Friday, December 30, 2011

Our Year in Ornaments

Malya's Laughter, 2009, Deborah

 I’ve mentioned before that Jeff and I, upon our marriage, joined with his mother and her husband’s family in their tradition of an annual Christmas Ornament Competition. Here’s how it works: each member of the family picks an ornament that represents his or her year, then presents it to the group. The three judges (chosen by the patriarch, my mother-in-law’s husband) then come to a consensus on who had the best ornament, which often means who had the best story. Ornaments can be purchased or made, usually with extra points from the judges for homemade ornaments. Jeff won the competition the first year we participated with his U. S. Constitution, representing why he works for the U. S. Government; I won the third year with my home-made pyramid that represented our move to Egypt, with each side containing a picture of a different significant event in that year. This year, Jeff won again.

Cairo Traffic, 2008, Jeff
I have to admit, my competitive nature does ensure my interest in the results of the competition. But my main interest in this tradition is the memories. At the beginning of the year, I rarely have any idea what the year will bring or what ornament possibly could represent an entire year of my life. But the knowledge of the ornament competition prompts me to pay attention to the year, to look for repeated themes, to be more present in my own life. By late summer, I usually have an idea of the theme that I want the ornament to represent. Then, just as soon as Hallmark and American Greetings start to bring out their ornaments, I’m online, searching away for that perfect one that will capture my year. I love the idea of having these ornaments years from now, looking back and saying “That one’s from the year I volunteered at the orphanage! The first time I heard Malya laugh, she was standing behind me pulling my hair, just like the little bear is standing behind the big one” or “That’s the one Jeff got to commemorate the traffic he put up with every day in Cairo!” I view these ornaments as memory keepers, and each of them is special. I even try hard to pick one for Alexa that represents my best guess of what the year was like for her—although next year, probably she’ll want to pick her own, and it will be “The horse represents my year because I want a pony!” *sigh*

Anyway, without further ado, I present the ornaments that best represent Jeff’s, Alexa’s, and my life this year …

Jeff's 2011 Ornament
Jeff’s ornament is a saddle. That’s right—a saddle, like what you put on a horse when you ride it. He said it’s because this year has been the wildest ride of his life. All things considered, that’s saying something. It started back in January. On 25 January, to be precise. When the Egyptian people began the protests that turned into the uprising that turned into the Revolution that toppled Mubarak from power. The Revolution that caused the American embassy in Cairo to do what we never, in a million years, would have thought we’d have to do: evacuate. Jeff was the only member of our family, one of the few members of the embassy community, who did not evacuate. He spent three months at the embassy with his officemates, the security personnel, and a very few other embassy employees, with much of the time spent under severe movement restrictions because of security concerns. Once that stressful time was ended, he had a month of me frantically trying to get ready for our packout. Then a month of constantly going all over the place, introducing his replacement—his best friend—and his wife to all our favorite places. Then a week in a 1-bedroom hotel suite in the Washington, DC, area, with his wife, his child, two cats, and six huge suitcases’ worth of stuff. Then the summer with all of that, plus a little more stuff, in a bedroom at his mother-in-law’s house, with two short side trips. Then a month in a 2-bedroom hotel suite (we learned our lesson!) in the DC area, while our departure was delayed time after time. Then, finally, a trans-American, trans-Pacific flight to his new home, with the last three months or so spent adapting to new coworkers, a new language, a new culture, and a wife who couldn’t seem to remember how to cook. A wild ride, indeed! It’s no wonder Jeff won this year’s competition.

