Friday, November 30, 2012

Tiny treasures adorn Christmas trees with memories

Some Christmas trees are themed. Like candy or the color pink or dogs.
At our house, the theme is memories. Our Christmas tree — smack-dab in the middle of the entryway — is a giant family scrapbook.
Over the years, we’ve weeded out the random ornaments, the ones with no memories attached, so that decorating the tree is a sweetly sentimental labor of love.
After artificial branches are fluffed, I drape the tree with strings of clear beads and fake pearls. Cooper and Katie then hover as I open the giant storage box filled with ornaments.
They’re eager to help. As they’ve gotten older — and as I’ve perhaps mellowed just a little — I’ve allowed them to handle more fragile ornaments each year.
I make little piles: some for Cooper, some for Katie, some for me. And we talk about each one.
When Cooper was a baby, Steve and I decided to buy an ornament for him each Christmas, with the idea that when he has his own home and tree one day, he’ll have a small, ready-made collection.
So far, there are 12 special Cooper ornaments and eight for Katie. Each has a story.
The stuffed teddy bear is because we called our firstborn infant “Cooper bear.”
Buzz Lightyear represents 2004, when our preschooler had a major obsession with Buzz and all things Toy Story.
A year later, our collection grew to include Harry Potter in flight, representing the first two novels that Steve read to Cooper over many months of bedtimes.
On our branches you’ll also spy a cowboy — a reminder of our dude ranch week in 2010 — and a bicycle symbolizing Cooper’s completion of two triathlons in 2011.
Katie’s collection includes Elmo with a stack of blocks, a stuffed giraffe to represent her devotion to animals, and a cowgirl that matches big brother’s cowboy. And there’s an angel for 2009, when Steve died and Katie first started describing her vision of angels and heaven in greater detail.
That Christmas season, I was tempted to keep the tree and all its ornaments in the attic. I couldn’t bear to unpack so many memories.
My sister and her family rescued us. They volunteered to set up the tree and decorate it, providing our little family instant joy while shielding me from grief-riddled pain.
Since then, I’ve rebounded. I’m capable of hanging the White House ornament from our pre-children vacation to Washington, D.C., the Santa band from Steve’s childhood and the pewter horse and buggy from the last pre-cancer vacation we took as a family.
Instead of cursing my sentimental nature (as I sometimes do), I’m thankful that we spent so many years collecting tiny treasures.
This year, as I walk around our three- dimensional scrapbook, I’m reminded of the importance of moving forward even when you’re feeling pulled back by grief.
Our ornament collection didn’t stop growing when Steve died. Cooper, Katie and I continue to pursue new interests. We continue to travel when time and budgets allow.
There’s a Tower of London ornament and a lighthouse from Halifax, Nova Scotia, along with a tiny version of the Alamo.
Plus, there’s room for whatever adventures and passions await us.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm
(Follow me on Instagram at tyradamm to see ornaments throughout the season.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Find Little Red Charlie

Longtime Damm Spot readers will remember Little Red Charlie, our family's Elf on the Shelf. I've blogged about him in this space the past few years.

This year, LRC gets his own blog! You can follow his adventures at Stop by daily between now and Dec. 24 to see where our friendly elf is hiding!

Friends share their essentials for holiday magic

From last week's Briefing:

