When Christmas Got Purse-onal

We still remember it as the Great Purse Christmas. 

The story starts with Missy, as so many do. Missy has a love for the season that is both passionate and unfeigned, and my wife Heather and I have learned her enthusiasms well over the years that we’ve cared for her. 

Carols? Play them anytime! 

Lights? Let’s go see them every night! 

The Grinch? Yes, please! 

It makes Christmas Day really fun to watch, especially since Missy’s tastes are pretty simple. New puzzles. Coloring books. Exciting stories for bedtime. Music by the score. 

And, of course, purses. 

It’s less pronounced now, but for many years, Missy’s constant companion was a big red purse, packed with half the universe inside it. Anyone venturing into its depths would unearth flash cards, stuffed animals, crumpled-up comics, a partridge in a pear tree …. as well as a ripped lining and bursting seams from holding so much for so long. 

So one Christmas, Heather and I saw the state of her current handbag and decided that a new red purse would be just the thing for Missy to find under the tree. 

As it happens, we had some company. 

Come the day, Missy got not one … not two … but FOUR red purses under the tree. Each one a different size, style and shade. The hilarity grew as the bags multiplied. 

“You mean you …?” 

“Oh, no!” 

“Wow, Missy ….” 

As communicators, we had failed pretty miserably. But as gift-givers, we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. 

Missy was over the moon with joy, wealthy beyond words. And all of us had unwrapped a new story to share and re-share. 

You can’t ask for a better Christmas than that. 

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the stuff, tempting to see Christmas Day as the here-at-last finish line of a long December march. But the day was always meant to be a beginning, not an end. And the best present has always been the gift of each other, wrapped in stories and memories and love. 

Here at Chez Rochat, it’s rare for a present to be opened without a tale or an explanation from the giver. It might be as simple as “I never thought this would get here in time” or a mighty seasonal epic of desperate searches and sudden discoveries. But with each telling, we strengthen a bond and reinforce a message: “I thought of you. I care. And I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

After all, we’re storytelling creatures. It’s how we make sense of the world, sometimes even how we transform it. Most of all, it’s how we become an “us,” tied together for the moment – or maybe longer – by a common understanding and shared vision.

The story now begins anew, today and every day. Write it well. Share it often. Celebrate it with others and watch it grow as your story joins theirs, making both richer.

Together, we can write a new year worth remembering. One where the real gifts aren’t just tucked away in a dark corner of December, but shared throughout. I’m confident we can do it.

In fact, I think it’s in the bag.

Peace and a Hula Hoop

“The Chipmunk Song” is a tool of peace. Really.

No, I haven’t had too much eggnog. Perhaps I should explain.

For my wife Heather, the Christmas season doesn’t really start until she hears the Chipmunks Christmas album, including the squeaky-voiced perennial about how much Alvin wants a hula hoop. (Are you hearing it in your head now? I’m sorry.) It’s one of two albums that gets played when we decorate our tree each year, along with my own family’s tradition of “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”

But never mind our tree right now. The really important one in the story is G-ma’s.

“G-ma” was Heather’s Grandma Marilyn. Every year, Heather and her siblings and her mom (and often the rest of us spousal hangers-on) would make the short trek to help put up her tree. There’d be stories and ornaments and minor chaos and everything else you’d expect at such an occasion.

And, at Heather’s insistence, there would also be “The Chipmunk Song.” Because one does. And because G-ma’s laughter and smile at it never changed.

Time passed. And so did G-ma.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, we lost Marilyn in July. It left a hole. It always does when love and memories have grown strong. When the memories belong to a loving, strong-willed and lively soul, that hole gets even bigger.

Especially at the holidays.

There’s something about the season of togetherness that makes the empty chair stand out even more. And when December arrived, it felt off-balance without G-ma’s tree.

So Heather’s family put one up anyway.

A small tree. By the graveside. Decorated, of course. And there in the cold, Heather’s sister decided there was still just one thing missing.

At her suggestion, Heather pulled out her phone. And soon, the tinny strains of “The Chipmunk Song” were pealing out once more.  

