Donna Steiner

The Lights
January 15, 2012

When I was a kid, my parents kept our Christmas ornaments in battered cardboard boxes. Although there were exhortations to be careful, for the most part the decorations were thrown into the boxes in a jumble, most with hooks still attached, some with tails of tinsel we hadn’t bothered to remove. Every year the first thing we had to do was sort through the boxes and remove baubles that had mysteriously broken while in storage. We had no carpets on the floors, so when one of us dropped an ornament it would shatter into slivers of curved glass. The curls seemed more delicate than paper and sharper than razors, and one or another of us often ended up with a glass splinter in a palm or the sole of a foot. The round ornaments in particular made a beautiful sound when they broke, a fleeting and subdued explosion, as though something that might shimmer was being released from the orbs into the air. Nobody ever got too upset over the breakage; damage seemed to be part of the process.

We had lights, too, back when lights were the size of jalapenos and came in bold, primary colors. No matter how carefully we tried to store them, the lights managed to snag and corrupt their thick wires into something more complicated than pretzels, more complicated than braids. They were snarled in knots that took the most patient of us to attempt unraveling them. This was often my task as the oldest of five kids, and although I didn’t enjoy it I accepted the responsibility. The lights were more resilient than the ornaments, and I could pull on the plug end of a strand and hear clink after clink after clink as the fat bulbs unwound their way from a twist or a clot. I’d sprawl on the floor and my grandmother would sit on a chair behind me, and I’d take a break now and then to rest beside her or give her a hug. Eventually I’d have a long snake of red and blue and green bulbs, and I’d implore my father to plug the lights in, as I had a fear of electricity and my sense of responsibility could only be pushed so far. Out of curiosity I’d stuck a barrette into a light socket when I was three, and had acquired the irrational fear that plugging in anything would produce the same result. I’d happily spend an hour or more disentangling the lights, but I wasn’t going to reward myself with a jolt of electricity. Both parents had witnessed my arm-buzzing shock and were willing to indulge my fear, either out of guilt for having been unable to stop me or, perhaps, just the hope I’d grow out of it if a fuss were avoided. Unfortunately, from my initial trauma until I left home for college, I managed to get shocked three more times. I dramatically referred to these incidents (plugging in my record player at 8, plugging in an iron at 12, and plugging in a lawn gadget at 17) as “being electrocuted,” and I believe it is a testament to my resilience and personal bravery that I continued to attempt to live in harmony with electricity at all.

Sometimes, even after my father stoically plugged in the lights, they’d just lay there, dull and ropy. That meant one of the bulbs was loose or needed replacing and that, too, was my job. I’d methodically give each bulb a little twist; sometimes a tweak was all the whole line needed to snap into life. Other times I’d give a quick shake to see if I could hear the broken filament inside. There was a whole established procedure, and at the end of that procedure, which I followed precisely, the functioning strands of bulb and wire were woven among the tree’s boughs.

It was my father’s job to safeguard the cords and make sure the tree was firmly secured, and then we moved on to the ornaments, my mother’s domain. Although my siblings and I were solely interested in placing our favorite-colored, store-bought ornaments on the branches, my mother ceaselessly tried to excite us about decorations we’d made in school. “Oh, remember Vicky made this in kindergarten?” she’d exclaim, holding up something composed of crooked popsicle sticks and cotton. “Donna! Your snowman!” she’d marvel, offering a construction paper contraption that I’d known, from its conception, was entirely artless. We’d all smile but covertly hang our homemade ornaments in the back, near the wall. We unanimously believed the store-bought ornaments were fifty times better than anything we’d hacked together, but occasionally we’d indulge our mother and allow a dissected tin can wrapped in felt or some weird spray-painted macaroni concoction to rest in a position of prominence.

Once the ornaments were arranged my mother would ceremoniously break out a few boxes of tinsel. She loved this step – we all did – but my mother longed for a thoughtful array of evenly-spaced strands, while at this point we were fast losing interest. It was more fun and more expedient to fling handfuls of the stuff at the topmost branches of the tree and hope it fell in a reasonable pattern. As kids, our aim wasn’t great, and we often ended up wearing as much tinsel as the tree did. It was the art of randomness, perhaps the art of chaos or the art of short attention spans, but we had so much fun that my mother usually conceded and we’d finally end up with the Steiner version of a Christmas tree. So maybe it had uneven light disbursement, and maybe clumps of tinsel turned the top silver and left the bottom bare, and maybe it wasn’t as perfect as those movie trees that movie families had… but it was ours.

It’s been a while since I had a Christmas tree in my home. No kids, no time, no energy… I don’t miss the tree so much as the commotion. Oh, and I miss the smell of pine – my father insisted every year on not only getting a live tree but a fresh one, one with a root ball that we’d camouflage under a blanket. After Christmas, the New Jersey ground hopefully unfrozen, he’d dig a big hole and plant the tree in the yard. I miss the sound of my mother’s voice telling us to let my younger sisters place ornaments on the lower branches, while my brother and I were allowed to decorate the higher ones. I miss goofily singing along to Christmas songs and making my mother laugh, and I miss sweeping up specks of shiny glass that refracted me back at myself. I miss eating olives and figs with my grandmother, and I miss finding ice skates! a typewriter! a bicycle! under the tree. I miss my father placing the angel on top – that precarious moment of balance and oxymoronic secular holiness – and I miss, I suppose more than anything, that moment when he’d plug in the lights and we’d all feel that surge, that current, feel it run through our capillaries & our muscles & our bones & nerves as though we – a bunch of kids born of a man and a woman who bore unrealized dreams and a long long list of simple, innocent, thwarted plans – as though we, ourselves, were the lights… lighting


Donna Steiner’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah and The Sun. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego, is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine and was a 2011 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She recently completed a manuscript of linked, place-based essays and is working on a collection of poems.