86: The Glass Hummingbird

86: The Glass Hummingbird

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

The Glass Hummingbird

When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.

~Author Unknown

My wife Julie and I have been collecting Christmas ornaments over the entire course of our thirty-year marriage. Each ornament has a story to tell. The glass hummingbird, for instance, was acquired one October about eighteen years ago, when we were living in Auburn, California. Julie bought it at her favorite little home décor boutique, a place called Serendipity. Its proportions were exactly those of a real hummingbird — which meant that its beak was about an inch and a half long and nearly as thin as a piece of angel hair pasta. As soon as I saw the ornament, I knew it would never last. We have always owned cats — usually no fewer than three or four at a time. And cats love to play with Christmas ornaments. That’s why Julie and I normally purchase only ornaments made of wood or fabric or metal or plastic.

“What were you thinking?” I asked Julie when I saw the hummingbird. “That thing will never survive the month of November much less the entire Christmas season.”

“I’ll put it up high,” she said. “The cats won’t even notice it.”

“They’re cats!” I reminded her needlessly. “Height is not a problem for them. They can scale full-sized fir trees. A seven-foot pine tree won’t even slow them down.”

“I’m not worried,” Julie said. “It’s clear glass. They won’t even notice it. It’s the colorful ornaments that catch their attention.”

“One swipe at that beak and it will break right off,” I said.

“When that happens, we’ll pretend it’s a sparrow,” Julie said. “Or maybe a house finch.”

That was eighteen years ago. Two generations of cats have passed through our lives since then, including quite a few rambunctious little troublemakers, but somehow that hummingbird has survived — beak and wings intact — despite numerous feline assaults. It serves as a reminder that, in life, certain things and certain people are much less fragile than they appear.

We have only one ornament that is more precious to us than the hummingbird. It is a small paper tag with the number 50 written on it in thick black felt pen. It’s not much to look at, but it means a lot to us. We acquired it about eleven years ago when we were living in Placerville, another small town in northern California. Our house was on two acres and was located just a few parcels away from a Christmas tree lot known as “The Ardencaple Forest,” which was owned and operated by a friendly married couple, Norm and Dottie McCally. We saw them now and then at the community mailbox and the local grocery store, but our only regular interaction with the McCallys came every year at Christmas when we drove the few hundred feet from our house to theirs in order to purchase a Christmas tree.

Ardencaple Forest was a cut-it-yourself Christmas tree operation. When you arrived at the farm, Norm McCally would hand you a long-handled saw that looked somewhat like the grim reaper’s scythe. After that, you were free to wander through the Ardencaple Forest looking for a tree that suited you. When you found a tree you liked, you would cut it down yourself and then call out for Trevor, the McCally’s grandson. He would ride down on a little four-wheel ATV and haul the tree back up to your car.

It was the day after Thanksgiving in 2000 that Julie and I arrived at Ardencaple only to be told by Dottie that her beloved husband Norm had died of a sudden heart attack the previous weekend. This was a shock to us. Norm was an active guy and only about seventy years old. He always looked extremely fit whenever we saw him walking down to fetch the mail. He was one of those people that you expect to live to be 100.

Dottie was so upset by his death that she hadn’t planned on opening the Christmas tree farm that year. But the operation of the Ardencaple Forest was a McCally family tradition. Every weekend during the Christmas season, Norm and Dottie’s children would show up at Ardencaple with their spouses and their own children and help Norm and Dottie with the work. They helped cut trees for those who didn’t want to do it themselves. They wrapped the trees in nets and tied them to the tops of cars. They served cider and other treats to the holiday visitors and performed various other tasks around the place.

The McCally children were not ready to see the family’s tree farm shut down for even a single season. And so, just a few days after Norm’s funeral, the whole family was at the farm to make sure that Norm’s beloved operation was open for business as usual.

After hearing the shocking news about Norm’s death, Julie and I grabbed our saw and wandered out to find a Christmas tree. Normally we bought a fairly small tree, but because we thought it might help Dottie financially, we decided that we would buy the biggest tree we could possibly fit into our house. We meandered for nearly an hour before finding a tree that looked like it might fit through our front door. We cut it down and then signaled to Trevor that we were ready for him to haul it up to the car.

When we arrived back at the nerve center of the Ardencaple operation — i.e., the McCally’s front yard — Dottie was waiting for us with our tree. We talked a little bit more with her about Norm. After Dottie told us about Norm’s life and career, she looked over our tree until she found the price tag. It was a piece of paper about the size and thickness of a business card. On it, written in a firm hand, was the number 50. Dottie looked down at the price tag and said, “See that. Norm went out and put the price tags on the trees just a day before he died. They were probably the last things he ever wrote.” We asked her if we could keep the tag and she tearfully complied.

We took the tree home and, though it was massive, we somehow managed to install it in our living room. After decorating the tree with all the usual ornaments we hung Norm’s price tag near the top of the tree, where it would be visible for all to see. To others it might have seemed kind of gauche to leave the price tag on a Christmas tree, but for us that tag had become a cherished reminder of a kindly neighbor. It has hung on every Christmas tree we have put up since then.

We haven’t been back to Ardencaple Forest since we moved to Sacramento. But every year during the Christmas season, that price tag with the number 50 on it reminds us that life can sometimes be as fragile as... well, the beak of a glass hummingbird.

~Kevin Mims

More stories from our partners