Uncle. She has me beat. Wow, 3000 ornaments!
From the NY Times: Slide show http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/12/20/garden/20121220-COLLECTION.html
A FAMILY Christmas hung with ornaments that have been passed down through the years is not something that can be fully appreciated at first glance. Oh, it may make an impressive appearance, you may admire it, but you won’t decipher its meaning until you sit down with the people who love it.
Consider the tree at the home of Bonnie Mackay, the former director of creative marketing and merchandising at the Museum of Modern Art, who retired this year, and her husband, Bob Eisenhardt, a documentary film editor. Visit their country house in upstate New York, a three-hour drive north of New York City, and you will see the tallest tree the room can hold — an 11-foot Fraser fir that reaches to the ceiling. It is filled with all sorts of ornaments: rabbit ballerinas, Japanese figures, pink-and lavender-painted glass balls from the ’50s, a handblown Italian effigy of a wise man and a particularly curious section, low down on the tree, devoted to carrots. Ms. Mackay likes to group ornaments in categories: British royals, lagomorphs, glass icicles, angels.
Pretty enough, but it’s only when you sit down with Ms. Mackay that you start to understand what it’s all about.
That little gingerbread man, with faded brown fabric and tiny red eyes? Her parents bought it before she was born. The card that says “LOVE” in faded red letters? It came from a neighbor, Jim Parker, who died suddenly, with a message about the importance of seizing every moment of life. And that cluster of low-hanging carrots, what is that about?
“My father died when I was 9,” says Ms. Mackay (pronounced muh-KYE), who grew up in the 1950s in various towns around Long Island: Garden City, Hempstead and Patchogue. “The last ornament he put on the tree was a carrot. It was an old, old ornament that had gone through the family. After he died, my mother had to work and moved out to Patchogue to teach. I moved out with her, but it didn’t work out, and I ended up living with my aunt and uncle. My aunt also had a big tree, and she had a collection on it as well that were old ornaments. So I was a child that moved around a lot. The tree has always been the thing that was my anchor, no matter what.”
“How can I say this?” Ms. Mackay continues. “It was my heritage. When I went to bed there would only be a few ornaments on the tree, and I would wake up and the whole thing would be finished. I never knew what it would be from one year to the next. One year I woke up, and all my dolls were on the tree; that was the first thing that taught me that you can put anything on the tree. My mother’s ornaments are a part of this. But when my father died, my mother went through a lot of stuff. One year when I was 12 I didn’t have any gifts under the tree. I remember looking at the tree and thinking, This is my present and this is the most important thing about Christmas.”
Wait a minute: why had her mother not given her a present? “I think she was maybe angry at something, I don’t know what it was,” Ms. Mackay says quickly.
A little later, after a few circuits about the tree, the reason for Ms. Mackay’s mother’s anger is revealed: Ms. Mackay felt her mother showed more interest in her students than in her own daughter, and just before Christmas she had told her mother that she preferred to live with her aunt. But her mother, Ms. Mackay hastens to add, was also struggling to support them, and was encouraging to her only child. When Ms. Mackay expressed an interest in becoming a costume designer, her mother took her to museums and dress shops and taught her about fabrics. She would not have had a career in design if not for her mother, Ms. Mackay says.
But to the present and the glittering tree at hand. Ms. Mackay has some 3,000 ornaments, some very small. She tries to get as many on the tree as she can. That’s a lot of precious memories, some of them harking back to her days in product development at MoMA and at Bloomingdale’s, where she was a fashion director for home design for 18 years. She has been in factories in Italy and seen men and women blowing glass into fantastic shapes, including a wise man riding a camel with exquisite tiny hooves.
That Raggedy Andy on the tree is the first ornament a friend gave her; she had lost tracks of the friend, but the ornament kept his memory alive, and a few years ago, using the Internet, she was able to find him in Hawaii. It’s interesting, she says: no friend has ever given her an ornament she has not loved. She has a great feeling of peace looking at her tree.
It’s not surprising that Ms. Mackay likes to keep her tree up as long as possible. There have been some distressing episodes, like the time when a tree at the country house had dried out very quickly and Ms. Mackay came up for the weekend to discover that many of the ornaments had slipped off the withered branches and broken on the floor. But there was also the wondrous event that occurred after Ms. Mackay had been caring for her sick mother, who died on March 10, 2002.
Ms. Mackay was emotionally unequipped to take down the Christmas tree. “I let it stay up for another three weeks, and it was in perfect shape,” she said. “It did not lose a needle. It was perfectly green. And I was looking at the tree, and one of the ornaments started to spin, and I thought, ‘She is telling me I can take it down.’ It was like a miracle. It stayed up until the end of March.” By JOYCE WADLER
Published: December 19, 2012