71: Perfectly Imperfect

71: Perfectly Imperfect

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Christmas

Perfectly Imperfect

The heart, like the mind, has a memory. And in it are kept the most precious keepsakes.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My mother-in-law was never particularly sentimental. When she passed away at ninety years old, after living for sixty-five years in the same house, she had one thin photo album, some dusty slides, and a small box of photos. A tiny enameled tin held a locket and a pair of baby shoes from her first child, Carolyn, who’d died at age one.

Still, her Christmas decorations — spare though they were — stayed the same from year to year. A white porcelain nativity set. A garland across the mantel, adorned simply with a few flocked red birds. A Santa candleholder. And — peculiarly, I thought, for someone whose house was always impeccable — three ceramic elves, each holding a letter of the alphabet: N, O, and E.

Once, she saw me looking at them and shrugged. “The L broke years ago, but I just like them,” she said.

Had she held her baby daughter, and later, her two sons, up to the mantel to look at the merry row of elves? Was my no-nonsense mother-in-law just a wee bit sentimental about those ghosts of Christmas past?

The last time my children and I spent with Ma was Christmas. After dinner at her house, she wanted to get out the old slides, which had been buried in boxes in the closet for years. Nearly blind with macular degeneration, she had to stand with her nose nearly brushing the screen to see the images, but we spent hours with those memories. Afterward, we all agreed it had been our best Christmas together, ever.

She died that February. When we cleaned out the house, I saved those three little ceramic elves, still smiling and holding up the holly-sprigged letters N, O and E. The next Christmas, I put them out, but somehow it bothered me. Their message seemed to be: “No L.” I wondered again about Ma’s loyalty to the damaged set. Why hadn’t she thrown it out or given it away like so many of her other imperfect or unneeded belongings?

Photo courtesy of Antonio D. Wright

Now she was missing from the family circle, just like her daughter. Just like that long-broken L. Had she looked at it as I now did, seeing a once-complete set that was forever missing a necessary piece?

Year after year, I lined up the elves. But I never learned to accept the gap at the end.

Nearly five years after Ma’s passing, I packed up the set with the other Christmas decorations. The holiday was over for another year. But this time, I had a thought. Maybe if I searched the Internet, I could find a vintage elf, holding up the letter L.

It was a crazy idea.

The elf set was at least sixty years old. Why would anybody save one letter all those years? And, if they had, what would be the odds of it being the only letter I needed? Who would they expect to buy it? Someone named Linda or Leonard?

Still, I figured it was worth a try.

For hours, I searched and clicked. “Vintage ceramic Christmas elf letter L.”

Many results cranked forth. Ceramic elves, plastic elves, modern elves, gnomes and pixies. None of them holding any letters whatsoever. My eyes blurred from scanning through them.

Suddenly, one line jumped out: “Ceramic elf, vintage. Holding letter L.”

My hand shook. This suddenly felt like something inexplicable was happening. I clicked.

There he was. A perfect, perky little Christmas elf, holding up the letter L, just as if he had been waiting to offer it to me.

He looked the same. Could he possibly be from the same set? The size looked right. The color looked right. The letter even had the holly decorating it, just like the others. I knew he’d be right at home with the rest.

Without further debate, I clicked “Buy.”

Several weeks later, a tiny carton appeared in my mailbox. Impatiently, I clawed at the packing tape and pulled out the tissue paper packing.

There he was — saucy and smiling. The elf with the L.

But when I got out the rest of my set, my heart sank. This guy was just slightly smaller in scale. He didn’t really match.

So maybe it wasn’t the after-Christmas miracle I’d thought it was. But when I lined them all up the following holiday season, weaving their way through a bed of pine, they looked pretty darn good. “No ‘L’ ” had once again become “NOEL.”

The set wasn’t perfect. When we lose someone, nobody else can ever really take her place. My mother-in-law went on to have those two boys after Carolyn died, and her life was again complete, but never the same.

Now she, too, was gone. We’d add other family members, including her great-granddaughter, born on what would have been Ma’s 100th birthday. However, without her, our family would never be as it once was.

But that was okay. And the elves were okay. I knew Ma would have been delighted with her great-granddaughter. And I knew, with her love of order, she’d have been delighted to see NOEL marching across the mantel again.

~Susan Kimmel Wright

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