Our Christmas Décor Became a Metaphor for My Grief

What is the protocol for embroidering a Christmas story that stops abruptly in the second chapter?

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The Christmas tree skirt the author started before her husband died. (Sarah Vallely)

Somewhere between the birth of my son that of my daughter, in that new-mom world where anything is possible, I decided to learn to needlepoint. I taught myself quickly, and because of the nature of my one-childness, I came up with the brilliant plan of creating a Christmas tree skirt, upon which I would embroider the family “story.”

I asked my mother to sew a circle of beautiful linen, and set to work. I practiced my stitches beginning in the center with “est. 2008,” the year my husband and I married, in silver and gold. Under that I stitched our names: my husband’s and mine at the top and our son’s slightly below ours. I left space next to his for that of his baby sister, at that point kicking away in my belly.

That Christmas, our mostly blank skirt lined the bottom of our first tree as a family of three. I left space to stich a picture of our dog and cat, and started an outline of our first home. The white linen seemed huge, and I had vague ideas of what else we would eventually use to fill the space: our forever home, once we found it, more pets, major milestones. All I knew was that this silly, imperfect decoration would be my way of telling our story back to ourselves each year.

READ: I’m Done Hanging Stockings for Dead People

But as so often happens when baby number two arrives, I lost my creative ambition. That Christmas we had a small tree with the ornaments placed above toddler reach. It was a lovely, if chaotic, time. We used the tree skirt, but the baby girl’s name didn’t make it on in time for our first holiday as a family of four.

It would be our only holiday as a family of four. My husband was diagnosed with cancer in June of the following year. He died that September. He was 37.

Our first downsized Christmas, I got an even smaller tree that I could put up myself. We decorated together, and I tried to carry on the traditions that we had begun to establish “before.” The skirt didn’t make it out that year. I still hadn’t added my daughter’s name, and wondered if I should even bother. The house we were moving out of was half-stitched in, and I didn’t see much sense in finishing that, either. A half-finished home seemed appropriate. What is the protocol for embroidering a story that stops abruptly in the second chapter?

My grief had begun to steal my thoughts of the future from me, as well as my ability to honor the past. Something as simple as a poorly stitched name by an inexperienced hand became a stand-in for my inability to make sense of all that had transpired. I no longer felt that I had ownership of my own story, let alone my family’s. The blank cloth, a gaping void that no longer held promise, and that told of nothing but half-experiences and false-starts.

Today, on the precipice of our fourth Christmas “after,” our world looks much different. For my part, I have re-partnered, and we are expecting a new baby in February. We started fresh in a new house, and we are getting around to our decorating. The Christmas tree skirt found its way out of my crafting drawer and back onto my lap. My now 4-year-old daughter noticed the absence of her name, picked out a vivacious color of floss — one that matches her lively spirit.

After adding her name, I added the kids’ step-dad — or just “Dad,” as they now call him — next to mine. We left some space for the new baby. I finished the image of our old house, as bright yellow and crooked as it was in real life. Amateurish, but sufficient.

Assessing the blank space, I decided to let the kids draw something and I would stitch it in. To their delight, I followed their stylistic instructions on how to make each one come to life.

So our story never really ended in 2014, when our loss shook us to our core — and it seemed that so much blank space could (or should) never be filled. This Christmas our family story is once again allowed to decorate our holiday, to accent our cheer. Our tale, as our tree skirt, would be as incomplete without the names of every family member as it would be without our grief. The decision to allow our sorrow to share space with our joy has brought a sense of peace to a season that had in recent years felt rocky and cold. We are renewed by the sight of all that blank space now, of all the moments yet to be preserved in linen and thread.

Sarah Vallely is the widowed mother of two (soon-to-be three) children. She lives in Elmira, New York, and works as a waitress and a birth doula. With her writing, she is working through her grief.


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