Every year I'd look for it, and every year it was there. Maybe not on the first box I picked up, but eventually I'd find the correct one. And there it was, tied to the ribbon around the box. Not just any type of ribbon either - she always used the puffy, yarn-like, braided ribbon, usually in red, green or white. No thin curling ribbon here. Sometimes I could free it myself, other times I needed the help of scissors. And then off it would go to my mom for safe keeping, while I tore open the packages to see what was inside. Although at the time it was never the gift itself, always treated as more of a decoration of sorts, it's the only thing I've kept and enjoyed year after year.
We called her Aunt Jeanne, but she was actually my mom's Aunt. My grandfather's sister had no children or grandchildren of her own, so boy did she like to spoil us. All together she had 9 great nieces and nephews: Me and my cousins Danny & Brooke, and then our second cousins Nicole, Elizabeth & Shannon, and Christian, Brad & Ansel. She loved to sit with us and catch up on our lives. She wanted to know what our hobbies were, what we found interesting. She'd sit with her tea, and watch as the kids played board games or whatever else we were up to.
Later, she especially loved talking to me about Boston. Years ago when her husband had business down on the waterfront, he'd drop her off at Lord and Taylor and she'd go shopping. She'd then wander through the city, eventually meeting him for dinner. She loved those trips and enjoyed hearing about my own adventures in the same city. I loved that special connection I had with her, as I was the only "kid" living in the city at the time.
It took us a few years before we got smart and came up with a system. After many years of counting, and re-counting and "wait, how old are you, and do you have one less than your age or one more than years you are old?" and running out to the woods to find the discarded tree to check for stowaways. You wouldn't think they'd be so easy to lose, but somehow we were always going back, looking for more.
Now they each have their own box with the year labeled on it, and before the tree can be taken down, all of them need to be accounted for. The answer is one more than my age, by the way, since I have one for 1985 - my 0th year. This year there will be 31 of them on the tree.
At some point in her career, I think my aunt worked for the Wallace Silversmith company (I'm sure my mom will fact check this later). Because of that, she was a fan of their products, and they'd often show up as gifts for family members, even years after she no longer worked there. I think they were something she enjoyed giving. Never as a replacement for what was on our list - we always got that too - this was more of an addition. Something that we never appreciated at the time (kids can be like that), but I think she knew (or hoped) that they might be treasured some day.
They were mostly Christmas ornaments. Mrs Claus, or a star... I even have a giant light up replica of the Times Square ball that drops on New Year's Eve. It has sensors installed on it so that it will light up with your Christmas tree lights, or flash in sync with them. It's incredibly heavy, and not easy to get on the tree correctly and has become Tom's task each year.
However, the candy canes were always her main focus. One for each of us, every year since we were born. Every Christmas they would come. Her car would pull up in the driveway of my grandparents house, and whoever happened to be peaking out the windows at the time would run around announcing her arrival. "Aunt Jeanne is here! Aunt Jeanne is here!" We'd all line up in the kitchen to issue a greeting, and then take off after we'd been handed the bags of presents to deposit under the tree. This tree too, had it's special ornaments. One for each grandchild hid amongst the branches, lights and cow ornaments. The 1985 granddaughter ornament with a kitten and baby lamb on it now hangs on my tree each Christmas.
The candy canes are now considered collectors items. Some of the designs go for thousands of dollars. To think, we've accidentally thrown some out with the tree. (I was able to replace the two I lost years later thankfully.) Each year has it's own unique design, and every fall the wait is on to see what the new design will look like. Will the background be red or green or white? Will the candy cane be it's typical yellow gold plated, or will it be a special occasion that calls for silver?
31 of them, all with their unique design, all representing a year of my life, and a gift from my aunt.
My aunt passed away last year. She'd been sick for a while, and I hadn't seen her in longer than I'd like to admit. As the family gathered for her funeral, me and a few of the great nieces and nephews were there. We talked about the candy canes. It's almost impossible to talk about her and not mention them. We talked about how many we had, and about putting them on our tree each year, and remembering her each time we did. I still buy those candy canes every year. Even though they're no longer coming from her, they're still her gift to me. Memories and tradition and family. They're a direct and physical representation of all those Christmases spent in Standford, VT with our extended family.
Every candy cane gets hung on the tree brings back memories. Here's the 25th anniversary one from 2005. Remember how excited we were to see one with a green background and without the gold plating?? It came in a fancy box and was different than anything we'd ever seen. Here's one from 1996. Remember how all the kids used to play in the basement and use grandpa's wood truck as a car? Here's one from 1988 - that's the year Brookie was born. She would have only been 6 months old that Christmas.
So many candy canes. So many memories.
Merry Christmas Aunt Jeanne.