It began many years ago, when my husband returned from his very first assignment for the Air Force. He was home helping prepare for our first move as a married couple from California to Alaska which would take place a day or two after Christmas. We had decided not to have a Christmas Tree for multiple reasons, ones that many military families will understand: money, time, effort are all considered and the work outweighed the supposed benefit. But after we’d made the decision, I regretted it. I was excited about moving so far away but sad about leaving family and the life I knew so well. It wasn’t just about leaving California, it was about choosing to follow my husband in his career and trying to figure out how to piece together one of my own. It all became wrapped up in the lack of that single Christmas Tree and I became depressed. My husband, being the man that he is, noticed but didn’t say anything.
One day, when I came home, I found a new-fangled kind of tree waiting for me on our living room wall. My husband had taken a string of Christmas lights and hung them in the shape of the kind of tree children draw in art class around this time of year. It was his way of telling me he cared. I remember that tree every year because it has become a symbol of how we survive all of these military moves. We make do. We go with the flow. We find solutions. And we never, never, worry about being normal because there is no normal when you’re a military family. There is only constant change.
Our tree has come to reflect the life we chose so many years ago. When I open the boxes of stored decorations, each and every ornament we place on the tree will bring a specific memory to mind. There are those from my own childhood moves – the Strawberry Shortcake sitting on her bright red berry was a gift to me while we lived in the Philippines and the handmade beaded snowflakes I sold at craft fairs with my mother when we lived in Louisiana. I can still picture two of her British friends, laughing and chatting with heavy English accents, while sitting with us at the kitchen table placing bead after bead on pipe cleaners tied together with heavy thread. We must have done a good job, because many of those ornaments still survive each of our military moves.
Our tree is covered with hand-stitched ornaments made by my mother-in-law, each of my sons’ names, carefully embroidered on many so that when they are old enough to have their own Christmas tree, we’ll know which ornament belongs to each of them. I have a little stuffed rabbit, pieced together like a traditional teddy bear, from the wife of the Chief who first mentored my husband in Alaska. Some of my favorites are ornaments made by my kids, most while sitting at craft tables at Squadron Christmas Parties with fellow military brats sitting by their sides, their moms and dads looking over their shoulders occasionally helping to glue a gold painted noodle or carefully place a sequin that went astray.
I have a pair of tiny, tiny mittens handmade using a pair of toothpicks in place of knitting needles; the name of the artist escapes me after twenty plus years but I can still see her huge smile, her flowing black hair, and hear her laugh. Our tree is full of such memories and it is hard for me to decorate it without crying for the loss of great friends, because as hard as we try, we military spouses do lose contact with some of the best people in the world. Today, it is easier with the internet and with sites like Facebook. We can maintain a casual contact that in many ways is better than that annual Christmas newsletter. We share in the ups and the downs, the deployments and the homecomings, the beginning of the school year and the end, the deaths of dear family and births of new babies. But even with all that sharing, when it comes to Christmas day, I would love be close to all my family and friends, to give huge hugs, the kind that hurt with their intensity, and then to sit around the kitchen table, share a cup of Christmas coffee and just talk, and talk and talk, like tomorrow will never come.
I miss you all so very, very much.