For our first Christmas tree in our first apartment together, I bought my boyfriend Bill a heart ornament—a simple and delicate silvery-lavender glass heart. He put it on top of the tree, and thus two traditions were born: That small heart would sit atop our tree each year (no star or angel for us), and every year—through five years of dating and decades of marriage—I’d buy him a new heart ornament.
Through five years of dating and decades of marriage—I’d buy him a new heart ornament.
Each heart was different, bought at different times of the year in different spots. There was a red glass heart from a church craft fair, a filigreed gold heart from an antique shop, a pair of cow-printed hearts on a string from Vermont, a white and blue china one from a trip to Historic Williamsburg during a 100-degree-plus heat wave. There was a dog-plus-heart ornament from our first Christmas with a puppy, and one festooned with stars and stripes, bought right after 9/11.
One year I forgot until late on Christmas Eve, while helping my mother wrap gifts. “I didn’t buy Bill a heart!” I yelped. (This was back in the days when stores didn’t stay open until midnight to squeeze the last dollar out of us before the holiday.) “Here, give him this,” my mom said, plucking a decoupaged heart ornament off her tree and handing it over. “I’ll give it back!” I said, but I never did.
To the Moon and Back
Sometime during the early years, Bill decided to start his own tradition: Knowing that I love moon-shaped things, each Christmas (well, most of them) he gave me a crescent ornament. The first was a simple wooden carved moon, followed by a gold ceramic one, another with a cow jumping over it, a simple pottery one with a smile on it, and so on.
Always, the last ornament to be put on the tree was the first heart, up top.
As the years went on, the collections grew. During the year we both secretly looked for the best, most special heart and moon and stashed it away until Christmas Eve. Each year when we hung them, we talked about where each had come from, especially after we had two daughters, who loved the romance and the stories. (“Remember that awful trip to Williamsburg, and the shady hotel with the warm pool?” “I picked out this sparkly pink one, at that shop where we got the tree!”) And always, the last ornament to be put on the tree was the first heart, up top.
A Shocking Loss
One summer, two months before our 24th wedding anniversary, Bill died suddenly. Months later, in the sad Christmas season that followed, I found stashed in a drawer the delicately painted white wooden heart that I’d bought that past February during a family trip to Puerto Rico. The last heart. I’d been dreading decorating the tree, and I’d invited my sister and brother-in-law to help us do it to try to fill the hole where the girls’ dad had been. I tried cheer, breeziness, and distraction in the face of the suddenly askew traditions, but my youngest daughter said, “Tell the stories.” So I did. And privately, I hung the last heart.
Two months later I took my brave and grieving daughters back to Puerto Rico, where we’d spent the winter vacation week the past three Februarys. Smart or stupid to return there without their dad, who knows, but I didn’t have the brain power to think of something else.
I touched each of the ornaments in the bowl, and then what I saw stunned me.
One night, we wandered the familiar streets of Old San Juan, going in and out of the little shops. In a store full of local crafts, I spied a bowl full of beautiful, delicately painted wooden heart ornaments. This is where I bought the last heart, I realized, struck dumb with sadness while my daughters, unaware, tried on necklaces and hats. I touched each of the ornaments, thinking back to that last one that I had hung so recently on our tree. And then I saw, in the middle of all those hearts, one crescent moon, painted with elegant animal designs.
I bought it, of course. And 10 months later, during a Christmas season that felt somewhat lighter, I hung it on the tree next to the last heart.
Coping with Loss During the Holidays: The Tradition Now
Now each year, I hang them on the tree together, the last moon and heart. I keep this ritual to myself; it’s a private moment for me, a memory of all those years of marriage as well as a reminder that the heart can heal, that it can expand and open up to find new love, which I have—a wonderful romance with its own set of traditions and rituals.
I’m not a religious person, agnostic at best, and I’m not particularly spiritual. I don’t really believe in an afterlife—except in some moments, like this one, when the coincidence is too great to explain away, and the thought is so comforting: Bill reaching across the scrim that separates the living and the dead to put the moon there, nestled within all those hearts in a bowl in a little shop in Puerto Rico, for me to find.
Lisa Bain has worked as an editor in publishing for over 30 years, covering health and issues related to women and families. She’s the editor of Dr. Oz The Good Life and executive director of Hearst Lifestyle Group’s health newsroom. She has two daughters and lives in the New York City area.