pretty and fancy and sparkly.
“Whatever we pick out will be on our tree for a long, long time,” my mom said. “It might even be on your own tree when you’re an old lady. And your kids will ask you where it’s from and you can tell them you picked it out with your mama when you were five years old.”
“But you’ll still be there, too, right? ‘Til you’re 100?” I said. Almost daily, I made my mom promise me that she was going to live until she was 100 years old, and I would be 82 and we would die together, peacefully, holding hands. I couldn’t imagine life without her and yet my mind forced me to consider the painful possibility multiple times per day.
“A hundred and one,” she said.
My mom and I decided on a set of 5 plastic icicles. I felt like we had discovered a loophole in ornament purchasing. We were only supposed to pick out one ornament but we were getting five! My mom seemed to feel just as clever.
The woman who owned the shop rung up the ornaments and she and my mom chatted for a few minutes while I wandered around the store taking one last look at all the ornaments we wouldn’t be taking home. Not this time, anyway. Maybe next year.
My mom called me to leave and I swung around. My long braid knocked into a shelf beside me. I heard the clinking of glass. At first I couldn’t tell if anything was broken. The gingerbread men ornaments were still gingerbread-man-shaped. There was a bell that still looked like a bell. But there were glass shards scattered along the shelf, and when I picked up a gingerbread man ornament I saw that his entire backside was smashed. It was obviously beyond repair. I began crying.
My mom and the shop owner ran over to see what had happened. They inspected the broken pieces and found three broken ornaments. They confirmed that there would be no way to fix them.
“It was just an accident,” said the shop owner. “You don’t need to cry!”
I tried to stop crying. But I knew the rules, and they scared me. You break it you buy it. Now my mom would have to buy these three ornaments that I carelessly broke. We wouldn’t even get to take them home. I would probably get my privileges taken away, the privileges I had earned by being good all week. What if I didn’t get to go to the library or the park? What if I didn’t get to paint my fingernails? What if my mom didn’t respect me anymore and the shop owner wouldn’t let me come back into her shop ever again?
My mom settled with the shop owner while I stifled my tears. I think the shop owner must have given my mom a good deal on the broken ornaments, because my mom wasn’t upset with me at all, and I didn’t lose my privileges.
I never lost my privileges. Not this time, and not ever. My mom never threatened to take them away from me or brought them up. She mentioned “privileges” once or twice noncommittally and I ran away with the idea, creating an imaginary disciplinary structure that didn’t actually exist in my life. I had no idea what I would have to do to lose privileges. I was simultaneously desperate to know and completely terrified of doing something that would cause me to find out.
“Would I lose my privileges if I didn’t brush my hair?” I’d ask.
“Um, I don’t know. No?” my mom would say. “I would probably just brush it for you.”
“What if I cut off all my hair when you weren’t looking and I looked like an ugly little garbage rat?”
“You would never do that though,” she said.
We went home and put our new icicle ornaments on the tree. Most of our other ornaments were painted wood, or single-colored glass bulbs, or fabric/glue/popsicle stick creations I had made in school or with my cousins. The icicles stood apart. They felt fresh and new, and not just in the new-from-the-store way, but new as in current. They were hip, modern icicle ornaments for my mom and me to enjoy for at least another 77 years, if not 78.
“Maybe even longer, the way technology is moving,” my mom would sometimes say when I was feeling extra anxious about death.
On Christmas Eve, my mom gave me a present to open early. It was wrapped in a different kind of paper than our Christmas presents were normally wrapped in. It wasn’t shiny, but rather a thick, dull, old-timey looking red and green printed paper folded nicely around a box, with a shiny gold ribbon.
“It’s from the lady who owns the trinket shop,” she said. “She brought it in when she came to get her hair permed today.”
I opened it slowly and carefully, not wanting to break what was inside. When I got it open I saw a Victorian style dollhouse armchair. It was made of wood and upholstered just like a real chair. There were carvings in the wood that looked like flowing water or cartoon mermaid hair. I had never seen such a well-made toy in my life.
“Why did she give this to me?”
“She’s just a really sweet lady,” my mom said.
It was a strange size; too small for my Barbies and too big for my animal figurines. But still, I loved it. I put the dollhouse chair on a shelf with my books, away from my other toys, where I could admire its elegance and beauty and wouldn’t accidentally break it.