All was right.

And that, at its heart, is the picture of peace.

We often misuse the word, shouting “give me some peace!” when a situation gets too loud or contentious. Peace becomes a simple end to conflict, by whatever means, a way of restoring quiet and keeping order.

But there’s an older meaning. One that’s still in the backdrop of a hundred Christmas carols. As a friend of mine likes to note, in old Greek the word means an interweaving, the connections between others that create harmony. When those connections are strong, when all is as it should be, peace reigns.

That’s a powerful gift. One we need badly.

We’re good at dividing, great at shouting, not always so good at listening. Peace demands that we listen, learn and try to understand. That we see those around us as our strength, not our burden. It calls on us to reach out, lift up, and make each other whole.

It’s not always a quiet process and rarely a simple one. But when we honor those connections, we make something beautiful. A beginning. A space. Something that binds us all, even if it’s in the tones of a novelty Christmas song.

The hula hoop is just a bonus.

May peace find you all. In all its meanings. Together, we just may be able to evoke, with a slight alteration, another, older song.

All is calm.

All is right.

Simply G-ma

“Do you want to know what G-ma left us?” Heather said with a smile. “A bookcase.”

My smile matched hers.

“Of course she did.”

It fit, and not just because our home has a minor over-abundance of volumes. (In the same way that Taylor Swift has a minor bit of popularity right now.) Like that bookcase, Heather’s Grandma Marilyn was the starting point for a lot of stories … the kind you write together.

About a week ago, those stories turned a final page.  

G-ma was gone.

We’d known it was coming for a long time. Nothing fell out of a clear blue sky. We had time and beyond to prepare, to show love yet again, to leave no regrets or what-if’s behind. In a way, it didn’t matter. When a life of love gets removed, it feels like someone took scissors to a yearbook photo – you can tell by the hole that someone should be there.

And G-ma was quite a someone.

There’s an old joke that in Reporter Language, the word “feisty” means “short, female.” Marilyn fit both the joking description and the real one, a small lady with a strong backbone and an open heart. She could be stubborn in the best possible way, ready to stand for and with the people she cared about … but also to be knowingly silly in a way that only the truly fearless can be.

We always got along. In fact, we hit it off so well that she wanted to make sure Heather never lost me. “Make sure you make him pot roast,” she told her early in our marriage, a bit of 1950s love language that still sets us both laughing at the memory of it.

I don’t even like pot roast. But I love the heart that offered it.

She played piano well but always wanted to hear me instead when we visited. A frozen pizza served as the centerpiece for many a conversation, often while a pet bird sang out in the background. Helping put up the G-ma’s Christmas tree was an unbreakable tradition, no matter what else might be happening in the world.

Simple things.

But the simplest of all was that Marilyn listened. Fiercely.

She didn’t always agree. (I did mention the stubbornness, right?) But she always listened, not just waiting her turn in the conversation but actively considering what you said. She wanted to understand, to know, to hear.

Heather carries that same trait. It’s not always an easy one. It lowers your shields and leaves you open to the hurt of others, a hurt you sometimes can’t do much to heal. But it also opens you up to their passions, their wonder, their delight in life. When you listen, the world becomes more than a vague outline – it becomes real people in all their pain and glory.

When we listen, we truly become a “we.”

It’s a gift often absent these days. But it can be recovered at any moment, any time when we’re willing to move the focus off our own self. That, too, is not easy. But it’s essential.

By taking those moments, we bring a bit of someone else inside us. When we do, it means that no one’s ever truly gone. We keep them alive and pass them on, touching lives as we were touched.

So maybe the story of G-ma isn’t really over. It’s just up to us to write the sequel.

 Thank you, Marilyn. For the bookcase. For the moments. For the life well-spent.

And don’t worry. We may just make that pot roast yet.

Tellers of the Tale

It’s a truism that we lose celebrities in bunches. We lose everyone in bunches, really, famous or otherwise.

But when the bunch includes some of our storytellers, I pay a little more attention.

And so, in a time when Hollywood passings fill the headlines, my own eye wanders to the microphone and the keyboard. Simple places. Places of magic.

