I can still hear my mother's voice, "Don't clump the tinsel!" To the unenlightened, tinsel is a God-awful form of limp tinfoil cut into long narrow strips, whose sole purpose in life is to torment young children, or serve as a decoration on the Christmas tree, depending on your point of view. The idea is to create an icicle look or, to a native Portlander, something that resembles dripping rain. Needless to say, it failed on both accounts. Still, it was a very important facet of tree ornamentation, hence each year my mother tried to corral four young children into carefully placing each strand of tinsel on the tree without clumping.

There is a certain mass hysteria involved in having four kids do anything, let alone trim a Christmas tree. However, our mother thought it quite important that tinsel be placed properly on our tree each year. She had to know after a couple of times that this was going to be an uphill battle. At first we were very careful, under her watchful eye. But as soon as she looked away, the games began. There was flinging to the uppermost branches; there were inordinate amounts of tinsel on the lowermost branches; and there was, of course, much clumping. Of course, "tinsel clumping" became rampant as the evening progressed, and the amount in the clumps was exponential.

Clearly, as children, we did not comprehend the value of non-clumping tinsel. And, if putting it on the tree was challenging, taking it off and wrapping each individual strip carefully around the piece of cardboard it came on was approaching impossibility. Frankly, it just never happened the way my mom dreamed it might.

And now I think perhaps she knew that all along. I believe it was less about tinsel and more about life. Mom grew up in the Great Depression and like many, knew what it meant to be truly dirt poor and hungry at bedtime. In the 1950s, she was raising four children as a single mother, living on a high school graduate's secretary salary. Tinsel may have represented an issue around wastefulness, therefore providing an economics lesson for us. It most probably was also a lesson in discipline, self-control, and order, all of which she knew would set us in good stead as we grew to adulthood. Now that mom is living in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's, there is no way to know her motives. I surmise that she knew that clumping tinsel would send us down the path to poorly-decorated Christmas trees for life if we were lucky, or, more likely, the path to self-destruction.

Gone are the days of tinsel, replaced with snow-in-a-can and twinkly lights that we replace annually. I can't remember my mom buying one single replacement package of tinsel in my lifetime. So now I find myself feeling a bit nostalgic about tinsel, with or without clumps. Just a little.

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