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a christmas tradition survivesMy father liked order and systems. He was the kind of man who alphabetized our spices. He labeled our pantry. His filing system was extensive — if you asked him what he gave me for my birthday when I was 10, he could retrieve the information.

Not surprisingly, there was a particular way we were to decorate our Christmas tree. We always bought a 9-10 foot Douglas Fir. On our Christmas lights, we used reflectors — silver tin foil shaped like stars with colored inserts that went behind each Christmas light. Reflectors were supposed to make the Christmas lights glow more, and we used the large colored Christmas lights you don’t see much these days — red, green, blue, and sort of an orangey-yellow, maybe some white. We’d match each reflector with the bulb, place it over the socket and methodically screw in each Christmas light one by one, in a long string of lights. We paid the same kind of attention to the rest of the tree. We had decorative fake birds, and Daddy instructed us to adjust the bird wings so they would look like they were in proper flight. Tinsel was placed, never tossed. It was like we were preparing an altar. And the most sacred elements of all were the Debbie Ball, the Jimmy Ball, and the Tricia Ball.

Now, the Debbie Ball and the Jimmy Ball and the Tricia Ball, are ornaments my father made for my older sister and brother and me when we were very little. Each ornament is made from identical materials, a white Styrofoam ball, about the size of a tennis ball, and decorated with sequins. For the Tricia Ball, Daddy used four colors of sequins: gold, blue, red, green, always in that order, all adhered with silver straight pins. Around the circumference of the ball, my father neatly spelled my name, Tricia, in capital letters. Each letter is precisely five-sequins tall.  And the sequins aren’t mixed.  The letter T is all gold sequins; the letter R all blue; the I all red; and so on. At the top is a ring of red sequins surrounding the ornament hook. At the bottom is a ring of green sequins, with a single green sequin placed at what would be the South Pole on a globe. This is exactly the kind of detail you would expect from a man who labeled his pantry and I treasured the Tricia Ball. Each year, my sister and brother and I hung our ornaments with great ceremony.

The Tricia Ball, in all its glory

As a family, we were at our best decorating the Christmas tree. It was always magnificent.

Then when I turn 16, my family enters into the throws of a social scandal that rocks my hometown. Daddy declares bankruptcy and my mother, hysterical with fear, blames my father. After losing his money and the support of my mother, Daddy loses his mind and starts having an affair with a woman we can’t stand and who can’t stand us. All order collapses into chaos. My parents separate.

The first Christmas after Daddy leaves, Mama announces she never did like reflectors or colored bulbs and replaces them with little white lights. Tinsel is abandoned all together. The fake birds are flying wildly in all directions. I still hang the Tricia Ball alongside my sister and brother’s ornaments and the tree is still magnificent, maybe even more so, as we try to create beauty amongst the wreckage of our family — my mother in one place, my father in another, and we three kids in the middle dodging the bullets.

Several years after my parents’ divorce, my sister gets engaged. We’re ecstatic. She and her fiancé have been best friends for years – they met in four-year-old Sunday school. After years of bitterness between my parents, my family needs a celebration and a new start. To mark the occasion, I want to make a really special toast at the rehearsal dinner, but I’m at a loss for what to say. A friend asks me, do you have any family traditions? I say the only tradition we have is avoiding my father’s girlfriend and my parents’ animosity. He keeps pushing and says, “Are you sure?” And then I get an idea.

When the toasts begin, I walk to the podium and say, “In our family, we have an important tradition.” I can see Mama and Daddy and Debbie and Jimmy looking at each other thinking, what is she talking about? “We have an important tradition that I want to make sure my brother-in-law is part of,” and even close friends who witnessed my family’s explosion are thinking, “Really?” I hold up a Styrofoam ball, with colored sequins that spell out my brother-in-law’s name in neat capital letters, each 5 sequins tall. There is a collective gasp among my family members. We all smile and some of us even tear up.

Now there are Christmas balls for all three of the kids’ spouses and each of the six grandchildren, maybe even some pets. My husband and I don’t have children – as they say in legal parlance, we do not have issue – which is really okay, in fact it’s what’s best for my husband and me, but it is different. It raises all kinds of issues around legacy and what we pass on. The fate of the Tricia Ball is anyone’s guess. But I still hang the Tricia Ball every year with great ceremony, because even though I don’t know who the Tricia Ball is going to, it always reminds me of where I come from.

Tricia Rose Burt was the keynote speaker at SHE DID IT/Boston in November, 2012.  You can find more from Tricia Rose Burt at triciaroseburt.com

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