Places that, for a while, were the homes of Vin and David.

**

Vin Scully was the greatest of American baseball announcers. No argument. Also, no frills. In a television era, he brought the tools of his radio days: constant description, constant stories, with no signature catchphrase or verbal pyrotechnics. Baseball suited him like no other sport could have, with a pace that allowed him to put just the right word in just the right place … or even no words at all, in times when a few seconds of silence would say it all.

David McCullough? So often, the subjects of his histories were the overlooked: landmarks so common that we’d stopped thinking about them or presidents we’d passed by. The Brooklyn Bridge. The Panama Canal. Harry Truman. All gained a new day in the spotlight through his pen. One of his best-known biographies even wound up turning John Adams into a television star – a fate the notoriously cranky Massachusetts lawyer might have regarded with a bit of bemusement.

And somewhere along the line, the Voice of the Dodgers and the popular historian reminded us that there aren’t’ any ordinary moments. Not really.

Because if you look closely enough, the extraordinary can wait anywhere.

**

When I used to work as a newspaper reporter, I spoke to a lot of kids about the profession. I always said that my favorite part was that everyone had a story waiting to be told.

Not everyone, they’d insist. Not me. And so I’d spend a few minutes asking questions, listening to the answers, sharing the neat stuff. We never once failed to find a story worth hearing.

I still believe it. We’re walking story generators, each and every one of us. We live, we learn, we experience. In the words of the musical Hamilton, “We rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes.”

And a lot of times, we fail to notice it.

No surprise, really. We’re all busy living that life, after all. We have bills to pay and families to worry about and a million things knocking at our door (some of them with car warranty offers). It’s easy to get pulled into the illusion of sameness, to think that most things don’t really matter all that much.

That’s the power of a storyteller. To pull back the cloak of the ordinary and reveal the magic that we’ve forgotten to see.

Wonder and purpose. Humor and sympathy. The same no more, but truly unique.

Even in a forgotten bench player in a midsummer baseball game.

Even in a one-term president from an age no longer our own.

And yes, even in each of us.

**

And so, here’s to Scully and McCullough … no, that sounds like a law firm. To Vin and David. Here’s to the words they shaped and the moments they opened.

Thank you for the stories you saw and shared with all of us.

May your own stories never be forgotten.

A Blake-Shaped Hole

There’d been a wonderful run in the mountains. As fast as a 15-year-old dog can run, anyway. He’d taken off on an impulse, just like the old days, keeping ahead of my wife Heather until she finally caught up with him near the road.

“Blake, you goof.”

Big Blake panted and grinned as only an English Lab can. All was right.

And then, back home, over the next few days, all began to go wrong.

For a long time, Blake had been slowing down. He’d always rally, sometimes from a change in medicine, sometimes from a laser therapy, sometimes from his own strong heart and a blessing from the Angel of Dogs. But each rally got a little shorter, each miracle a little less enduring than the one before.

Now what rallies there were seemed to come and go like summer lightning. A brief moment of courage to handle the stairs. Twenty minutes of ease while listening to someone read. Some excitement as Missy entered the room, stiffly heaving himself up to greet his developmentally disabled friend. And then, more pain and confusion.

The conversation that had ebbed and flowed for weeks began to accelerate in earnest as Heather and I tried to figure out how much time there really was.  Maybe two weeks? Next weekend? This weekend? Tomorrow?

Each time we looked at his hurting body and worried mind, each time we asked ourselves the question, the true answer got a little clearer.

Today.

And on July 29, after a hamburger of his own and half of Missy’s (this is still Blake we’re talking about), way too many french fries, and all the hugs and tears that a family’s hearts could hold – we let Blake go.

It hurts to write those words.

If it didn’t, something would be terribly wrong.

Because even when you’re ready, you’re never ready.

We touch so many lives, collecting heartprints from each one that embraces ours. We build a well of memories that refreshes our soul, we weave their story into our own for a richer, fuller tapestry.