Deborah's 2011 Ornament

My ornament is an airplane made out of Legos. At first glance, you’d think: “Oh, well, she did fly from Egypt to the States alone with an almost-seven-month-old, then from the States back to Egypt alone with an almost-ten-month-old. Then she flew with her husband, an almost-one-year-old, and two cats back to the States. While in the States, there were road trips and a flight to Arizona and back. Then she flew from Baltimore to California to Japan to Bangkok to Phnom Penh. An airplane fits her year pretty well!” But you’d only have half the story. The truth is, I was looking for an ornament to represent homelessness. Because that’s how I felt this year. I was in my home in Egypt, when suddenly I wasn’t. Then I was in my home (my mother’s home, the one in which I grew up) in South Carolina, except that it wasn’t my home anymore. I was in exile from my home, the home I shared with my husband. Then I was in my home, the one I shared with my husband, except that it was painfully clear that it wasn’t really my home because I couldn’t stay there—I had to get ready to leave. Then I was in a series of temporary homes—a hotel, my mom’s house (I am grateful for the hospitality, Mom, and I hope you realize that it doesn’t reflect on you that it just isn’t my home anymore!), a second hotel during a road trip, a third hotel during the same trip, a friend’s house, back to my mom’s house, my mother-in-law’s house, my mom’s house, then back to the first hotel. Finally I was in my new home … except that it in no way felt like home yet. Other than the first month of this year, I’ve felt like a homeless vagabond, a wanderer, with no place that was really mine. But I could find no ornaments that depicted homeless people. So I started looking for one that had something to do with homelessness, maybe one that would benefit homeless people. That’s when I found my ornament. I purchased it online from a family that makes and sells Lego ornaments every year and uses the proceeds to benefit their local homeless population. This year’s profits were going to buy blankets for a local homeless shelter. That’s the full story of my ornament—homelessness plus endless travel equals a Lego airplane.

Alexa's 2011 Ornament

Alexa’s ornament was purchased from either American Greetings or Hallmark. It’s a silver key, with the words “New Home” inscribed on the handle. Like mine, it makes sense at first glance: “Oh, she just moved to Cambodia, so she has a new home.” But that doesn’t represent the entire year. You have to remember, infants are not so much aware of the concept of “future.”  For them, there’s right now, and maybe, just maybe, some inkling that there used to be something different. But whatever there is right now is, in their minds, what always will be. So Alexa did not, and maybe still does not, fully comprehend the concept of “temporary.” Every time we moved, even though Jeff and I knew it was temporary, it was a new home for her. She had a home in Egypt with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then she had a home in South Carolina with Mama, Grandma, Uncle Mike-Mike, and Aunt Kay-Kay, with other family members nearby, but Daddy was just a face and voice on the computer screen, and the kitties were gone. Then she had a home in Egypt again with Mama and Daddy and her two kitties. Then in a cramped hotel suite. Then at Grandma’s house, with Mike-Mike, Kay-Kay, and her other relatives again. Then in a hotel with just Mama and Daddy, but near Great Dee. Then a hotel with just Mama and Daddy. Then at Daddy’s friends’ house, but she didn’t like that home, because she was sick there. Then back to Grandma’s. Then she had another home at her other Grandma’s house. But then she was back to the South Carolina Grandma. And then she had a home in a hotel again, with Mama and Daddy and the cats. And then there was the long trip, in airplanes so similar that she could be forgiven for thinking that it was just one plane, and that it was her home now. And finally, she had a home in a big house with Mama, Daddy, and the kitties, and then her new friend Miing (the polite form of address for children to use with Khmer adults, referring in this case to our housekeeper) started coming over a lot. So how many new homes is that? I lost count! Her entire year was a series of new homes, so a “New Home” ornament seemed perfect for her.

There you have it—our year in ornaments. I think others who were in Cairo at the start of the Revolution will agree that the experiences we all had there and during the evacuation shaped our experience of the year 2011 in ways we did not anticipate. Even now, as I communicate with others who were in Cairo then but who are not there now, a pattern is emerging: many of us seem to be having an especially difficult time settling into our new lives, wherever in the world we are, and the difficulty seems to be positively correlated with how much we enjoyed our time in Cairo and negatively correlated with the amount of time we had in Cairo after the evacuation. In our family, our Christmas ornaments certainly reflect the reality of the Revolution, the evacuation, and a scheduled departure from post that prevented us from settling back into our lives in Egypt and, in our case, prevented us from settling anywhere until the year was almost over. These ornaments perfectly represent our chaotic lives in 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Debbie, Once again your writing of the events in your life is incredible. I'm sure when the Levenson ornament competition was started 20+ years ago, reflections such as yours were not even considered. You, Jeff, & Alexa add a new dimension to the annual competition. Love, Maryanna


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