It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen. It certainly was the most lovely of our Christmas tree ornaments. My mother’s visiting teacher had given her a handcrafted cardinal whose intricate detail shimmered in the light.
Mom and I established a new tradition as we argued over the placement of this gorgeous bird. I wanted to hang it front and center on the tree, at my eye level, for everyone to see and admire. Mom was generally very flexible in the tree-trimming ritual, letting us help with very little censure. But with the cardinal, she was insistent. It was a gift to HER, not me, and she would hang it where she wanted. She explained that the perfect location for her decoration was nearer the top of the tree and toward the rear, so that passers-by could see its beauty from the front window. I had to admit that this made sense. Sharing this ornament with as many people as possible was indeed charitable. Yet I was left discouraged with the lessened opportunity for my own enjoyment.
This continued for years. I was in high school still trying to convince my mother to hang the cardinal on the front of the tree. I came to understand at that time, however, that mothers are entitled to possessions as well as children, and that mine loved her cardinal as much as I did. It was therefore only fair to let her hang her treasure where she pleased, no matter how silly a place it seemed.
Christmas break, home from college my freshman year, was a turning point. The tree was decorated upon my arrival, but I helped take it down, as was the custom at our house, on New Year’s Day. Perhaps it was because I had been away from home, or maybe it was one of the first times that I had actually handled the bird, but as I put it away, I looked at this thing with fresh eyes. In truth, it must have been the first time I had done so since about age 9 or 10. It was with a great deal of shock and some disappointment, not only in the ornament, but also in myself, that I saw that cardinal for what it was.
It was one of the ugliest things I’d seen. It was a bright red piece of felt, edges pinked, trimmed with metallic cording, perched on a green pipe-cleaner, and covered with a gaudy pattern of glued-on sequins--blues and golds and greens and more reds, creating the bird’s features. “Mom,” I exclaimed, “this thing is hideous.”
“I know, Merinda, why do you think I always hung it on the back of the tree?”
Wow. She'd known. All that time. She didn’t hang it in back to be generous to our neighbors. She did it to hide it.
It was time for some serious self-evaluation. Was I that lacking in taste? My whole life I had believed I had great taste. Yes, it had certainly evolved, matured. But for some reason that I still can’t place, the cardinal had escaped the notice of the greater refinement of my eye. It was as if my 6-year-old self had dressed my 19-year-old self for a party and I hadn’t discovered that fact until half way through the evening. I felt exposed. I had loved and adored this horrendous, cheap, ugly bird. The previous year.
A few years back, my mother gave me the cardinal. It spends all year with my other tree ornaments in storage, but spends Christmas alone, still in the bottom of the box.
People with no relation to myself now frequently compliment me on my good taste and talent in decorating. Last summer my design for a decorative flag for the city was selected. A friend recently enlisted my help in choosing the color scheme for his new restaurant. My shameful past is safely concealed in a red and green Rubbermaid tub.