And then the fabric tears away. And it leaves a hole behind.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the bargain we make, every time we hold someone close in love – that loss will come, but that the having will somehow be worth the losing. We know it. But we let ourselves forget the day will come. We have to, in order to live.

Sometimes, it really seems like it won’t ever end. Big dogs don’t always last long, but Big Blake had an amazing gift of life. At 12, he had all the energy and athleticism he’d possessed at 6. Even into his truly old and slow years, he still had to be watched for acts of food burglary, still stuck to Heather like a second shadow, still often greeted Missy’s arrival with a loud THUMP, THUMP, THUMP on the floor from his muscular tail.

It fools you. Lets you think that maybe you won the lottery, maybe you finally discovered the one that’s truly immortal.

In a way, maybe we did.

Maybe we all have.

Every memory, every story, every past moment of love and exasperation, brings a bit of them back for a moment. It’s never enough. It never can be. And it hurts with the sting of salt water on an open wound.

But that’s part of the bargain, too. That if you give enough to each other, a piece of them stays on in you.

And so a little of me will be forever Blake. A bit of all our family is forever tied to that wonderful blockheaded klutz, with the voracious stomach and the mighty heart.

Once more, Blake is running ahead of us. Someday, we’ll catch up. Near the road, ready to smile as only an English Lab can.

We love you, Blake, you goof.

Wait for us, big buddy.

Snow Time, Like The Present

Inch by inch, the Subaru crawled over the snow-covered road. Inside the car, the CRUNCH and TEAR of our progress seemed to echo as Dad carefully drove the six long blocks up Gay Street.

It was time to pick up Grandma Elsie. And during the Christmas Blizzard of 1982, that was no small feat.

I can see a number of you nodding along. No surprise. You can always tell the long-time Front Range residents by dropping the words “Christmas” and “1982” into the conversation. That was the year of Bing Crosby’s Revenge, when the snow started coming on Christmas Eve and refused to stop.

That was the Christmas Eve when Dad battled long and hard to clear the front driveway – only to peek out the window during his coffee break and see it covered over again.

That was the Christmas Eve when I left my bicycle on the back porch – and looked out the next morning to see just the tip of one handle breaking the snow.

For my sisters and me, it was the coolest Christmas ever, with the world briefly transformed into our own personal Hoth. (Yes, even then we were Star Wars geeks.) Looking back as an adult, I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been for my folks.

Snow transforms the world, and I still love the beauty and magic that it brings as it makes old landscapes new. But it also carries a price.

It means more work, more caution and less haste.

It means breaking your routine and thinking about what you’re doing and why.

Most of all, it means looking out for your neighbor and lending a hand where you can, whether it’s helping to shove their high-centered car off a snowy median or lending an extra shovel to clear a walk.

And when you’ve made it through one of the Big Ones, you remember. Surviving the Christmas Blizzard of ’82 becomes a badge of pride.

We’ve seen those lessons in other times and places, many of them much less picturesque. Tornado. Wildfire. Flood. All the moments that reach out and test you as a person and a community.

Moments like now.

Years from now, a lot of us (I hope) will be boring kids and grandkids with our stories of the Pandemic of 2020. We’ll have our own tales of the uncertainty, the frustration, the odd things we had to do to get by when the world suddenly sprouted more masks than a Marvel Comics movie.

And hopefully, we’ll also have the same lesson to pass on. That it’s in the times of crisis that your love for your neighbor is truly tested.

We sing a lot about love this time of year. It fills our stories from the haunting lines of “A Christmas Carol” to the cheesiest Hallmark movie on the screen. And whether the tale is profound or trite, one element always comes back – love doesn’t leave you alone.

It doesn’t care about what’s comfortable or normal. It’s likely to ask you to change – to uproot what you thought you knew and rebuild. To think beyond your own skin and sacrifice, whether it’s to help a neighbor or a world.

It’s a hard gift to give. And the best one.

And when the world seems cold, it’s that love that will again light the fire.

The time has come. The season is here. The need is everywhere. Remember the lessons we learned in the snow and reach out with them, even when there’s not a single flake to be seen.

The road has been slow and the progress agonizing. But the destination’s worth it.  

