Biographies in a Box

C. FRASER SMITH

December 31, 1992|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

When the tiny cloth goose emerged from the worn tissue paper, he asked, ''Where did that one come from?''

''You gave it to me eight years ago,'' she said gently.

She knows we forget these things. All of us, I imagine. We forget the gift of memory itself. Until we see it erased, as from the mind of an aged parent, we have no real appreciation of its power. But without it, we lose our lives.

We tell ourselves a moment of joy can be recalled, recaptured, recapitulated. We are often wrong. She knows this. Even with all our powers intact, life gets away from us without aides memoires. So she logs the growing store of Christmas ornaments as to origin and year. Entire biographies can be adduced from a few notations.

A cavalcade unfolds from pasteboard boxes held together by gnarled packing tape. The symbols are carefully removed. What fragile object, what tale, emerges after yet another year?

Before she sees them, she hears the knitted bells crocheted by her grandmother with real bells sewn inside. Christmas, 1976. Seasonal colors were set aside that year for red, white and blue in honor of the Bicentennial.

There is more than history here. In the sound and feel and look of the bells, Anedina lives. A clear ball is hung and we are reminded of Hot Coal, West Virginia, the first American homestead of Italian immigrants. Anedina's husband, Alphonso, helped to build coal haul roads into deep mountain hollows. The family moved on eventually to Pittsburgh, where he put his stonemason's hand to building the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. Alphonso's monuments were big. We see his wife's now in the bells.

Near the top of another box are found two white cribs smaller than a playing card, identical or at least fraternal. The 5-year-olds, in whose honor the cribs were purchased, wanted hanging privileges this year.

As if turning pages in a book we love, ornaments flow onto the reaching branches. Sand dollars with red ribbons from a place the older children called the ''Glory Land.'' A ceramic angel from the wedding trip to Florence. A menagerie of quilted, embroidered beasties from China sent by our peripatetic Foreign Service aunt. A flying horse, lately escaped no doubt from a carousel; trumpets; skaters; a basket of glistening pine cones; a Pinocchio bought in St. Mark's Square but stamped Made in Taiwan.

The girls will try to preserve their kindergarten contributions: a green wreath with red M&Ms for berries and a refulgent angel, placed politically on a shelf higher even than their mother's favorite Dutch-girl angel, whose position on the topmost branch must not be usurped. ''It was just right for the Charlie Brown-sized tree I had in my Charlie Brown-sized apartment in college,'' she explains.

The 5-year-olds found the reindeer made years ago from clothespins by their big brother. I remembered the kid who proudly brought it home.

On prominent front branches hangs a Nutcracker soldier in a parachute, crossed sabres on his shiny black helmet. The collection of ornaments began with this happy little martial man, whose red and black enamel seems as bright today as on his first march a quarter-century ago.

We know the tiny wooden rocking horse, the train, the angels on sleds (one pink, one yellow). These came from Nuremberg, brought by Aunt Susan 20 years ago when the twins' grandmother was ill. They were perfect for the small tree that just fit on the night stand next to the hospital bed.

The patient got better. Now she is beyond remembering the ornaments she handed down to us or the time they recall. What she remembers almost exclusively are her granddaughters. ''They're so smart,'' she says over and over. Of the few full sentences available to her now, she finds this the most pleasing. It is but a hint of the memories and sayings and images which can have no form or voice today. So it is all the more important.

When we have hung the last snowman, one of the twins says: ''Momma, turn on the tree so we can watch it glow.''

Watch. And feel and hear and remember . . . while you can.

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