Once long ago, when I was very young, I read a story about the great actress Helen Hayes. As the story goes, the young actress met her future husband at a party. Charles MacArthur was a playwright, and was as poor as she at the time. As the evening wore on, his infatuation with Helen grew, and he wanted to impress her. He poured a bag of peanuts into her lap, saying, “I wish they were emeralds.”
Many years later, well into a long and sometimes trying marriage, Charles walked up to his wife. He opened a bag and poured a pile of emeralds into her lap, saying, “I wish they were peanuts.”
At the time, all I thought was, “Oooooh, so romantic!” I loved the simple symmetry of the gesture, although I really didn’t grasp its meaning.
Now, though? Now I understand.
This year’s Christmas tree is all set up, and it’s a beauty. Tall, full, sturdy, fresh and fragrant. We paid more for this tree than we used to spend on a week of groceries back in our early days. Every branch features a treasured ornament. The tree is covered with strings of lights, all of which are lit. There are gifts all around the base and we have enough extra ornaments and decorations to cover every surface in the house.
Aren’t we lucky?
I know that we are! Our tree proudly displays ornaments that mark every stage of our lives. Vacations, the football years and the hockey years and the cute baby years. Family jokes, family reunions, favorite foods; it’s all there to remind us just how blessed we’ve been.
But you know what?
As I was putting on the ornaments this weekend, carefully selecting the right spot for each, I found myself tenderly looking at one of the oldest items in the Christmas box. I rubbed my thumb over the plastic frame, and rested the little circular image against my cheek, just for a moment.
I found the cross stitch kit for this little ornament in a local thrift shop back in 1985. I was pregnant with my first child, and we had a little table top Christmas tree in the living room of our run-down apartment. We had shopped for ornaments, choosing a set of red satin balls and smaller white plastic balls with little sparkles. They were the least expensive items on display, and although they looked admittedly tacky in the store, on our little tree I was convinced that they were both elegant and lovely.
And although I have never been crafty, and am unable to knit or sew, I sat up at night cross stitching this ornament and one other just like it. As I slowly, carefully moved the needle in and out of the white fabric, I thought about my baby. I thought about our future, and how we’d make a family. I felt as if I was filled with light.
I stitched, and I dreamed, and I felt my baby moving inside me. I hung the little plastic ornament on our tiny tree, and looked at the sparkling lights. I lay down on our old sofa in that drafty apartment, rested my hand on my belly and smiled.
Life was perfect. We had so many dreams about to come true. Everything good lay ahead of us.
As I hung the old cross stitch on the tree the other night, I almost wished for those heady days of the cheap plastic ornaments. Almost.
‘I wish they were peanuts.’