The most wonderful time of the year has officially begun. All the decorating and partying, baking and eating, shopping and giving starts in full force today.
I must admit that I’m feeling a little intimidated. This year, I’m working outside my cozy house for the first time since 2005, and I haven’t quite figured out how to create Christmas magic with a limited amount of free time.
In evaluating what kind of Christmas cheer I can deliver for my little family, I’ve been thinking about what makes Christmastime so special. Which traditions are nonnegotiable?
While considering our plans for the next four weeks, I asked a few friends to share their own favorite traditions.
Liz and her mom exchange ornaments every year:
“We each purchase one ornament for each other at Christmas. We try to find one that reminds us of a special memory we shared that year. I love decorating my tree and hanging the ornaments my mom gave me. It’s like a walk down memory lane.”
Zita, her husband and their two daughters hop in the backyard hot tub in the afternoon on Dec. 24:
“Andy and I have a glass of Champagne, and the girls make cranberry sparklers (cranberry juice and Sprite). We talk about the best and worst parts of the past year. Where we want to go on vacation the next year. It’s a great way to catch up after all of the holiday rush. And, we get to spend some time just the four of us before all of our assorted family arrive for Christmas Eve dinner.”
Angie’s most treasured tradition is attending her church’s Christmas Eve candlelight service:
“Being surrounded by my family, friends and the very strong presence of Christ is the best part of the season for me! I love the music, the familiar message, the beauty of the sanctuary decorated with poinsettias, candles and nativities. All of it is very spiritual and uplifting. Definitely that one hour is the best time of the holiday season for me.”
Kerith chooses a special ornament for each family member:
“Each person receives an ornament that represents an activity or event in his or her life that year. The ornament is wrapped, and the receiver has to guess what is inside based on three clues taken from Bible verses. Our tree is graced with a gymnast, a basketball player, the Eiffel Tower representing a trip to France, a dump truck for Josh’s second Christmas when he loved trucks, a tooth fairy sitting on a big resin tooth representing one of the girls’ first teeth falling out, and many others.”

Heather and her son kick off the season with a movie:
“On Dec. 1, Greyson and I make hot chocolate, snuggle on the couch and watch the movie Elf.”
Janet keeps alive traditions from her own childhood. She and her family attend Christmas Eve service, eat cold shrimp as the main course for dinner that night and open gifts one at a time on Christmas morning:
“We all get to see the look of joy on each recipient’s face as they open their presents.”
Jeanne, a transplanted Yankee, insists on a live Christmas tree:
“Every year since about 1996, the family has headed over to East Texas or up to Denison to chop down our tree. We ride in a hay wagon out to the field of trees. We laugh and giggle as we discuss and argue about which tree is the best for us. Meagan helps Joe saw the tree at the base and then tip it over, saying, ‘Timber!’ Our family tells hilarious stories of prior 60-mile drives home with trees that were way too large for our car. The togetherness means so much to us all.”
At the center of Susan’s beloved traditions is family. She takes “a tour of West Texas” to spend a couple of days with each of her three brothers and their families. She spends a few days with her dad’s only living sister. And she remembers the love of her parents, who have both passed away:
“I remember once that Mama told me that she and Dad worried some years that we kids would be jealous of our cousins’ gifts since Mama and Daddy could only afford to get us each one gift those years. Through tears, I told her that I wished they hadn’t worried. We never knew that we were poor. We had love and family.”
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, November 16, 2012

Musical dream takes a slightly different path

From today's Briefing:

When Cooper was 4, he declared his intention to play trumpet, just like his daddy.

His daddy had played trumpet for years — middle school, high school, college and, long past classroom years, sometimes even at church.

Steve stopped playing when he was diagnosed with cancer. Cooper, whose resolve was perhaps strengthened by his dad’s illness, continued to insist that he would play trumpet when he got older.

When Steve died, Cooper was even more determined to carry on his father’s musical legacy.

What Cooper didn’t consider was the innate ability related to instruments. You know how the wand chooses the wizard in Harry Potter? Apparently in music, the instrument sort of chooses the player.

On instrument tryout day back in February, Cooper showed great promise with the trombone, euphonium, clarinet, oboe and bassoon.

The percussion test tripped him up. (Me, too. I seriously lack rhythm. And musical ability in general.) The flute wouldn’t yield to his will.

And the trumpet? Well, he could barely coax out a single sound.

After intense discussion (“no one will be disappointed if you choose a different instrument”), debate (“you could work extra hard and make the trumpet work”) and a few tears (a six-year dream doesn’t dissolve easily), Cooper decided to sign up for clarinet.

It’s been relatively smooth sailing ever since.

Cooper has taken ownership of being the family’s clarinetist. Every afternoon, he sets up shop in the family room. He places his music stand in front of his practice chair, then he arranges his sheet music and metronome just so.

He reverently pieces together the instrument, taking care to precisely follow his teacher’s instructions. He will not be rushed. He will not take shortcuts.

And finally, after a good five minutes of preparation, he begins to tap his foot and make music.

Practice usually includes a little high-pitched squeaking that causes involuntary twitching on my part. But Cooper plays through the squeaks and ekes out recognizable songs.

Sometimes the music is so catchy that little sister Katie breaks out into interpretive dance.

