A Cardinal Tradition
from the living room.
I was in the kitchen, sifting together the ingredients we would need to start baking cookies. Heavy with the stress of the holidays, this was the still point in our traditions. Every year I set a day aside for baking cookies, my daughter helping as soon as she was able. I had learned to sort the ingredients into bowls which she would then pour into the large mixing bowl.
We still used the mixer that my mother had given me for a wedding present.
“I’m coming,” I said hearing my mother’s voice in my own, an echo that still caused me to flinch and pause. How long would it be before this would pass?
I swiped my hands across my jeans, dusting the flour and baking soda from my fingers, as I walked to the room where my daughter was standing at the window her face practically pressed to the window. She was holding her breath so as not to mist the pane and obscure her view.
I stepped up beside her, my eyes searching for the sign—that flash of flurry and red.
“There, Momma. See?” She raised a slender hand, so much like my mother’s, and pointed.
I directed my vision along the line of her finger and there it was, the red feathers brilliant in the pallid brightness of the winter’s light. A cardinal hunched on a branch, unmoving. My mother’s favorite bird.
“Tell me about Grandma’s Christmas tree,”
said still staring out the window.
I began the retelling of my memory. “Grandma would have Grandpa pull the boxes from the attic one week before Thanksgiving and the Sunday before we would go out and hike through the forest. Momma always brought along a thermos of hot chocolate and when we found the perfect tree Poppa would cut down it down while Momma poured each of us kids some hot chocolate. When your uncle Tommy got big enough he would help.
“When the tree was down we would drag it back home and Momma and I would go to the kitchen and start making the cookies.”
“Just like we bake cookies, right?”
“Yes. Just like we do.” I didn’t bore her with the details about how I still used the same recipes from when I was a little girl. Rich butter cookies. Oatmeal stuffed with raisins and nuts. Chocolate drops and chocolate chip. Ginger snaps that tasted so perfect with the eggnog Momma made. These things I had carried from my family to my family.
“The day after Thanksgiving, Momma would start sorting through the ornaments while Poppa put up the lights. She would retie the plaid ribbon bows that had flattened out in storage first. When the lights were done, Poppa would leave her alone to finish the decorations. We would help decorate the lower branches but I think Momma waited until we were in bed to reorganize the ornaments because the tree never looked the same on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We sang Christmas carols while we decorated.
“Silent Night is Grandma’s favorite.”
“Silent Night is Grandma’s favorite.”
“We always ended with Silent Night but you are jumping ahead.”
I slipped my arm around my daughter’s shoulder. “The last ornaments to go on the tree were the cardinals Momma made before I was even born. Red felt birds she sewed by hand, stuffed with cotton, with little black beads for eyes.”
“You loved those ornaments didn’t you, Momma? Like I like our ornaments.”
I did love those ornaments when I was little but when I turned twelve or maybe thirteen I began to hate them for their domesticity. They were homemade, handmade, and embarrassing. When we would go to the stores to shop for gifts, I would see the manufactured sparkling ornaments of glass and plastic sparkling on the display trees, returning home with a resentment that turned me away from the tree my Momma had so carefully decorated each and every year. I was ashamed that we didn’t have store bought things on our tree and refused to string the popcorn and cranberries or sing the carols for a long time.
“When Momma was done Poppa would come and put the angel at the top of the tree. We would turn off all the lights except the ones on the tree and admire the tree in silence for a while.”
“And then you would sing Silent Night.”
“Yes, then we would sing, holding hands.”
The cardinal sitting in the tree hopped to a different branch as if ready for the story to end so he could leave.
“And cardinals are Grandma’s favorite bird so she comes to visit us every year so she can visit and see that we are okay.”
The bird suddenly took off, an explosion of fire flying away from the tree’s branch.
“Let’s go make the cookies, Momma.”
In the kitchen on our table was a smaller tree which nonetheless dominated the table so that we—my husband, my daughter, and me—were forced to eat in the dining room for the duration of the holidays. This smaller tree was covered in the ornaments Momma had made, divided with my brother and my father when she died.
I paused by the table, admiring the smaller tree. On the other side of the table
stopped as well, looking at the tree with the same expression of peace my
mother wore when the family tree was finished.
“Let’s get to baking these cookies,” I said my voice modulating so much like my mother’s that I smiled, glad to know that I carried something of her with me as well, hoping that some things would never pass.