Of all the holiday pleasures nothing — nothing — makes me happier than the pigs.
So long ago, before my father’s eyes were beset by Best’s disease, he carved animals from wood. I have a fat sheep and a patient donkey for the manger. On my desk lies a palm-sized duck with a beak tucked tenderly under a wing. On the bookcase, a life-sized Curlew, beak always in peril from the vacuum and small children. On the tree hangs wooden ornaments he cut from pictures my children drew for him. But nothing gives me more pleasure than the two tiny little piggies he carved, the size of my thumbnail, that I place in the Christmas scene come December.
The pigs lie in wait for eleven months, swaddled in cotton, kept safe from the jumble and flurry of the holiday set-ups and take-downs, in a small porcelain Christmas tree that flips open at the trunk. They are my final tradition in the days before the holiday. I wait until all the lights are strung, the tree trimmed, the skating scene arranged and rearranged, the snow sprinkled; only then do they come out: I tip open the base of the tree and one by one carefully place them on the mantle. Though so small, they square up amongst the skaters and carved trees, the string of sparkle lights and little churches. Their shadows cast stout silhouettes. All that my father loved about this holiday — family, the hearth, the music, beauty created from our hands — is in these little animals. All the love he could give me is in these half-inch tiny knobs of wood. I always cry when I step back and look at them.
I still remember the sharp points of their ears pricking me as he dropped them in my palm, this tiniest most beautiful gift from his hands to mine. Some years, I place them around a reindeer. Some years, I place them next to a small hand carved Santa, or in the middle of three paunchy Santas, their ears and tails pointing North and East, peering at the tiny skaters frozen in their poses. Guests will lean on the mantle, stare at the scene and then suddenly burst out laughing. Tiny pigs in a skating scene is funny.
In 2011, a year after my father died, a small box arrived in the mail. My brother had set some of my father’s ashes in a small round globe of glass, the disc streaked with ash and a thin blue swirl. That year I strung the disc on a holiday ribbon, and as soon as the tree was upright, hung my father on a sturdy branch facing the room. Every year after that, he watches his little piggies stand guard and his family grow tall and I cannot believe — each Christmas — how much of him is all around us. He is right where he was happiest.
I lie awake and wonder what I will leave my children that will stand, year after year, the test of time and love. Words, I think. Many, many words.
Happy New Year, Friends.