Story by Austin Sailsbury
Photography by Carson Downing
Produced by Scott J. Johnson
This story was adapted for digital from the winter issue of Magnolia Journal, which will be on newsstands November 12.
There is nothing quite like Christmas, no other time when our house feels so much like home.
When the time is right, I pull on the old, worn out rope that brings down the attic stairs. Then I ascend into the musty subconscious of our home and inhale the aroma of neglected timber. Here is where our keepsakes are kept. Where memories hover in the dusty air. At last, I take a seat there among the boxes labeled Christmas.
The first box was collected before the kids were born. From the years when we lived in the student house that barely had room for a sofa, nevermind a Christmas tree. These feel like artifacts from another lifetime: a tangle of multi-colored lights, vintage plastic ornaments bought at a faraway flea market, striped gym socks that we used as stockings. How in the world has this little cabinet of curiosities survived, I wonder? How have we! The next box is larger, heavier.
As soon as I open it I’m greeted with colorful chaos collected from the not-so-distant past. As I unwrap a handprint ornament, I can hear babies babbling. I see toddlers tangled up in tinsel, laughing and terrified. Had they really ever been that small? I find letters to Santa written in rainbow hieroglyphics, a homemade garland—fossilized—which somehow after all these years still smells of strong, sweet cinnamon. I close my eyes. I breathe it all in., holding the memories in place for as long as I can.
The third box is not like the others. It is older, sturdier, better made. The objects inside have been double-wrapped in newspaper and heavy quilt scraps. Two dozen delicate ornaments.
Glass, crystal, carved by hand. Once, they had been my mother’s, and her mother’s before that. My father’s favorite Christmas albums are stacked against the side—Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ellla Fitzgerald. I know every single word–every note–by heart. I think my own kids do as well. Finally, resting in a bed of green foam, there is an angel trimmed in brass. For three generations, she has held a place of honor in our family. Each winter, she watches over our home. Her crystal hand points up into the winter sky. And she bids us all to follow the Star of Christmas. She reminds us to heed the call of Christmas. The call to come home again. I repack all these treasures and carry them all downstairs, then I close the attic door. When my family sees the boxes they’ll know what it means. Tonight we will drive across town and spend far too much on a freshly-cut fir, six feet tall. On the way home, we will admire the twinkling lights already strung up on homes. We will listen to Louis Armstrong singing. We will anticipate unpacking old memories and making new ones. We will feel Christmas calling us home again.