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The Christmas Spark–Inspiring a tradition of giving and more

I grew up in the ’70s in a New England duplex, which meant two houses stood side by side, joined in symmetry—unlike Manhattan, where I discovered a duplex apartment features two floors stacked on top of each other, much like all the people. Our house was built by my maternal grandfather and his brother in 1934, and in our cozy neck of the woods, it was a time when the duplex was regarded as single residence intended for extended families. My mother was born there, and my parents raised me and my two brothers on one side; the entrance of the house was connected by a front hall to the other side, where my aunt Annie continued to live by herself after her mother had passed.

Annie was mystifyingly old to my young eyes, but wasn’t yet elderly—she was actually only in her mid-50s. She taught home economics and was a stern taskmaster (at the local junior high and also at home) who had never married, and it was never more evident than at Christmastime that she was our town’s answer to Julia Child and Martha Stewart.

I don’t know what money my parents had left over while raising us three boys, but I remember our living room as a flurry of tinsel at Christmas, filled with huge boxes of toys, wrapped in ribbons of magic. However, our side of the house was mostly functional, rather than ornamental; it was a question of maintenance. Crossing the threshold to Annie’s side of the house was another story—it was a glorious wonderland, free of child clutter—neat as a pin, with patience for potted and hanging plants, and matching china in the dining hutch. An air of elegant festivity spilled out over the holidays, from the front door wreath choked with faux pearls, feathery white doves, and red cardinals, to the fir boughs curling up the front staircase and her Christmas tree, dressed with intricate ornaments that she created herself, using velvet trim, sequins, and beads. Annie also had a beautiful collection of shiny brass candlesticks lighting up the dining room, curious things that could be touched (smooth, veined-marble eggs come to mind), and things that were display only, such as the cunning nativity scene of miniature, hand-painted figurines from Provence that I later learned were called santons.

The author and his cousin head out for Christmas shopping in Annie’s Ford Falcon.

My cousins (her brother’s children) would descend on Christmas day for gifts before sitting down to dinner at a beautifully set, highly polished table, laid out with more curiosities called runners, chargers, and doilies. I would cross over into that other world and watch as her living room filled with bergs of white tissue paper, striped wrapping paper, sparkling bows, and emptied Jordan Marsh department store boxes that had held bright plaid shirts for the boys and satiny blouses for the girls (“Now, if it’s not the right size, I can always take it back!”). Invariably, the price tags were left on everything; she’d cluck her tongue and swiftly remove them. The reveal of the newest brass candlestick sent from her long-distance cousin was a moment met with solemn reverence (“Oh, look. Isn’t that something!”). Annie skipped stuffed stockings in favor of what she called Goodie Boxes—shoeboxes full of bracing Irish Spring and Coast soaps, bubble bath, and shampoos, just like she had in her own pristine, rosy pink bathroom. Little did we suspect she was teaching us about good personal hygiene amid all the excitement.

My cousins and I have continued to give each other Goodie Boxes over the years—although Calgon is not as easy to find as it once was. I inherited a number of the brass candlesticks when Annie died in 2007 and many of her other treasured possessions are shared among us kids, who really aren’t kids anymore. I still have the classic Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore, and Tigger stuffed animals she gave me, which I will in turn hand down to her great nieces and nephews one day to give to their children.

Beyond the exchange of presents, Annie taught us about creativity by dint of her own imagination. She lit a spark in all of us and we glowed like Christmas trees. Along the way, she also taught us to see the beauty in things and I think the houses we now call our homes as adults reflect that, because of her. The memories are as shining and durable as brass, although fleeting as loose tinsel, now—but in my mind, everything fits perfectly.


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