On Tuesday night, Cooper and about 90 other beginning band students assembled on the cafeteria stage to share their skills with a gaggle of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. It was their first concert and only the second time they were all together in the same room.

The whole band performed “Ode to Joy.” The gathered crowd politely applauded.

The band director gently scolded our efforts.

These kids didn’t know how to hold their instruments three months ago, she reminded us, and now they’re performing real songs, recognizable songs, together as a group. Applaud bigger!

And so we did.

We clapped enthusiastically for each group — the saxophonists playing “Frere Jacques,” the flautists playing “Aura Lee,” three brave bassoonists playing “Camptown Races.”

The clarinetists played “Jingle Bells” — once through at normal speed, a second time super fast. The music was lovely, with not a single discernible squeak.

The crowd applauded generously. I clapped wildly — enough for me and enough for Steve.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, November 09, 2012

Holidays are sneaking up too fast again

From today's Briefing:

If we can agree on nothing else this week, can we agree on this?

Thanksgiving is creeping up on us too fast.

My favorite holiday of the entire year is less than two weeks away. We need more time. Because as soon as Thanksgiving is over, all things Christmas take over. Then Christmas Day rushes by in a blur of ribbons and paper and then — bam! — it’s a new year.

Actually, Christmas seems to have taken over already. Stores jumped straight from Halloween candy to Christmas trees. Last weekend, Katie and I searched all over Target for some Thanksgiving decorations. There were none.

“There’s only Christmas stuff,” my 7-year-old said. “Are we too late for Thanksgiving?”

I’m not going to let retailers rush me past the one day of the year that’s devoted to counting our blessings and eating more pie than is socially acceptable. At the same time, with the Christmas season creeping in, I realize I have some decisions to make. Such as:

Will we get a new tree this year? We don’t do live — rather, cut down and dying — trees in this house. I’m severely allergic to evergreens. So, every few years we invest in an artificial tree, a Damm tradition since 1994.

In the meantime, though, the industry has revolutionized the fake tree market — and made them much more frustrating.

Pre-lit trees seem like such a great idea, until year three, when half of the strands don’t light and you spend two hours trying to locate the faulty bulb and then give up and just string extra lights on the tree. Lights, by the way, that never exactly match the other lights on the tree.

Will I send Christmas cards? The 2005 version of me wouldn’t even recognize this as a question. Of course you will send Christmas cards, woman. You live in a society, don’t you?

But the single mom version of me is less likely to follow the unwritten suburban rules that mandate a perfect photo on the highest quality cardstock with the most charming mix of fonts and cheerful words.

Here’s what will most likely happen: As soon as our tree is up and decorated, I will occasionally ask Cooper and Katie to stand in front of it. They will just happen to be wearing coordinating colors or patterns. I will take about 50 photos, hoping that all four eyes are open and looking in the same direction in just one photo.

If I’m successful in that quest, I’ll consider the rest of the Christmas card hurdles involved — not the least of which is developing a mailing list, which is a much easier task if you actually send cards annually instead of sporadically. The 2005 version of me is saying, “I told you so.”

When will our Elf on the Shelf make his first appearance?

A warning to the uninitiated: Once you become an Elf-on-the-Shelf family, there’s no going back. You can’t have an elf for three years then say, “Huh, I guess our elf decided to go elsewhere.”

We’re a committed Elf-on-the-Shelf family, so the big question is how soon he will arrive. Some families say the elf arrives when the tree does. Or on the first of December.

Our elf has always appeared the weekend after Thanksgiving. Of course, he doesn’t just arrive and settle in one spot for a month. He moves nightly, always finding a new sneaky perch for spying on behalf of Santa. That magic requires dedication and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

Am I ready for that magic to begin in two weeks? Not yet. But give me a little time to breathe between Election Day and Thanksgiving, plus plenty of pie, and I’ll be there with bells on.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Wednesday, November 07, 2012


Remember my Madonna night?

Liz, Holly, Tyra, Melinda, Katrina, Kristi, Julianne and Michelle
Awesome friend Julianne, who is (1) my sounding board on all kinds of matters, (2) accepts random texts and notes from me at all hours of the day and night and (3) always knows how to make me laugh, wrote about it on her blog.