Margreta wrapped the fragile wooden figurine in crepe paper the color of the eggshells she used to collect for market back home in Nuremberg. The crinkled paper was even speckled—the spots dark as coffee grounds against their nutmeg background—and she grazed the tissue-thin paper at the memory, a smile pulling at her lips.
The smile faded, however, as memories flooded back to her from that time—not all good.
At ninety-two years old, there were many who said she’d lost hold of her once strong faculties. During her recovery after glaucoma surgery the year before, she’d apparently berated her grown son about his dress whites from forty years prior, when he’d graduated from the Naval Academy. She had no recollection of the conversation, of her belligerent arguing—half English, half German—that his hems were two different lengths, and about what kind of man would wear pants too short on one of the most important days of his life. But, she admitted, it sounded like something she would have done.
But that had been owed to general anesthesia, a factor apparently not to be taken into consideration by her put-out son or the daughter who seemed perhaps more than a little ready for her to leave her home in seek of Greener Pastures (the nursing home across town, in the quieter, more solitary, less rambunctious side of Denver. Or so she was told.) She let her family say what they wish; she alone knew the truth, and senility had nothing to do with it.
To this day, she could remember the rancid taste of Frau Wietrzykowski’s veal-head soup during their field trip to Poland—the boys having slipped rat pellets into the soup as a prank. And when she closed her eyes, she could picture the exact shade of thread her mother sewed into her after-school uniform, the bright yellow tucked discreetly into the seams.
Their little secret.
She’d hated the stone-ground mustard brown of the Hitler Youth uniform. Why not a happier color? A color to reflect their Führer’s fervor—not such a drab shade.
Though gazing back down at the small box in front of her, the tiny jewelry box of hardy cardboard, the umber figurine, and the eggshell-brown paper that cushioned it, she supposed it wasn’t so bad a color after all. The tiny ornament would be beautiful on her granddaughter’s tree, its gold thread shimmering admist the twinkling LED lights so common these days, coiled prominently around their American plastic foliage.
No, she wasn’t senile. She remembered each and every ornament she ever collected. While there weren’t many—one for each of her two children, four for her grandchildren, and now a sixth for her great-granddaughter—she could still picture them in all their original glory.
Even on the tree, surrounded by hundreds of ornaments, curated throughout her family’s lives, she could pick out those she’d gifted. She’d never forget them, just as she’d never forget the shape of her children’s eyes or their hues, their first cries as well as their blood-curdling screams, or their First Communions or Christmases or birthdays . . .
They were each unique. But they were all hers.
Tucking the dainty ornament into its box, she molded the paper against it, protecting the tiny trinket. Her hands shook with the precise movements, frustrating her in a real reminder of her age. Eyes, hands, ears—they were all going. But her mind was sacred.
She settled the cardboard lid onto its matching half, the two pieces fitting snugly together like jigsaw pieces. Drawing a gold ribbon around the box, she tied it into a shaky bow, then sat the tiny package aside to give to her daughter, who would fill out the To and From (a feat Margreta disappointedly acknowledged she was no longer capable of doing legibly) and then mail to her granddaughter alongside her handmade stollen, to be opened in time for Christmas morning.
Without fail, she sent the stollen every year—one to each household, five in total. Whether they were enjoyed or tossed with the Christmas detritus, she never knew. It didn’t matter anyhow. The stollen wasn’t the point. She merely didn’t want to be forgotten. A relic lost to time.
She’d overheard her granddaughter with her husband a few years back, during a Christmas her daughter had run away to some faraway beach to decompress, shipping her off to join another branch of the family tree, though the limb was a frail one. They’d been admiring their tree in the fading light, the dying sun reflecting off the snow coating their front yard like a blanket and casting a halo around the tree.
“What’s this one?” the husband had asked, his fingers brushing a small, ceramic ornament, a mall purchase if she’d ever seen one.
“Oh, that’s one from when I was born,” her granddaughter had explained. “I think that one was from Mom. Or maybe Aunt Hilde. I don’t know—I constantly get them all mixed up.”
Margreta had frowned at this, though she was unsurprised. These American reproductions, of which there were so many, were forgettable. Unremarkable.
He’d laughed. “Why so many?”
Her granddaughter shrugged, turning away from the tree as she lowered her head to his shoulder. “Who knows. There are more ornaments in our family than I have memories.”
Margreta hadn’t cared to listen to any more after that.
Such a small token, she knew—so easily overlooked. She wasn’t angry with them for it. Their daily lives were filled with so much already. How were they to keep track?
Standing from her recliner, her bones creaking as loudly as the chair itself, she shuffled to the family room to admire her own tree. There is stood, smelling of pine and sap, as real as her memories. Approaching carefully so as not to trip over her own feet—now not so reliable as they once were—she stood in front of the giant, then reached up to trace her fingers over the small wooden rocking horse, the wood so thin it could snap in a stiff wind. The red of the horse’s reins had faded with time, and its black-gemmed eyes had lost some of their original luster, but the name dexterously carved into its side remained: Margreta.
One day it would be boxed up for the last time. Perhaps it would return to dust alongside its owner, forgotten. But until then she would always remember. Until the last breath drew from her body, she would remember the tiny carving her father had made at her birth.
Just as she’d remember every one since.