Left: Jay Wilde. Right: Courtesy of Emily Baker.
As told to Lacey Howard.
In the opening notes of Bing Crosby's "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" (or any classic Christmas song), I am instantly transported to the back seat of a big, old Oldsmobile. I'm bundled up and not yet tall enough to see out of the fogged-up window without getting up on my knees. I'm kneeling on the bench seat behind Grandma Dolly, Grandpa is driving, and Bing is crooning from the radio. My brother, Geoffrey, and I repeatedly rub circles on the windows with our mittens and coat sleeves while Grandpa navigates the boat of a car slowly around Grosse Ile, an island south of Detroit. We all ooh and ahh over the (at least in my memory) huge lights and decorations that illuminate every house and the snow that blankets each lawn along our drive.
It was a small Christmas miracle, actually, that Geoffrey and I would even agree to get back into a car after our 12-hour annual holiday road trip from Georgia to Michigan. But appreciating the twinkling lights and sparkling snow from the Oldsmobile's toasty interior was one of our Christmas traditions. Just like driving to Gross Ile to spend the holidays with my dad's parents was part of every single Christmas during my childhood. There, in my grandparents' ranch-style home with heated slate floors and a pink bathroom that smelled of her powder and White Linen perfume, Grandma D and I became the best of friends. She shared with me a passion for collections, family, faith, music, and, her love of all things Christmas. Each year, she and I would decorate, bake, wrap, and joyfully celebrate the season with our small family of six.
Courtesy of Emily Baker
Without fail, each Christmas Eve we would all gather in the living room after dinner and open just one gift. Before we could tear into the paper and bows, Grandma D would share a special reading of some sort—a prayer or scripture or an article—to remind us of the true meaning of Christmas. When Geoffrey and I were a little older, we would give a performance before her reading: I played the violin and he played the cello or the guitar or whatever he was into that year. Sometimes Grandpa would get up and sing with us. Grandma D's favorite carol was "Silent Night" and when I played it she would hum along and sing low under her breath. She was my biggest cheerleader when it came to playing the violin—something I loved from the first moment of holding a bow—and playing for our family, standing in front of the Christmas tree, was my gift to her.
The tree—a real one, never faux—was dressed with sentimental, handmade, and family ornaments. There were mercury glass birds with feathered tails on clips that you pinch to open. A few Santa figurines hung from gold cord alongside simple glass ball ornaments. The Shiny Brite shapes sparkled with silver stripes. And then there was my favorite ornament on the tree. It was blue and gold and had red indentions. It wasn't really a beautiful ornament but it stood out to me.
On the piano, she displayed a collection of red glassware for the holidays, a trove of books, and her Better Homes & Gardens magazines—all arranged just so. And she decked the halls by sprinkling Santa mugs around the house with putz houses and manger scenes.
In 2009, my grandparents moved to Florida. My dad and I drove up to Gross Ile to clean out their home prior to an estate sale. It was the middle of summer but I unboxed and unwrapped each of the family Christmas items one by one and was flooded with so many memories. I decided then and there to take as much of Grandma D's Christmas decor as I could fit in our car. I even took other sentimental things out of the car so I could squeeze more holiday items inside.
My own children don't have many memories of Grandma D, but my parents and I keep her alive with stories and by upholding the same holiday traditions and decorations that we enjoyed at her home. Each Christmas Eve we do a special reading or a prayer before we each open a gift. And on Christmas morning my three children wake up and then dutifully hide their eyes, just like Geoffrey and I did, until we are all gathered in the living room to begin the deliciously slow process of opening gifts one at a time, starting with the stockings. As I look around the room, I see Grandma D all around. And while I cherish each of my collections, her ornaments are my most treasured. I love that I see the same ornaments hanging on my living room tree—a real one, never faux—as I remember on the Christmas tree in her living room.
Today, Grandma D has been gone for 11 years, but she lives on in my heart and is definitely the reason behind my collections. In the years since that last trip to her home, I've added droves to the items I rescued from her holiday bins. Walking into an event, auction, or estate sale, and seeing something that takes me back, finding that special piece for a great price—is a simple pleasure for me. All of my collections are inspired by her and the history and story behind each one that she shared with me over the years.
Credits: Photographer: Jay Wilde. Vintage Photos Courtesy of Emily Baker.
Art Direction: Alice Morgan
Design and Production: Casey Oto
Social: Jennifer Aldrich, Jonna Camlin