This week’s blog is a few days early. I wrote this in response to a word prompt via Daily Prompt: Panoply.
My mother was one for panoplies. Not as in the historical definition of “panoply:” a complete set of arms or suit of armor. But as in “a group or collection that is impressive because it is so big or because it includes so many different kinds of people or things.”
She was quite mad for decorating for holidays. From my earliest recollections, she put time and effort into decorating our house for each holiday.
It began with a small Manzanita branch which she spray-painted white. From its branches she would hang little ornaments and such. Perhaps she had seen something like it in one of those women’s magazines of the 1960’s with articles of how to be a good mother, wife and hostess. Those same magazines provided the recipes for many of the staples that she came to cook for us, too. Lots of recipes utilizing canned goods, as I recall. Things like Spam casserole and meat dishes with sauces made from Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.
My mother had grown up in a rather eccentric household. Somehow, she and her twin sister never learned how to cook. My Grandma, their mother, did not cook. Their father, an active alcoholic, did the cooking, sometimes. I am not, to this day, sure how they all managed to feed themselves. But once my mother was married, she underwent a self-education of things such as housekeeping and cooking. With knowledge gleaned from the resources at her disposal then – women’s magazines, popular cookbooks and recipes from newly forming friendships – my young mother forged her way through the early years of starting a family.
At first, the Manzanita branch was decorated for the major holidays: Valentines Day, July Fourth, Thanksgiving and Christmas. But soon this expanded beyond just the basics to the other less widely decorated holidays as well: President’s Day, Easter, Halloween, Graduation Days, even Veteran’s Day.
We all teased her about it. My friends through the years would always comment upon seeing the tree and its adornments become more and more elaborate. But even in the midst of our jaded perspective on it all, there was also a sense of amazement, too.
The Manzanita branch holiday tree became a central figure of whatever house we lived in. From the first little house in the Sharpstown neighborhood of Houston, TX, to the house in Dallas, TX where we lived for a year until my Dad’s business venture failed and we moved back to Houston. To the Briargrove neighborhood house where my Dad started a new company and went back to night school. To another house a few blocks away in Briargrove as his business grew and thrived. And finally to the really nice house my parents bought after I was off to college in the higher-end neighborhood of Memorial.
How it made all of those moves intact is a mystery to me. Those branches are fairly delicate things. But somehow, it survived, and was always a symbol of something constant amidst the changing environments of our family’s life.
Once in that really beautiful and much larger home, the home that was to be my parent’s last house, my mother’s decorating could really take flight. The Manzanita tree took a much less central role, bowing down alongside the growing collections of decorations. It would still be decorated, but it sat on the kitchen island, a more ordinary display in comparison to the dining and living rooms, which were transformed into holiday wonderlands that could have competed with any department store displays.
I came home for holidays and though I am sure on some level I appreciated it, I never stopped to think about the effort she put into it. (And I never once thanked her for doing it, which I feel regret over to this day.)
I didn’t reflect on any of this until after she and my father died, when my husband and brother and sister-in-love were going through that big, beautiful house, processing our parents’ lives and deaths by going through all of the things they had amassed in their lives together.
The hours she must have spent collecting each item. Putting them all out. Then taking them down and packing them all away again.
The love she must have had for us and for the doing of it. It takes true love to accumulate a Santa collection that literally has its own room. Closets for each season…with shelves and drawers filled with bunnies, Lincolns and Washingtons, hearts, witches, black cats, pumpkins, ceramic figures of patriotic people, stars of congratulations, new baby banners…
It was so hard to let go of those collections. I did not have the room in our small New York City apartment to store or even use all of those beloved objects. But I could feel her in them, as we sorted through and discovered her hiding places for even more of her collections. I imagine my father must have tried now and then to get her to promise to stop buying things. It was clear that she hadn’t. The joy she must have had in finding each one. The love she must have felt for us as she imagined creating each holiday wonderland for our enjoyment.
I chose to take one object from each of the major holidays. I cherish them today. We found the Manzanita, and thankfully, my sister-in-love (who is much like my wonderful mother in her ways and in her heart) expressed a desire to keep it. She and my brother have a larger home in Houston. I know that my mom would be so happy for them to be using it.
My sister-in-love also chose to keep many of my mom’s holiday panoplies. I now get to enjoy them on our holidays together visiting their home in Houston. I walk amidst the Santas, beautifully displayed and lovingly put up now by my amazing sister-in-love. I take time with each one, appreciating them, remembering my Mom, and her love.
The Manzanita branch is there, now stripped down to its natural color. It is still a symbol of something constant amidst the ever-changing world and our family in it.