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Illustration by Chelsea O’Byrne

I am rummaging through the Christmas decorations when I see it; the star that topped our Christmas tree for decades, most of the years of our marriage. We finally sent it into retirement four years ago after it had been repaired so many times that it sat at a wonky angle on top of the tree and was almost unrecognizable as a star.

When my husband Carl made that star the first Christmas after we were married, we fully intended to replace it with something better after Christmas when the sales were on. Or maybe we would do it another year when Carl was finished university and we had more money.

We didn’t do that, though, and the months turned into years and that star was still around many years later, like a worn-out favourite chair or a wobbly lamp that casts its warm glow in a corner of the room. We couldn’t imagine our Christmas tree topped with anything other than that star.

Without even realizing it, we had become attached.

Now, as I hold the star in my hands, I’m remembering Carl bent over our kitchen table in that third-floor apartment overlooking the canal, cutting and recutting bits of cardboard in the shape of a star.

After too many years to count, I still hold in my mind the image of his head bent over the table; the light from the chandelier shining through his curls, the curve of his back and his hands working triangle and set square. It took many tries before he could get the angles exactly right. Discarded misshapen stars littered the floor under the table.

When he was satisfied he had the perfect shape, he used a tube from a toilet-paper roll to attach to the bottom so it could be fitted over the top of the tree. Then he carefully covered it all with tinfoil and placed it on the tree we had cut from his father’s wood lot, brought back to the city and dragged up two flights of stairs to a corner of our living room. The tinfoil glittered as it reflected the red, green and yellow lights that his parents had donated.

To us, in that moment, it looked prettier than any store-bought decoration.

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That star travelled from our apartment in the Glebe to our first home in Ottawa South, and to two different homes in the west-end suburbs. All through our children’s growing years, it was always the same star – the star Carl made from cardboard and tinfoil wrap. We took pictures of our first child, then our two children and finally all three of our children playing under that star on Christmas morning. Year after year, they took their turns placing it in its spot atop the tree, and then our grandchildren took their turns. In pictures dating back to the 1970s, we look almost like the perfect TV family. Unlike TV families of the seventies, our children had messy bed head and sometimes orange juice spilled on pyjamas, but we tried.

Eventually, the points of the star became blunted from being slid down the side of the box of decorations for so many years. The tape used to hold the tinfoil in place became brittle and had to be replaced. Still, we patched and repatched that star. Our children wouldn’t hear of buying a new lighted star or an angel with long white robes. We had clearly passed the point where it could easily be replaced.

Three years ago, Carl and I were downsizing and, along with eschewing a real tree in favour of a prelit fake one, we made the decision to retire the star. We did it quietly and furtively. We felt that it had to be retired and decided that now was the perfect time. We needed to stop using it before our grandchildren developed an attachment. There was also the fear that if, by chance, one of us succumbed while the star was still in use, our children may feel obliged to keep that misshapen piece of cardboard for another 50 years.

Now we were faced with a dilemma. What can you do with an object that has outlived its usefulness? How can you respectfully dispose of something endowed with 50 years of memories? We couldn’t just throw it in the garbage. Neither of us could live with the picture of it lying discarded in some garbage heap, getting wet and smeared with waste.

It would have to be kept, but kept out of sight. In the end, we slid it to the bottom of the decoration box along with a chipped Santa Carl painted in Grade 2 and a few other broken-but-not-forgotten Christmas favourites.

Then we bought a new star, one that lit up. Our grandchildren loved it and fought loudly and clearly over who would mount it on top of our new plastic tree. I think we settled with the four younger ones helping with the first installation.

Of course, everyone noticed, and everyone commented. Daughter No. 2 issued a loud “Humph,” but since it had not been destroyed, none of them argued too much about the transition. Our new star has shone its light out over the living room for three years now. Meanwhile, the original star is never far away; bent and battered, no longer useful, but not ready to be discarded, still as close as the memories.

Holly Kritsch lives in Ottawa.

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