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The year was 1995 and I had finally met The One. We worked together at the local newspaper and had been friends before falling for each other. It was our first Christmas as a couple, so we didn’t have any decorations in our cute little townhouse. We bought a few ornaments from the drugstore and hung them on the fake house plant that he had brought into our relationship. (When we got engaged a year later, the plastic plant magically disappeared. As did his ugly blue couch.)
Instead of buying gifts for each other, we decided to increase our paltry assortment of decorations. We’d both get the other an ornament representing something significant from that year. It would be a fun surprise on Christmas day.
I scoured the mall for the perfect ornament. That year, he worked double duty as both an assistant editor and columnist, putting in long hours every day. It was a good thing we worked in the same office because that’s where we both spent most of our time.
At a kiosk that sold personalized ornaments, I found what I was looking for: a bear typing at his computer. I had my beloved’s name painted on it.
His gift to me: A miniature old-school newspaper box which, when you pushed it, would pop out a tiny mouse holding a newspaper.
On Christmas morning, we laughed about the fact both of our ornaments reflected our work-centric lives.
One year later, we were engaged to be married and made the decision to move from Delaware to Florida. We moved the day after Christmas, but still exchanged ornaments. He got me a delicate wire ‘Delaware’ state ornament. I got him a wooden yellow sun, to represent our life ahead in the Sunshine state.
And so it was established, the one — and only — tradition we have kept in our now 20 years of marriage. While I still have an aversion to fake house plants, I do love a good fake Christmas tree. I put up three in our house every December, and one is 9 feet tall and filled with the ornaments that we have exchanged. I call it our memories tree.
Each year when we decorate it, they come flooding back.
In 1998, we found out a few weeks before Christmas that we were expecting our first child. He gave me a beautiful glass ornament that said “Curiosity Shop.” Under the windows, he wrote: “Boy? Girl? Twins?” We had a girl nine months later. My ornament next Christmas was a minivan that said, “Future soccer mom.” (Our girl did become a soccer player, and I drove many a soccer carpool! How prescient was that?)
All of our life transitions, travels and even some trials hang on that tree. Our first house is represented by a sweet little house ornament with the numbers 444 (our house number) over the door. The year we visited friends in France is remembered with a bear with a chef hat drinking wine. In fact, the year I started a new job — this job — is reflected by a computer with the old-school “TODAY Moms” logo, the predecessor to TODAY Parents.
There are years we gave each other the same ornament. Which means there are two statues of liberty on the tree and two Big Ben ornaments, memories of trips to New York and London.
There are memories of the sports our kids played. “An undefeated Scorpions season,” says the back of a baseball glove, a reminder of one of my son’s little league teams that my husband coached.
There are memories of moments that were scary at the time, but funny in retrospect. One summer on vacation, we got caught in a bad current while tubing down a river. The ornament: a canoe (I couldn't find an inner tube!) with the words, “Near-death experience on the Wenatchee River” written on the bottom. This year when hanging it, I noticed both paddles on the canoe had broken off. How appropriate.
Our kids, ages 19 and 16, give us both ideas about what we should get to surprise the other. And I hope it’s a tradition they will continue when they have families of their own.
Every year after New Year’s Day when I pack up our tree, I tell myself to catalog the ornaments by year and memory… because as time goes on, ornaments are broken, memories fade. I haven’t done it yet, but I will.
That first ornament I gave my husband, the one of the worker bear sitting at a computer, is still there, though his name is almost peeled off. He’s a boss now, still as hard-working as ever. That ornament might be my favorite, a memory of one of the best decisions I ever made.