With care, we can reach it together.

Even without four-wheel drive.

The Princess Riot

The roar of indignation echoed across the internet.

“What do you MEAN, they’re remaking ‘The Princess Bride?’ ”

To be fair to Hollywood – probably not. The whole mess started with an off-hand comment by a Sony CEO that some “very famous people” wanted to take another crack at the 1987 family favorite. There’s been no official announcement since. Indeed, the only word of any kind since then seems to have been an unnamed USA Today source confirming that Sony has no plans to touch the film.

No surprise. If Sony meant to test the waters, the studio quickly found them full of Screaming Eels. In a world where we seem to grow ever more divided, EVERYBODY from ordinary fans to stars of the film to prominent political figures closed ranks to defend the movie. And since ‘The Princess Bride’ is one of the most quotable movies ever made, everyone had a chance to tweet one of their favorite lines as part of the resistance:

 

“There’s a shortage of perfect movies in this world. It would be a pity to damage this one.” – Cary Elwes

 

“NOOOOOOOO!!!!!! Sonny, The Princess Bride is the greatest thing, in the world—except for a nice MLT, mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. DON’T MESS WITH PERFECTION.” – Sen. Ted Cruz

 

“INCONCEIVABLE!!” – Half the internet, simultaneously

 

The only thing missing was Inigo Montoya drawing his sword and making his famous introduction … oops, no wait, there it is in a meme. We’re good.

It’s heartwarming, of course, to see people defending a story, especially this one. This was William Goldman’s favorite novel and screenplay, one that made it to the screen against tremendous odds. It spent over a decade in “development hell,” with many studios convinced it was unfilmable. Its initial release came and went with barely a ripple, since the marketing department didn’t know what to do with it – was it a romance, a fantasy, a comedy, what?

Home video saved it and made it an icon. Small wonder. A fairy tale that both celebrated and mocked its own roots, a story with swashbuckling action and tongue-in-cheek wit, a movie that could wholeheartedly embrace true love (or is it “twoo wuv?) while also quoting “Life is pain, princess; anyone who says differently is selling you something” – what’s not to like?

Or more to the point, what’s to remake?

Hollywood, of course, loves the remake and the reboot. It’s the safe choice, with a built-in audience. And it works more often than we think. “The Wizard of Oz” with Judy Garland was the second feature film on the subject. So was Charlton Heston’s “Ben-Hur.” “The Magnificent Seven” was a resetting of “The Seven Samurai,” while the comedy “Airplane!” took the script of “Zero Hour!” almost word-for-word.

But in each of those cases, there was something new to be brought to the mix. A different tone or  genre, or a new take by an actor or director, or new technology to better capture the story. If all you’re doing is retreading the same ground, you might as well just re-release the film and have done with it. You’re not going to take it anywhere new – and you might well make it worse.

You don’t have to be Hollywood to understand that. Most of us know what it’s like. We get in ruts. We make the same decisions over and over. Sometimes they’re good decisions that became merely comfortable ones. Sometimes they’re Charlie Brown’s football, promising over and over again that THIS time it will work.

Deep down, we know we have to explore and grow. That’s why our best stories take someone beyond the comfortable and force them to change. The reckless and rootless Huckleberry Finn learns maturity and the worth of a man. The stay-at-home Bilbo Baggins learns confidence and an appreciation of the wider world.

And yes, the farm boy Westley remakes himself into the hero his love needs him to be – and learns that even the most competent hero can’t do it alone.

Remaking movies can be tedium. But remaking lives is essential. What lives, grows.

Anything else is simply inconceivable.

Bits and Pieces

Indiana Jones had the Ark of the Covenant. Darth Vader blew up a world in search of the Death Star plans. But all of it quailed in the face of the latest discovery.

Heather and her siblings, at long last, had uncovered G-ma’s Cow Pitcher.

“And now the fight begins,” her sister Jaimee joked, to the laughter of the room.

