The Christmas Ornament

Every year at Christmas, I used to take my dog, Toby, to PetSmart to have his photo taken with Santa. He hated it. I’d sit at Santa’s feet so that Toby would stay still long enough to take his annual Christmas picture. 

Usually, the store put the photographs inside a cheap rubber or plastic frame. At our last Christmas in 2010, the year before Toby passed away, PetSmart put the pet photos inside custom-made golden ornaments. This time, I held Toby in my arms for the picture, seated on the floor, instead of placing him on Santa’s lap. Other than my dogs’ urns and paw prints, that ornament is my most precious possession. It is irreplaceable because it is the only copy of that last Christmas portrait of Toby and me. It is one of a kind. Just like Toby.

Two years ago, in 2019, I didn’t hang it on the Christmas tree for the first time in nearly a decade. The ornament had gone missing. I was certain I’d stored it away in its box, atop all the other ornaments in the storage container, same as every other new year. But when I unpacked my Christmas ornaments on the day after Thanksgiving, it wasn’t there. I rummaged through all the contents and removed every single box. But the 2010 ornament was gone with no explanation as to what could have happened to it.

Earlier that November, I started a new job at UGA. The night before my first day, I rustled through the contents of my box of Toby mementos, looking for pictures to bring to my new office. Everything was wrapped in packing paper, but I managed to pick out three framed photos of Toby near the top without unwrapping all of the items in the cardboard box. 

Last year, eight months into the pandemic, I sought out that cardboard box of Toby mementos shortly before Thanksgiving Day. I was searching for a wooden plaque with a bronze mold of Toby’s paw print, glued alongside the very last photo taken of him, 17 days before he passed away. Now, sheltering in place, and alone for the holidays, I wanted to have it with me every day.

Once I started removing the packing paper and unwrapping all of the contents of the box, I found the plaque. But that wasn’t all. 

I couldn’t believe it.

At the very bottom of the box–hidden inside layers of paper and underneath a thick mess of crumpled-up paper balls–I found the one thing I’d been searching for that I never thought I’d find.

A small red box with an intricate golden design etched on the lid.

Could it be?

My breath caught in my throat.

“Oh please, let this be it. Let this be it.”

I was almost afraid to open the box. Afraid it wouldn’t be there.

But when I removed the lid of that red box, there it was, resting in the velvet hollow–unharmed.

The ornament with the photo of Toby and me on our last Christmas together in 2010. It had been buried at the bottom of the box of Toby mementos all that time! I didn’t even remember packing it away in the wrong place. I danced around the room, overjoyed, after having given up all hope of ever seeing it again.

It was the first ornament I hung on the tree last Christmas. Even in the midst of all the pain of 2020, finding that ornament felt like a small miracle, and my Christmas wish came true.

Jill Hartmann-Roberts


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