Picture-perfect ornaments: Remembering loved ones during the holiday

Photo: Shelby Gilje An assortment of ornaments tells the story of a family.

Photo: Shelby Gilje
An assortment of ornaments tells the story of a family.

Shelby Gilje
Seattle, Wash.

About two decades ago when beloved elders began dying off in my family and that of my husband, I happened upon a magazine article that seemed like a nice way to keep their memories alive, especially during the holidays.

The writer suggested buying tiny frames and adding pictures of family members past and present to decorate the Christmas tree. Thus began my collection. A wag asked if one had to be deceased to make an appearance on my tree. “Absolutely not!” I said. So when I decorate with the collection there are my four granddaughters—Analise and Kristina, twins, now 14; Chloe, 12; and Olivia, 10—at various ages and stages, sometimes missing teeth, sometimes in tears. Plus long-departed ancestors with whom they can become acquainted and present-day family members. There are special in-laws and an occasional outlaw. After all, this is about history and storytelling, family skeletons and all.

It was sometimes difficult to find the right size frame to accommodate a special picture and not weigh the tree branches down. Frames have cost from $3 and up. Special, round silver frames for the granddaughters were $25 each. (It is a Bestemor’s prerogative to splurge when it comes to grandkids if she wants to, right?) Knowing about the collection, many family members have supplied frames with their pictures.

Over time I have been given numerous aging family photos that are not dated or identified by name, so I’ve tried to be consistent in recording that information on the back of these small pictures.

All the photos warm my heart during the holidays.

Pictures of my late husband, Svein, and my maternal grandmother, Myrtle Grace Einum Evans, help me recall the day when he picked her up at a nearby nursing home to join us for dinner. Then in her 90s, she declined to let him take her arm while coming up the stairs. “I don’t need any help,” she said firmly. A brief argument ensued; I chose not to become involved, remaining in the kitchen.

“Well,” Svein finally said, “you are just a stubborn Norwegian!” Myrtle took that in briefly then roared with laughter and countered: “What do you think you are?” Svein was born in Norway; Myrtle’s father also had been a Norwegian immigrant. Both were laughing as they came arm-in-arm for dinner.

My brother Kip has always been grateful that I did not frame a picture of him as a naked five-year-old wearing only his cowboy boots, hat, and holster astride a rocking horse. I do have a picture of my brother, Joe, at about age five wearing his red cowboy hat, appropriate scarf, shirt, boots, and other duds. This is the age he once told an older couple in a restaurant: “Yes, I’ve lived in Texas for ‘bout 45 years.” They just smiled. He still wears cowboy boots and hats with his jeans and did live in Texas for a time as an adult. These days he calls himself “Leftover Cowboy.” And he has a tall tale about how that nickname evolved too.

There’s a shot of my Uncle Bill holding me up at some family event. I am about four or five years and he’s a handsome teenager. When I was about three and a half years old, he let me ride in the rumble seat of his first car. His mother, my maternal grandmother, was furious. “She could have fallen out!” Grandma raged. “No, she’s too smart for that,” he said. I loved the adventure. Since there were only 12 years between us in age, we sometimes were more like siblings.

There are a number of black-and-white photos in lace-like frames. If my childhood dance recital picture were in color you would know that my costume was peach along with my headdress, which had a bird-like beak covered in glitter. I cannot explain the beak.

My in-laws, Magnus Sem Gilje and Selma Elisabeth Naesheim, appear quite serious in their wedding finery on June 3, 1922, in Stavanger, Norway. Her headdress reflects the flapper look of that era with a veil over her shoulder. Her bridegroom is in a tuxedo with white shirt and tie, holding elegant white gloves.

There are other wedding pictures too: mine and Svein’s, and that of our daughter, Kari Gilje and Mike Chiu. For comic relief there’s a picture of my son, Kurt Gilje, and daughter-in-law, Jennifer Hlaudy, in goofy glasses headed off to a costume party.

Now I have nearly 50 framed picture ornaments, all with treasured memories.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.