For the uninitiated, the Cow Pitcher is not a fastball-hurling Guernsey. Had we found that, we would have had an immediate obligation to send it to the Colorado Rockies. (Hey, their rotation can use all the help it can get.) This rather, was the unforgettable cow-shaped milk pitcher of Heather’s Grandma Marilyn – known eternally as “G-ma” – that she frequently wielded over the cereal bowl of each grandchild with a flourish and a call of “MooOOOooo!”

As the playful banter began, Marilyn herself chuckled and smiled. Another memory was about to find a home.

Only 3,207 more to go.

Marilyn, you see, is moving. That’s always a fun exercise to begin with. (As Mark Twain may not have said, “Two moves equal one fire.”) And it gets even more interesting when you’re moving into a smaller, simpler place and need to clear out a lot of stuff – not to an attic, a basement, or a garage, but to a new keeper, if it’s worth keeping at all.

And so, it slowly passed before us all. An endless stream of photo albums and teddy bears. A mysterious case – “is this a sewing machine?” – that turned out to be an old slide projector. Books upon books upon books, from longtime classics to movie novelizations.

It looked like we were in the middle of the world’s most chaotic flea market. But it felt like we were in the midst of gold and diamonds, decades of stories and memories that had taken on a physical form.

Better yet, we still had the best treasure of all.

I’ve written before in this space about the power of stories, how they inspire us, comfort us, bind the universe togeth … no wait, that’s Obi-Wan Kenobi talking about the Force. But you get the idea: stories are an essential part of what makes us human, one of the most precious things we possess.

But there is something more precious than any story.

Namely, the storyteller.

Memories are made of people. Stories begin with them. We walk past libraries every day, live with anthologies, work alongside chapters that we never knew existed. And most of the time, we barely open the cover.

We only realize how little we’ve read until the storyteller is gone. And there’s always so much more to find.

I lost a grandmother at 93 and a cousin at 21. I talked to both of them frequently. And yet, after they were gone, there were still questions I wished I’d asked, stories I wished I’d heard, thoughts I wished we’d exchanged.

That’s one reason we value the “stuff,” I suppose. It evokes the memories long after the memory maker is gone.

But getting to evoke them in her presence – that’s beyond price.

Heather and I wound up with the photo albums, to scan and share. Her brother Brad got to keep the Cow Pitcher – and miraculously, no concussions were involved. All of us wound up with a few books. OK, a lot of books.

And all of us got to keep Marilyn.  That’s as cool as a Cow Pitcher jumping over the moon. Or is that “over the mooOOOoon?”

After all, you’ve got to milk these things.

Someone Like Him

Nicholas Lee would be delightfully embarrassed to find himself mentioned in my column.

A long-time friend and a fellow Longmont Theatre Company actor, Nicholas was also a regular reader of these weekly words. He always had a compliment and often a thoughtful comment or two on what I’d written, while his quiet smile radiated brilliantly over his Uncle Sam beard.

And yes, unfortunately,  the past tense is appropriate. Nicholas passed away on Thursday.

The thing is, like many actors, Nicholas was something of a quiet soul. Having an entire column to himself would likely bring on a blush, a shake of the head, and a self-deprecating chuckle about being hard up for material.

One hates to embarrass a friend. So I’m going to write about someone like him, instead.

Someone like Nicholas would be a gentleman and a gentle man, quietly courteous and welcoming to just about anyone in his path. He’d talk to long-established directors and developmentally disabled audience members with the same respect, warmth, and interest.

Someone like him would cultivate a few eccentricities, such as a decades-old Van Dyke beard and an elocution so carefully measured that it sounded English – the sort of touches that make the world a more colorful and interesting place. But he’d also be able to set them aside at need, such as by shaving every last hair on his head, beard and all, just because a friend wanted him to play a real-life figure known for being spear bald.

And someone would like him, by the way, would be the first to laugh at the resulting reflection in the mirror.

Someone like him would fit comfortably into a hundred different roles in the world you shared – say, a clumsy King Pellinore of Camelot, or a veteran British actor gone to seed, or a sharp-tongued and pushy agent – but would have so many more facets that you only got to glimpse briefly. Like fluency in Russian. Or a church choir he was especially proud of. Or the years and years of teaching that helped shape a delightful personality, firm but understanding, disciplined but sly.

