Back in 1966, when I was 8 years old, my family spent a summer travelling in Europe: a week in Paris, two weeks in the Cotswolds of England staying with friends, then a week each in Florence, Venice, and London. It was a landmark trip full of museums and castles and walking walking walking; climbing up towers and monuments; lots of trains and buses and boats; and many other adventures.
Even though I was a child, I have clear memories of so many places: climbing up Notre Dame with my father, sailing a toy boat on a pond at the Tuilerries, staying with friends in their little thatched cottage in Amberly, seeing Morris dancers in an old English village, the marvelous train ride through the Alps as we travelled from Calais to Milan, getting lost walking through Florence with my mother during the afternoon siesta, staying at a hotel in Venice where a Real Duchess! lived on the top floor, looking everywhere in London hoping to catch a glimpse of the Beatles... (before we left, I had written them a letter suggesting we meet for lunch; I guess the letter was never delivered because they never got back to me about that!)
Now, though, very few tangible souvenirs of that summer remain: our photographs, all slides, are yellowed and brittle, and so many others things--a millefiore paperweight from Venice; a pair of dove-grey soft-as-butter suede loafers that I begged for in Florence, dearly loved but outgrown decades ago; a lovely Anderson plaid kilt from Harrods, also long outgrown; a Julip model horse I bought in London; and other postcards and trinkets--they've all gone the way of all things.
But I still have a few souvenirs: a scarf my mother bought in Paris; an Eiffel Tower bell with one leg broken; an ashtray from our favorite restaurant in Paris; and a couple of pins, one from Venice, the other a dragon, given to me by a friend in Malvern.
And I have the piece of stained, leaded glass my father bought on a little side trip that he made on his own to Wales while my mother, my sister, and I stayed behind in Amberley. My father's mother was Welsh, so this little trip, and the glass, were in homage to his ancestry. Now it hangs in a skylight in my house. How he ever brought this home I can't imagine!
Before we left for Europe that summer, a friend gave me several francs "pour une poupee". But rather than buying a doll, I spent those francs to buy these tiny figures of the Three Wise Men at a church shop in Saint Germain des Pres. They have adorned our Christmases ever since.
This past weekend, in a the bottom of a box of Christmas decorations, I rediscovered these felt balls. My parents bought them that summer, possibly at a fair or market somewhere in the English countryside, or maybe at a shop. Clearly handmade, they are composed of felt pentagons carefully stitched together and embroidered, some of them, with stars. I'm not sure what they're stuffed with; maybe wool batting? Certainly not polyester fiberfill.
Every year at Christmastime, my parents brought them out and displayed them in an antique dish, which I still have, until finally the felt and stitching began to give way. But clearly, they couldn't bear to get rid of them.
And neither can I. This Christmas, these balls, in the same ironstone dish, will be the centerpiece on my holiday table, bringing me the gift of memories, from that summer in Europe, and from all the Christmases of my childhood.