My family put up the Christmas tree this past Sunday. I noticed, as I do every year, that my Christmas tree ornaments are the very definition of eclectic.
While the mother in me loves best the ornaments my children have made, with their clumsy motor skills and adorable inability to properly spread glitter, the seeker in me knows that my truly favorite ornaments are the ones I’ve collected from my travels.
Saying “my travels” makes it sound like I’ve been everywhere. I assure you, I haven’t. I’ve never been a chronic wanderer. I’m a homebody, and I hold my travels so dear precisely because they represent pushing myself outside of my careful routine.
Every time I’ve stepped out, it’s been both difficult and wondrous.
So naturally, my favorite ornament—the one you see here—is the one that represents the trip that was both most difficult and most wondrous.
I bought this little guy at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh in 2005 on a trip there with my parents. My mom had always wanted to see the hustle and bustle of London and the rocky landscapes of the British Isles. She was still full of vigor at 70, but my dad, then 75, was declining from dementia. She didn’t think they could handle it alone, and she is not a group-tour kind of person. I was 31, single, and childless at the time, so I helped plan the two-week trip and went with them.
We started in London, where my brother, Tony, joined us for a few days. Then I drove us to Wales, where we stayed a weekend. We gradually made our way to Scotland, where my sister, Claire, met us. There, we spent time in both the Highlands and Edinburgh.
The thing about traveling with old people (even old people you love dearly) is that they are really slow. This is such an ageist thing to say, I know. But when you are crossing the street in London, where traffic is moving opposite of how it’s moved your whole life, speed matters.
When you are trying to quickly get on the tube to make the train to make your tour, speed matters.
When you just-for-the-love-of-almighty-god-in-heaven want to choose a restaurant and EAT, speed matters.
We were not speedy.
By the time we finally got to Edinburgh, we were something else: very, very tired.
The afternoon I bought my Scots guard ornament was rainy, cold, and miserable, and my dad, the most capable man I ever knew, could not zip his jacket. Not because the zipper was broken or because his hand was broken. But because his brain was broken. After lunch, we stood on High Street an eternity waiting for him to be able to zip it. Finally, he did, though it did little to keep out the chill.
In fact, we were all freezing, all walking in our misery toward a palace none of us really cared about because there was nothing else to do. As the street musicians continued to play their bagpipes in the rain, I felt profound gloom settle inside the hood of my raincoat. Get me home, I thought. I longed for the quiet of my apartment and the pace of my life.
At first, Holyrood was just another palace. I don’t even remember what it looked like inside. Majestic, I’m sure. What I remember is looking over at one point and seeing my dad grinning. Just grinning. I don’t know why. He was happy to be out of the rain, probably. Then my ever-curious mom (I inherited that intense curiosity) started grilling the docent. “Now, tell me about Mary, Queen of Scots. She seems interesting.” So he told us fascinating stories about Mary, Queen of Scots. It was like being in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. when I was seven: hushed voices everywhere and my parents looking around with awe.
Afterwards, we went to the gift shop, where I saw this ornament and immediately loved him. Once again, I was a little girl on family vacation, excited to spend her allowance on a souvenir. I had been in so many different unexpected roles on that trip: the tour guide, the chaperone, the caregiver, the chauffeur. I wanted to be pig-tailed Judi with fifty cents clanking in her pocket. I knew I probably wouldn’t get to be her again soon, not with what was ahead for my dad. So I bought my Scot with a seven-year-old’s glee and tucked him into my backpack.
Outside, the rain had stopped. It was still chilly, but the day got better—as it always does.
I remember so much about that trip—the laughter, the sights and smells, the people, the awe of standing inside history. All of those things make up the wondrousness.
But the hidden gift of the trip was that it showed me my life’s landscape of roles in a new way. Every role you have ever been in or will ever assume lives on a continuum. We get so locked in though. I am this. You are that.
One cold day in Scotland something shifted and I found the fluidity. Thank god I did, because it’s carried me through these past few years.
That’s a lot of deep shit to get from one ornament, I know. He’s also just really cute with his fluffy hat and plaid kilt. Maybe it’s that.
Difficult and wondrous. Always opt in when you see that combination heading your way.