We all know a “someone like him,” I think. The details may differ, but the overall picture is the same. The person who never forced themselves into the spotlight, but became part of the emotional undergirding of the entire group. The one who sometimes made you laugh and sometimes made you think, but who mostly made things work.

And when they’re suddenly not there, you feel it. Something has slipped. A piece of the puzzle has been lost, a line of the drawing is out of place.

You go on. You need to. After all, they’d be horrified to think that they were holding things up. But it isn’t the same.

Though if you’re lucky, they’ve passed on enough of themselves to keep some of that strength present, even in their absence.

They’re wonderful people, all of the someones. We need them. We need to appreciate them while they’re here. To enjoy them while we can. To learn from them while we’re able.

Because all too soon, we’ll be missing them when they’re gone.

Just like my friend Nicholas Lee. Whom, you will note,  I carefully did not write about today.

And who, wherever he is,  is probably laughing out loud at this reflection as well.

Strands of Memory

The bare treetop mocked us.

There are a few fundamental laws of the Christmas universe. Decorations will be stored in the last place you look. You always need more Scotch tape. And pre-lit Christmas trees never stay that way. And so, after much cussing and many valiant attempts to replace the fuses (ha!) or plug in old strands preserved by the Ghost of Christmas Decor Past (ha-ha!), we had once again found ourselves buying a supply of electric Christmas cheer long enough to allow Santa Claus to scale the heights of Nakatomi Plaza.

Or to wrap around two-thirds of a typical suburban Christmas tree.

Heather and I stared in frustration at the partially lit plastic pine. And then, inspiration hit. There was still one thing left to try.

Back to the basement. Past the unused bedroom. Back up with a single strand of lights that hadn’t been touched in nearly a year, just enough to complete the puzzle. On they blazed in a burst of – purple and orange?

Heather laughed. “They’re Halloween lights!” she said with a broad smile.

I had to laugh, too. It was incongruous. But somehow, it fit.

Cousin Melanie had not let us down.

***

Those of you who stop by here regularly may remember Mel, our 21-year-old cousin who lived with us before dying unexpectedly in January. Her passing left a hole in our lives that still hasn’t truly healed. It left a lot of memories that still bring a smile when least expected.

And yes, it also left a long strand of off-season holiday mini-lights waiting for their hour on stage.

Mel was a night owl by nature. But she always had to keep a light on after dark, maybe because of the frequent nightmares that she often kept at bay. And so, one day, she had asked if she could borrow a string of unused lights to decorate her room downstairs.

They stayed taped to the walls, one more bit of eclectic post-teenager style, until a few days after she died. In the cleanup, they had been set aside in a cardboard box and mostly forgotten while other, more personal objects and keepsakes had been tended to.

Now they shone forth again.

They would never be mistaken for the green and blue and red of the season. It was completely obvious where the “normal” lights ended and the new ones began. And yet, it belonged. It not only completed the tree, it made a perfect picture of our lives.

Something bright and colorful and proud to be different had entered the scene. The traditional and the unusual came together and made something new and beautiful– and were still undeniably connected.

One tree.

One family.

No matter what.

***

Tradition holds a powerful pull at the holidays. You hear the same songs, tell the same stories, see the same specials on TV. It’s the time when we’re most likely to reach out to familiar faces, or when we most notice the ones that aren’t there anymore.

But for all our efforts, Christmas doesn’t stand still. No more than we do.

Every life that touches our own changes it slightly. Every memory that comes our way shapes us, just a little. And every year, these little blendings make even the most traditional time of the year just a little more our own.

That mixing and melding and reshaping slowly creates an image that might seem strange to anyone else. (Really, what is tradition but an oddity continued?) It’s not uniform, but a mosaic, a unique creation of pieces and splinters that shines with its own perfect beauty.

Even if some of it is a little tearstained.

Thanks, Mel. Thank you for one more Christmas gift, one more unforgettable memory. Unique and beautiful, like yourself.

Whatever happens to the tree next year, this light will never burn out.